What, Me Worry? How MAD Magazine Ended Up Becoming Irrelevant

 

In this interview from Print, they talked with a few experts and veterans on the now defunct MAD magazine, the leading parody publisher of their times, now the subject of an exhibition at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA. And one of the most prominent issues in discussion is the censorship that prompted Bill Gaines to change the format so it wouldn’t fall under the same demands as standard comic pamphlets:

 

Is the story of the Comics Code Authority covered as the turning point in MAD‘s existence?

Plunkett: Yes, it most certainly is. By the end of 1954, with the creation of the Comics Code Authority, EC Comics crime and horror titles were retired but MAD remained, reinvented as a magazine on June 30, 1955 with issue No. 24. Though this helped MAD avoid content regulations imposed by the Comics Code Authority, Harvey Kurtzman was intent on recreating MAD as a magazine, a shift that Bill Gaines supported to keep his editor from defecting to Pageant, a monthly journal, for higher pay. After Kurtzman’s ultimate departure due to a disagreement of terms, Al Feldstein stepped in as editor with issue No. 29 in September 1956.

Is this exhibit instructive (or cautionary) in how censorship works, especially in relation to comics?

Plunkett: One of the key takeaways of the exhibition, I hope, will be MAD’s insistence on seeing through falsehoods and encouraging readers to question rather than accept. In the words of editor John Ficarra, “MAD’s editorial mission statement has always been the same. Everyone is lying to you. Think for yourself. Question authority.”

 

But will they question the authority of leftism? Will they recognize a leftist is capable of telling a lie for the worse? And will any of these writers make vital points that censorship as we know it is not a thing of the past, and came roaring back with a vengeance in the past decade? For all we know, it could be exactly why MAD was cancelled about 5 years ago, and nobody complained whether PC was allowed to dictate anything and everything. “Cancel culture” because a serious issue in the past decade, and has not gone away so easily. For all we know, MAD might’ve been an indirect victim.

 

Now here’s some details on what exhibitions are taking place, and at least one makes clear the liberal leanings the staff of EC took, no matter how good or bad what was to come would be:

 

1. 1952–1956: THE KURTZMAN YEARS: Harvey Kurtzman began working for William M. Gaines’ EC Comics in 1950, editing anti-war cautionary tales disguised as adventure comics. Debuting in late summer 1952, his Tales Calculated to Drive You MAD—or, more simply, MAD—was unlike any comic book then on the stands. In fact, its entire purpose was to make fun of other comics.

 

See Also All Jaffee Dead at 102: Appreciating MAD Magazine’s Master Artist

 

Sadly, “anti-war”, not anti-barbarism, was the mindset of some contributors of the times, and they even minimized the seriousness of communism while making USA patriots look like the baddies, as seen in

 

 

Also to ponder:

 

3. 1965–1980: THE CLASSIC ERA: Once the basic formula was set, Feldstein allowed his writers and artists to do what they did best: create sophisticated satire and sophomoric humor. MAD’s anti-smoking campaign and anti–Vietnam War articles gave added weight to its commentary. Irving Schild became MAD’s photographer, while artists Angelo Torres, Bob Jones and Harry North joined “The Usual Gang of Idiots,” along with cartoonists Paul Peter Porges and John Caldwell. In the late ’70s, writers Dennis Snee, Barry Liebmann, Mike Snider and John Ficarra became contributors. MAD’s popularity was at a high, with its circulation reaching over 2.5 million by 1973.

 

A crucial question: they may have been against the Vietnam war, but were they against communism? In all the time it raged on from 1958-75, it doesn’t seem like those concerned ever tried to enter northern Vietnam, where the Viet Cong was headquartered, and defeat them there. That’s why the war was lost. Yet an important point can be made that in contrast to most actual comics, MAD sold well over a million copies back in the day, as opposed to the numbers of comics that even then were decreasing.

 

5. 1993–2009: THE DC YEARS: Gaines had sold MAD in the early ’60s, and when he died it soon came under the aegis of DC Comics, a Time Warner company. Meglin and Ficarra were charged with rebooting the magazine to make it edgier, adding new features like “The MAD 20 Dumbest People, Events and Things,” the bestselling end-of-year roundup. Writers Frank Santopadre, Michael Gallagher, Anthony Barbieri, Scott Maiko and Jeff Kruse; artists C.F. Payne, Drew Friedman, Rick Geary, Bob Staake, Hermann Mejia, Roberto Parada and Mark Stutzman; and cartoonists P.C. Vey and Peter Kuper published their first work in MAD in the 1990s. In 2003, Mark Fredrickson became MAD’s primary cover artist and is now the most published as well. […]

6. 2009–2017: THE WARNER BROS. YEARS: The Great Recession of 2008 had an effect on MAD, including staff reductions, freelance rate decreases, and the cancellation of MAD Specials and the newly launched MADKids. Diane Nelson moved over from the movie division at Warner Bros. to head DC and established a plan to move the entire company to Burbank, CA. The New York office was closed at the end of 2017, and a new staff was hired to relaunch the magazine from Burbank the following year. By 2020, only art director Suzy Hutchinson and associate art director Bern Mendoza remained, overseeing an active reprint version of MAD featuring some new covers, fold-ins, features, and specials that continue its legacy today.

 

IMO, the boyout by WB did not serve them well in the long run, and they’re trying to downplay even that much, not asking whether MAD fell victim to wokeness themselves.

 

What, if anything, continues to have sociopolitical relevance looking at MAD today?

Plunkett: MAD questioned everything, and nothing escaped their scrutiny. We live in a world where it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between what is real and what is imagined, culturally and technologically. It is more important than ever to cast a discerning eye on the world around to understand more clearly what is really going on, a message that MAD has emphasized through the years.

Brodner: All those writers and artists were tackling exactly the same things we are confronting today. Significant sections of the United States at that time were tragically unhip. They were so locked into their monoculture and terror of change that they couldn’t see the changes that were taking place all around them. We, as kids and MAD readers, could see through all of that: in advertising, news coverage, crap culture, etc. Those of us working in media today in a commentary capacity are facing the same demons, the same issues, the same immensity of bullshit. So MAD gives us the template and the courage for fighting back … and the sneaking suspicion that we can succeed again.

 

I hate to say it, but I’m not sure MAD will be viewed as relevant by some of today’s PC generation in the future. Did Islamic terrorism ever receive serious scrutiny? Did they ever try to champion Kurt Westergaard and Jylland Posten’s Danish Muhammed cartoons of the mid-2000s and even Charlie Hebdo’s? If not, then unfortunately, it’s hard to say they’ve ever inspired the courage vital to tackle serious issues, whether humorously or seriously. Make no mistake, MAD had plenty of hilarious parodies to offer. But there were doubtless many issues they failed to confront out of PC panic, and if they wouldn’t defend Salman Rushdie back in the day, to name but one prominent example, that surely says quite a bit too.

 

All that said, I do hope this exhibition will draw crowds. But it’s clear today that MAD may not receive the good regard it once had in the future, if wokeness has its way. It hasn’t even been available at newsstands in the last 5 years, as it is only printing republished material, so as periodical satire, the magazine is over.

 

Originally published here.

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Avi Green

Avi Green was born in Pennsylvania in 1974, and moved to Israel in 1983. He enjoyed reading comics when he was young, the first being Fantastic Four. He maintains a strong belief in the public's right to knowledge and accuracy of facts. He considers himself a conservative-style version of Clark Kent. Follow him on his blog at Four Color Media Monitor or on Twitter at @avigreen1

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