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March 01, 2008

Mad Gone Wrong?

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

My name is Donald. I am a packrat.

But I'm doing better. Honest, I am. We finally got around to unboxing stuff that had been piled up in the basement rec room since we moved to Seattle. I weeded out a fair amount of books and other items, though what remains is still formidable.

Among the things I still have is the last issue of Mad while it was a comic book. And I have the very next issue, its first as a magazine, along with a half dozen other early magazine copies.

Besides those, I have a copy of Humbug, a magazine started by Harvey Kurtzman after he left his editor job at Mad and, later, Trump, a humor magazine that was briefly part of Hugh Hefner's Playboy empire. I don't have more copies of Humbug because it only lasted one issue. Trump didn't last long either, but I don't know how many issues were published. My collection includes two of them, so it went at least that far.

But back to Mad.


Cover of first issue of Mad comics, 1952
The artwork is by early mainstay Will Elder.

Superduperman, from Mad comics
This is the opening panel of the Superman satire drawn by ace cartoonist Wally Wood. Note the detail and micro-humor such as the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval on Superduperman's chest and the "super" signs in the background. The stacked babe at the right is "Lois" (no last name provided) who looks like a Will Eisner sexpot raised to the third power. Wood's style here is pretty much extreme-Eisner with the addition of the detail byplay and Duotone shading.

Jack Davis artwork: bottom panel from Mad
Jack Davis was my next-favorite Mad artist after Wood. He was prolific, and eventually even did covers for Time magazine.

Cover of first issue of Mad magazine, 1955

Besides Superduperman, satires in Mad comics included Starchie (Archie), Flesh Garden (Flash Gordon), Lone Stranger (Lone Ranger), Prince Violent (Prince Valiant), Gopo Gosson (Pogo Possum), Poopeye (Popeye the Sailor), Teddy and the Pirates! (Terry and the Pirates) and Manduck the Magician (Mandrake the Magician). Needless to say, I found most of these hysterically funny, being 13-15 years old at the time. In its comic book guise Mad also satirized the Captain Video, Dragnet and What's My Line television shows, cowboy movies, print advertising and other subjects.

When Mad went to magazine format, it drifted over to satirizing movies and television, abandoning targets from comics. And it is this, I contend, that marked the demise of the publication in my esteem.

This is heresy for many of you, no doubt. And I can't argue that Mad has been anything but commercially successful enough to survive for more than half a century as a magazine. But still ...

I say Mad was at its peak when it was a comic book because it was essentially the same medium as the main targets of its satire -- comic books and newspaper comic strips. When its focus went to television and film, a media gap arose that made the satire more remote from the original than it ideally should be. Satire is best, I contend, when the media align. Short stories are best satirized in print. Movies are best satirized by other movies. And comics by other comics.



posted by Donald at March 1, 2008


Yes, early Mad was a golden age. I'll vote for that. One thing that made it so great was that it had so much style. Wood, Elder, and Davis were instantly recognizable, and we did recognize them. Can you imagine that? Little kids recognizing the work of a contemporary artist? Like I say, a golden age.

Posted by: Lester Hunt on March 1, 2008 11:51 PM

Being a little younger, I'm of the Mad-parodies-movies generation. I'm not sure I even remember the comic-book version of Mad, come to think of it, though maybe I do remember Superduperman. But, ah, those movie parodies. Mort Drucker's art ... "Florence of Arabia" ... "Mutiny on the Bouncey" ... Bliss for little boys.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 2, 2008 1:19 AM

This great chapter of American pop culture actually began a few years earlier. Richard Corliss of TIME magazine has written a good article about William Gaines earlier comics and the uproar that made him switch to humor.

There are also quite a few high-gloss reprints available.

The best piece on EC is probably Robert Warshow's "Paul, the Horror Comics and Dr. Wertham," in The Immediate Experience.

Posted by: David C on March 2, 2008 1:26 AM

Satire as a form of entertainment just doesn't seem especially popular today.

Posted by: Peter on March 2, 2008 9:15 AM

these horrible movie spoof flicks "date movie" scary movie" "epic movie" are the retarded bastard great cousins of mad's movie paradies.

Posted by: t. j. on March 2, 2008 11:46 AM

I wasn't aware of this till recently, but Kurtzman was a genius at storyboarding. Most of classic Mad consists of Kurtzman's layouts, literally frame by frame, fleshed out by Wood, Elder and Davis. Not that those three weren't great but without Kurtzman?...

Posted by: ricpic on March 2, 2008 3:29 PM

By the time I discovered MAD it was in magazine format, and it's difficult to recall ever laughing as long and as hysterically as I did when I read that first issue. My relatives (who were probably having their doubts about my mental health anyway) thought I had gone bonkers. Subsequently I started collecting the MAD paperbacks to see what I'd missed in early issues, and the first three or four paperbacks reprinted the comic-book satires (including "Superduperman") from MAD's early years. I loved the artwork but I didn't find the humor as funny as the later magazine satires. But that's just me.

Posted by: Bilwick on March 3, 2008 12:15 PM

Maybe you also got too old for it? They say the golden age of scifi is 13.

Posted by: SFG on March 3, 2008 10:01 PM

Related Jack Davis article:

Posted by: lordsomber on March 5, 2008 7:24 PM

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