Many of the eulogies for Mad circulating online have cited the magazine as a key pedagogical text in early comedic development, or a tool that taught kids to be skeptical of marketing, political rhetoric, mass media. For example, Jeet Heer writes in The Nation that “kids who read Mad learned from it to distrust authority, whether in the form of politicians, advertiser, or media figures.” The image of Mad as a “tributary of youth culture” is primarily drawn by Heer from the publication’s earlier decades, when its targets were the Army-McCarthy hearings, when pressure from government offices and moralizing watchdogs led to the creation of a magazine that could avoid some of the censoring mechanisms overseeing comic books, when it was recalled fondly by Patti Smith and other heroes of an earlier American counterculture as a lone voice of sharp-toothed critique in a chorus of conformity.
The Mad magazine that Heer recalls here is not the Mad that I grew up reading in the 1980s and 1990s.
I was relieved to hear comics auteur Ed Piskor, in a recent episode of Cartoonist Kayfabe, wonder aloud if Mad was actually any good during our lifetime. My introduction to Mad was less as a countercultural publication and more as a magazine that was clearly targeting eight year-olds and our limited monetary resources. I recently re-purchased one of the first issues I got as a kid from our local candy store, its cover featuring Alfred E. Neuman dressed as Batman at the height of “Bat-mania” during the summer of 1989. My parents did not bat an eye at the copies of Mad that accompanied me on car rides and beach trips during my early teens. Mad was never a hot topic at school or a necessary cultural shorthand required for survival. I distinctly remember the social gap between kids whose parents took them to see Wayne’s World in the theater and kids like me who had to wait for the video rental. In junior high school I’d have to covertly watch In Living Color in my room on a busted black-and-white with the volume cranked real low to keep up with conversations at the cafeteria the next day, because the show was essentially banned from living room viewing in our house. Reading Mad in the late 80s and early 90s wasn’t necessarily something that was a core part of my personality, or something that carried with it some valued cultural or countercultural social capital.Continue reading “Bad Magazine”