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.
I always gravitated towards Mad because it seemed a bit trashy, more than happy to ride the coattails of whatever pop culture had served up that particular month, content to slap a half-assed title like “Funny To Shrink The Kids” on a movie parody and then move on to whatever else needed to get done that issue. The slapdash, half-assed nature of its bits were part of the charm. Unlike the coming comic book speculator market of the early 1990s, MAD created products that were disposable by design, requiring folding and creasing to make sense of Al Jaffee’s latest Fold-In, offering a long car ride or three of summer distraction, something to escape into during vacation drives or trips to the beach. It advertised its own cheapness, loudly and proudly, on every cover.
Heer’s obituary for Mad begins with a description of a bit from the magazine where the McCarthy hearings are reimagined as a game show. For Heer it is an exemplary case of the publication’s particular satirical slant, aimed not just at the fearmongering and pandering politicians but also directed at “the medium that allowed the rabble-rouser to rule the national stage.” The perspective offered by Mad here in 1954 seems not just apt but also refreshing in a cultural moment where critique apparently did not focus as much on forms of mediation and the various commercial and political conditions shaping national discourse. The piece is indicative of what Heer views as one of Mad’s biggest contributions to American culture: its role in encouraging younger generations to “distrust authority.” Given the magazine’s origins “in the troubled era of McCarthyism,” the loss of Mad during the Trump Era seems like a sad ending for an important voice of resistance. One of the few pre-1980s Mad issues in my collection was published in 1979 and features a parody of Grease called “Cease.” Cease, as in, “BOY ARE WE SICK AND TIRED OF MOVIES THAT TRY AND TELL US HOW MARVELOUS THINGS WERE BACK IN THE FIFTIES!” In a sense, the valorization of Mad by Heer and others is itself a kind of “marvelous” reimagining of a satirical magazine aimed at kids as a potent, world-beating weapon against an Age of Conformity.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Mad felt more like a voice of authority than resistance, enmeshed in contemporary popular culture and politics, dependent on a reader’s investment in media consumption to relay its critiques of particular works and genres. I always imagined “The Usual Gang of Idiots” as weird adults in an office somewhere, not necessarily as a group of Lost Boys or punks. They seemed like grownups who watched a lot of television and had a lot of opinions. By this point in time Mad was a pretty polished and structured publication. One of its key selling points was the amount of content it provided a ten-year-old for a buck and a half. Its opinions on popular culture didn’t lead me to refine my habits of consumption: if anything, the covers advertising the publications latest targets motivated me to learn more about those movies and TV shows.
By 1989, McCarthyism had taken a backseat to reveling in the media-saturated landscape of American culture. “Battyman,” the parody that kicks off #289, begins with an impressive two-page introduction to the Tim Burton film’s aesthetic and cast of characters, plus New York City Mayor Ed Koch hanging out with Charles Bronson’s Death Wish antihero. Mort Drucker was always the star of the parody segments: they’d drag on for pages that felt like hours, but the art always looked nice and reminded you of key moments in the plot in those pre-internet dark ages. But the jokes are all over the place, and there are a lot of them. “Battyman” gets seven pages to work its way through the proceedings of the film, stopping along the way to make textual and visual references to The Shining, Michael Jackson, Robocop, The Phantom of The Opera, Superman, Joe Isuzu (!), Star Wars, Dick Tracy, and “Mohammar Kaddafi.” Some of these references are clearly meant for adults, whereas other scenes reference familiar juvenile subject matter like “900” phone numbers and the quality of cafeteria food. Then there are the homophobic jokes about superhero outfits. The nihilistic ending of “Battyman” is perhaps its most interesting element. Here “The Jerker” does not fall accidentally to his death but decides this ending is preferable to appearing in a sequel and damaging his career any further. Battyman agrees with this logic and snaps the cord on his grappling hook, following his antagonist’s descent. Mad would be back next issue with another round of similar jokes about Hollywood franchises, this time targeted at the film Ghostbusters II. Unlike Battyman and The Jerker, The Usual Gang Of Idiots are in it for the long haul. They can’t just plummet to certain doom off-panel one month, never to return.
The staff at Mad seemed aware of the age range of their audience (and, to be honest, less concerned about the fact that it had a mostly white and male-identifying readership) but not always clear on how to acknowledge this range, as the varied tone of “Battyman” documents. Mad in the 1980s and 1990s was never able to hit the balance of The Simpsons, or stumble into accidental crossover success the way Saturday Night Live did with Wayne’s World. The comedy was more reminiscent of Eddie Murphy’s reimaginings of Gumby and Mr. Rogers, but Mad didn’t have someone of the caliber of Murphy to pull it off. Elsewhere in the issue featuring “Battyman” we get Al Jaffee reimagining a Brookstone catalog, as well as a quick set of one-panel jokes on recent video rentals including The Last Temptation of Christ and A Fish Called Wanda. “A MAD Guide to Social Behavior” includes multiple bits about sex, while recommendations for “New Laws That Congress Should Pass Right Now!” features a takedown of 80s bicycle racing culture. Then there’s a series of riffs on the old “waiter, there’s a fly in my soup” routine that imagine what the joke would be like in the styles of George Carlin, Rodney Dangerfield, and Sam Kinison, among others.
Metacommentary for the sake of metacommentary is often what’s most at stake in these features. Beavis and Butthead would go on to make art out of the voices of America’s couch-ridden, and Pop-Up Video would eventually satisfy the fact-checking and context-hungry impulses of pop culture aficionados. Taking the long view of Mad, you could make a case for the magazine’s impact on late-night opening monologues, morning talk show banter, MTV VJs, sketch comedy, Spy, daily comic strips like The Far Side, alt-weeklies, zines. And there are certainly shout-outs to Mad and its influence on episodes of The Simpsons and Late Night With Conan O’Brien. But by the 80s and 90s, the comedic output of Mad had been pretty clearly outpaced by comedians in print as well as other forms of media. By the late 1990s, they had even begun publishing their own “Pop Off Video” features and specials in an attempt to stay relevant.
Pop-Up Video was just the beginning: we’re at a point in time now where the comedic stylings of Mad are ubiquitous across the internet, but the money to be made is scarce. The real tragedy of Mad is its immediate and long-term impact on people who work at the intersection of comics and comedy. Social media content curated a particular way can feel like a remediation of Mad, published hourly instead of monthly. Recurring features like Dave Berg’s “The Lighter Side Of” and Al Jaffee’s “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions” resemble the structure and tone of many successful viral tweets that imagine or document strange and inane conversations. Parodies are still drawn occasionally, but many aspiring Mort Druckers can widely circulate a riff on a recent movie with screenshots and social media tools, or PhotoShop if they’ve got some more time or an interest in getting fancier. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of 2019’s most active memelords had never picked up an issue of Mad.
In retrospect it seems remarkable that the market endured so long for its particular style of comedy, that auteurs like Aragones, Berg, Drucker, Jaffee, and others made careers out of contributing regularly to a humor publication. With Mad ceasing operations as we know it, the only major game left in town offering paid compensation to creators of original comedic art seems to be The New Yorker, plus whatever remains of the market for nationally syndicated daily strips and political cartoons. Online publications like The Nib are working to hash out forms of online publication and compensation of original work, and some artists are using Patreon as a revenue stream for the work they put into making strips and artwork shared freely on social media. Instagram meme aggregators and content creators like @FuckJerry seem to have found ways to monetize internet comedy, but they are borrowing from the cruder economic impulses of Mad, building a brand with a readership who may not care as much about the cost and labor behind its product.
Berg’s work is particularly strange in hindsight. It seems odd that he utilized his particular draughtsman skills for decades on three or four-panel bits. Instead of going more fully into doing illustrative work for advertising, or taking his interest in jokes to stand-up or late-night television, he did a few pages of Mad each issue. Reading his body of work across several issues, the mostly-nameless cast of the “Lighter Side” strips appear resigned to lifetimes of lowered expectations. I particularly enjoy the angrier strips, where it’s quickly revealed that an entire family clearly hates its dim-witted patriarch and has been barely tolerating him all these years. Berg’s ability to transform a face with relatively neutral emotions into a visage of hostile disdain or permeable embarrassment is particularly remarkable. In Berg’s world strangers are constantly sizing each other up, offices are run by sociopaths, stores are equally staffed with bad customers and employees, and families are a constant reminder of your own shortcomings. Then there’s the never-ending saga of Kaputnik, the only recurring Berg character, a pipe-smoking man who seems to spend his entire life in a doctor’s office but who nonetheless refuses to follow his physician’s advice. The slimmest sense of moral obligation to his profession keeps his doctor angrily invested in whether Kaputnik lives or dies. I have cracked the code on every conceivable social interaction and have concluded that we are living in hell, Berg seems to be telling his readers.
After you studied Berg’s art of setting up and knocking down tidy sets of punchlines, you could head over to check out the wordless work of Sergio Aragones or the long-running “Spy Vs. Spy” series of one-page gags. I always preferred Aragones, who seemed to cram as many strips and characters into his allotted space, then fill the margins of the rest of the issue with more riffs and doodles. Even if he was tasked with looking at a topic that extended beyond the life experiences of the average eight year-old, his contributions still held my attention. Mad #289 featured “A Mad Look at Driver’s Ed,” for instance. But I could still follow the sweaty, self-conscious, anxious cast of an average Aragones strip, as they found themselves crashing and burning under the weight of unmet expectations, hoisted by their own petards, or hiding secrets ineffectively from one another. All of that without a single line of dialogue.
These tightly-structured features are often the ones that I linger on during my re-reads of back issues grabbed from record stores and comic shops. It’s interesting to think of someone dedicating a significant portion of their life to something so structured, so arbitrary, so disposable, so esoteric, so time-consuming. The Mad I remember fondly is encapsulated in these moments. It’s not some countercultural truth-teller or half-baked Media Studies syllabus, but a haven for unapologetic weirdos who managed to get away with doing this stuff for a living, for a lifetime.
Questions? Comments? Jim is on Twitter @JimMc_Grath (for more academic approaches to comics, pop culture, and media studies) and @poolhalljames (if you’re more interested in out-of-context panels from comics, bad memes, and live-tweets about professional wrestling). You can also email him: jameskennethmcgrath[at]gmail[dot]com