The Off Season: Losing ‘MAD’ in a mad world

I’m going to miss “MAD” magazine, and until last week, I hadn’t read one since Billy Carter sold beer. After 67 years of publication, the nutty monthly is as good as gone — at least as far as any new material is concerned — and I think we’re the worse for it.

I first heard the news in July: as of the end of August, “MAD” will only be re-printing old content between new covers, an end-of-the-year special, and a few features. It will be sold only in comic book stores and through subscription.

My 14-year-old nephew, Carson Cox, collects classic copies of “MAD,” but he doesn’t just slide them into nice slip covers; he reads them. In many ways he’s a typical teen — nearly silent among adults, a little taller each time I see him, and a bit of an eye-roller when he hears corny jokes — but I think his reading the magazine has given him a cultural and verbal leg up on most others his age. He’s reading satire that most kids — perhaps most adult Americans in these overly-touchy times — fail to appreciate anymore.

I don’t think I ever saw “MAD” as incendiary or revolutionary when I read it, mostly in the Johnson and Nixon years when the magazine — both artistically and thematically — hit its stride. It had over 2 million subscribers in those days, but I found them lying about in the bedroom I shared with my brother (he was not a subscriber, but rather brought them home from his supermarket job), and neither one of us ever thought we needed to hide them under our mattresses despite the bulging bustlines of some of its caricatures.

Maria Reidelbach, author of “Completely MAD: A History of the Comic Book and Magazine” (Little, Brown; 1991), says it “… has always been a wildly uneven mixed bag. It’s a combination of social skewering, political satire, flatulence jokes, and padding. It was powerfully subversive because it was widely available to both adults and kids in newsstands, drug store magazine racks, even libraries, across the country and the world.”

“MAD” began publication in 1952 and was written and edited almost entirely by cartoonist Harvey Kurtzman for its first four years. It originally ran along the lines of a comic book that spoofed radio and television shows, even other comics like “Superman.” It was those parodies that I most enjoyed 15 years later, because I was watching television and going to the movies like everyone else, and although it did eventually become much more political in nature, “MAD” never really strayed away from those wisecracking takeoffs. So, I saw it as a magazine that we read to make fun of ourselves, which is rarely a bad thing.

But Reidelbach doesn’t think “MAD” is going away because we no longer “get” its content. “I don’t think Americans have lost their attention spans; look at how long we’ll sit playing computer games. I do think that ‘MAD’ has lots of competition: Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee, even that guy occupying the White House; all rival ‘MAD’ in spewing outrageous content,” she says.

I have to admit that while thumbing through one of Carson’s old copies — October 1966 — which, as usual, was adorned by the goofy and always-grinning Alfred E. Neuman and labeled “CHEAP” at 30 cents, I laughed most at the “Obituaries for Comic Strip Characters” pastiche that could only be appreciated by people who were reading the comic strips in the daily paper years ago. Prince Valiant dying of natural causes at 649, and Snuffy Smith blowing himself up with his own still, was relatable then; Daddy Warbucks apparently dying after learning that LBJ was going to run for re-election, a mild political barb…

That edition had nothing controversial in it. Don Martin’s usual ridiculous cartoons (he specialized in big-chinned working stiffs and curler-haired housewives), an artistic takeoff on brand names, a parody of a television show called “12 O’Crocked High,” a satirical look at Batman, a more true than inflated series of poems about airline travel, and a feature called “Course Humor” (clean jokes using actual photos of golfers) was just about it. And, of course, the always-bent “MAD Fold-in” back cover.

But, “MAD” apparently has lost its broad appeal with most young people. Not long ago, President Trump told “Politico” that “Alfred E. Neuman cannot be President of the United States.” He was referring to South Bend Mayor and Democratic presidential hopeful, Pete Buttegieg, who in turn claimed he had to “Google” the reference because he didn’t “get it.”

Reidelbach added, “I’ve always enjoyed ‘MADs’ excellent cartooning. It’s something that comedians and satirical talk shows lack. Now, only ‘The New Yorker’ consistently publishes the work of great cartoonists and illustrators.”

I know that as time passed, “MAD” got a bit more mature, its lampooning sharper, but perhaps we’ll come to see it for what it was and miss its cheeky humor. The jug-eared, freckle-faced Neuman — an image supposedly first used in the early 20th century for an ad about painless dentistry — appeared on the cover of all but a few issues and became the antithesis of a country that often took itself too seriously, something that has never really changed.

Carson, being about as verbose as he can get, tells me, “I’m sad to see it go. It makes fun of current events, and it gets me to laugh every time — even the older ones make me laugh.”

Perhaps, more than ever, we still need a little “MAD” in this seemingly-always mad world of ours.

You can contact Mike Lunsford at hickory913@gmail.com. His website can be found at www.mikelunsford.com

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