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Mad: The Hilariously Sly Magazine Hated By the Stiff Set

Mad Magazine issues in 1969 and 1963. (K. Vlahos)

The first reaction to the news that Mad magazine was ceasing publication of new content was, I confidently suspect, one of collective epiphany that Mad magazine was still publishing at all. 

Though the magazine had existed for just shy of seven decades, its presence in a typical reader’s life is haltingly brief: from the end of elementary school to no later than the end of middle school. It pads the bridge between childhood and adolescence, and then it’s gone. 

The magazine was always dependent on that cyclical arrangement; readers mature and the younger siblings inherit the subscriptions. But with digital media shaping more and more how humor is expressed and consumed, Mad came to be seen as something of a relic. Passing by grocery store magazine racks over the past decade, I don’t ever remember actually seeing issues displayed. 

Mad has resigned itself to this reality, pivoting to something resembling an encyclopedia: publishing issues with archival material and saving contemporary material for year-end special editions. It’s a bit anticlimactic but nothing entirely new. A big part of Mad’s output has always been reprints and anthologies of its older work, of which there is an unfathomable amount and much of it is still valuable.

Mad’s role as juvenile ephemera has often caused its status as a legacy publication to be overlooked. It appeared only a year before Playboy and coincided with Esquire’s and New Yorker’s peaking influence. And like those titles, Mad‘s fingerprints are all over popular culture of the late 20th and early 21st century. It might even have more traces than any of them.

Mad started out life not as a magazine but as a comic book. William Gaines had inherited the comics publisher EC (founded as Educational Comics but later changed to Entertaining Comics) from his father just after World War II. Though a self-professed “nonconformist,” Gaines was also a shrewd businessman who turned the company’s anemic financial situation around with a series of genre comics that had circulations in the hundreds of thousands, most popular among them the horror comic Tales from the Crypt. EC became a staple for the creative freedom it gave its artists. “EC was a brainstorming operation,” Mad editor Al Feldstein later recalled.

One staff member who took full advantage of that freedom was Harvey Kurtzman, who helmed a series of war comics that were unique for their realistic stories and antiwar bent. When Kurtzman requested a pay raise, Gaines said he would acquiesce if Kurtzman would create a humor comic. In August 1952, the first issue of Mad was published. The early issues, all written by Kurtzman, were made up of parodies of EC’s other titles before expanding to iconic comics like Superman, Batman, and Archie. Mad became EC’s bestselling title in short order, extending even beyond the comic book-reading audience.

Mad’s transition from comic book to magazine, however, was a combination of Kurtzman’s growing ambition and a desire to circumvent the recently established Comics Code Authority. Conflicts between Kurtzman and Gaines, in addition to Kurtzman’s disorganized management style that briefly made Mad a quarterly, caused Kurtzman to jump ship to Hugh Hefner who offered him more creative freedom and a bigger budget to produce Trump. it lasted two issues, and he and other early Mad artists went on to make Humbug and Help!, the latter of which employed Terry Gilliam and Gloria Steinem. Al Feldstein succeeded Kurtzman in 1956 and remained there for 30 years.

The magazine was a creatively fertile platform for its artists, who innovated the comic book medium by simultaneously sending up its formulae and testing their limitations, then adapted it to the more sophisticated magazine form. Among Mad’s best early artists was Kurtzman’s high school classmate Will Elder. Elder’s precise style could imitate any comic to an uncanny degree and could pack a single panel with copious sight gags. The latter skill was on full display when he drew an entire story around the text of “The Raven” in issue nine.

As a magazine, Mad’s focus broadened beyond lampooning comic books. It poked fun at do-it-yourself assemblage guides, dating customs, sports, the Cold War, and social pretensions. One feature was “How to Be a Mad Non-Conformist.” “Ordinary conformists,” the piece goes, “waste their time reading banal best-sellers” and “sensational daily newspapers. Ordinary non-conformists go for childish science fiction” and “boring literary journals,” while “Mad non-conformists read The Roller Derby News, the pre-Civil War Congressional Record, old Tom Swift books, and back copies of Classified Telephone Directories.”

More impressive were the magazine’s parody advertisements, with faux-Rockwell paintings and earnest copy that could, if only for a few seconds, fool the inattentive reader into thinking “Sailem Floating Cigarettes” and “Crust Gum Paste” were genuine products.

Though Mad was more visual than verbal, its Jewish humor was an unmistakable element. Kurtzman filled its text with Yiddish-based wordplay—potrzebie, ganef, furshlugginer—that became a secret language for devoted readers. In addition, outside contributors included comedians Ernie Kovacs and Sid Caesar, the comedy duo Bob Elliot and Ray Goulding, and musical satirist Stan Freberg. It experimented with verse, advertising copy, and even CB radio jargon. “Mad was a puzzle of comedy,” Phil Proctor, cofounder of The Firesign Theatre, said. “You couldn’t take it all in in one reading, so you’d delve back in.”

This early history is worth retracing, not only because it shows the trial-and-error process by which the magazine became iconic, but to see also how much of it permeated into the wider culture. Mad’s popularity inspired copious imitators, even before its most famous copycat Cracked, including Nuts, Unsane, Whack, and Crazy. (Gaines’s solution was to create his own, the 12-issue Feldstein-edited Panic, much to Kurtzman’s chagrin.) But there was as much influence as imitation. Early contributor Paul Krassner founded The Realist in 1958 as a more adult answer to Mad. Though National Lampoon was its more fitting successor, aping the deadpan of its elegant layout and near-professional ad parodies to much darker effect. The absurd, anarchic style of the art echoed both in the underground comix movement of the 1960s with R. Crumb and Gilbert Shelton and the hyper-detailed parody films Kentucky Fried Movie and Airplane!. “Mad was a life raft in a place like Levittown, where all around you were the things that Mad was skewering and making fun of,” comix artist Bill Griffith said. “Mad wasn’t just a magazine to me. It was more like a way to escape. Like a sign, ‘This Way Out.’ That had a tremendous effect on me.”

Mad’s early work, moreover, allows a better understanding of its context. The magazine came to be very much defined by its 1950s and ‘60s readership as an artifact of the Baby Boom, something the creators never denied. “I knew that I had helped to form some of the militant, liberal young people’s minds in terms of the draft card burning, the Vietnam war, and the brassiere burning, at least I was part of that,” Al Feldstein boasted. 

Though in truth, the magazine was a product of the Greatest Generation, World War II veterans, and Jewish Americans coming in from New York City’s outer-boroughs. Its genesis is not unlike most comic books in the postwar flourishing, but the creators of Mad—the self-described “usual gang of idiots”—took the medium to untold extremes and enduring results. It is a missing link between the comic entertainments of the early 20th century and the artform as embodied by Daniel Clowes, Art Spiegelman, Alan Moore, Chris Ware, Charles Burns, and others that later emerged.

For all its influence, to say nothing of the attempts to replicate its style, Mad was something that could only happen once, albeit for a very long time. The circumstances that enabled it were form-fitted for a particular time, place, and personnel. The ambition and creative drive that made it last can, will, and maybe already is happening again. What form it will take or is taking is anybody’s guess.

Chris R. Morgan writes from New Jersey. He has been published in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Lapham’s Quarterly, and The Week. Follow him at his blog and on Twitter @CR_Morgan.