This post wasn’t originally supposed to be a postmortem on Mad. In fact, I’d originally planned to run it on July 1st — which, if I’d followed through, would have seen it beat the news of Mad‘s impending demise (at least as a purveyor of new material) by a couple of days. That would have made for a timely, even prescient post, rather than one that may seem like it’s bringing up the rear, commentary-wise — and at some distance, at that.
Was I planning to blog about an earlier issue, then? Actually, no. While I haven’t been able to find actual on-sale dates for Mad during this era, a perusal of the magazine’s contents over a period of months indicates that, like a lot of other periodicals (including most “standard” comic books), its actual date of publication generally preceded its cover date by a couple of months. So I thought I’d post about the September-dated issue in July, and since I was just guessing, anyway, why not publish the post at the beginning of the month?
But then, I looked at all the other fifty-year-old comics I wanted to blog about in July — there ended up being eight of them — and realized something was going to have to give. And since I really didn’t know when Mad #129 had come out, what did it matter if I pushed its post back to September? So, I set my schedule, and made my plans — and then July 3rd brought its sad news. Sigh.
The other funny thing about all this is that I could have — and, honestly, should have — blogged about Mad years ago. The first issue I ever bought was #107 (Dec., 1966), when I was but a wee, impressionable lad of nine. After that, I didn’t buy every single issue, but I did pick it up fairly often (and continued to, up to early 1974 or thereabouts). In other words, I’ve had multiple opportunities to do a Mad blog post before now. The main reason I haven’t — or, at least, the main reason during the first year or so that issues were “eligible” — was that at first I was dubious that Mad really counted as a “comic book”. It was magazine-sized! It was in black-and-white! Not every single bit of its content was in comics format! In one early post, I even wrote something silly about Mad not being a comic book, but rather “a magazine with a lot of comics in it”. By the time I decided that such a notion was, to put it plainly, utter rot — which was perhaps around the time I blogged about the magazine-sized Spectacular Spider-Man #2 — a number of my early favorite Mads had already passed their “sell-by” dates (i.e., their 50th anniversaries). I didn’t even have the chance to write a post about Mad #121, the issue whose cover had eleven-year-old me trying to explain to my mom that it wasn’t mocking Jesus Christ. (At least I didn’t think it was, in 1968; but really, what did I know from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi?) Talk about a missed opportunity.
And once I had decided that yeah, I really should do at least one post about Mad, I needed to consider which, of the issues remaining during the period I was buying and reading the thing, were 1) ones I’d actually bought, 2) ones that were reasonably typical of their era, and 3) ones which weren’t completely dated. Which is how I came to decide upon the September, 1969 issue. Which is how we got here, doing an inadvertent postmortem on the Mad that was and is, but soon will be no more. And after two months plus of Internet commentary, what’s left so say?
Not much, perhaps; but I still feel I owe it to Mad to pay my respects, as it were. Plus, I doubt that any of the other pieces written about the magazine since July 3, 2019 have focused specifically on its 129th, cover-dated September, 1969, issue — so there’s that. In any case, this is how I’ve chosen to proceed; and thus, without further preliminaries, here’s my look back at what Mad was up to fifty years ago, give or take a month.
We’ll begin with the cover, which, like virtually every other Mad cover during this era, was by Norman Mingo, a magazine illustrator working in the tradition of Norman Rockwell (in fact, for years my younger self blithely assumed that Mingo’s very name was a made-up parody of that of the renowned Saturday Evening Post cover painter, whom I knew mostly from the ubiquitous “Famous Artists School” ads that ran for years on the back covers of comic books), and featured the countenance of Mad‘s “mascot”, Alfred E. Neuman. The “What, me worry?” kid had been around since before Mingo began his long association with Mad — indeed, his origins extended to well before Mad‘s very existence — but it was Mingo who, with the publication of Mad #30 in 1956 (cover shown at left), standardized the look of the character for all the years and decades to follow.
Mad‘s cover subjects generally fell into one of two categories: stand-alone gags, such as the ones for #107 and #121 shown above; and promotion of content within a particular issue’s pages. Instances of the latter would frequently involve one of the multitudinous movie or TV parodies that anchored most issues, like #105’s spoof of the then white-hot Batman TV show (probably the first issue of Mad that grabbed my attention, though I didn’t actually buy it), but occasionally it was something else, like this very issue’s highlighting of the then very timely and even zetigeist-y theme of “the generation gap”.
These days, we tend to speak of generational differences among a whole range of (rather arbitrarily) age-grouped cohorts — Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, Gen Z, etc. — but in the late Sixties, all the focus was on one single supposed divide between “adults” and “youth”. Given Mad‘s reputation for iconoclasm (not to mention its audience demographics), one might expect its editorial stance to come down on the side of “the kids”, rather than the adult-led “Establishment”; the truth, however, was a little more complicated, as should soon become evident.
One aspect of the 1960s-era Mad’s iconoclasm that can’t be disputed, however, is its approach to carrying advertising in its pages; to wit, outside of the magazine’s own house ads for subscriptions and the like, there wasn’t any, and there hadn’t been since 1957. It was virtually unheard of for a commercial magazine to completely eschew ad revenue, instead relying entirely on newsstand sales and subscriptions to make a profit, but Mad managed to make this model work, and did so for more than forty years. This allowed the magazine to lampoon any and all forms of commercial advertising without anyone being able to call foul, as might have happened if (to paraphrase a remark publisher William M. Gaines is alleged to have made on 60 Minutes) they’d made fun of Coke while taking money from Pepsi. In practical terms, it also allowed the magazine’s editorial staff the opportunity to use color on at least four pages of what was ostensibly a black-and-white publication — i.e., the front and back covers, both inside and out.
Which brings us to the inside front cover of Mad #129, and the issue’s first comic strip:
Cartoonist Don Martin had made his Mad debut in 1956, with issue #29 (which also happened to have been the first issue not overseen by the magazine’s original editor and writer, Harvey Kurtzman). By 1969, he was one of the magazine’s leading lights, having been dubbed “”Mad‘s Maddest Artist”, and contributing multiple strips in each issue. (To wit, this opening “look” at “Rapunzel” is followed by two further takes on the same fairy tale later on in the issue, though to my taste this first one is the funniest of the three.) Most of the hallmarks of Martin’s signature style, including his characters’ bulbous-nosed, lantern-jawed physiognomies, his prolific and inventive use of sound effects, and his flair for absurd grotesquerie, are on full view here. These elements, along with the fact that his humor generally eschewed politics, sex, and other “adult” subjects, probably accounts for Martin’s work being among the regular features I most looked forward to seeing in every issue of Mad, as well as for leading me to pick up most of the Mad-branded Signet paperbacks of his original material published during those years — including my favorite, 1967’s The Mad Adventures of Captain Klutz. Don Martin would soldier on as a Mad mainstay until 1987, when a falling-out with Bill Gaines over compensation drove him to jump ship for their number one competitor, Cracked.
It’s been said that Mad taught generations of kids to be skeptical of established authority, mass media messaging, and lots more besides; and while I don’t doubt that that’s true, I also think it’s worth noting that the magazine did so via a rigidly structured format that hardly varied from one issue to the next, and felt as familiar and comfortable to slip into month after month as one’s favorite pair of Keds.
As Exhibit A for this assertion, I offer the first non-cover page of Mad #121, which featured — as did every other issue of this era — the magazine’s masthead and table of contents, the latter of which varied from issue to issue only in the specifics of the one-off features. These “singles”, as well as the regular features — the letters column, Don Martin, and so on — were all always listed under “department” titles, which were unfailingly arranged in alphabetical order — a practice which strikes me as somewhat odd today, though I’m sure it didn’t back in the late ’60s (and who knows, I might have even found it useful in that it allowed me to turn right to my favorites, e.g., Don Martin, before perusing the rest of the magazine).
Meanwhile, the masthead introduced me to the names of both Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein, years before I had the faintest inkling of their respective roles in regards to the great EC Comics line of the Fifties, of which Mad was, of course, the last surviving remnant. And regardless of any other changes in personnel, the masthead always ended with the collective credit for that issue’s contributing artists and writers, aka “the usual gang of idiots”. Though the “idiots” part of that description was obviously a self-deprecating joke, there was, indeed, a “usual gang”. The majority of the contributors in this particular issue of Mad had work in most of the other issues I’d bought as well; and since the magazine always credited the creators on every single feature, the names of “the usual gang of idiots” were by this time as familiar to my twelve-year-old self as were those of the Merry Marvel Bullpen.
Somewhat belying the point I was just making, the next feature (following the two-page letter column) presented the work of a creator whose only other Mad credits were for a series of subscription ads: the Italian artist Guiseppe Baggi:
On the other hand, Baggi’s collaborator on this feature was Frank Jacobs, who’d been writing for Mad since 1957, and whose special forte (not on view in this issue, unfortunately) was parody versions of popular songs and poems. This piece would prove to be only the first of two contributions made to this issue by the prolific Jacobs.
The first and second pages of “Mad Origami Zoo…” also featured the issue’s first two instances of Sergio Aragonés’ “Drawn-Out Dramas”, aka the “Marginal Thinking Dept.”. The prolific, Spanish-born writer-artist had been doodling these wordless gag cartoons in the margins of Mad‘s interior pages since 1963, figuratively speaking, and thus his work had been a part of every issue of Mad I’d read. It’s possible that I was aware of the stuff he was doing for DC Comics’ House of Mystery title by this time, but in the fall of 1969 Aragonés was still first and foremost a Mad man, so far as I was concerned.*
Immediately following the three-page origami piece comes the first of Mad #129’s media parodies. Every issue of Mad featured at least one such spoof of a current movie or a television series, and sometimes (as in our current example) two. These would have been scripted by any number of writers from Mad‘s “usual gang”, but were almost always drawn by the same artist — Mort Drucker, whose gift for caricature and detailed rendering style would define the Feldstein era of Mad at least as much as the work of Martin, Aragonés, or any other artist.
I didn’t get to the movies all that much as a kid, so the subjects of Mad‘s film parodies tended to be largely unfamiliar to me — and this take on Martin Ritt’s The Brotherhood (1968), which starred Kirk Douglas as a mafioso, was no exception. Of course, in this case even the more avid moviegoers among Mad‘s readership might not have been all that familiar with the original flick, which apparently bombed at the box office in its original release, and is little remembered today. (Perhaps it would have fared better if released some four years later, when it might have been able to ride the coattails of The Godfather‘s success — or perhaps not.)
We’ll skip ahead to the parody’s sixth and final page, where the two principal characters are confronted by an assemblage of Italian-American celebrities (Vince Lombardi, Yogi Berra, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Dean Martin) for a conclusion that at least allows artist Drucker a great opportunity to further show off his remarkable skills as a caricaturist:
Before leaving “The Brother Hoods”, it’s worth noting that the script was by Lou Silverstone, who specialized in such film and TV spoofs at Mad, and who also bears the rare distinction among the Mad contributors of the era of having worked in the field of superhero comic books as well, if only briefly. In the mid-’60s, at the behest of former Mad artist Wally Wood, Silverstone wrote several stories for Tower Comics’ short-lived “T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents” line, creating the character Menthor along the way. Following that limited excursion into color comics, Silverstone continued on as a regular contributor to Mad for several decades; like Don Martin, however, he’d eventually leave Mad to ply his trade at Cracked.
This is also probably as good a place as any to note that, save for sound effects, all the text in Mad #129 is typeset, rather than hand-lettered; this was in fact a holdover from the publisher’s standard practice extending back into the 1950’s, when the whole EC line used machine lettering — with the ironic exception of the three titles written and edited by Harvey Kurtzman, which, of course, included Mad.
Following a second Don Martin strip, Frank Jacobs returns for the next feature, on which he’s joined by fellow writer Stan Hart., as well as artist Jack Davis. Hart was yet another prolific Mad contributor, though one who also worked extensively in television, his credits there including the much lauded Carol Burnett Show (for which he won two Emmy Awards) as well as the considerably less lauded (and thankfully never produced) 1967 Wonder Woman series pilot, “Who’s Afraid of Diana Prince?”. Davis, meanwhile, represented what was perhaps the strongest remaining connection (Gaines and Feldstein’s continued involvement notwithstanding) between the black-and-white Mad magazine of 1969 and its original color comic book incarnation of 1952. The artist had of course been a prominent contributor to EC’s horror, war, and crime titles as well as its humor comics (which at one point included the Feldstein-edited Panic as well as Kurtzman’s Mad). He’d followed Kurtzman out EC’s door when the latter left the publisher in 1956, but had eventually found his way back, with his work beginning to appear again in Mad‘s pages in 1965. However, due to a growing demand for his services as an illustrator in other fields — including “slick” magazines like Time and TV Guide, movie posters, and bubble-gum cards — Davis would never again be as prolific a contributor to Mad as he’d been during his original tenure, though he continued to draw for the magazine well into the 1990s.
“The Mad Primer of Bigots, Extremists, and Other Loose Ends” is likely to be somewhat familiar to many Internet users who’ve never read an actual issue of Mad — or, at least, the excerpt shown directly below may be:
Mad’s primer “page” on the Super Patriot has been widely shared online in the last several years — generally in a “the more things change…” sort of context. And it’s not hard to see why. The opinions ascribed to this figure do, indeed, seem to line up with those of many people in the present-day American electorate (though I’d add a caveat that today’s equivalents of the Super Patriot seem to have mostly gotten over their disdain for the “Very Rich”).
The primer’s fourth chapter, on the Right-Wing Extremist, remains timely, as well — although one of its most striking visual details may require some historical explanation. Ax handles?
Davis’ illustration is clearly referencing Lester Maddox, who was the governor of the state of Georgia from 1967 to 1971 (and was thus in office when this piece was originally published). A fervent segregationist, Maddox had first come to national attention when, in defiance of the just-passed Civil Rights Act of 1964, he refused to seat three African-American college students at his Pickrick Restaurant in Atlanta. Maddox stood in the doorway of the establishment with a pistol, while supporters gathered behind him wielding ax handles (per the restaurant’s “pickrick” theme); the ax handle subsequently became Maddox’s personal political symbol. Considering that Jack Davis was a native Georgian, it’s interesting to speculate whether the identification of the Right-Wing Extremist as the then-governor of his home state might have come from him, rather than from Jacobs and/or Hart.
Anyway, based on these two examples, those iconoclastic, skeptical folks at Mad must have been straight-up, dyed-in-the-wool liberals, right? Well, not so fast. As Chapter Four’s line about the Right-Wing Extremist sounding “just like a Left-Wing Extremist” implies, the authors of “The Mad Primer of Bigots, Extremists, and Other Loose Ends” found fault with extremism at both ends of the political spectrum — a stance further illustrated by the feature’s next chapter:
Though some might take issue with the subtle implication that all “Black Militants” of the late ’60s had identical goals, and endorsed the use of violence to attain them, the truth is that some radical activists did endorse violence, and one can’t really fault Jacobs and Hart for acknowledging that fact. It’s also reasonable for the authors to have pointed out the irony that the sentiments of black separatists seemed to mirror those of their white counterparts. More problematic, however, is Davis’ visual portrayal of African-Americans, both here and in the chapter that immediately follows this one (“the Looters”); some of his depictions veer uncomfortably close to racial caricature, and may indeed cross that line for some readers.
Perhaps this is a good time to point out that however constitutionally irreverent and skeptical of authority the people who made Mad in the Sixties might have been, they were still, by and large, a homogeneous cadre of middle-aged, middle-class white men. One shouldn’t assume that simply being smartasses somehow gave these guys immunity from all the prevailing assumptions and unconscious biases their demographic was heir to.
If one tallies up the ten satirical targets of the three-page “Mad Primer of Bigots…” feature into two columns, one ends up with five that could be broadly labeled “right-wing” (the Super-Patriot, the Ku Klux Klansman, the Right-Wing Extremist, the American Nazi, and the Rabble Rouser), and an equal number that could be classified as “left-wing” (the American Student, the Black Militant, the Looters, the Yippies, and the Phony Liberal). Just going by the basic arithmetic, it’s pretty clear that the authors (and, presumably, their editors) were attempting to appear “fair and balanced” in regards to politics. And while a close reading of both this feature and others in this issue might reasonably lead one to surmise that most of the Mad men were, deep down, distinctly left of center in their views, there’s little to no evidence to suggest that any of them could be considered radical leftists.
This conclusion is further borne out when one takes a look at the very next piece, which also happens to be the issue’s cover feature:
“The Mad Approach toward Bridging the Generation Gap” was scripted by Earle Doud, a comedy writer best remembered today for his work on the classic 1962 comedy album The First Family, and drawn by Paul Coker — an artist who, like Jack Davis, was highly successful (and visible) in fields outside of comics, including greeting cards (for Hallmark) and television animation (for Rankin-Bass). Coker’s first work for Mad appeared in 1961; his most recent job for the magazine was published in the December, 2017 issue.
The feature runs for four pages of the magazine, and consists of six comic strips, each of which presents a supposedly common “Problem” scenario involving young people, and then depicts the “Wrong Approach” customarily taken by adults before offering the allegedly superior “Mad Approach”. One example should suffice for you to get the gist:
Re-reading this piece today as an adult, fifty years after I originally encountered it as a pre-teen, I’m not exactly sure what the point of it was. Both the “Wrong Approach” and the “Mad Approach” are obviously meant to be seen as “wrong”, as they respectively represent a guiding principle of strict discipliarianism on one hand, and indulgent permissiveness on the other, both taken to absurd extremes — although if I had to choose, I’d guess that writer Doud’s own point-of-view was somewhat closer to the disciplinarian option (there seems to be a fair amount of pent-up frustration being vented in those “Wrong Approach” panels), a notion which, if accurate, further undermines Mad‘s anti-authoritarian image. And although Mad has always had adults in its readership, the proposition that the feature was intended exclusively for them highly dubious. Back in 1969, I certainly assumed that the editors expected me to read and enjoy the piece — which I probably did, if only for the absurdity of the situations, none of which would have resonated with me on any other level. (I was a generally well-behaved kid who got along fine with my parents.) And maybe getting readers (of any age) to laugh at the absurdities was the one and only point — though that seems a rather weak objective for the cover feature of a satirical magazine.
The next feature is a two-pager by another couple of veteran members of “the usual gang of idiots”, artist Bob Clarke, whose tenure as a Mad freelancer extended from 1956 to 1988, and writer Dick De Bartolo, who was 23 years old when Mad #129 came out, making him one of the magazine’s younger contributors at the time. De Bartolo made his first sale to Mad in 1961, when he was still a teenager, and he has continued to write for the magazine up to the present day (!).
It’s probably fair to say that “The Anatomy of a Movie Ad Campaign” isn’t the most memorable thing that either Clarke or De Bartolo ever produced for Mad, though it remains mildly amusing, and provides an interesting (if exaggerated) look back at how “major” motion pictures were distributed and marketed a half-century ago.
Next up is an installment of another of Mad‘s longest-running regular features, Dave Berg‘s “The Lighter Side of…”:
Dave Berg was a veteran of the Golden Age of Comics, having put in over a decade and a half working for such employers as Will Eisner and Stan Lee prior to coming to Mad in 1957. But for most comics fans of my generation, as well as those that have followed, he’ll always be the “Lighter Side” guy, whose work, in the words of the New York Times, “gave young readers a terrifying glimpse of the indignities awaiting them in adulthood”. Actually, I don’t recall ever being terrified, but Berg’s jaundiced view of the grown-up world certainly helped show me how foolish adult human beings could be:
The format of “The Lighter Side of…” (for those few benighted souls out there who have somehow never seen it) is to present a series of strips over a number of pages (five, in #129), all of which relate to the issue’s theme, but which otherwise stand alone.
Focused on the adult world as it usually was, the topics Berg dealt with were often somewhat difficult for my younger self to relate to; this was true even when, as in the strip below, he approached the subject in a “young folks” context. (Note that this strip also ties into issue #129’s “generation gap” theme.)
I think this relative lack of relatability made it hard for me to find the strip hilarious, at least on a regular basis, though I usually found it amusing, at least; and I always appreciated the quality of Berg’s drawing.
Born in Cuba in1921, Prohías was already an accomplished and successful cartoonist in his homeland when, at age 38, he fell afoul of Fidel Castro’s government, which accused him of being a CIA agent. Prohías subsequently came to the United States to start over again, launching “Spy vs. Spy” at Mad with the January, 1961 issue. Due to this background, it’s easy to see the strip — which routinely featured the two nameless beak-faced agents defeating and sometimes destroying each other in an endless variety of bizarre, and frequently macabre, ways — as an allegory of the Cold War. But while my younger self was vaguely aware of Prohías’ personal history (probably thanks to the paperback collections of original “Spy” material that I gobbled up even more eagerly than Don Martin’s stuff), I don’t recall ever being concerned with any “deeper meaning” in his work. No, I just grooved on seeing the Black Spy and the White Spy shoot, electrocute, blow up, and otherwise dispose of each other — especially when the Black Spy won. (I always rooted for Black, for some unknown reason. Maybe I just thought a covert operative wearing a black suit made more sense, or at least looked cooler, than one who dressed all in white.)
Following “Spy vs. Spy” comes more work — non-marginal this time — from Prohías’ fellow Spanish speaker and (not coincidentally) wordless cartoon maker, Sergio Aragonés:
Like his “Drawn-Out Dramas”, Aragonés’ “Mad Look at…” was a regular feature in the magazine. As a kid, I appreciated that the cartoonist’s subjects were drawn from everyday life without having the “adult world” focus of Dave Berg’s somewhat similarly formatted stuff. I mean, who couldn’t relate to funny cartoons about dogs?
The next feature sees the return of writer Stan Hart, and takes its cue from that writer’s other favored medium, television. “Mad Gray Paper: ‘The State of Our Cities'” riffs on one particular subset of a series of news documentary specials aired by the National Broadcasting Company beginning in 1960, which the network presented under the umbrella title NBC White Paper. Three installments of The Ordeal of the American City were telecast in 1968 and 1969.
Perhaps not wanting their own piece to come across a straight-up parody of the NBC programs, Mad pulled in Harry Reasoner, a newsman from rival network CBS, to host their “Gray Paper” as “Harry Reasonable”:
This was another feature that was probably a bit too adult in its subject matter for my twelve-year-old self to find very funny, though I enjoyed the art of George Woodbridge, another veteran illustrator who’d started at Mad in 1957 and would continue to contribute to the magazine through the 1990s.
Following the third and last of Don Martin’s variations on “Rapunzel”, Mad #129 returns once more to its “generation gap” theme with a feature illustrated by Bob Clarke and written by Larry Siegel, a comedy writer who, like Stan Hart, also wrote for television (including for The Carol Burnett Show, for which he won three Emmys, beating out his friend and sometime partner Hart by one):
This might come as a surprise to some of the younger folks out there, but there was once a time when, if you made a reference to “Spock”, you really needed to specify whether you meant Mister or Doctor.
Dr. Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care, first published in 1946, was (and still is) one of the world’s great perennial bestsellers, with over fifty million copes sold over the past seven decades. The book was more-or-less the parenting bible of the post-WWII generation, and I think it’s fair to assume that the upbringing of many if not most American Baby Boomers was touched by it in some way. (There was definitely a copy in my own home when I was growing up, though I have no memories of ever seeing Mom or Dad actually consult it.) By the late ’60s, however, there was something of a backlash against Dr. Spock’s gentle approach to child-rearing. As alluded to in the editorial introduction to Mad‘s parody, the pediatrician had become a political activist, speaking out against the Vietnam War — and certain conservative commentators began to opine that Spock himself was responsible for what they saw as the younger generation’s lack of discipline, patriotism, respect for authority, and lots more besides.
Such was the background subtext informing Siegel and Clarke’s “Teenager Care”, which starts off like this:
The feature continues in this vein for another two-and-a-half pages, with segments on dental care, bathing and grooming, feeding, behavior problems, and so on. All of them share the same implied point-of-view, which is that dismay (and even anger) is the natural response of the sane, sober, steadfast adult when confronted by the ungainly, unruly, unreasonable teenager, though that natural response needs to be suppressed in favor of a more lenient and understanding approach. In this, the feature is very much a companion piece to Doud and Coker’s earlier “Generation Gap”. And, as with that feature, it seems an odd tack to take in a humor magazine with a large youth readership — even if it was a natural and honest approach, given that most of the Mad men were then of an age to be parents of teenagers themselves.
I dunno, guys. Maybe building an issue around the “generation gap”, as buzzy a topic as it was in 1969, wasn’t such a good idea after all?
Coming up quickly upon the end of the book, we have one final multi-page feature, “Jewelia” — the second of #129’s media parodies to be illustrated by Mort Drucker, and its third feature to feature Stan Hart’s byline:
Julia, starring Diahann Carroll in the title role, was a TV sitcom that ran on NBC from 1968 to 1971. It may be legitimately considered groundbreaking in that it featured an African-American woman as the lead character, and not in a stereotypical role (a la Beulah); at the time of the series’ original broadcast, however, it did receive criticism that echoes the points made throughout Mad‘s parody — namely, that the show presented an idealized version of the African-American experience that did not reflect the everyday lives of the majority of black people.
So far, so good. But “Jewelia” comes across today as badly dated in a number of ways, beginning with the sexist implication that the parody’s authors deserve some kind of points for being enlightened enough to realize that Carroll is a very beautiful woman — even though she’s black! “Filly of Soul Dept.”, indeed.
In the TV series, Julia Baker works as a nurse to support herself and her young son Corey, the two having been left on their own after Julia’s husband was killed in Vietnam. Corey puts a lot of time and effort into trying to find his mom a new guy; in the parody, this is taken to an extreme for comic effect, as “Corney” takes his cause out into the middle of a busy freeway:
“A good fairy came and took him away!” “… What was he a Hairdresser?” Get it, folks? Just in case the feature’s sexism was getting lonely, some homophobia has arrived to keep it company.
In a later scene, Jewelia has a conversation with a telephone repairman who’s studying to be a Brain Surgeon; she’s unsurprised by this, since “every Negro who has a menial job on this show is studying to be something!”
Here, Hart’s valid point about Julia‘s unrealistic approach to depicting the economic circumstances of African-Americans is undermined by what feels like a gratuitous swipe at “Black Militants” — a group Hart seems to have been especially concerned about, considering that he also co-authored the issue’s earlier “Mad Primer of Bigots…” feature.
One aspect of “Jewelia” that hasn’t dated, thankfully, is Mort Drucker’s virtuosity as a caricaturist. As in “The Brother Hoods”, the script gives the artist the chance to work in a few extra celebrity portraits on the last page:
Just in case you’re not an expert on late Sixties American television, the “TV Widows’ Club” includes Hope Lange, Lucille Ball, Doris Day, and Barbara Stanwyck — all of whom were portraying widows on prime-time network series at the time this parody was published.
One issue on which Mad maintained a liberal stance fairly consistently (at least as of 1969) was the war in Vietnam, as exemplified by the feature that comprises #129’s final black-and-white page.
The “idea” for “A Dove’s-Eye View of the Joint Chiefs of Staff” is credited to Max Brandel, a contributor to Mad from 1966 to 1974 whose work frequently involved photo collages of one sort or another. In plastering the face of the famously “hawkish” American movie star John “Duke” Wayne over the actual faces of the nation’s top military officers, Brandel was implying that the five men were essentially identical in their enthusiasm for continuing to prosecute the war — at least from the point of view of a “dove”.
We’ve now arrived at the inside back cover, the location for yet another of my very favorite regular features as a young Mad reader — and the main reason why my personal copy of #129, along with every other issue of Mad I still own, will never be graded Near Mint — Al Jaffee‘s “Mad Fold-In“:
Al Jaffee was, like Dave Berg, a veteran of comics’ Golden Age, having worked for Stan Lee at Timely Comics (the company that eventually became Marvel) alongside Berg in the 1940s. In 1969, I had no idea of his historical connection with the “House of Ideas”, but boy, did I love Jaffee’s Fold-Ins — almost as much as I loved his recurring “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions” feature (which I also happily consumed in paperback format).
Jaffee had first arrived at Mad in 1955, towards the end of Harvey Kurtzman’s tenure as editor; like Jack Davis, he’d left when Kurtzman did, but, also like Davis, had found his way back to the magazine a few years later. The cartoonist conceived the “Fold-In” in 1964 as a one-time gag, a take-off on the fold-outs appearing in glossy magazines such as National Geographic, Life, and, of course, Playboy. But the feature became an instant hit, and Jaffee would ultimately go on to create hundreds more over the next half century (and beyond).
The “Fold-Ins” generally had a topical theme; sometimes, as with #129’s, it was a very specific (and controversial) topic. The “Pueblo Affair”, aka the “Pueblo Incident”, began on January 23, 1968, when a Navy intelligence vessel, the USS Pueblo, was attacked and captured by North Korean patrol boats, an event which greatly increased tensions on the Korean peninsula. One Navy crewman died, and 82 others were held prisoner for almost a year until negotiators were finally able to secure their release on December 23, 1968. Later, a Navy Court of Inquiry recommended a court-martial for the Pueblo’s captain and another officer for surrendering without a fight as well as for failing to destroy classified material; the Secretary of the Navy ultimately rejected this recommendation, however.
The solution to Al Jaffee’s Fold-In suggests — perhaps cynically, but quite possibly accurately, too — that the primary goal of Navy’s investigation had never been to discover the truth, but rather simply to provide the top brass with a scapegoat:
Mad #129 wraps things up with a back-cover color strip by writer Dick De Bartolo and artist Jack Rickard (a Mad mainstay from 1961through 1983), featuring a parody of the then-ubiquitous television ad campaign for Ultra-Brite toothpaste. I think you should be able to appreciate the joke without ever having seen the actual commercials, though if you’re so inclined you can check one out on YouTube (with Cybill Shepherd, no less!). Just don’t come complaining to me if that jingle gets stuck in your head.
And that’s that, ladies and germs. 52 pages of humorous content (counting both sets of covers), for only 35 cents. That was a pretty good deal, I thought at the time; and for all of the flaws I can see in this issue today, I suppose I still do.
As I mentioned near the beginning of this post, I would continue to pick up Mad at least semi-regularly up into 1974. Following issue #165, however, I never bought a single other issue (at least, not until last month; don’t worry, we’ll get to that in a moment), with the exception of issue #187 (Dec., 1976), which I suspect I was drawn to purchase by its All the President’s Men movie parody (I was a Watergate nerd, you see).
Why did I drop Mad, after being a fairly faithful reader for over seven years? Over four decades later, I have no recollection of making a conscious decision to give it up, so I can only speculate as to my motivations back in’74.
Perhaps I was scared off by the famously controversial cover of #166 (one of the very few post-1956 Mad covers not to be graced by the presence of Alfred E. Neuman in any form whatsoever, BTW). In 1974, I was still a seriously committed young Christian, of the Southern Baptist persuasion, and I may have seen Norman Mingo’s photorealistic depiction of a middle finger as too provocative a challenge to my sense of moral rectitude to be simply ignored. (On the other hand, I was also buying Vampirella and other “mature” black-and-white comic books around this same time, so I dunno.)
Or perhaps, at the advanced age of 16 I thought — rightly or wrongly — that I’d “outgrown” Mad‘s particular style of humor. Perhaps, after seven years, all those regular features that had once made the magazine feel comfortable and familiar, month after month — the Drawn-Out Dramas, the Lighter Sides, the Fold-Ins, and so on — had begun to feel stale, instead. It’s even possible that I was “spoiled” for the 1970s Feldstein-edited Mad by my growing familiarity with the 1950s Kurtzman-edited Mad, via reprints of the latter in both black-and-white paperbacks and full-color facsimile-type editions bound as inserts into Mad Super Specials. Harvey Kurtzman was indisputably a comic genius, as well as a comics genius — and one I’d drunk deep from the well of the brilliant material he’d auteured with the assistance of Jack Davis, Wally Wood, Will Elder, and others, even my very favorite stuff from my Sixties and Seventies Mad issues seemed somewhat pallid in comparison.
Or perhaps, the answer to why I stopped reading Mad is something simpler than all of the above.
Perhaps I just didn’t think it was all that funny anymore.
When I decided over a year ago that, yes, I really should do at least one post for this blog about Mad, I also figured that it would be a good idea to check out an issue of the magazine’s current incarnation, just to see how things had changed (or not) since the last time I took more than a cursory look at the publication, back in the Seventies. Doing that now, following the July 3rd announcement of Mad‘s impending expiration, feels even more like doing an autopsy than the rest of this post has — after all, it’s 2019’s iteration of Mad magazine that’s getting the ax, not 1969’s. But, what the hell, I’m doing it anyway.
My original notion was to simply go with the most current issue as of the time I began writing his post. However, that turned out to be issue #9 (Mad‘s numbering rebooted into a new, second volume in 2018), a “Special Tarantino Time Warp Issue” — i.e., a deliberate throwback to the Mad of fifty years ago, playing off the use of the magazine in Quentin Tarantino’s 1969-set film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. And while it would probably be an interesting exercise to examine that issue and see how well the current members of “the usual gang of idiots” pulled off this attempt at Going Retro, that’s really not what I’ve been planning to do here.
Thus, I looked at the last few issues prior to #9, and I ended up choosing issue #7 — mostly because it promised to feature parodies of two recent comic-book movies, Aquaman and Avengers:Endgame, which I figured I could at least relate to, and might even find amusing. (Hey, it’s my $5.99, alright?)
So what did I think? Let’s start with what was probably the most surprising discovery for me — namely, how much of the format of “my” Mad remains intact after all these years. Setting aside that the book is now in full color — which, though it doesn’t evoke the Mad I grew up with, does line right up with the publication’s 1950s roots — there’s quite a bit that any fan of my generation should find familiar. The media parodies may not be drawn by Mort Drucker any more, but artists Tom Richmond (“Awkward, Man!”) and Gideon Kendall (“Avenjerks: Is This Ever Gonna End-Game?”) are clearly taking their cues from that past master. What’s more, “Spy vs. Spy” is still around (currently written and drawn by Peter Kuper, as it has been since 1997)! And “The Lighter Side of…” (now by Tammy Golden and Jon Adams)! And both “Drawn-Out Dramas” and “A Mad Look at…” — which, remarkably, are still being cartooned by the one and only Sergio Aragonés! What other cartoonist do you know who’s still working at the same gig after fifty-six years?
Well, I can tell you of at least one. Because the greatest surprise that I encountered in perusing Mad (2018) #9 was that Al Jaffee, at age 98, is still contributing Fold-Ins to every single issue. And while his color work isn’t as lushly modeled as it was in the old days, his ideas are every bit as trenchant as they ever were:
Let me repeat: Al Jaffee is 98 years old.
Not everything is the issue is quite so evocative of past glories, of course. Among the “new” features, I especially enjoyed Luke McGarry’s “The 27 Club”, about the afterlife adventures of Jimi, Amy, and a handful of other musical stars who shuffled off this mortal coil prior to their twenty-eighth birthday, as well as Kerry Callen’s “Shazam! Funnies”, a page of comics portraying the original Captain Marvel in the respective styles of Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts, Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes, and so forth. Also in the plus column is the obvious increased diversity of the magazine, evident both on-panel as well as in the make-up of “the usual gang” behind the scenes.
Less successful for me were a two-pager by comedian Jim Gaffigan and his son Jack about avocado toast, Simon Rich and Farley Katz’s “Time Travel Study Buddies with Lucy and Jose” (in which two kids visit Ben Franklin in 1752 to grill him about his bathroom habits), and, well, most of the rest of the issue, I guess. On the other hand, if I were, say, twelve years old, I might find all that stuff hilarious. Obviously, I have no way to test that hypothesis.
Probably the most disappointing thing to me in the issue was Rebecca Bonahan and Travis Willard’s “A Very Fine Wall” — not due to the piece itself, which I found funny enough, but rather to the way the editorial text at the top of the page introduced it:
Yes, by the sheerest coincidence, this feature in Mad (2018) #9, an issue I chose virtually at random, references one of the features in the primary topic of this post, Mad (1952) #129. Obviously, the recent surge in online sharing of the “Super Patriot” hasn’t escaped the current editorial crew’s notice. Unfortunately, however, they don’t appear to have understood the premise, or even the format, of the original “Mad Primer of Bigots, Extremists, and Other Loose Ends” — which is neither an “epic poem”, nor a “rhapsody”, nor any other form of verse — it is, rather, a parody of an old-time elementary school primer, of the “See Spot run” variety. That whoever at Mad wrote the intro to “A Very Fine Wall” evidently didn’t comprehend this simple fact is, frankly, embarrassing, and does the piece’s creators, Bonahan and Willard, a decided disservice.
But, really, I guess this sort of would-be constructive criticism is ultimately beside the point, isn’t it? Because we’ve now come to the end of the autopsy, and our patient — Mad magazine, circa 2019 — is still dead.
Mad will soon no longer be with us, except, perhaps, as a brand name under which to reissue old material.** Does that matter?
One could argue that it really doesn’t. When EC Comics began publishing Mad in 1952, no one else in America was producing satire for a mass audience. As others have said before me (especially since July 3rd), it was the generations reared on Mad that went on to create the underground comics of the Sixties, the National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live of the Seventies, and so on, up to the Daily Shows and Onions of today. Satirical humor is now a fixture of popular culture. And in terms of politics, while I’ve tried to show in this post that the Mad men weren’t necessarily all flaming liberals (at least not in the late Sixties), I believe that the distrust of received authority that was ever at the heart of what Bill Gaines and company created was, ultimately, a liberalizing as well as a liberating force in our society. With all that in mind, one might say that in making the world safe for mockery, Mad did its job, and that it’s not truly a tragedy if the magazine now goes gently into that good night.
On the other hand, I still believe that something will be lost when an esteemed journalistic institution like Germany’s Der Spiegel won’t be able to put out an issue with a cover like this one…
…and expect that virtually everyone in their broad international audience will get the joke.
That won’t happen right away, of course. It will take years for Alfred E. Neuman to fade from public consciousness — perhaps a whole generation. But if his face only continues to show up in the context of old, recycled material, I think it will happen, eventually. And that makes me sad.
On the other other hand…
Sixty-seven years is a hell of a run, by anyone’s standards. Could any of the comics creators depicted in this early ad for Mad have expected it would last for so long? I doubt it.
So, go on and take a fershlugginer bow, Harvey and Bill and Al F. and Wally and Jack D. and Will and John — and Marie…
…and Al J. and Don and Sergio and Antonio and Dave and Norman and Mort…
…and Frank and Stan and Larry and Dick…
…and Paul and Bob and George and Jack R….
…and all the other talents who’ve ever been a part of The Usual Gang of Idiots. (Yes, Alfred, even you.) You deserve it, folks.
*Aragonés had actually been writing as well as drawing for DC since mid-1968, but as I wasn’t interested in the genres most of his early work for the publisher was done in — e.g., teen humor (Leave It to Binky, Swing with Scooter), romance (Young Romance), and Western (Bat Lash) — I was unaware of those efforts.
**I should note that it’s been stated that Mad will continue to release new material in the form of year-end specials (though only digitally); personally, I’m skeptical about how well (and how long) such a model can work, considering that the magazine’s (presumably reduced) editorial staff will no longer have a regular pool of freelancers from which to commission such work.