Comic Institution: A Tribute To Mad Magazine

One fan's overdue love letter to the only comic to school its readers in Yiddish slang, document social change and lampoon everyone you’ve ever heard of.
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These have been a banner few years for comic book fans with a taste for nostalgia. Spielberg’s Tintin adaptation kicked off an extensive online debate between bande dessinée enthusiasts, over the relative merits of the bequiffed Belgian and his historically dubious Gallic neighbour Asterix. Likewise, Karl Urban's Judge Dredd reboot reignited an enthusiastic reappraisal of 2000AD. But there's one classic comic that deserves its own tribute - a title that unites fans across the generations.

Unfortunately, Mad is unlikely to experience a similar resurgence of popularity, since instead of inspiring movies, it was content to satirise them. Nonetheless, for those who fell victim to cover-boy Alfred E. Neuman's gap-toothed charms, it remains without equal.

Growing up, we all had our heroes. But whereas most of my contemporaries worshipped football icons like Ian Rush and Kevin Keegan, my idea of a dream team involved the legendary pairing of Drucker and DeBartolo. From the moment I first picked up a copy of Mad magazine in the summer of 1985, it was love at first sight.

Whenever my schoolmates would wax lyrical about Hoddle and Waddle, I re-imagined them as sound effects in one of Don Martin's classic cartoon strips featuring those characteristically floppy shoes. Unlike sportsmen, who are lucky to enjoy a golden period of ten years at best, Mad's cabal of artists and writers remained at the top of their game for over four decades. So it didn't matter to me if they thought the 4-4-2 formation was shorthand for the ideal panel layout.

For the next decade I never missed an issue, even saving my pocket money in order to buy up old back issues, as well as the quarterly 'super specials'. In fact, I still have every copy I ever bought, although they now sit gathering dust in a grey packing crate in the attic. So it'd been a good few years since I'd last opened an issue.

But all that changed recently when I took the plunge and bought Absolutely Mad, a single DVD-Rom containing full PDFs of every single edition published between 1952 and 2005 - that's over 40,000 pages on a single disc. Even better, I realised that the issues could be easily transferred onto my iPad, which meant that I was able to take over 600 issues of my favourite magazine on holiday.

It's a stunningly insightful document of social change, reflecting every major craze, fad and trend that emerged over five tumultuous decades.

Swiping effortlessly through the decades, I was amazed at how quickly the memories all came flooding back, right down to some of the individual gags and illustrations. It was like attending an impromptu school reunion, only populated by people I actually wanted to see again: Spy vs Spy, Dave Berg's Lighter Side, Sergio Aragone's Drawn-out-Dramas, Frank Jacob's incredible rhyming skills and Al Jaffee's doubly impressive legacy of fold-ins and 'Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions'. Good times.

And then there was all that breathtaking artwork. Jack Davis always had an army of fans, many of whom recalled his glory days as the flagship artist behind EC's gloriously grisly terror titles, such as Tales From The Crypt and Vault of Horror. But no-one comes close to Mort Drucker for his unnerving accuracy, and the ability to pack a double-page spread with more detail than could possibly be appreciated in a single viewing.

These days, the technique of caricature has been diminished by all those talentless hacks who knock out five-minute sketches for easily-pleased tourists. But Drucker was something else. In fact, he was so respected for his attentive artistry that he was even invited to create the official poster illustration for George Lucas' American Graffiti, which stood him in good stead a few months later, when he found himself revisiting the film for Mad's inevitable spoof of the movie. By contrast, Angelo Torres always felt like something of an also-ran, his sketches lacking the warmth, shading and appeal of his more fondly-remembered colleague.

Revisited as a complete archive, rather than in monthly instalments, Mad becomes more than just a knockabout compilation of satire and spoofery. It's also a stunningly insightful document of social change, reflecting every major craze, fad and trend that emerged over five tumultuous decades. In particular, the seventies recorded shifting dissatisfaction with the war in Vietnam, the indignation of a country betrayed by its Commander-in-Chief, and the escalating friction between the establishment and those agitating for social progression.

Deserving a special shout-out is the December 1970 issue, which featured article after article satirising the "loud minority" and its impact on contemporary American society. Despite being aimed predominantly at school-age readers, the repeated references to civil disobedience, civil rights and drug use, vividly depict a country in crisis. Nowhere is this more evident that in Dave Berg's Lighter Side strip, usually the most conservative feature in any given issue. Having spent several pages criticising the counter-cultural movement for its double standards, the final strip offers up the depressingly downbeat admission that maybe the rebellious youth had a point. You didn't get that in the Beano.

Despite his conservative leanings, publisher William M Gaines had built a solid reputation for his socially liberal perspective, populating his controversial horror comics with bitterly ironic stories that exposed prejudice and avarice in everyday life. Despite the criticism that the comics received for their grisly illustrations and macabre set-pieces, it was these moral subtexts which really stood out for their young readers.

As much a rite of passage as your first drink or adult movie, Mad represents a specific period in time for anyone who ever got lost in its black and white pages.

In contrast, as Mad grew into a comic institution, the editors took great care to ensure a more even hand on any topic, demonstrating a laudable commitment to exploring both sides of every argument. They even went so far as to run dual covers at election time, congratulating both candidates on their successful runs - a joke they repeated several times over the years. As long-time editor Al Feldstein explained recently, "We even used to rake the hippies over the coals. They were protesting the Vietnam War, but we took aspects of their culture and had fun with it. Mad was wide open. Bill loved it, and he was a capitalist Republican. I loved it, and I was a liberal Democrat. That went for the writers, too; they all had their own political leanings, and everybody had a voice. But the voices were mostly critical. It was social commentary, after all."

And yet, although the majority of articles ultimately pointed towards a more progressive point-of-view, revisiting them from a 21st century perspective, it's clear to see where the writers and artists struggled with the dawning of a new world order. The credibility of some great articles is occasionally undermined by a casual racism and homophobia. Blacks were often characterised as violent drug users, whereas homosexuality was carelessly conflated with transvestism and paedophilia. The fact that the editors were still comfortable in 1982 showing Christopher Reeve saying "I play a screaming faggot," when describing his role in Deathtrap, suggests that some attitudes took a little longer to evolve.

But these are really minor quibbles, since the 'Usual Gang of Idiots' set their own bar so high. If you want a comprehensive snapshot of the history of popular culture, politics and society, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more thorough or accurate representation.

Looking back now, the jokes are often stilted and predictable. Likewise, some of the second-tier illustrators had a decidedly amateurish technique. But I'm reviewing them through adult eyes, which is never how Mad was intended to be seen. And that's really the reason it endured as a satire powerhouse for over half a century. Jokes may not be timeless, but quality is.

The consistency of its tone and style allowed subsequent generations to discover Mad for themselves, via their own cultural touchpoints. It didn't matter what decade you were born in, Mad peeled back the veneer to reveal how the world really worked.  It bit its thumb at marketing techniques. It exposed moralising leaders as venal hypocrites. And it happily deconstructed Hollywood's penchant for self-glorification. It introduced me to movies I was too young to see, told me about TV shows long before they were broadcast in the UK, and gave me a crash course in Yiddish slang. I didn't know what 'schmuck' meant, but I was convinced that my school was full of them.

As much a rite of passage as your first drink or adult movie, Mad represents a specific period in time for anyone who ever got lost in its black and white pages. I still marvel at the fact that I reminisce with people twice my age about the same magazine. Our recollections may differ, depending on the era in which we read it, but there's enough commonality for us to connect across the decades. In our minds' eye, the pictures may have changed, but the names remain the same.

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