Opus 54:

Mad Distress. And then we have the latest in the new nasty Mad: No. 403, in which the management begins to accept advertising. Bill Gaines never would. He thought the magazine would be freer to ridicule popular culture in all its ramifications (which includes, often, the gimmicks of Madison Avenue not to mention the products that Madison Avenue flogs) if it weren’t at all beholden to advertisers. If you don’t have advertisers, you don’t have to worry about possibly offending them with the latest lampoon.

Besides, Gaines considered it part of his sacred mission to undermine the increasing influence of advertising. As he rather famously said, "We’re trying to teach them, ‘Don’t believe in ads.’"

Well, those days are now gone. The new corporate objective is to make money not to ridicule popular culture. So, judging from the content of this issue, we won’t find Warner Brothers being made fun of—or PlayStation 2, or Finger Eleven, or—. No matter. You get the message. The satirists have sold out. Just like the politicians. Big bucks runs it all now, every aspect of American life, from television news to the White House and Congress. So what do you expect in a capitalist economy? Oh—and some of the interior stories herein are in full color, another editorial innovation. Probably needed the advertising revenue to pay for the color.

Or to pay the cost of producing the magazine itself. Which wouldn’t be so high if it didn’t have interior color. But then, would teenagers read a magazine without interior color? Ahh, the predicament.

Fact is, Mad’s glory days are now in the quite distant past. Over the past three decades, it has suffered a precipitous drop in circulation according to Alex Beam, writing in the Boston Globe (February 20, 2001). >From its all-time high of 2.3 million in the early 1970s, its sales have declined to 250,000 today. It had dropped to 500,000 by 1997, which prompted the corporate geniuses at Time-Warner to decree a complete make-over to appeal to the current crop of American Youth. This resulted in the "nasty" Mad I referred to above. Gross-out humor. Sex, violence, sacrilige, excrement--all are now not only legitimate subjects for comedy but make a nearly constant din in Mad.

And that only shows how wrong-headed the corporate geniuses are. Since the make-over, Mad’s circulation has dropped steadily from 500,000 to 250,000. So much for corporate mentality’s ability to penetrate the tastes of American Youth.

Jack Davis, the last of the original Mad men still producing for the magazine, left after the re-do. "The magazine seemed to be going in an opposite direction from the old Mads," he said. "I don’t want my grandchildren to read it."

And I must say--much as I can appreciate and enjoy the utterly unfettered comedy perpetrated by, say, Bill Wray, a genius at outrageousness--I am hesitant about whether a mass circulation magazine can build a readership with such free-wheeling hilarity. Sad to say, perhaps, but probably true. Following this trend, Mad may well become another niche magazine.

The new editorial taste--or strategic lack thereof--is not, however, the real reason for the magazine’s decline in circulation. No, I suspect other social and technological factors are the actual culprits. Magazine distribution mechanisms, notes Beam, have "consolidated dramatically" in recent years, and since Mad relies heavily upon newsstand sales, it has suffered. Perhaps. But I see the magazine on every newsstand I visit in town, so distribution problems can’t be hurting all that much.

But there’s no denying that the adolescent audience to which Mad is aimed has changed drastically in the last decade or so. Television has been making an inroad into teenagers’ spare time for years; and with the Internet and video games now impinging upon that available time, too, there’s not much left for reading. Comic book circulation generally--not just Mad’s--has suffered in consequence.

Mad’s decline in circulation may have nothing to do with its new nastiness and everything to do with the marketplace environment in which it now finds itself. In fact, who is to say that without the make-over Mad might have slipped even further? The new mode in tastelessness may offend and alienate old Mad readers, but it may have attracted new readers from the current juvenile population, stemming the steady decline in numbers. For the sweet sake of gratifying our editorial ego, we may hope that the slippage was exacerbated by the corporate so-called "thinking" that resulted in the new nastiness, but that’s just the snottiness of poetic justice talking. In any case, the advent of advertising is another clear case of corporate think. If you can’t make money selling the magazine, make money selling advertising in the magazine. (Which you can do only as long as the circulation of the magazine is high enough to justify the ad rates. Another circular argument. But it reveals just how last-ditch this maneuver is. They’re willing to try anything.)

While Gaines may even have approved the gross-out make-over, it’s certain that he would not have permitted selling advertising. His assessment of the potential for censorship in pursuing that avenue was undoubtedly correct.

DC’s Paul Levitz, an executive vice president for the corporate owner of Mad, pointed out to an irate Mad reader that for the past 30 years Mad has been owned by a conglomerate that sells huge quantities of advertising space and that no one (as far as he knows) has ever asked any of Mad’s editors to soften or dispense with pieces ridiculing advertisers or potential advertisers. And at another publication owned by DC’s owner, Time magazine, the boundary between editorial and advertising has always been respected, neither influencing the other.

True, perhaps. But the danger lies not so much in the overt pressure that advertisers might bring to bear as it does in the minds of editors who may imagine that what they are about to do might offend someone. At ABC TV, for instance, World News passed on a story about a cruise ship line because management felt the network’s owner, Disney, which operates a rival cruise line, might resent the publicity given to its competitor. Such phantoms of the imagination have influence. They always have and they doubtless always will. And now they’ll begin to haunt the halls of Mad, too, and the ghost of Bill Gaines will be turning slowly in his grave, without an influential bone left in his body.

We have only a couple years to go before we can celebrate Mad’s golden anniversary. Let’s hope the magazine makes it.

For a somewhat complete history of Mad, consult The Art of the Comic Book by yrs trly; and for more about that worthy tome, click here.

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