How Mad Came To Be (8/21/02)
The Birth and Evolution of a National Humor Magazine

Mad turns fifty this summer. Its first issue, in four-color comic book format, is cover-dated October-November 1952, and it probably hit the newsstands 6-8 weeks earlier. Late August, no doubt. Right about this time that summer. Few of us buying that first issue (yes, I was one of those) could have anticipated Mad’s profound effect upon American attitudes.

            As the creator of Mad, Harvey Kurtzman may be the most influential American cartoonist since Walt Disney: Disney’s vision of America as a small town full of good neighbors and obedient children was sharply contradicted by Kurtzman’s satiric portrait of an urban society swarming with grasping politicians and greedy promoters and sexist bosses.  Both versions persist but not simultaneously.  The nation’s youth outgrow Disney as soon as they are old enough to begin reading Mad, which infects them with a certain cynicism about the icons of American culture as well as the functioning of its institutions. (Most of the underground cartoonists of the late 1960s were inspired by Mad.) It is often bruted about that Mad took magazine format because its publisher, William Gaines, knew that a magazine would escape the scrutiny and censorship of the Comics Code Authority. This view, however, short-circuits history and is, therefore, misleading to the point of misrepresentation. In other words, as Kurtzman might say, it is a “lie” (the idiotic irony of which could scarcely be lost on Kurtzman, whose career had been dedicated to perpetrating the truth).

            By mid-1952, Kurtzman had been editing two of Gaines’ EC Comics titles, Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat, for almost two years, and he was spending almost every waking hour researching, writing, and laying out stories for them. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, Gaines and Kurtzman had converted these adventure comics into war comics. Kurtzman’s war titles are often termed “anti-war,” but they aren’t, exactly, against war as much as they were for truth. The war stories in the comic books produced by other publishers championed American servicemen at the expense of the enemy’s humanity, proclaimed unequivocally the justice of the U.N. cause in Korea, and glorified battlefield action by making killing, bloodshed, and death seem patriotic. This, Kurtzman believed, was a lie. And he had set out to erase the lie. It was this crusade that inspired his passion for research. Only the truth can eradicate a lie, and to tell the truth, one needed to study history and news reports in order to unearth fact and to be able to portray facts accurately. The truth deglamorized war. War, in Kurtzman’s comic books, was still often necessary; but it wasn’t pretty anymore, or patriotic. Kurtzman dramatized the loss, the profligate waste of human life that characterized wars everywhere in every time.

            As good as his work was, he was making much less than Gaines’ other editor, Al Feldstein, and Kurtzman complained about it. Gaines paid his editors by the book, and in the two months Kurtzman took to produce an issue each of his bi-monthly titles, Feldstein produced seven issues of his books. Gaines couldn't raise Kurtzman's salary without raising Feldstein's, and he couldn't afford to pay them both more without an accompanying increase in the company's revenues. Still, he wanted to do something.  His solution was to offer Kurtzman a third book to do. Remembering the hilarious cartoons Kurtzman had showed him when he first came looking for work three years before, Gaines suggested that Kurtzman do a humor book. Being funny, Gaines reasoned, would require no research; Kurtzman should be able to knock out an issue in a week. It would be a respite wedged between the throes of research for the war books. And he'd increase his income by fifty percent.  Gaines took the title of the new book from the expression he'd been using on the letters pages of the horror books—EC's Mad Mag. Kurtzman later shortened it to Mad—”a stroke of genius,” Gaines said.

            The first issue hit the stands in late August 1952 (cover-dated October-November). The four stories inside were genre parodies of horror, science fiction, crime, and western comic books. They were good parodies, but one could do only so many parodies of westerns before that subject would be exhausted. Then in the next issue, Kurtzman chanced upon what would become Mad's metier. He did a parody of Tarzan and discovered an axiom: “Satire and parody work best when what you're talking about is accurately targeted,” he decided. “Or, to put it another way, satire and parody work only when you reveal a fundamental flaw or untruth in your subject.” To expose a fallacy, he had to be specific about where the fallacy lay. A parody of westerns didn't have the satiric clout that a parody of High Noon had. In Kurtzman's view, Mad served the same gods as the war books: “Just as there was a treatment of reality in the war books, there was a treatment of reality running through Mad; the satirist/parodist tries not just to entertain his audience but to remind it of what the real world is like.”

            For the next twenty-one issues of Mad, Kurtzman honed the insight he had gained with the Tarzan parody. In each issue, Kurtzman picked one newspaper comic strip or comic book to parody—Little Orphan Annie, Terry and the Pirates, Smilin' Jack, Flash Gordon, Superman, and Blackhawk among others. And his parodies had teeth. In one of the most popular, “Superduperman,” he ridiculed the adolescent dream at the center of the Superman myth: when the mild mannered reporter in Kurtzman's parody reveals his secret identity as the all-powerful Superduperman in order to impress Lois Pain, the object of his desires, she is not impressed.  “Once a creep, always a creep,” she says as she undulates away, leaving Superduperman (not to mention all us adolescent readers) forever crushed. In his Disney characters parody, Kurtzman makes Donald Duck put on trousers, making us aware of the sexless fantasy we'd always accepted without question. And in his treatment of George McManus' Bringing Up Father in Mad No. 17, Kurtzman turns his comedy into a powerful statement about our tolerance of domestic violence. The story alternates a page drawn in imitation of McManus' style with a page drawn realistically. The McManus-style page ends with the usual hailstorm of crockery launched against the long-suffering Jiggs by his domineering wife, Maggie. The realistically rendered page picks up the action at this point, and we see Jiggs bruised and bleeding from Maggie's assault. And the realistic Jiggs complains about his treatment, too, pointing out that there's nothing funny about being hit with flying kitchenware.

            Kurtzman also needled movies, TV shows, advertising practices, literary classics, and the like. He pointed out the exaggeration (and hence, the fundamental dishonesty) in newspaper headlines. He compared the motion picture version of a book to the book (to the detriment of Hollywood). He explored the wasteland of goods in supermarkets. And he and the other cartoonists, led by Will Elder, filled the all the space in every panel with “eyeball kicks”—chochkes, Kurtzman called them, sight gags irrelevant to the main story, tiny people carrying placards proclaiming nonsense, passersby with their own satiric axes to grind. Mad was not an overnight success, but with “Superduperman” in the fourth issue, the comic plunged well into the black—and attracted the attention of other publishers. The newsstands were soon awash in imitations. Even Gaines, in a magnificent gesture that mocked his own industry, produced an imitation—Panic, edited by Feldstein.

            But everything wasn’t coming up roses. Almost at once, it was apparent that Gaines' scheme wasn't working: instead of cranking out the humor comic book in a week, Kurtzman was pouring as much time and energy into Mad as he did his two war titles. And he wasn't increasing his monthly income because he was always falling behind the production schedule for one title or another. By the fall of 1953, he was only nominally editor of Two-Fisted Tales. And other circumstances were shaping events. The Korean War went on permanent hold in July 1953, and interest in war stories flagged; Gaines discontinued Frontline Combat that winter (with No. 15, cover-dated January 1954). Kurtzman maintained his income, though, because Mad became a monthly title with the April 1954 issue.

            Meanwhile, the Fredric Wertham-inspired foes of comic books made their beachhead with the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency in the spring of 1954. By fall, Gaines' distributor would no longer handle his horror titles. Gaines tried to stay in business with a series of new books—the so-called “New Directions” titles—but these were so poorly received that by fall 1955, he had shut down production of all comic books. Except Mad. And Mad, by this time, was no longer a comic book.

            Fired up by the growing success of the title, Kurtzman had been increasingly impatient with the limitations of the comic book format. Some of his features, in fact, were no longer, strictly speaking, comics. In Mad No. 13, he did a photo feature, running sardonic remarks under photographs of cute babies. And he parodied the puzzle and game pages often found in other comic books. The covers of Mad betray Kurtzman's ambitions, too. He did a parody cover of Life and another of Atlantic Monthly. The latter was designed for readers who were ashamed to be seen reading Mad: with the cover camouflage, they could peruse Mad in public—on the subway, say—without fear of being ridiculed. Another cover looked like a racing form; another, like a composition notebook so it could be sneaked into schoolrooms. 

            In the spring of 1955, Kurtzman almost left EC to take a position with Pageant magazine, but Gaines persuaded him to stay by letting him convert Mad to a magazine format. Kurtzman stayed because the new format promised a broader, more flexible platform for satire. It was, Gaines later said, entirely coincidental that the magazine format was introduced just as the Comics Code began to be applied to all comic books.

            “A lot of people think that I changed Mad from a comic to a slick to avoid the Association [that is, the Comics Code],” Gaines said in a 1983 interview with Gary Groth of the Comics Journal. “I think you can see why I changed Mad. It was to keep Kurtzman. It was a piece of luck because Mad could never have gone through the Association [Code]. Panic had a hell of a job going through the Association. We had to emasculate it. Harvey would have gone out of his mind. I don’t think there’s any way he could have worked with those people over there and it would have wrecked the book. But that is not why I did it. It was just a lucky result of what I did.”

            The new Mad appeared with issue No. 24 in July 1955. The interior pages were entirely black-and-white, no color whatsoever—a concession to budgetary limitations that also served to establish the title's new status as a more serious—well, purposeful anyway—publication. Kurtzman took advantage of the magazine format to poke fun at features of popular magazines of the day. A page purporting to be a special report from “our Soviet correspondent” was entirely in Russian. A “Photo Quiz” mocked Look's feature of that name. And a do-it-yourself article parodied Popular Mechanics and other similar magazines. The new Mad had the appearance of a picture magazine: in place of comic strip panels were Craftint-shaded drawings the gray tones of which made them look somewhat like photographs. And the captions underneath were typeset. There was more straight text. Most articles were introduced with a page of prose in the style of Life magazine. Hemingway was parodied in a short story. And Alfred E. Neuman made his first appearance as a cover mascot. The new Mad was destined to be as popular as the old comic book Mad.  Kurtzman set it on the course it would maintain for the rest of Gaines' life.

            But Gaines’ ploy to keep Kurtzman didn’t work for long. Kurtzman left EC a few months after the magazine was launched. His last issue of Mad was No. 28. He wanted complete control of the publication, and Gaines had not been willing to give it to him. Kurtzman wanted to improve the quality of the product—pay artists more, add color features, and so on. Gaines couldn't afford it. Al Feldstein took the editorial reins and held them for nearly thirty years. Kurtzman went on to other things—most of them, attempts to repeat his success with Mad. Each of these attempts was brilliant in its own way; all were innovative.  None were financially viable. Playboy's Hugh Hefner sponsored Trump, a truly luxurious magazine of satire and parody; it lasted two glorious issues in early 1957 before Hef's money ran out. Kurtzman did a smaller, infinitely cheaper magazine called Humbug, which lasted eleven issues (until August 1958). Then came Help!—26 issues over five years, ending September 1965. Meanwhile, in 1962, with his old classmate Will Elder at his elbow, he settled in at Playboy to produce the most lavish color comic strip of all time, Little Annie Fanny, a satire of hip society and sexual mores. It, like almost all of Kurtzman's endeavors, was a masterpiece. For years, he taught cartoon storytelling at the School of Visual Arts, but his greatest teaching achievement was establishing Mad. And  Kurtzman will be more remembered for Mad than for any of his other work.

            The manic often adolescent irreverence that Kurtzman fostered in the pages of the first two dozen issues of Mad determined the attitude and direction of the magazine for the next three decades. And Mad was not the only beneficiary of Kurtzman's inspiration. Writing in The New Yorker at the time of Kurtzman's death, Adam Gopnik counted the blessings:

            “Kurtzman's Mad was the first comic enterprise that got its effects almost entirely from parodying other kinds of popular entertainment. Like Lenny Bruce, whom he influenced, Kurtzman saw that the conventions of pop culture ran so deep in the imagination of his audience—and already stood at so great a remove from real experience—that you could create a new kind of satire just by inventorying them. To say that this became an influential manner in American comedy is to understate the case. Almost all American satire today follows a formula that Harvey Kurtzman thought up.”

            Through all the years of Mad, Kurtzman's influence on the American public was incalculable.  For generation after generation, the young, at a particular age, read Mad. Reading Mad breeds a certain cynicism about the icons of American popular culture as well as the functioning of its institutions. Who can say but what the Vietnam War protest among American youth was not in some way inspired by the satire in Mad (if not, even more indirectly, by the realism in Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat)? In the closing years of the twentieth century, it would be difficult to imagine an American under the age of fifty-five who does not look at the world a little askance, thanks in large measure to Harvey Kurtzman and his Mad legacy.

Footnote: A much more detailed version of the foregoing is presented in a book of mine called The Art of the Comic Book. The self-same tome traces the development of this artform by reviewing in painful detail the achievements that shaped the medium—the pace-setting work of such giants as Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, Gil Kane, Frank Miller, Robert Crumb, and, as I said, Kurtzman, among others. For a more exhaustive preview of the book, click here.

Book Sale. Three of Crockett Johnson’s small (5x6") books rehearsing the further adventures of Harold with his purple crayon: Harold’s Fairy Tale, Harold’s Circus, and Harold’s Trip to the Sky. New, these are $5 each; I’m selling them for $3 each, plus $1 postage (media rate) and handling; OR, $6 for all three, plus the self-same $1 p&h (that’s $7, total). And here’s King Pin (144 8.5x8.5" pages, Dutton paperback), a First Edition of Bill Griffith’s immortal classic, Zippy the Pinhead, from the first year of its syndication by King Features, 1986-87; just $5 plus $1 p&h. For Li’l Abner fans, here’s an excellent reading copy of the March 31, 1952 edition of Life which features Abner’s wedding on the cover (Abner in his shorts and Daisy Mae in her veil with Marryin’ Sam a-marryin’’ them), just $10, plus $1 p&h. (This issue also includes a report on the awarding of the Oscars—among them, Best Actress of Vivian Leigh for Streetcar Named Desire and Best Actor to Humphrey Bogart for African Queen, which he accepted, it is reported, with a “deadpan smile”; excuse me, but if he was smiling, he wasn’t deadpan.) And for students of The New Yorker and the Algonquin Round Table, a copy of James R. Gaines’ Wit’s End (264 7.5x10" pages, paperback), a profusely illustrated history of that social and literary phenomenon of the Roaring Twenties, including short biographies of all the principals: $10, plus $2 p&h. Finally, here’s a well-thumbed copy of Ron Goulart’s masterful Over 50 Years of American Comic Books, my personal copy (but unmarred), which has now been slightly out-dated by the current revision (entitled Great American Comic Books). The revised edition adds the history of the last decade (the 1990s) but otherwise changes nothing in the first edition, so this copy I’m selling is still a valuable reference work—320 giant 10x13" pages, copious illustrated in color throughout. Merely $15, plus $5 p&h (it’s a heavy tome, tovarich).

            To buy one of these treasures, simply e-mail me your choice, and I’ll respond with instructions about where to mail your check. Thereafter, I’ll hold the book(s) you ordered for two weeks, awaiting arrival of your check.

            Stay ’tooned.

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