Mad magazine, an appreciation

Cover to an issue of Mad magazine containing a parody of Moonraker, with Mad mascot Alfred E. Neuman in place of Roger Moore.

One thing about Mad magazine — it never was never pretentious.

Long-time publisher William M. Gaines (1922-1992) appeared more than once in its pages as the butt of a joke.

The premise of one 1960s Mad feature was to ask if 007 had a license to kill, what licenses did other 00-agents have? Agent 000 was Gaines himself. He had a license to steal because he published “trash” such as Mad magazine.

In 1962, artist Wally Wood drew Gaines with a little girl on his lap. “Daddy is a crook, child!” Gaines says in the word balloon accompanying the illustration. “He publishes MAD magazine.”

And, of course, the masthead listed Mad’s contributing writers and artists as “the usual gang of idiots.”

The news emerged this week that Mad will soon end publishing new material. It will only publish reprints after that at until subscription commitments are met.

Many expressed sadness and regret. One, who had been the target of Mad parodies himself, took to social media.

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Mad began in 1952 as a comic book. It was part of Gaines’ EC Comics, which also published horror and crime titles.

Mad’s founding editor was Harvey Kurtzman, who wrote all of the first issue, according to the forward of Mad About the Sixties, a 1995 collection of Mad features from that decade.

“Comic books, comic strips, movies, television shows, literature and various aspects of modern living became grist for the MAD mill,” Grant Geissman, who had written books about Mad and EC, wrote in the forward.

With issue 24 in 1955, Mad became a 25-cent magazine. By 1956, Mad was all that was left of EC. The horror and crime titles were canceled because of criticism that comic books caused juvenile delinquency.

Part of a Mad parody of For Your Eyes Only, drawn by Mort Drucker

Kurtzman departed in 1956, hired away by Playboy. Yet, Mad continued on, selling 1 million copies an issue by 1958 and more than 2 million in the early 1970s.

In the 1960s, Gaines sold Mad but cut a deal where he’d run with it without interference. That kind of agreement is hard to maintain over time.

“The ‘hands off’ part of the agreement slowly but surely went away,” Tom Richmond, a Mad artist, wrote in a detailed blog post on July 4. “Once Bill died, the slow but unstoppable taking over by the suits began.”

By the time of Gaines’ passing, circulation had slipped to 800,000. Still, the publisher’s passing was noted in an editorial in The New York Times:

Mr. Gaines’s improbable world, the spiritual antecedent of shows like ‘Saturday Night Live,’ now seems almost tame. Indeed, there are moments when it seems almost real. Ross Perot for President?

Indeed, almost one-fifth through the 21st century, there are plenty of outlets and television shows that parody and comment upon modern life. Mad’s circulation is a fraction of its peak. Meanwhile, the world has only gotten crazier since Gaines died in 1992.

On social media this week, I saw some express surprise that Mad still is publishing. Another common sentiment was a variation of, “I haven’t read it in years but I’ll miss it.”

Nothing last forever. Yet a legacy remains, including art by Wood, Mort Drucker, Don Martin and more recent cartoonists such as Richmond.

Dick DeBartolo, who has been writing for Mad for decades, continued coming up with gags on Twitter as the news circulated. He maintained Mad’s tradition of not taking itself too seriously.

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