It’s a Mad world no more

BY RANDALL RIGSBEE, News + Record Staff
Posted 7/12/19

I haven’t read Mad Magazine since the ‘70s, a time when well-worn copies of the subversive humor periodical freely floated about our household, passed among me and my two older siblings.

I …

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It’s a Mad world no more

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I haven’t read Mad Magazine since the ‘70s, a time when well-worn copies of the subversive humor periodical freely floated about our household, passed among me and my two older siblings.

I sensed our parents didn’t care for it much, but all three of us were huge fans, digging Mad’s movie parodies (“Botch Casually and the Somedunce Kid,” “The Towering Sterno” or “One Cuckoo Flew Over the Rest,” a title my brother insisted was better than the actual movie’s), the back-and-forth one-upmanship of “Spy vs. Spy” and, my favorite, cartoonist Al Jafee’s “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions,” which may have been my introduction to sarcasm. I remember this example: an attractive woman asks a man if he thinks she’s good-looking, to which he replies “What did you say, fella?”

Of all the artists and writers on Mad’s staff — and there were many greats including Mort Drucker, Jack Davis, Sergio Aragones and Don Martin, identified in each issue as “the usual gang of idiots” — Jaffee’s work stood out to me.

I think about one of Jaffee’s cartoons, in particular, nearly every July 4th. In the cartoon, within six wordless panels, Jaffee tells the story of a young boy who, with only one coin to spend, enters a fireworks store, where he encounters a dismissive clerk who sells him the only item his limited funds can afford: a single firecracker. Authority figures like the balding fireworks store clerk were always in for a tough time within the youth-oriented, anti-establishment pages of Mad, and this clerk was no exception. Exiting the store disappointed, the boy has one of those lightbulb idea moments people in cartoons have before, in the final two panels, he lights the firecracker with a match and tosses it into the store, resulting in the entire stock of fireworks igniting. In this cartoon embodiment of the phrase “more bang for your buck,” the kid enjoys the resulting fireworks show from his comfortable seat on the sidewalk. The fate of the clerk is left to our imagination.

No wonder our parents didn’t care for Mad magazine.

And no wonder we did. They had sober and serious fare such as Time and Newsweek; we had Mad. As Mad’s gap-toothed and grinning happy-go-lucky mascot, Alfred E. Neuman, always said, “What, me worry?”

I say I hadn’t read Mad since the 70s, and that’s true. But I was aware, though I’d more or less outgrown its appeal and long-ago mastered the art of sarcasm with no further need of Al Jaffee’s trusted tutelage, that the magazine soldiered on for new generations.

In the grocery store, I’d see its cover — usually sporting Alfred E. Neuman, in one guise or another — on the magazine rack. Over the years, I’d even picked it up a few times and skimmed its contents, which still looked very much like the magazine I fondly remember. It even continued to feature the work of, literally, “the usual gang of idiots,” with Drucker and Jaffee and a few others from back in the day — doubtless very old men by now — continuing to contribute.

Somehow, that was comforting.

Ironically, it was over the Fourth of July holiday that I caught word of Mad’s demise. After 67 years of sarcasm, satire and subversiveness, Mad is closing shop with a whimper, not a bang; between the covers of future issues, it will publish mostly material recycled from earlier issues, with little new content to be produced.

As depressing as it is to contemplate a world without Alfred E. Neuman’s boundless optimism, it’s no surprise publisher DC Comics is making changes. As everyone knows, a lot of print media — even good, old-fashioned books — have suffered in the digital age. That Mad would somehow avoid the trend could only be wishful thinking.

Are there deeper messages to be derived from the demise of Mad? No doubt. In an opinion piece in The Washington Post, columnist David Von Drehle argues that Mad’s publishing troubles are a sign of our society’s troubled times with the adult establishment now “extinct.”

“To be subversive,” writes Von Drehle, “requires a dominant culture to subvert.” Likening the magazine, in its irreverent heyday, to a kid in the back of a classroom tossing spitballs, the columnist maintains that today, unlike then, “everyone’s a spitballer.”

Maybe. Or it could just be that even spitballers grow old.


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