I don’t know what today’s Mad magazine means to its’ readers, but kudos to anyone who finds a way to keep existing in an era where print numbers keep declining with more venerable titles and newspapers shutting down every day. I barely recognize it in a full-colour format. The only thing the same is the character of Alfred E. Neuman as their mascot and cover gag subject. The writers and artists I knew and loved are retired, barely contributing or no longer with us.
The Mad I read in the early 80’s (along with a ton of paperbacks and treasuries collecting their best stuff from the 60’s and 70’s) was my first taste of “adult” humour; until I graduated to National Lampoon, which deserves its’ own tribute column somewhere in the future. I would read it in the grocery store’s magazine section while my mom shopped, with nobody around to tell me I might be a little too young for it. Cracked was its’ chief competitor and sat beside it on the shelves but somehow even then, the younger me knew Mad put out a superior product. I can recall laughing my ass off and developing an appreciative taste for satire, spoof, sarcasm and dark humour. Names like Dave Berg, Don Martin, Sergio Aragones, Al Jaffee, Mort Drucker and Angelo Torres were their “go-to” creators of my era, brilliantly poking fun at all the movies, t.v. shows, ads, music, celebrities and general pop culture of the day. This probably explains why I sound like an old man rambling on the porch. It’s a generational thing. I’m sure Mad continues to do the same thing today with a stable of creators I don’t know, sharing inside jokes with their devoted followers that I’m not privy to.
One thing Mad has always gotten right where other publishers have dropped the ball is celebrating its’ storied history and acknowledging the innovative, some might even say legendary, work of those who came before. The latest example is a nice collection for anyone looking for a sampler, an introduction or to revisit early Mad. The “Original Idiots” series is a three volume collection of work from Mad done by Jack Davis, Will Elder and Wally Wood, affordably available as separate soft-cover volumes or in a boxed set. Before it switched to magazine format, Mad was a comic book for its first 23 issues and each volume collects the entire body of work that each artist did for them over that time period.
Jack Davis is probably the best known of the three, in a “now you can put a name to the face” kind of way. Even if you didn’t read Mad, you would have seen his art for a lot of print ads (not surprisingly, a lot of which ran in comic books) and movie posters (coincidentally, a classic example being for 1963’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World). A castaway of the EC horror comic boom of the early 50’s, Jack was invited to contribute to Mad by writer/collaborator Harvey Kurtzman and found a home for the western, sports and military subject matter he had a passion for drawing when demand for it in “regular” comics was low.
A signature Davis character walked the fine line of appearing anatomically correct and resembling who they were supposed to if based on somebody from real life; yet on a dime becoming physically hyper-animated and looking almost triple-jointed with wide-eyed, wacked-out facial expressions to match. Check out both installments of his parodies of the Lone Ranger, the Lone Stranger, and you’ll see what I mean. Note: as I put that last thought to paper, it occurred to me some folks might look at that material and say it hasn’t aged well, deeming it not p.c. Keep in mind that these parodies were derived from source material of the time that already included these arguably inherent flaws.
I have to admit I was the least familiar with Will Elder out of the three. That is until going through his volume, I realized a lot of the Mad reprint stories I enjoyed the most, stashed in the recesses of my mind, had been illustrated by him. Peeking at his bio, it’s a good thing that as a multi-talented young artist he ignored art school teachers who tried to discourage his fascination and focus on science fiction and comic strips.
Everybody remembers having cherished books or comics they pored over multiple times because of multiple details that seemed to be jam-packed into every panel or illustration. Look just once and you might miss something, but multiple viewings were a reward unto themselves that seemed to show something new each time. For humour comics, Will Elder was a master of this technique and is sure to be listed as an inspiration by any artists who have seen and done it since. His editors dubbed it “chicken fat”, an old-world analogy to stretching your ingredients and getting the most out of them; and it’s a certainty his fans from any era had no complaints about getting so much bang for their buck.
Some Elder stories I’d recommend taking a look at include Mole (a stand-alone from issue #2), Woman Wonder! (a parody of guess who?) and Starchie (duh). Like in the last paragraph, I need to stick a disclaimer in here: yes, you’ll see some violence and misogyny, but that’s not what I find funny in these pieces, neither then or now, and safe to say, ever. It’s the audacity of the concept that such well-recognized, even beloved characters could act so inappropriately and rub shoulders with elements so foreign to their (especially at the time) saccharine universes. Ahh, comedy…start debating.
Wally Wood would be the name best known to comics fans. Known as an artist’s artist, Wood has always been an unabashed favourite of mine. A master of lighting and shadow with a clean line and an eye for realism, along with an accomplished sense of layout and composition, Wood’s time at Mad (contributing to their first 86 issues in fact) is just one highlight from a storied career with many.
Another EC cross-over, Wood’s most notable work there had been for Weird Science and Weird Fantasy, with an uncanny knack for making alien landscapes seem simultaneously exotic while feeling eerily familiar. Post-Mad, Wood’s work as primary artist on the first year of Daredevil at Marvel shaped the character into the form that is still best known by readers today-Wood took DD out of his black & yellow wrestling tights uniform and put him in the signature red outfit. An attempt to exercise creativity without submitting control to editorial power at either of “the big two” led to the development of the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents for Tower comics in the late 60’s, which still has a cult-classic following to this day.
One can only wonder if more chapters would have been added to his legacy if Wood didn’t succumb to physical and mental health issues and take his own life in 1981. Keeping the spotlight here on his work for Mad, I’d suggest getting your hands on his Superduperman!, Bat Boy and Rubin!, and Flesh Garden! parodies (yep, yep and yep) to see what all the accolades are about for yourself.
Mad’s “Original Idiots” series is a great trip down memory lane for fans, a user-friendly compendium for comics scholars, and an easy, possibly addictive, intro for new readers. Hopefully, response to this has been positive enough both critically and commercially to convince Mad Books to continue this series and add more volumes paying homage to so many more of the great talents that have graced its’ pages. Check it out and have a laugh. Anything that can hold up a mirror to the world you live in and coerce you into having a little fun mocking it is worth your time and good for the soul.
If you’re gonna geek out, GEEK HARD!