After our first year of struggle with the pandemic, more people are lost every day. Any death announcements or obituaries I come across, I compulsively check to see if it’s Covid-related. Every lost life deserves to be mourned by those who knew and loved them. But in the shadow of a universal situation, some passings barely get the notice they would have during normal times.
One example is famed illustrator Mort Drucker. He passed away a year ago on April 9th, 2020, at his home in Woodbury, N.Y., at the age of 91. That name may be unfamiliar to some, as he had been out of the spotlight for some time. But his work at Mad Magazine was legendary.
Mad Magazine ceased regular publication in August 2019 after 67 years. It was the end of an iconic institution that was inconceivable during its’ heights. The golden years of Mad were from the mid-1960’s to the end of the 1970’s. That’s when it became a cultural touchstone. With a tone of satire and irreverence towards authority, readers who consumed it in their formative years might have graduated to the more adult risqué humour of National Lampoon. There were other humour magazines, but even a younger reader like myself knew Mad was the superior product. I always gravitated to their latest issue first. An indelible childhood memory of mine was going with my mom to “help” with grocery shopping at the local Safeway. I’d park myself at the magazine section and read for hours.
Between that “library” and back issues/specials/paperback collections diligently hunted down in used bookstores or stumbled upon in other people’s basements, I came to recognize the signature styles of regular contributors. Antonio Prohias’ Spy vs. Spy. Dave Berg’s The Lighter Side of. Al Jaffee’s Mad fold-ins. Don Martin’s wacky characters and sound effects. Sergio Aragones’ marginal marginals, just to name an excellent few. Which takes us back to Mr. Mort Drucker.
His “station” in a typical issue was fittingly as the lead-off. He took art chores on a multi-page parody of a popular film of the day. The look is unmistakeable: slight caricature versions of actors you know and love. A few exaggerated traits, but never anything over-the-top or offensive. I can still see Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss from their send-up of Jaws in my mind’s eye. The drawings didn’t just have a passing resemblance to a couple of guys from the boat. They looked like people from a show we actually saw and they did and said silly things.
The quality of this work became very. well-known. Studios that originally balked at being made fun of, eventually saw it as a badge of honour (and marketing coup). They’d send headshots and stills to Mad for Drucker and other artists to study and work from. Thus ensuring it was accurate and ready to coincide with a flick’s public release in theatres.
There are others out there who are more capable and I hope will give Mort Drucker the full bio treatment. I can only really speak to his Mad work and what that meant to me. For better or worse, it proudly formed part of the foundation of my sense of humour and world perspective. I’m glad to say that in an age where “don’t meet your heroes” is fair warning, in reading tributes to the man, it’s clear that Mort Drucker was an all-around nice guy. Well-liked by his peers, he also acted as a mentor to younger artists. In an era where a lot of anecdotes from entertainment expose someone as a behind-the-scenes diva or all-out jerk, it’s refreshing to hear such positive stories about Mort.
Only a few luminaries of that second gen Mad are still with us. Kudos to Al Jaffee, who turned a spry 100 (!) on March 13th. Angelo Torres (whose usual duty paralleled Drucker’s with a similar-styled television parody at the back of those same issues) I’m lookin’ at you, my friend.
If I was able to meet Mort Drucker and thank him for his work, I’d be one fan in a crowd of thousands. Wherever he’s moved on to, I hope he knows how much pure joy he brought to us wise-asses in training. We miss him.
If you’re gonna geek out, GEEK HARD!