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Friday, July 05, 2019

MAD-ness takes its toll (or: No E.C. way to go...)

"What, me worry?"  Oh dear Mr. Neuman, if only the rest of us shared your eternal optimism.  What began nigh near seventy years ago as a mere horror comic by E.C. Comics paterfamilias Bill Gaines became the true benchmark of modern education in these United States.  Because MAD Magazine taught me lessons no school or philosopher or theologian would ever broach: stop trusting the media and the politicians and the advertising.  Take them seriously by not taking them seriously.  Have the spine to stand up and laugh at the insanities and inanities of modern culture.

Yes, there were others who preached the same in one form or another.  But nowhere as chronically effective and engrossing as did "the usual gang of idiots".  From the moment my best friend Chad let me read one of his MAD Super Special issues when we were nine years old, I was hopelessly reeled in.  Couldn't stop reading MAD.  Couldn't stop laughing at MAD.  And before I knew it, I couldn't stop living in the world according to MAD.

To parody the intro song from The Sopranos: "I was born under a MAD sign."

MAD Magazine was my childhood's symbol of rebellion against the established order.  It was for a lot of us.  Somehow we got away with reading MAD during recess at Community Baptist School: what became a wacko institution trying to teach us to hate Russians, that all Catholics were going to Hell and that even drawing a picture of a witch was tantalizing the forces of darkness.  Perhaps MAD gave me a mental bulwark against the real madness.  Perhaps it was the antidote against the spiritual poisonings of that place and too many other abusers of God's name.  Who knows: I may not have become a Christian at all were it not for MAD.  But that's a stark tangent from the gist of this post...

Sixty-seven years is a good run no matter what.  Still, a little part of me died upon hearing that MAD announced earlier this week that it was shuttering its publication.  Strangely, I'm surprised that MAD Magazine lasted as long as it did.  Its persistence in an online age of instant humor and automatic parody was no mean task.

But it was dawning on me three years ago that MAD's days were numbered and that the death by a thousand cuts were now self-inflicted.  When the magazine became hellbent on making every issue's cover mocking Donald Trump... well, that was symptomatic of a deep rot working within the heart of creative and editorial staff.  It was with rare frequency in the old days of MAD for any President of the United States to be referenced on the cover.  That it happened to Trump for at least a year or two says less about the man himself than it does about how far MAD had drifted from its mission to skewer everybody with equal malice and mirth.

Some of us however, and I am one of them, will contend that the omens turned ill around 2000 or so, when MAD announced it would do two things that founder Bill Gaines had decreed would never happen: it moved from black-and-white to all-color, and it began running advertisements.  Not the in-magazine parody ads, mind you (many of which were written by the inimitable Dick DeBartolo) but ads for real-world merchandise.  That's when I realized that MAD was decaying from a once-unassailable institution into a mere product or brand name.  Something that Gaines fought tooth and nail against - and succeeded - when MAD came under the Warner Communications umbrella more than forty years ago.

Maybe though, the decline goes back to 1992, and the passing of William Maxwell Gaines himself.  For a man who was the very founder of MAD, he exercised only nominal duties in his role as editor and publisher.  Most of the time he signed off on articles and artwork just before deadline.  And that's just how he rolled.  The rest of his working hours were devoted to maintaining the MAD-cap hilarity of its environment.  As he once put it, the contributors provided the magazine's material while he "created the atmosphere".  And no one else could do it as Bill Gaines.  Whether taking on Congress about "inappropriate" comic books or standing up for his creative crew in the face of corporate ownership, Gaines was incorruptible and seemingly indefatigable.  And he would no doubt laugh at the accusation of "incorruptible".

Certainly, Bill Gaines was MAD Magazine, and MAD was Bill Gaines.

He's been gone for twenty-seven years now.  And too many others of "the usual gang" have left us also.  Each taking with them a unique perspective on how off-kilter wonky our culture really is.  Anthony Prohias, creator of "Spy vs. Spy", fled from Castro's revolution in Cuba and arrived at the MAD office speaking only a smattering of English.  He passed away several years ago.  Don Martin's signature cartooning style now belongs to the ages.  And what I have missed most about MAD Magazine is the absence of "The Lighter Side Of..." written and drawn by Dave Berg.  Panel for panel, Berg's depictions of the minutea of everyday life evoked more uproarious laughter than the rest of the magazine often did combined!  Here is but one sample of the Berg's-eye view of things, from issue #241 in September of 1983:

There will be two more issues of MAD Magazine with original content hitting the stands.  After that there will supposedly be special collections of previous material, but I'm not counting on seeing a reprint of "Forty-Three Man Squamish" anytime soon (or the rules for "Three-Cornered Pitney", also written by Tom Koch).  Perhaps there will be some dipping back into the well of yesteryear however, and those curating the collection issues will be impressed with a time when we really could laugh at ourselves, without fear or reprisal.  If so, MAD Magazine will have become something more powerful in death than it ever had in life.

But even if that never happens, MAD has cast a penumbra upon our landscape, one that will not soon be ignored.  I see MAD's spirit at work in so much graphic art and memes and crude parodies on Twitter and Facebook.  Black Spy and White Spy will forever be trying to outsmart each other, it seems.  And even Alfred E. Neuman, the gap-toothed mascot of MAD Magazine for almost its entire run, has found his way into the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election.

Clearly, in some fashion or another, we have all gone MAD.