Saturday, 26 November 2016

Celebrating MAD Magazine's anarchic early covers - and how it rescued its publisher from the American Comic Book Code

First, some background information. When the juvenile American satire magazine, MAD, first appeared in a comic-book format in August 1952, its  covers were initially parodies of the horror/crime comics that were creating a moral panic in the country at that time:
I don't wish to upset readers of a sensitive disposition, but, below the crease, you'll find two examples of the sort of thing...

 ...religious leaders, politicians, teachers, judges and respectable publishers were blaming for rising teenage criminality, drug addiction, alcohol consumption, sexual promiscuity - in short, juvenile delinquency:
Yes, well, the guardians of morality may have had a point (and I speak as someone who once had one of his books banned by a supermarket chain following customers complaints about its admittedly revolting cover). Three of the most offensive titles - The Vault of Horror, Crime Suspense Stories and Tales from the Crypt - were the financial mainstay of EC Comics (which, believe it or not, had started life as Educational Comics). EC launched MAD in the middle of the horror comics brouhaha - and it would turn out to be the publication that would keep the company alive. In 1954, the comic book industry followed the example of Hollywood two decades earlier by forming the Comic Magazine Association of America and swiftly introducing the Comic Code Authority (CCA), which resulted in the industry policing its own content.  
Unfortunately for EC and its publisher, William Gaines, the CCA proscribed the use of the words horror, terror and (in most circumstances) crime in comic book titles, and forbade the depiction of "excessive violence", "lurid, unsavory, gruesome illustrations" and drawings involving vampires, werewolves, ghouls or zombies. No wonder Gaines felt that his rivals were out to get him. EC halted publication of all its comic book titles in the year following the introduction of the Code - but MAD survived because it had been transformed into a magazine (a different beast entirely, you understand), and was therefore no longer subject to the CCA's strictures. Not only did MAD survive, it thrived, proving to be one of the most influential and widely-imitated magazines of its day. It eventually achieved a circulation of over 2,000,000 in the 1970s, but, to be honest, while it still featured many great covers, it had turned into a somewhat staid, formulaic, establishment publication (it happens to all satirical magazines - Private Eye stopped being funny at least 20 years ago).
By the time I started reading MAD in the '60s, it had already passed its creative peak. I only realised this when I got hold of some reprinted paperback compilations - The Mad Reader, The Bedside Mad, Son of Mad, Inside Mad etc. - featuring material from the '50s, when the books had first been published. The paperback format was far too small for the illustrations, the paper quality was pitiful, and the printing was horribly smudgy - but, despite all that, each page was alive with a sort of wild energy: they crackled with invention and wit. Just imagine the spirit of the film Airplane! in book form - only with a more hysterical, savage edge. I hate the word "subversive" - but that's what the early MAD was. By the '60s, it had turned respectable (there were jokes about businessmen playing golf and drinking martinis - oh, stop, my sides are splitting!) and the tone had turned distinctly left-liberal preachy - like Star Trek, only with some intentional laughs. 

Part of the problem was that MAD's initial satirical target had been very specific - American popular culture. The first paperback, The Mad Reader (1954), featured spoofs of Superman (Superduperman! - really very funny); the clean-cut, teen, cartoon-strip character, Archie (transformed into Starchie, a violent, sex-crazed, razor-toting delinquent); the television detective series, Dragnet (DOMM-DA DOM-DOMM!): The Lone Stranger and Pronto; the heroic spaceman Flesh Garden; there's even a visual parody of the 1872 narrative poem, "The Face upon the Barroom Floor". The most intriguing item is the self-serving "Newspapers!" in which it's suggested that if adults insist on protecting children from mind-rotting comics, then perhaps children should insist on protecting adults from mind-rotting newspapers (sample headlines include: "MAN CARVES UP HIS GIRLFRIEND: Son of Skunk Farmer Weds Heiress" and "Googie Divorces Zazie for Boobie"). 

A decade later, the magazine was critiquing society as a whole, rather than concentrating on spoofing popular culture: the lack of a sharp focus led to a distinct loss of mojo,...of oomph: MAD had grown up and become socially responsible - and a bit priggish. 

There's no point in reproducing the artwork from any of those articles here - it'd be too small to read - but the covers just about work. And after the first ten or so issues, those covers became playfully distinctive. Flying in the face of the conventional wisdom that, in order to establish a newsstand magazine, you must develop an instantly recognisable visual style and stick with it, MAD went mad for a while by deliberately changing the look, feel and design of its covers from issue to issue. Here are ten examples from the first 50 issues, starting with a cover designed to look like a classified ads page:
Here's one made to resemble a racing page:
A circus playbill:
A contents page:
A school writing-book (so you can read MAD in class):
Why not scrunch up all the type into one corner?:
...or invite readers to draw the cover illustration?:
You could turn it into a newspaper front page...
...or print the cover, in effect, upside-down...:
...and, no, I have no idea what's going on here:
Ah, it has now turned into a magazine, and Alfred E. Newman has become a regular feature of the covers - here, his face and hair are made up of celebrities (including Jerry Lewis, Elvis Presley, Louis Armstrong, Yul Brynner and - I think - the boxer Floyd Patterson):
Or you could get a monkey to paint the cover illustration:
...and a damn fine job the little chap made of it. If all else fails, just alarm your readers:
Okay, I'm not claiming these covers are all laugh-out-loud hilarious, and it's all a bit postmodern and self-referential - but at the very least, it shows a certain level of wit, style and sheer chutzpah. And, of course, from a commercial point of view, it worked. Brilliantly. 

Having been rather critical of MAD's later iterations, let me make up for it by leaving you with a cover from 1963. (Just think - if I were writing this blog in Cuba, I'd probably wind up with electrodes attached to my gonads.) 
Inevitably, I've created a Pinterest board, The First 50 Mad Magazine Covers. If that's not enough to sate your appetite, I've also created one entitled The Second 50 Mad Magazine Covers. (And I'll fight any man who dares suggest that I'm a sad obsessive who needs to get a life!)


  1. I bought the book version of the Mad Reader hoping it would look good on the shelf and show all and sundry what a cool cigar smoking polar jersey dude resided in this south facing bedroom.
    Plus Books was a veritable treasure chest in those days.

    1. I'm pretty sure that's the very copy I first read! I ended up with about four of them, all falling to pieces, but my second publishing job was with the company that distributed Mad books in Britain - so I replaced them all at zero cost. Still got them.

  2. Excellent stuff, Mr Gronmark! Thank you for filling in the considerable gaps in my knowledge about Mad, which I loved when I was a kid.

    Like all the American comics, it was hard to find where I lived and a chance discovery was cherished. I actually think American comics instilled in me a fondness for America which I still have, today. Undoubtedly they were, as my elders and betters insisted, 'a very bad influence'.

    1. Thanks, GCooper. Your childhood MAD experience pretty much matches mine. What was odd, in many instances, was learning about American popular culture through parodies of it rather than the real thing. When I first visited the USA at the age of 17, what with having seen all the films, the TV series, the DC comics, Raymond Chandler novels, the rock "n" roll music - and MAD - it felt like returning to somewhere terribly familiar rather than visiting a place for the first time. Despite the continuing influence of American popular culture, I doubt if young people nowadays feel similarly affectionate towards the US - if I'm right, that's a pity (but, then, I'm still a deranged Yankophile).