What, Me Worry? Not Anymore.
So after all these years MAD magazine is closing down (except for a few back-catalogue-trawling specials). Of course it was never very funny, just beautifully put together in its earliest days, with an amazing roster of artists from the greatest-ever caricaturist Mort Drucker to Frank Kelly Freas (above) and Don Martin.
As the dominant English-speaking country in the world at the time, the USA had a big influence on me as a kid (and I imagine most writers of my age). America seemed to fit adolescent aspirations. It was everything we were not – big, brash, loud and exciting. It was one of the first American magazines I could get my hands on with any regularity and its obsessions (Madison Avenue, cars, movies) became mine.
Mad magazine was founded in 1952 as a comic book, the first issue written almost entirely by its editor Harvey Kurtzman. It became a magazine in 1955 and soon began building up influence and readership with its satire and silly parodies. Its readership peaked at more than 2 million in 1974.
I especially found Don Martin’s grotesque characters delightful (they don’t seem so bizarre now – why is that?), hated Dave Berg’s suburban family cartoons, loved the Drucker movie parodies. A lot of it was entry-level stuff, but having discovered this at the right time, it was exactly what I needed. I now look back at certain artists like Bill Elder and John and Marie Severin with awe and affection, and realise I tried to draw like Elder for years after.
Mad was aimed at kids, but could you imagine a kids’ magazine putting someone like Fidel Castro on a cover nowadays? What happened to make even Mad magazine look sophisticated now? It was not the first magazine to pull apart the media and lifestyles to see what made them tick – that was done by Harvey Kurtzman’s earlier ‘Help!’ magazine, with the aid of a young Terry Gilliam (I still own some copies) and it was not the last. Inferior versions like ‘Cracked’ tried to capture the Mad audience. But Mad was the best.
Loud but never crude, it was a great way to get an overview of US culture, its key years of influence 7 – 12 years old. The world moved on around it to darker fare, and gentle observational ribbing was no longer enough to sell a magazine. National Lampoon combined political outrage with cartoons (see the shocker below), Spy Magazine crossed Enquire with Mad’s sensibilities. But all who came after respected MAD as the starting point of their own journeys. RIP Alfred E Neuman.