If I was asked to pick the three most influential comic books in the history of American pop culture, I might futz around a bit on what my pick for #2 would be (My #1 pick would definitely be Action Comics #1 just for getting this whole medium rolling after nearly a decade of indifference), but my choice for #3 would, without question, be Mad #1 (Yes, I know the full title was originally Tales Calculated to Drive You Mad) from 1952.It’s not that there weren’t humor/parody magazines before, even in comic book format, but the specific influence Mad Magazine has held on American humor can’t be overstated. There were the imitator magazines like Cracked (Now a website and one of the most frequently visited sites on the internet, although I’m really starting to hate the smug “editorials”) and National Lampoon (Now known more for its movies like Animal House and the Griswold series than the magazine itself), TV shows like Saturday Night Live, the films of Mel Brooks, Mad’s own series Mad TV and even a recent animated version (If you want my opinion though, the best of the Mad-inspired TV shows was Comedy Central’s short-lived Shorties Watchin’ Shorties, which featured animated interpretations of stand-up routines. The routines sucked, but the sight gags were brilliant). The influence that the magazine had on the 60’s and 70’s underground comics can be seen just by looking at the early Kurtzman covers.
Thus, with Mad being America’s number one source for parodies for several decades, one might be a tad surprised to learn that the earliest issues didn’t feature parodies of movies, books, film, etc. The earliest issues instead focused on parodying entire genres. To modern readers used to seeing Mad parody whatever the hot subject of the moment is, this approach may seem odd and unfocused, more slapstick-y than satirical. At the same time, considering that just about every longtime reader has their opinion on when the magazine was at its funniest, maybe that reaction is just a generational thing. One could also argue that these broad, unspecific parodies give these stories a timeless feel, so that whatever generation you were born in you can appreciate them. I talk about horror a lot on this blog, but I also have strong opinions on comedy; and I’m of the opinion that good slapstick (and similar broad forms of comedy) should be able to transcend eras.
And these early Mad stories certainly do hold up simply as broad comedy pieces! While some of the earliest stories and recurring gags aren’t as funny as the writers thought they were (Harvey Kurtzman apparently thought it was the height of hilarity to name just about every character ‘Melvin’, even having a whole issue where the artists sign their names as Melvin, in fact, I’m surprised they didn’t choose that name for Alfred E. Neuman), there are enough sight gags, gross-out scenes and surreal moments that play with the medium to keep one entertained.Certainly the justly celebrated “Mole!” by Bill Elder from the second issue is a masterpiece of slapstick and black comedy, as the titular tunneler keeps finding different ways to tunnel out of prison using everything from a spoon, to his fingernails, to one of his nose hairs:
Elder’s Dragnet parody “Dragged Net!” is also hilarious, not for the overly-broad parody, but just for the sequence of the Friday analogue(s) grilling a suspect and their disgusted reactions toward him as he gorges himself, as well as the ever-changing Borscht sign in the background:
You can totally see how underground-ers like Crumb and Kim Dietch picked up some of their stylistic cues from Elder.
Elder was definitely the most pure comedian of the first “gang of idiots” to work on Mad, but Jack Davis and Wally Wood are also pretty great, and their backgrounds in certain genres like horror and science fiction gave their parodies of such genres an authentic quality. Davis’s monsters in Tales from the Crypt et al always had a goofy-looking quality to them, so his horror spoofs worked perfectly. The story “Hex!” in the second issue is actually a little creepy in some parts, notably the scene with the witch appearing in a silent panel holding up her contract:
Then again, Davis always seemed to enjoy drawing the Crypt Keeper doing silly things in the opening splash pages more than he did the horrific stuff anyway, so it seems natural he'd take to this.
Wood’s background in science fiction also enhances the sci-fi parodies in the first and second issue as well. They may be intended for comedy, but they have more thought put into them than pretty much any issue of Planet Comics or some-such. How many other comics of the time would feature such a scathing indictment of the 50’s way of life?
John Severin tends to get the short-stick when Mad creators are discussed (The introduction in this volume calls him and his artwork “conservative”), and his style does look somewhat restrained in comparison to the others, but I have to say I’ve always liked him. And hey, other people must have found his drawings funny, because he would end up becoming chief artist over at Cracked well into the 80s. His penchant for playing everything completely straight works well for some stories:
As for the writing, it too is gold. Kurtzman could be surprisingly ruthless in his parodies without becoming unpleasant or just mean. While many (including Alan Moore) praise the Superman parody from the fourth issue as his finest hour, what with its satirizing of the Superman/Captain Marvel lawsuit and the stalker-like overtones of Superman’s relationship with Lois Lane, I have to say my favorite story in this volume is the Robin Hood parody from the same issue, illustrated by John Severin. Years before Monty Python’s Dennis Moore sketch and the John Cleese cameo in Time Bandits, Kurtzman and Severin deliver an absolutely savage deconstruction of the Robin Hood mythos, showing just what a frightening, selfish backstabber a person like Robin Hood would probably have been like if he were real.
The Terry and the Pirates spoof is also brilliant, mocking how the once risqué adventure strip had devolved into an incredibly conservative military strip whose “pirates” title was then completely meaningless. Wally Wood plays up all of Caniff’s racial stereotypes and habit of ignoring once-prominent supporting characters for all it’s worth.
I also love this “biography” of William Gaines:
How much do you wanna bet that the anti-comics crusaders of the time read that and actually believed it?
This archive volume also reprints the original letter columns, and it’s interesting to see how much of a critical success Mad was almost immediately, even though I’ve read several sources saying that the comic did miserably up until the fourth issue. A lot of Wertham supporters and Comics Journal-types are fond of saying that the claim that comics were read by all ages back in the 50s is a lie, yet these letters show that an impressive range of people were reading comics, there are letters from everyone from college professors, marines, a flight crew and even artillery men serving in Korea!
There was also quite an amount of criticism too, much of it from soccer mom types. In one letter a woman berates the creators of Mad and says from now on she’ll make sure her kids only read ‘kiddie’ comics like Donald Duck and Little Lulu to keep the comics from subverting their minds. Pretty funny when you consider the adult reverence those comics are now held in, precisely for being so subversive. Interestingly enough, there’s also a positive letter from a college age fan that mentions Lulu, and he refers to it as an “intellectual” comic along with Pogo. Who knew that John Stanley’s cult following went so far back?
There were also trolls:
The Mad Archives Vol. 1 has some of the best work the EC crew ever did, and thus, the publishers seem to have really gone out of their way to make sure the art reproduction is fine. Since DC owns Mad, these archives are of higher quality than pretty much any of their normal superhero archives. And it deserves every bit of the attention lavished upon it. Decades later, these comics still not only have a kick to them, but are still damn funny at times. 5/5.