PRINT May 2012


Mad magazine’s early imitators

From left: Cover of Eh! #4 (June 1954). Artist unknown. Cover of Madhouse #4 (September/October 1954). Iger Studio. Cover of Whack #3 (May 1954). Norman Maurer.

The Sincerest Form of Parody, edited by John Benson. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2012. 208 pages. $25.

WRITING A FEW YEARS BEFORE the advent of the counterculture, Marshall McLuhan recognized Mad magazine as a primer in dissidence: “The ten-year-old clutches his or her MAD (‘Build up your Ego with MAD’) in the same way that the Russian beatnik treasures an old [Elvis] Presley tape obtained from a G.I. broadcast.” However prescient, McLuhan was looking in the rearview mirror: The comic book that twenty-seven-year-old Harvey Kurtzman created and thirty-year-old William Gaines began publishing in the late summer of 1952 had already served to educate a generation of Beatniks.

First-generation underground cartoonists (R. Crumb, Jay Lynch, Kim Deitch, Bill Griffith, Art Spiegelman, Justin Green, et al.) are universal in identifying Mad as their key inspiration. Indeed, it could be argued that, despite an initial print run of 350,000 copies, Mad was the original underground comic. It made its debut at the moment of maximum comic book saturation, with an astounding 643 titles variously devoted to superheroes, funny animals, true romance, western stories, jungle adventure, war, crime, science fiction, and, the specialty of Mad’s publisher EC Comics, horror, all fighting for newsstand and candy-store space. Mad belonged to no existing genre but parodied them all; most significant, it found its readership through word of mouth.

The magazine’s first four issues lost money—although the fourth, which introduced the nongeneric parody “Superduperman,” showed a spike in sales. By late 1953, Mad was EC’s top title, selling 750,000 copies per issue, and, as noted by Kurtzman a year later in Mad #17, imitators were legion. These would-be clones—including Whack, Eh!, Madhouse, Flip, and EC’s own Panic—are the subject of John Benson’s new anthology, The Sincerest Form of Parody. The book is part footnote, part fun-house mirror—proof of Mad’s dramatic early success, and evidence that rival comic book artists either didn’t quite understand or, in some cases, creatively misunderstood just what it was that Kurtzman and his key artist, Will Elder, were doing.

Its contents culled from the moldering pages of long-forgotten publications and well annotated by Benson, The Sincerest Form of Parody samples (and pleasingly reproduces) the detritus of a vulgar modernism that, with the institutionalization of Saturday Night Live and under the perpetual reign of irony epitomized by Comedy Central’s fake news, has become the coin of the mass-culture realm. In the mid-’50s, however, it was clear Mad was Something New in terms of style, attitude, and content.

Written by Al Feldstein, Panic (1954–55) employed many of the artists who worked on Mad and was thus the closest clone. Still, it’s not hard to find the influence of Elder’s trademark visual clutter or Kurtzman’s distinctive breakdowns (extending a particular action over three or four nearly identical panels) elsewhere, and it’s a kick to see these visual ideas reworked by notably different artists—as in the final issue of Eh! (Nov. 1954), which, entirely produced by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, includes both a “silent” homage to TV comedian Sid Caesar and a typically muscular slapstick parody of the daily strip Rex Morgan, M.D.

In some respects, the clones were ahead of the curve. Movie parodies appeared first in Kurtzman’s imitators; so did send-ups of certain TV shows. But mainly the copycats missed the caustic social criticism implicit in the Kurtzman worldview and were content merely to blend horror and comedy. Whack #3 (May 1954) featured a version of Mighty Mouse in a bizarre mash-up with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Some Mad clones took the name of their model literally and practiced a form of free association. A pun on the famous title The Thin Man, “The Tin Man” (Bughouse #2 [May 1954]), and the recasting of radio detectives Mr. and Mrs. North as “Mr. and Mrs. South” (Bughouse #3 [July 1954]) dictated the nature of the narrative. Had Iger Studio’s covers for Madhouse and Bughouse—exercises in a lumpen surrealism that merged Elder with Salvador Dalí—appeared as paintings in the mid-’80s, they would have been credible examples of Stupid art. In a few cases, imitating Mad simply gave license to eccentric cartoonists to follow their aesthetic bliss. The florid, heavily outlined style of Jay Disbrow’s completely unfunny “Twenty Thousand Leaks Under the Sea” (Unsane #15 [June 1954]), for instance, has an irresistibly goonish earnestness.

The Mad clones were present in full force in June 1954, when an article in Pageant (by legendary Esquire editor Harold Hayes) took note of Mad’s adult readership and compared Kurtzman’s comic book to sophisticated daily strips like Li’l Abner and Pogo. (The concurrent issue of Commentary featured Robert Warshow’s famous essay “Paul, the Horror Comics, and Dr. Wertham,” in which the critic described Mad’s “wild, undisciplined machine-gun attack on American popular culture” and allowed that he, too, occasionally read the comic book with “a kind of irritated pleasure.”) Mad, which had gone monthly that spring, was officially sui generis. The clones had largely disappeared by September, several months in advance of the industry’s self-regulating Comics Code and a full nine months before Mad upgraded to the magazine status it has now enjoyed for lo these fifty-six years.

J. Hoberman’s new book, Film After Film: Or, What Became of 21st Century Cinema? (Verso), will be published this summer.