Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Graphic Grandeur (Usual Gang of Idiots Edition)

60 years ago this coming autumn, a new publication was unleashed upon a newly prosperous, culturally compliant, and therefore wholly unsuspecting American public:

Art by Harvey Kurtzman
 Of course, the kids went for it.

It's not like Mad was the first humorous comic book. Archie was supposed to be funny, and often was. And the funny animal comics, like the kind featuring Walt Disney characters, were meant to be likewise. If they weren't, they'd be called serious dramatic animal comics. But what set Mad apart from other funny comics,  as amusing as those other comics may be, is the latter was put out by adults, and those adults were essentially talking down to the kids. Mad, however, was put out by kids who were essentially talking down to the adults.

Well, no, that's not right. Mad was put out by adults, too. Except that these adults were sharing a joke with kids at the expense of other adults.

Originally, the joke was merely on those adults who put out the other comics. Including the adults who worked at EC, Mad's publisher. For instance, the very first cover by founding editor Harvey Kurtzman was a takeoff of horror comics, EC's notorious specialty. Inside Mad, in addition to horror, were parodies of the science fiction, crime, and western genres. Eventually, Mad went from spoofing the various types of comics to the actual, copyrighted comics themselves, which I'm sure kept lawyers for all concerned very busy. Superman ("Superduperman"), Batman and Robin ("Batboy and Rubin"), Flash Gordon ("Flesh Garden") and Little Orphan Annie ("Little Orphan Melvin") all came under the Mad microscope. It even made fun of funny comics like Archie ("Starchie") and the kind with Walt Disney characters ("Mickey Rodent"). Mad presented a world where one superhero defeats another superhero by goading him to punch himself silly, another superhero sucks the blood out of his teenage sidekick, an astronaut has a run-in with anthropomorphic air, a thug threatens to draw dots on a little girl's blank eyeballs, a high school principal admonishes two female students for the marks they leave as he chases them about the office, and a funny animal takes a naked man on a leash for a walk. All this a good ten years before the widespread availability of hallucinogenic drugs.

The comics were eventually collected in a paperback, where this fellow made his first appearance:

 Art by Will Elder and Jack Davis
                                                                         
That is, his first appearance with Mad. In fact, the kid with the grin had appeared in various advertisements since the late 19th century, often with such tag lines as "Me Worry?" and "What--Me Worry?" By the time he came under artist Will Elder's brush in 1954, he was safely in the public domain (though you can bet the corporate colossus which currently owns Mad has made damn sure he's now out of the public domain. Which reminds me: Images are owned and © by the respective holders & are presented here for educational purposes within the “fair use” terms of US Code: Title 17, Sec. 107. Whew! Almost forgot.)

A few months later, the kid with the grin appeared on the comic book proper, nestled idiotically in-between Josef Stalin and Marlyn Monroe:

 Art by, um, I guess this is what's referred to as "clip art."

Yes, that's the actual cover. In the early days, Mad occasionally liked to play hide-and-seek at the comic book rack.

Partly to bypass the newly instituted Comics Code, and partly to satisfy founding editor Harvey Kurtzman's growing satiric ambitions, Mad was transformed from a comic book into a magazine in mid-1955 (albeit a magazine with drawings of people talking to each other in word balloons):


Art by Will Elder and Harvey Kurtzman
The extremely important message? "Please buy this magazine."

By this time, Mad had move beyond parodying comics to film, TV, literature, poetry, music, sports, politics, history, science, sociology, and, above all, advertising. Really, the entire passing parade, with tips on how to avoid getting trampled. Now, I said earlier that part of Mad's appeal was that it didn't talk down to kids. The magazine version now gave you a much more expansive view as to who were the kids and who were the adults. For it made clear that no matter your age, how often you were married, how many your children, how many your wrinkles and liver spots, or how long your stay in the nursing home, the advertisers, merchandisers, politicians, educators, religious leaders, media moguls, titans of industry, movers and shakers,  the high and the mighty, the beautiful people, and the powers that be, would keep on talking down to you,  would keep on insulting your intelligence, would keep on regarding you as a child, right up until the day you die. Not a pleasant thought, to be sure, but at least through Mad you could talk right back down to them.

You might have noticed that the kid with the grin is, at first glance, seemingly absent from the above cover. He appeared quite a bit on the inside, though, usually as an extra in crowd scenes. With a change of editors in 1956--Al Feldstein replacing Harvey Kurtzman, who left to pursue other parodistic possibilities (most notably, "Little Annie Fanny" for Playboy)--the kid with the grin, by now called Alfred E. Neuman, was promoted to a more prominent spot on the front cover:

Art by Norman Mingo  


May his grin remain forever gap-toothed.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

DeForestation

About 20 years ago, my cousin, Cecil B. Jusko, went out to Hollywood in the hope of becoming either an actor, director, producer, screenwriter, cinematographer, film editor, set designer, make-up artist, or stunt man. Alas, two decades later, he's merely a janitor, bouncing around from one studio to the next. However, Cecil's disillusionment is our enlightenment, for one of the studios he worked for is Paramount, where he was charged with straightening up their TV Script Archive Vault. It was here he noticed a box marked ST-1969. Inside were bits and pieces edited out of old Star Trek shooting scripts due to time restrictions. Cecil smuggled one of the pieces of script off the Paramount lot and sent it to me, and I'd like to now share it with you:


FADE IN

The Starship Enterprise orbits a kaleidoscopic planet.


CAPTAIN JAMES T KIRK
(voice over)

Captain's log, stardate 12019.20--We are currently in orbit around the newly discovered planet Watee Dudat 4. Myself, First Officer Spock, Chief Medical Officer McCoy, and four or five anonymous, interchangeable crew members wearing red shirts will beam down to the planet to investigate.

EXT WATEE DUDAT 4 SURFACE

CAPTAIN JAMES T KIRK, MR SPOCK, DR LEONARD "BONES" MCCOY, and FOUR OR FIVE ANONYMOUS, INTERCHANGEABLE CREW MEMBERS IN RED SHIRTS materialize onto the planet’s surface. Seemingly barren of life, Watee Dudat 4 is characterized by large boulders in bright, fluorescent colors.

KIRK

All right, it’s best we split up. (to the men in red) Ensigns, um, er, didn’t I tell you guys to wear name tags so I could tell you all apart?

The men in red immediately pull name tags out of their pockets and start sticking them on their chests.

KIRK

Never mind that right now. All of you go and investigate that area over there, and tell me what you find. (to Spock) Spock, I want you to go in the opposite direction and investigate. Me and Bones will stay here and inspect this area.

The men in red go off in that area over there, while Spock goes off in the opposite direction, leaving Kirk and McCoy alone.

MCCOY
(annoyed)

Oh, you let Spock go off by himself, but I have to stick by you. What, don’t you trust me?

KIRK

It's not that I don't trust you, Bones, it's just that you're better company than Spock. Now, be a good Chief Medical Officer and take out the Alien Presence Detector.

Pleased that he’s better company than Spock, MCCOY takes the Alien Presence Detector out of his fanny pack and turns it on.

CLOSE SHOT

The ALIEN PRESENCE DETECTOR is making a VERY FAINT BEEPING SOUND.

MCCOY

It’s beeping, Jim. There must be an alien somewhere.

KIRK

But where? I don't see any aliens

MCCOY

Maybe they're hiding behind those fluorescent boulders.

KIRK

Those guys in the red shirts are on the other side of the boulders. They would have seen them.

MCCOY

We don't know what these aliens look like. Maybe they've blended in with the boulders.

KIRK

Day-Glo aliens? Well, we've encountered stranger things during our five year journey. Let's see what Spock thinks.

MCCOY
(annoyed)

That's right. Go ask Spock. My ideas mean nothing unless he confirms them.

KIRK
(hands cupped to mouth)

Hey, Spock, c'mere! We got something we want to ask you!

WIDE SHOT

Spock, who's 50 yards away, looks up from what some weird looking rocks he'd been examining, and starts walking toward Kirk and McCoy. When he gets about half-way there, he notices some weird-looking gravel, and stops to examine that.

CLOSE SHOT

The Alien Presence Detector is making a SOMEWHAT LOUDER BEEPING SOUND.

MCCOY
(concerned)

Hear that, Jim? The beeping's gotten louder. There has to be aliens around here somewhere.

KIRK

Still don't see them. Bones, you sure that thing is working right?

MCCOY
(annoyed)

Dammit, Jim, I'm a doctor, not some guy working behind the counter at Radio Shack!

KIRK

What's that have to do with anything?

MCCOY
(sheepishly)

Um, nothing I guess. I just felt like saying it.

KIRK

Well, your feelings aren't helping us identify where the beeping's coming from.

MCCOY

I know, Jim! The aliens are invisible! I bet there's a bunch of invisible aliens laughing at us right now!

KIRK

Well, then they must be soundless as well as invisible, because I don't hear any laughing.

MCCOY

Jim, I didn't say it was a full-throated "Har, har, har". They could just be chuckling.

KIRK

Let me go ask Spock (yells out to Spock) Hey, Spock, will you get over here, already?! I don't want to have to tell you again!

WIDE SHOT

Spock stops what he's doing, and walks over to Kirk and McCoy.

CLOSE SHOT

The Alien Presence Detector is now BEEPING LOUDLY.

MCCOY
(panicky)

OH, MY GOD, JIM, IT'S BEEPING LOUDER THAN EVER! THAT MEANS AN ALIEN IS IN OUR PRESENCE! OUR VERY PRESENCE! OH, NO, JIM, WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO?! HELP ME, JIM! SAVE ME, JIM! HIDE ME, JIM! MAYDAY! MAYDAY! OH, THIS IS TERRIBLE! THE ALIEN PRESENCE DETECTOR IS--

A thought suddenly occurs to McCoy. He calms down immediately.

MCCOY

Now I see what's going on. Spock is causing it to beep.

SPOCK

It would seem that machine has a rather biased view as to what exactly constitutes an alien.

KIRK
(with a sigh)

Bones, will you please recalibrate that thing to exclude Vulcans?

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Vital Viewing

Happy Easter!