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.