“After Mad, drugs were nothing...” - Patti Smith
In the summer of 1954, almost any American kid who had the wherewithal to scrounge up a dime could walk into a drugstore and buy the sharp satire on Senator Joseph McCarthy found in the pages of Mad comics #17. The Army-McCarthy hearings had dominated television, and the Wisconsin demagogue had finally alienated so many establishment forces that the Senate was at last moving to censure him. Harvey Kurtzman, the editorial impresario who created Mad, was impressed neither by McCarthy’s buffoonery nor the more deliberative political theater of the Senate. Kurtzman seized on the television drama to recast the whole McCarthy fiasco as a game show called “What’s My Shine?” (a travesty of a then-popular program called What’s My Line?).
In real life, such as it was, McCarthy brandished a photo purporting to show Army secretary Robert T. Stevens meeting alone with David Schine, a McCarthy crony and reputed lover of McCarthy’s aide, Roy Cohn. That photo turned out to be cropped so that others at the meeting were out of sight. In the Mad version, drawn by cartoonist Jack Davis, Senator Joseph McCartaway, complete with Roy Cohn hanging over his shoulder like a sinister ventriloquist, flaunts a fake photo to prove that “Even Steven is in reality a Red Skin!” As both press and onlookers go bug-eyed, McCartaway fills the TV screen with a picture of the cabinet secretary with a tomahawk and a war bonnet. Mad’s satire was directed not just at McCarthy’s dishonesty but also, more pointedly, at the medium that allowed the rabble-rouser to rule the national stage.
In Mad, McCarthy and other senators are performing for the TV camera and work their parliamentary antics to fit the time allotted to them by a commercial sponsor. Politics, the story suggests, is just another TV show. The sting of this message has only gotten sharper under the presidency of Donald Trump, Fox News addict and Roy Cohn’s proud political acolyte.
Last week the magazine’s current owners, DC comics, announced that Mad, which started as a comic book in 1952 and became a magazine in 1955, is on the verge of suspending publication. According to news reports, the magazine will continue publishing issues filled with reprint material to fill out existing subscriptions, but it’ll cease buying new material.
Born in the troubled era of McCarthyism, Mad is dying in another squalid political epoch. Mad was arguably America’s greatest and most influential satirical magazine, a strange claim to make of a publication that was mostly read throughout its existence by children and teenagers, but still justifiable.
Mad was often rude, tasteless, and childish - which made it all the more potent as a tributary of youth culture. The kids who read Mad learned from it to distrust authority, whether in the form of politicians, advertisers or media figures. That was a lesson that successive generations took to heart. Without Mad, it’s impossible to imagine underground comics, National Lampoon, Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons, The Daily Show, or Stephen Colbert. In the historical sweep of American culture, Mad is the crucial link between the anarchic humor of the Marx Brothers and the counterculture that emerged in the 1960s.
Writing in The New York Times Magazine on the occasion of Mad’s 25th anniversary in 1977, Tony Hiss and Jeff Lewis argued,
“Month after month and issue after issue, in a relentlessly good‐natured way, Mad told us that everything was askew—that there were lies in advertising, that other comic hooks lied, that television and movies lied, and that adults, in general, when faced with the unknown, lied.”
Hiss and Lewis cited an impressive array of cultural figures who attested to Mad’s shaping force. Gloria Steinem said, “There was a spirit of satire and irreverence in Mad that was very important, and it was the only place you could find it in the 50’s.” Singer Patti Smith made a similar point more succinctly: “After Mad, drugs were nothing.”
Kurtzman, the genius who was the wellspring for Mad, sometimes denied any political intent.
“I never regarded myself as political,” he once said.
“I don’t think the fact that you have a platform necessarily gives you to qualification to make a speech.”
He admitted he made an exception for McCarthy because he was “so evil. It was like doing a satire on Hitler.” But the truth was more complicated. Kurtzman, born in 1924, was something of a red diaper baby. His parents subscribed to The Daily Worker and sent him to the famously progressive Camp Kinderland.
Kurtzman didn’t inherit his parents’ politics, but his background left him hostile to conventional American culture, which he regarded as filled with lies. Prior to Mad, Kurtzman’s major achievement as a cartoonist was writing and editing two war comics—Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat—which were nearly unique in their unvarnished portrayal of the brutality of the Korean War. “It struck me that war is not a very nice business, and the comic book companies dealing in the subject matter of war tended to make war glamourous,” Kurtzman recalled. “That offended me—so I turned my stories to antiwar.”
Unlike the war comics, Mad was meant to be funny—but the same underlying ethic, a detestation of lies, guided Kurtzman whether he was doing realistic stories or parodies. Kurtzman’s satire aimed at uncovering the deceptions of the media and popular culture. Mickey Mouse in Kurtzman’s unvarnished version became Mickey Rodent while Superduperman was a “creep” who had an unhealthy fixation on “Lois Pain, Girl Reporter.”
Kurtzman produced those war books and Mad for EC Comics, run by Bill Gaines, a young publisher who enjoyed risks and didn’t mind legal trouble. The bread and butter of EC Comics were horror comics like Tales from the Crypt which were so lurid they helped incite a best-selling tirade, a Senate investigation, and the eventual creation of an industry-wide censorship code.
Gaines’s Senate testimony was almost as much of farce as Mad’s rendition of the McCarthy hearings. Pepped up on weight-loss pills, Gaines made a sweaty and unconvincing witness to hostile senators who were not about to buy his advanced theories that teenagers can be trusted with challenging art. These were ideas that might win more favor in other decades, but went completely against the grain of conventional wisdom in the 1950s.
The early years of Mad were genuinely dangerous times for Gaines. Lyle Stuart, Gaines’s business manager, was arrested for sale of “disgusting literature” in the form of an EC comic book story that parodied Mickey Spillane’s violent detective novels. (The story was called “My Gun Is The Jury”—a riff on Spillane’s I, The Jury). Stuart faced a jail term of a year before the judge threw out the case.
Besieged by the Senate, the legal system, parent groups, other publishers, and distributors, Gaines had to give up comic books. Turning Mad into a magazine was his lifeboat. Initially, Gaines and Kurtzman were simpatico, although they eventually split in 1956 when Kurtzman asked for half ownership of the magazine.
When they were on good terms, Gaines didn’t even mind when Kurtzman’s parodies of ads miffed advertisers. In fact, after the break with Kurtzman, Gaines decided to make Mad ad-free in 1957, a policy that continued until 2001 (nearly a decade after Gaines’s death in 1992).
Gaines would cite the progressive tabloid PM, which briefly flourished in the 1940s, as a precedent for Mad’s no-advertising policy. “In those days there was no such thing as running an anti-cigarette story because they were terrified of losing their cigarette advertising,” Gaines noted. “So PM comes along and tears into everything and doesn’t give a shit.”
Gaines had the same jaunty nonchalance he admired in PM. One Mad mock-ad in the 1960s had Adolf Hitler endorsing smoking. The parody ran:
“Hi. I’m Adolph [sic] Hitler. In the 30’s and 40’s we knocked off millions of people and filled countless cemeteries. That’s nothing! I want to talk about a really fantastic cemetery-filler.”
Mad’s willingness to tweak the noses of the powers that be earned it many enemies. In 1961, retired brigadier general Clyde J. Watts claimed Mad was “the most insidious Communist propaganda in the United States today.” In 1979, Bill Wilkinson, Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, wrote to the magazine saying,
“You and the jew-communist run MAD magazine are obviously trying to do away with the great Red, White and Blue and promote radicalism in this country’s youth.”
Tragically, the subversive publication that so angered Watts and Wilkinson won’t be around to poison future American generations.