Mad Magazine

Before there was Mad Men, there were Mad men -- the "Usual Gang of Idiots" William Gaines and Harvey Kurtzman began assembling in 1952, when they started publishing a comic-book-sized humor magazine that eventually would help shape the sensibilities of several generations. In an industry fueled by hype, it's hard to overestimate Mad's effect on American culture. Mad did nothing less than teach me how to read, think, and question. And I'm not alone: Luminaries ranging from Joyce Carol Oates to Art Spiegelman, and Tom Hayden to Patti Smith, have extended kudos, while Graydon Carter named it one of the top 10 magazines ever.

At its best, Mad represented a humorous advanced tutorial in world affairs. So when I was 11, I strove to keep up with references to the Tet Offensive or Earth Day. As journalist Robert Boyd noted: "Plenty of it went right over my head, of course, but that's part of what made it attractive and valuable: Things that go over your head can make you raise your head a little higher." That was Mad.

Odd that a magazine review would use past tense, no? That's because many of us left Mad behind in the waning days of adolescence, along with acne cream and Wacky Packages. Yet more than 50 years later, Mad still thrives, and trying to determine if it remains as funny or relevant as it once was ultimately becomes more about the reviewer than the magazine. Which brings us to October's Issue #494, Mad Goes Green! -- with a cover depicting Alfred E. Neumann repainting his Hummer a bright shade of emerald.

In fact, there's something oddly appealing in the mix of old and new: In this issue, shtick about Obama and blogging are interspersed with familiar favorites like Spy Vs. Spy, Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions, and the inside back cover's Mad Fold-In. My teenage son, who first started subscribing when he was 11, reports that many kids flip first to the Fundalini Pages, a grab-bag of shorter bits. And as always, there's an eclectic mix of artwork.

Of course, many die-hard fans believe Mad jumped the shark -- irreversibly and unforgivably -- in 2001, when the publication began taking advertising. (A short time prior, Mad's all black-and-white format had made way for color pages and thicker paper stock.) It's true, Gaines would have never allowed ads, but it's worth noting there is something of a church-and-state separation in the current design. It's not quite the classic National Geographic segregated format, but most ads are congregated up front. And not surprisingly, they target adolescent males -- Lego Batman, Xbox 360, "Smallville" videos, etc.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the language has gotten saltier ("freakin' douche-bomb" seems to be the put-down du jour), but overall Mad seems in a comedic up-cycle, falling back on its time-honored tradition of exposing hypocrisy in all its political, artistic, and commercial forms rather than relying too heavily on titillation. Sure, there are Tila Tequila cleavage jokes and masturbation quips, but what's not to like about a piece entitled "The Pros & Cons of Being a Polygamy Cult Kid"? In fact, an interesting old-meets-new concept is "The Darker Side Of...The Lighter Side," in which ancient Dave Berg comics have been colorized and punched up with newer riffs on Viagra and registered sex offenders.

A two-page spread entitled "The Eerie Similarities Between Family Guy and the Bush White House" seems to exemplify Mad at its current best. Impressionable readers might be drawn in by mentions of Peter and Brian, but subsequently they're fed acidic satire on Iraq and Fox News. After all, who could argue the similarities between Stewie Griffin and Dick Cheney, both "balding maniacs hell-bent on destroying the world." Yet Mad's penchant for skewering all sides -- made famous in its 1960 election issue, with reverse covers supporting both JFK and Nixon -- is still alive in the "Overheard at the Barack Obama Rally in Germany" photo essay. And in this issue, Keith Olbermann comes off as badly as Bush's War on Terror.

For a generation of adolescents who have had satire assault them from TV screens, iPods, and laptops, Mad may not be as essential as it once was, but it's retrenched and once again become a strong and vital voice in the commercial wilderness. And for older readers who've never outgrown their favorite magazine, the periodical shelves contain Mad Classic, featuring old material that's been collected and well. And, yes, most are still in black-and-white.


Published by: E.C. Publications/Warner Bros. Entertainment

Frequency: 12 times per year (plus special issues)

Web site

2 comments about "Mad Magazine".
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  1. William Billick from Media Research Corp of America, November 26, 2008 at 2:22 p.m.

    I still remember one of Mad Mag's infamous covers "Buy this magazine or we'll shoot this dog". It was a classic cover!

  2. William Billick from Media Research Corp of America, November 26, 2008 at 2:23 p.m.

    I still remember one of Mad Mag's infamous covers "Buy this magazine or we'll shoot this dog". It was a classic cover!

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