A typical 1960s cover. Artist: Frank Kelly Freas.


Original medium: Comic Books
Published by: EC Comics
First Appeared: 1952
Creator: Harvey Kurtzman
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Mad magazine came to be because Harvey Kurtzman (Goodman Beaver) needed a raise. Kurtzman was one of two editors at EC Comics. He edited Frontline Combat and Two-Fisted Tales, while Al Feldstein …

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… (The Yellow Claw) handled seven titles, including the best-selling Tales from the Crypt. The two editors were paid in proportion to their output.

Kurtzman approached publisher Bill Gaines about the situation, and Gaines suggested that if Kurtzman added another title to his stable, he'd be making half again as much. Since Kurtzman wasn't a speed demon, like Feldstein, it would have to be a comic requiring no research, that he could just bat out. Gaines suggested something based on the humorous sketches Kurtzman had originally used as portfolio pieces in seeking a job at EC, and Kurtzman came back with the idea of a comic book that would poke fun at other comic books.

Kurtzman later recalled having come up with the title himself, whereas Gaines remembered it having come from a brainstorming session between him and Feldstein. What is certain is that the first issue of Tales Calculated to Drive You Mad had a cover date of Oct-Nov 1952, and that it contained artwork by EC regulars Jack Davis, Wallace Wood, John Severin and (especially) Will Elder, whose style, more than that of any other contributor, came to be identified with the early Mad. Another absolute certainty was that, tho funny stuff had been a mainstay of the medium since the early days, Mad was unlike anything that had ever been seen in comics before. This comic was irreverent and gross, sometimes sophomoric but sometimes quite intelligent, always impeccably drawn, and every single panel in it was actually funny.

Mad was not an instant hit, but Gaines loved it, so he was willing to let the more popular titles subsidize it while it found its audience — which it did within a few months. The fourth issue was a quick sell-out, which is attributed by some to the fact that it contained Wood's "Superduperman", a send-up of comics books' first big hit. But that might not be the true reason, because Superduperman wasn't mentioned on the cover (which lampooned The Shadow). More likely, it had simply found its audience — which included a large and growing number of adults, in addition to quite a few of comics' more traditional readers.

The comics industry responded just as it had to Crime Does Not Pay, Young Romance and other innovative comic books that hit it big. Before long, the stands were littered with titles like Bughouse (Ajax Comics), Nuts (Premiere Comics Group), Unsane (Star Publications) and Crazy (Marvel Comics). One of them, Panic, published by EC and edited by Feldstein, was billed as "the only authorized imitation of Mad."

And the rest of the world responded, as it often does to things that pull no punches in their humor, with protest from people who didn't get it. They must have considered Mad particularly choice, because local governments banned it, a man selling a copy to a policeman was arrested for selling what the cop called "disgusting" literature, and even the FBI investigated it — more than once!

As for the readers — they included Robert Crumb (Mr. Natural), Gilbert Shelton (The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers), Jay Lynch (Nard 'n' Pat), and other founders of the underground comix movement, all of whom have cited Mad as a prime early influence on their art. For that matter, so have quite a few mainstream cartoonists of their generation. In fact, the generation itself, i.e., the people who were in college during the 1960s, may have picked up some of its irreverence and iconoclasm from Mad.

Some may cite this as proof that those protesting Mad were right to try to do away with the infernal rag. But very few adults who actually read it as children agree.

By the mid-1950s, Mad had long since outgrown its original purpose, poking fun at other comics, and was lampooning every aspect of American life. It had also outgrown its original format. Kurtzman, always striving to elevate comics into larger and better produced forms, talked Gaines into upgrading it to a regular-size magazine, and putting it on the same stands as Time, Good Housekeeping and other mainstream publications. The first issue of Mad magazine was #24 (July, 1955). Far from being subsidized by the more popular EC comics, Mad was the one doing the subsidizing. In fact, Gaines got out of the regular comics business in 1956, in a flurry of distribution problems and money problems and problems with the newly-formed Comics Code Authority, and Mad was all that was left. But it was Mad that made him a millionaire.

Kurtzman left in a dispute over ownership of the magazine, and moved on to newer creations (one of which, Little Annie Fanny, brought him the sort of personal fame that Mad never did). But he never duplicated the monetary success of Mad. Feldstein became editor, and stayed at the helm for decades, as the magazine grew in circulation and influence. By this time, establishment critics had mostly learned to live with it, but there were still occasional outbreaks of serious protest, and teachers still tended to confiscate it when they caught students reading it.

Mad's mascot, Alfred E. Neuman, was first seen (in the context of Mad, at least) on the cover of The Mad Reader, published in November, 1954, by Ballantine Books, and containing reprints from the early issues. More Mad paperbacks followed, proliferating in the late 1950s and beyond, and branching out into new material in the '60s. Other reprints, in various forms — magazines, hardcover books, and eventually CD-ROMs — followed. The Mad Show, an offbeat comedy revue, debuted off-Broadway in 1965 and ran for years. Even today, Mad TV is seen regularly on the Fox Network.

Gaines sold out in 1961, when his accountant told him he couldn't afford to pay taxes on the money Mad was raking in. After several mergers and acquisitions, it wound up in the hands of AOL Time Warner, which owns it (as well as DC Comics, Hanna-Barbera and many other toon properties) today. However, Gaines managed to remain in charge of the magazine's operations until his death in 1992. Another thing that held steady over the years was the magazine's list of regular contributors — Don Martin (Captain Klutz), Antonio Prohías (Spy vs. Spy), Al Jaffee (Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions, a latter-day version of Rube Goldberg's Foolish Questions), Dave Berg (The Lighter Side of this and that) and many other talented cartoonists stayed with Mad for decades.

It is popularly believed that until recently, Mad never carried advertising. Actually, when it was a comic book, it ran the same ads as everything else in the EC line; and after it switched to magazine format, it took on a whole new array of advertisers. It was when the advertisers objected to the parodies, sometimes quite barbed, of their own profession, that Gaines decided to drop them rather than let them dictate the content of his magazine. It continued without advertising for the rest of his life, and for several years thereafter — one of very few major American periodicals to make a substantial profit on circulation alone. But in 2001, that policy came to an end. Spokespersons for AOL Time Warner assured the public this would make no difference in the magazine's content, but nobody believed them.

Mad continues today, and probably will for a long time to come. The manic whackiness of the early days is long gone, of course, and it's been quite some time since it did any serious eyebrow raising. Furthermore, even in the unlikely event that the claim of no content difference is true, with advertisers pouring in the bucks, its point of view will always be at least a little bit suspect. But it's still a dependable and reasonably funny source of humor for the youth market. And a few grade school teachers still cling to tradition, and confiscate it when they find it in the hands of students.


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Text ©2002-10 Donald D. Markstein. Art © EC Publications.