By Marc Tracy
Alfred E. Neuman finally has a reason to worry.
Mad magazine, the class clown of American publishing, is being shuffled off to the periodical equivalent of an old-folks home at the age of 67.
After the next two issues, a publication that specialized in thumbing its nose at authority will no longer include new material, except in year-end specials, according to two people with knowledge of the decision. Instead, the “usual gang of idiots,” as the staff has long called itself on the masthead, will fill the magazine’s pages with old material.
A giddy creation of the staid 1950s, Mad hit a circulation peak of 2.8 million in 1973. Since then, it has steadily lost readers and relevance, a victim of its own success, as its skeptical, smart-alecky sensibility became dominant in American popular culture. “Saturday Night Live,” “The Simpsons,” “South Park” and The Onion can be counted among its heirs, and the magazine influenced a generation of comedians and comic artists, from late-night host Stephen Colbert to comics writer Art Spiegelman.
“Mad was, ‘The entire adult world is lying to you, and we are part of the adult world. Good luck to you,’” Spiegelman said in an interview Friday. “I think that shaped my entire generation.”
Alfred E. Neuman, the magazine’s freckle-faced, tooth-deficient mascot, has served as the magazine’s cover boy from the Eisenhower years to the present, appearing in various guises, including Barbra Streisand, Rosemary’s baby and both President Bushes. His motto was “What, me worry?”
But his recent cameo appearance in the news cycle — thanks to President Donald Trump’s likening Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg to the magazine’s cover boy — suggested Mad’s lack of relevance to the generations that came after the baby boom. The 37-year-old candidate responded to the insult by cheekily claiming he didn’t get the reference.
Cartoonist and illustrator Drew Friedman, a Mad contributor since 1994, said of the magazine, “For baby boomers, it was like the Bible. To my mind, it was where you found reality.”
Mad’s owner, DC Entertainment, declined to comment publicly on the publication’s future, or lack thereof, even as regular Mad writers and artists posted messages on Twitter and Facebook saying that the publication was effectively dead and that they needed work.
DC, a division of Warner Bros. since the 1990s, became part of AT&T last year, when the telecommunications giant bought Time Warner for $85.4 billion.
Since the deal went through, AT&T has been cashing in on its new entertainment-industry wares, selling tie-in merchandise like a Harry Potter wireless charger for $45 (cheap!) and a “Game of Thrones” computer cable for $20. The company will also give one of its lucrative DC properties, Batman, a boost at Comic-Con International in San Diego this month with the Batman Experience Powered by AT&T — “a massive, interactive exhibition,” according to a corporate statement.
Mad, which aimed a peashooter at corporate hype, would seem to be an awkward fit in the blockbuster-centric media universe of 2019.
It was created mainly by comic book artist and editor Harvey Kurtzman at the behest of William Gaines, the owner of EC Comics, a small comics publisher. The first issue, titled “Tales to Drive You MAD: Humor in a Jugular Vein,” appeared on newsstands in August 1952.
Mad’s contrarian identity was clear from its debut, with its parodies of pop culture and a comic that skewered a new habit of suburbanites: gathering with friends to watch television while not speaking to one another.
Mad reached its height of influence under editor Al Feldstein, who ran it from 1956 into the 1980s.
As the magazine settled into its classic format — 48 black-and-white newsprint pages fronted by an attention-grabbing cover — Alfred E. Neuman became a cultural touchstone. An evil double of sorts to the clean-cut comic-book protagonist Archie Andrews (spoofed in Mad as “Starchie”), the impish fellow had an appearance based on a face that Kurtzman had glimpsed in a high school biology textbook “of a person who lacked iodine,” author David Hajdu reported in “The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America.”
Popular movies — box-office hits and critics’ favorites — became regular fodder for gleeful parodies, drawn for many decades by caricaturist Mort Drucker. In Mad’s versions, “The Sound of Music” became “The $ound of Money,” “Rocky” was “Rockhead,” and “Hannah and Her Sisters” was retold as “Henna and Her Sickos.”
“When I think of ‘The Sound of Music,’ I think of Mort Drucker’s version rather than the actual film,” Friedman said.
Television was not spared. “Star Trek” became “Star Blecch,” and 20 years later, Mad turned “L.A. Law” into “L.A. Lewd.”
Al Jaffee, the magazine’s longest-tenured contributor, was the artist behind the intricate “fold-in” feature on the back page. He came up with the idea for it in 1964, in response to the slick centerfolds in Playboy and other publications of the era.
“It hit me,” Jaffee told The New York Times in a 2010 interview. “If all the fancy magazines are doing fold-outs, what should a magazine on cheap black-and-white newsprint do but a fold-in? Go the other way.”
In an interview Friday, Jaffee, 98, said that what distinguished Mad was an ethos of punching up. “It was satirizing institutions like advertising — specific advertisements that were misleading, such as the tobacco companies’ advertising cigarettes as soothing for your throat,” he said.
Other signature features included the indelible “Spy vs. Spy” strip, drawn for its first 26 years by Antonio Prohias; the ingenious bits of cartoon marginalia provided by Sergio Aragonés; Dave Berg’s “The Lighter Side of …” features, which gave young readers a terrifying glimpse of the indignities awaiting them in adulthood; and the merrily absurdist scenarios involving the long-bodied, knock-kneed characters concocted by artist Don Martin, in which the typical words were things like Katoong!, Sklortch! and Zazik!
Last year, Mad moved from its New York home to Burbank, California, where DC has had its headquarters since 2015. It was rebooted, complete with a new Issue No. 1, and had a moment of relevance in October with the publication of a much-praised, four-page parody of cartoonist Edward Gorey that served as a subtly devastating eulogy for children who were or would soon become victims of school shootings.
It also published a cover featuring Trump. There he was, in the Oval Office, flanked by his daughter Ivanka and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who was portrayed as none other than Alfred E. Neuman.