That Old Feeling: What, Me Fifty?

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I wonder what I'd get on e-Bay for my first editions of...

"The MAD Reader," the first paperback collection of reprints from Harvey Kurtzman's MAD comic book; it also marked the first cover appearance of the Alfred E. Neuman "What, Me Worry?" character; Ballantine Books #93, 1954, 192 pp. Original cost: 35 cents (cheap). Value as an artifact of midcentury humor: priceless.

Also first editions of "MAD Strikes Back!" (the second paperback, 1955); "Inside MAD" (third paperback, 1956); "Utterly MAD" (fourth paperback, 1956); and "The Brothers MAD" (fifth paperback, 1958, and the last totally comprising material from the comic books). Also first editions of the first two hardback anthologies, "MAD For Keeps" and "MAD Forever." Also an original copy of the 1958 "Musically MAD," the first LP sanctioned by MAD, with liner notes by Al Feldstein, Kurtzman's successor as editor.

Ladies and gentlemen, and arrested adolescents of middle age, I offer a veritable corn-utopia of 50s "caricature," "lampoon," "parody," "burlesque" and "satire," to quote the illustrated icons on the cover of MAD when, with the July 1955 issue, it bloomed from a 10-cent comic to a 25-cent magazine.

Will I become very rich? Not as rich as I might have if — and after 40-plus years it still pains me to think of it — my mother had not thrown out my virtually complete collection of MAD comic books, from the first through 23rd issues. (MAD became a magazine with its 24th issue; I never did own the notoriously hard-to-get issue 5, of which MAD's printer ran off fewer copies).

You've heard these stories before. Adults careering toward a second childhood tell them about a movie star's autograph lost, a mislaid Topps bubble-gum card of Mickey Mantle in 1951 (his rookie year), perhaps a pet turtle that Uncle Hal flushed down the toilet. All these tales are meant to evoke a "My Dog Skip" nostalgia, soaked in rue, and they come with the moral that everything then, however ephemeral, was more precious than anything now. The impact of these childhood memoirs usually has the same effect on the domestic audience as one of the monologues spun by Homer Simpson's aged, addled father Abe: before they're over, someone — the listener or the teller — ends up snoring.

But my MAD effluvia has a more profound worth. You needn't have creaked into middle-age, or have read this stuff when you were a kid, or have grown up uttering the nonsense words "furshlugginer," "potrzebie," "axolotl" and "hoohah!" to befuddled friends and parents — in short, you needn't be me — to know that early MAD was the comedy goods. Open any of the sacred texts and be transported not back but up. TV shows of 1952-53 may seem primitive, pop songs of those pre-rock years may sound like pap, most of the movies then look sluggish and self-important ... but MAD the comic book is as fresh, by which I mean impudent, as ever.


For those of you who know MAD only in its comfortable magazine form, or by the Saturday-night Fox show that uses its name as a springboard for TV parodies, a little cultural and social history is in order. MAD, in its original form, started things, changed things. It represented a revolution in taste, an underground comedy movement, an education in illustrated satire. And for maybe the first time, it was discovered by, if not aimed at, kids — the readers of comic books.

Kids had saved their dimes to buy, and be entertained by, the Disney and D.C. and Classic comics. They devoured the bolder horror and war comics (Vault of Horror, Crypt of Terror, Two-Fisted Tales) published by E.C., the small outfit that gave birth to MAD. But when that comic book appeared, 50 years ago, they must have felt the seismic shift. An adult was talking to us, not talking down to us. Kurtzman wouldn't do that; his Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat titles were arguably the first anti-war comic books. Now, with the creation of MAD, he was letting us in on his comedy secrets — because no one else was listening.

MAD's only plausible forerunners were the splendid Warner Bros. cartoons perpetrated in the 40s and 50s by Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng, who worked in the same sort of cultural isolation that Kurtzman did. Michael Maltese, who wrote many of Chuck Jones' classic cartoons, remembered some visitor to the Warner cartoon collective huffing, "Well, for heaven's sake! Grown men!" Exactly: the Warners cartoon artists were grown men who, like Kurtzman, were trying only to make themselves laugh, and figured that, if they succeeded, somebody out there in the dark might laugh too.

There's a difference, though. The Warner (and Disney and Fleischer) cartoons might have had special aficionados among the pre-teen set, but they were part of the full program at any movie theater, not just on Saturday matinees; everyone saw them. The savvier film critics — notably Manny Farber, writing for The New Republic in 1943 — saw the intricacy and subversive brio of the Warner output. A few Warners cartoons, though not the great ones, won Academy Awards. They were small, shining cogs in the movie industry's machinery of distribution and self-congratulation.

Comic books had no Oscar ceremony. They didn't attract the attention of adults, unless a parent chastised his child for reading one, or rolled it up as an aid to corporal punishment. If comics weren't mindless fluff, keeping kids from reading real books (do you spot an Internet connection here?), they were the tools of Satan, suitable for banning and burning.

In 1954, comics made headlines thanks to Frederic Wertham's "Seduction of the Innocent," a book-length jeremiad linking comic books' lurid drawings and disrespectful attitudes to the rise in juvenile delinquency. Wertham, a revered psychiatrist who had been director of Bellevue's mental hygiene clinic, saw menace everywhere, and not just in Dennis. To him, Superman was a fascist icon; Batman and Robin were pedophile and catamite. Wertham was especially appalled by the E.C. horror comics line. He described, in lovingly horrified detail one story about a ghouls' baseball game where the ball, bat and bases were severed body parts. As I dimly recall, a panel from the story appeared in his book (how did he get the reprint rights?), allowing Wertham simultaneously to fulminate and titillate. "Seduction" was the equivalent of an anti-sex book with lots of sex in it.

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