That Old Feeling: What, Me Fifty?

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Wertham's screed, excerpted in Reader's Digest and the Ladies' Home Journal, had a quick, crippling effect. It stoked censorious Senate hearings into the insidious sway a band of quasi-pornographers held over little Jimmy and Janie. Some parents burned comic books in town squares. Publishers, who had only been trying to make a buck, now ran scared and tried to save a few. They created a Comic Book Seal of Approval, suggesting that every comic now had the equivalent of a G rating, but that ruse fooled no parents, attracted no kids. So the publishers gave up: they eviscerated the content of some titles, junked others altogether. E.C.'s publisher, William Gaines, killed off all his comics except for MAD.

That should have done it, finished off the children's crusade. Of course it was only the beginning. Kids lost the comic-book battle to win the pop-culture war. They forgot about Gaines' tales from the crypt (until they were exhumed in the 70s as a Hammer horror anthology and in the 80s as an HBO series) and attended to Elvis Presley's tunes from the hip. The innocent would now be seduced through their ears, and they would pay more than a dime for the privilege.

Rock 'n roll, which was too big to censor, soon spawned an entire youth culture — movies, TV shows, discos, cool new drugs — and kids had the cash to support it. I'm not sure how those young boomers got the money to buy all this naughty stuff (did we mow more lawns? log marathon babysitting shifts?), but they were suddenly the largest demographic sector of record buyers and moviegoers. They became a new and crucial leisure class, the focus of every advertiser's lust, every merchant's greed. Elvis wasn't the king, his teen audience was. And, for better or worse, still is.


How did MAD fit into this hear-and-see change? By becoming for the brain what rock 'n roll was to the groin: a pulse for irreverence, suspicion, internal insurrection. The laughs that Kurtzman's humor provoked in curious boys (MAD was a guy thing, mostly) were the intellectual equivalent to the screams Presley elicited from pubescent girls. Connecting with the MAD Zeitgeist meant plugging into the wide world of culture — since to understand the joke, you had to know what was being mocked.

For kids of my age and temperament, MAD comic book was our 32-page university, and Kurtzman (who wrote virtually every story in those first 23 issues) was our inspired professor. His cover promise of "Humor in a Jugular Vein" undersold the product. Poking fun at movies, TV shows, comic strips, newspapers and the Army-McCarthy hearings, MAD was the entire body politic in comedy terms.

Among MAD's targets was itself. It knew it had an image problem: it was a comic book, the detritus of pop culture. So, beginning with issue #11, Kurtzman started concealing MAD's true nature in the guise of other magazines (Life, the Atlantic Monthly) and respected artists (Da Vinci, Tenniel, Picasso). One cover was disguised as a schoolroom composition book, another as a massive Johnson Smith and Co. catalog ad — surely the highest number of words ever to appear on the front of a magazine. ("About a year's worth of writing went into that cover," Kurtzman later said.) One cover had a connect-the-dots motif: "Look gang! Another surprise! In this issue ... you draw the cover!"

At its inception, MAD parodied what was closest to it: other E.C. comics. Even the publication's supertitle — "Tales Calculated to Drive You..." — was a riff on Tales from the Crypt. Some of those early pieces are classics. "Mole!", illustrated by "Melvin" (Bill) Elder, was a parable about a convict who could dig his way out of any jail with any implement at hand: a spoon, the warden's toothpick, his own nostril hair. In the same issue (#2) was "Gookum!", illustrated by Wallace (Wally) Wood, about an extraterrestrial blob-like substance that consumes the world. At the end, as I recall, it turns out to be a dream; and someone attempts to pacify the dreamer with a cool desert. "Good Lord!" he screams when the shimmering raspberry Jell-O is placed before him. "Dormant Gookum!"

Kurtzman quickly expanded his target range from original stories to the parodies that made MAD famous. The turning point was issue #4 lead story, "Superduperman!" As drawn by Wood (who knew comics heroes from the inside, having worked on Milton Caniff's Terry and the Pirates strip), Superduperman had a studly smirk as the Man of Steel and nearly visible halitosis as Clark Bent, whom his beloved Lois Pain dismisses as a creep. The opening panel set the tone for MAD's glory years. It was populated by a cast of dozens and vacuum-packed with gags, including the artist's self-promo ("When better drawings are drawn... they'll be drawn by Wood. He's real good"). But Kurtzman didn't let the minutiae distract him from telling a tangy story with a twisty moral. At the end Clark reveals his true identity to Lois Lane — who is not impressed. "Hands off!" she snaps. "So you're Superduperman instead of Clark Bent! Big deal! Yer still a creep!"

MAD was soon so popular that a dozen imitations sprung up: Cracked, Crazy, Nuts, Frenzy, Sick, Madhouse, Bughouse and E.C.'s own Panic ("Humor in a Varicose Vein"), edited by Feldstein, who was also the editor of the horror comics and would assume control of MAD when Kurtzman left. None could match the original, though Panic came closest, in part because its artists were the three MAD mainstays: Elder, Wood and Jack Davis. Each had a distinctive seductive style. Davis' was fine-lined, with coltish babes and sharp-jawed heroes; Wood's had dramatic shading around his heroes, so muscle-bound they were stoop-postured; Elder, Kurtzman's old pal from Manhattan's High School of Music and Art, drew spot-on comedy, clarifying and enhancing every gag Kurtzman put on his storyboards. All were in their 20s. For MAD's artists and readers alike, it was a great time to be young.

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