Some years ago, I read a series of mock obituaries for comic characters that was absolutely hilarious. As a lifelong fan of comics, I had a good laugh at the unlikely (but logical) ways in which characters like Spider-Man, Garfield and Andy Capp might meet their final fates… and what the world would say about their passing. In just a few short paragraphs, their entire fictional lives were deconstructed – robbing them of all gloss while still supposedly trying to honour them. It was gallows humour, morbidly fascinating… and pretty damn funny!
Naturally, this little comedy gem featured in an issue of Mad Magazine – or, as it’s known to most of us, MAD (because fonts are just as important as names, apparently). It did exactly what Mad always excelled at better than almost anybody: it sliced into the popular culture of the day with its razor-sharp cutting-edge satire. No topic was ever too taboo for Mad, from movies, music and comic books to politics and religion. Mad Magazine could cut through all the niceties and two-faced BS of society, reminding readers that the world was constantly lying to them. If Mad ever passed on a message to its readers, it was that they should think for themselves.
I can’t even remember the first time I ever read an issue of Mad, but I know that my school teachers used to read it. I say that because many exams used to include sketches from Dave Berg’s regular Mad feature “The Lighter Side of…”, usually followed by questions about the use of irony. I’m willing to bet that my teachers never paid anyone for the rights to cut-and-paste them, thus screwing another hard-working creator out of royalties. But that isn’t the point here; the point is that even though my teachers claimed that comic books were a pointless waste of time, they grudgingly had to acknowledge that Mad’s humour was highbrow enough to meet the standards of the board of education.
Mad was smart, far smarter than many of its critics would ever admit to. It was funny and socially aware, passing on its messages with a smile, a laugh, and an occasional kick in the pants. It ripped apart some of the movies and TV shows that I loved the most and I never minded; it kept me fascinated for hours with its fold-ins and for weeks with its endless array of tiny individual jokes hidden in the margins between panels; oh, and it was cheap! Well, okay, so it wasn’t always, but it kind of was… or at least enough to make me go “Hoohah!” from time to time.
Originally, I wanted to write something similar about Mad Magazine like those old comic obituaries they printed. After all, Mad is now teetering on the brink of cancellation. Given its own history of taking nothing seriously and taking no prisoners, it seemed fitting to kick it while it was down and blow a raspberry at it, Spy vs. Spy style. For the record, apparently, it isn’t cancelled… but it’s no longer publishing new material (except for in seasonal specials), mostly will only be reprinting old work, and will only have limited availability. It may not be the comic book equivalent of death, but it’s like being put in a sleep-induced coma.
I was going to say that the only thing which could save Mad’s life would be a cash injection of $1,329,063 – exactly the same amount of money that was once spurned in the Mad Magazine board game. The goal of that game – like that of Mad Magazine itself, presumably – was for the player to lose all of their money. To achieve this, players had to act like rocks, boo each other and play the Friday card on Fridays only (although what it did was a mystery because no further instructions were given). However, one person in the game could never lose money: Mad’s “What, me worry?” mascot Alfred E. Neuman – who would acquire the game’s sole $1,329,063 note, and thus be cursed by it forever because it couldn’t even be given away.
I was going to write that, and even suggest that fans send Mad their old $1.329,063 bills to cover the medical costs, which aren’t as cheap as Mad was. But then it all seemed a bit too real and I love that goofy magazine. After all, this was the magazine that gave the world the mathematical concept of potrzebie and it deserves some respect.
Since its Cold War-era creation, Mad has been through so many changes that it’s almost as if its whole existence has been a constant series of downturns; from the removal of advertising (allegedly to avoid the responsibilities of constantly being a quality product, rather than being principled enough to maintain journalistic independence), editors leaving, founder Bill Gaines dying, the return of advertising, edgy revamps and corporate restructuring, it’s always been a bad, bad time for Mad. ALWAYS. Even when the magazine achieved mainstream success and critical acclaim it was a bad thing!
The most recent downturn, namely the renumbering and rebooting of the magazine, means that the 67-year-old publication has pretty much nearly died within its first year of existence, which makes no sense really. It’s possibly the most Mad way to bow out of all, not that it should. The only thing Madder would be if it suddenly succeeds again, proving that it can’t even get cancelled correctly. But that may be too much to hope for though.
It’s easy to waffle on about the importance of Mad Magazine and talk about the influence it’s had on society. In fact, I’ve already filled up several paragraphs doing exactly that, and none of them were what I wanted to write about. But Mad has a following and has helped shape the world of pop culture as much as it’s ripped it apart. It’s inspired and influenced Pulitzer winners, Grammy winners, critics and a whole lot more. It’s inspired The Simpsons, that’s obvious, but it also influenced Watchmen. Don’t believe me? It’s true.