Friday, September 07, 2007


With its first issue (October-November, 1952), Mad was a comic book, and part of the line of EC Comics published from the Lower East Side in New York City. Mad's subtitle, "Tales Calculated To Drive You" above the title Mad, referenced radio's Suspense which each week used the opening, "Tales well calculated to keep you in... Suspense!" The vertical subtitle, "Humor in a Jugular Vein," indicated the possibility of a sinister edge to the satire (as well as being a play on words for "jocular").

Written almost entirely by Harvey Kurtzman, the first issue displayed the cartoon talents of Kurtzman, Wally Wood, Will Elder, Jack Davis and John Severin. Wood, Elder and Davis were the main three illustrators throughout the 23-issue run of the comic book; Severin, a mainstay of Kurtzman's EC war comics, was phased out of Mad by the tenth issue. Kurtzman included his own cartooning only sporadically, primarily on the covers. However, he was known as an exceedingly "hands-on" editor and a visual master, and thus many Mad articles were illustrated in strict accordance with Kurtzman's detailed layouts. A handful of other artists contributed to the original run, including Bernard Krigstein, Russ Heath, and most conspicuously among the non-regulars, Basil Wolverton. Wolverton's grotesque faces made a striking impression despite only appearing in two issues of the comic book.

The first two issues of Mad spoofed only comic book genres of romance, horror, sports and science fiction without overly specific references. However, with the third issue, Kurtzman turned to direct parodies, targeting the well-known radio programs ("Dragged Net!"), and the Lone Stranger!." This approach proved fruitful, and in short order Kurtzman was gleefully hammering away at such targets as newspaper comic strips ("Little Orphan Melvin!"), comic books ("Superduperman!"), movies ("Ping Pong!") and television ("Howdy Dooit!").

By the summer of 1953, the success of Mad was apparent, and Gaines made plans for expansion. After nine bi-monthly issues, Mad became a monthly with the April, 1954 issue. At that same time, EC Comics launched another satirical bi-monthly, Panic, edited by Al Feldstein. Since this new title also used Kurtzman's core trio of artists (Davis, Elder, Wood), the peeved editor felt that Panic sapped and diminished the creative energy necessary to meet Mad's production schedule.

With issue 24 (July, 1955), Mad switched to a magazine format. The "extremely important message" was "Please buy this magazine!"

In 1955, with issue 24, the comic book was converted into a magazine. The popular myth is that this was done to escape the strictures of the Comics Code Authority, which was imposed in 1955 following United States Senate hearings on juvenile delinquency. Actually, Kurtzman received a lucrative offer from the publisher of Pageant and only stayed when Gaines agreed to convert Mad to a similarly "slick" magazine. The immediate practical result was that Mad acquired a broader range in both subject matter and presentation. Magazines had wider distribution than comic books, and a more adult readership.

In a creative showdown, Kurtzman insisted upon a 51% share in the company; when Gaines rejected the demand, EC was without its creative dynamo and Kurtzman was without the magazine that crystallized his talents. Al Feldstein returned to EC, and oversaw Mad during its greatest heights of circulation. Taking over with issue #29, Feldstein set to work assembling a phalanx of talented humor writers and cartoonists. Feldstein's first issue as editor coincided with the debut of Don Martin; crucial longterm contributors like prolific writer Frank Jacobs and star caricaturist Mort Drucker quickly followed. Before the classic Mad staff was assembled, Feldstein also relied on celebrity guest contributions to attract attention and fill pages. Some of these pieces, attributed to Bob and Ray, were actually the work of their main writer Tom Koch, who would flourish in Mad for decades. By the early 1960s, with notables such as Antonio Prohias and Dave Berg well in hand, editor Feldstein had fully established the format that was a commercial success for decades.

Al Feldstein joined Mad in the same year that Time described it as a "short-lived satirical pulp." By the time he left, 28 years later, the magazine was commonly cited as one of the three greatest publishing successes of the 1950s, along with Playboy and TV Guide. The magazine's circulation more than quadrupled during Feldstein's tenure, peaking at 2,132,655 in 1974, although it declined to a third of this figure by the end of his time as editor.
When Feldstein retired in 1984, he was replaced by the team of Nick Meglin and John Ficarra, who co-edited Mad for the next two decades. Meglin retired in 2004. Ficarra continues to edit the magazine today.

“What Me Worry?”
The image most closely associated with the magazine is that of Alfred E. Neuman, the boy with misaligned eyes, a gap-toothed smile and the perennial question "What, me worry?" Mad first used the boy's face in November, 1954, on the cover of the comic book's first reprint collection, the Ballantine paperback titled The Mad Reader. He appeared for the first time, unnoticed, on a Mad cover with issue #21 (January, 1955). From #24 through #30, Neuman was a part of the ornate border design on each cover. However, his first iconic appearance -- full-sized, identified, and sporting his "What, me worry?" motto -- was as a supposed write-in candidate for the 1956 Presidential election on the cover of issue #30.

The original image of an unnamed boy with a goofy gap-toothed grin was a popular humorous graphic for many decades before Mad adopted it. It had been used for all manner of purposes, from U.S. political campaigns to Nazi racial propaganda to advertisements for painless dentistry. Decades ago, the magazine was sued over the copyright to the image, but prevailed by producing similar ones predating the claimant's, dating back to the late 19th century.

Harvey Kurtzman first spotted the image on a postcard pinned to the bulletin board of Ballantine Books' editor. "It was a face that didn't have a care in the world, except mischief," recalled Kurtzman. The name "Alfred E. Neuman" was derived from the 1940s radio show of comedian Henry Morgan which included a running gag trumpeting the imminent arrival of Hollywood composer Alfred Newman, which was supposed to create intense excitement, after which Newman would appear for mere seconds, then vanish. According to Kurtzman, Morgan used "the name Alfred Newman for an innocuous character that you'd forget in five minutes." Later, Morgan was a contributor to Mad.

The boy's face is now permanently associated with Mad. With the "What, me worry?" motto, Neuman has often appeared in political cartoons as a shorthand for unquestioning stupidity.