For better or worse, Al Feldstein provided the single biggest influence on my worldview during the horribly formative years of middle school. While some of my preteen interests have waned since then—for instance, I no longer buy new KISS albums—Feldstein’s creative enterprise has stuck with me over the decades. I must confess, MAD Magazine still informs most of my reactions to TV shows and movies, mass marketing, and politicians: to respond with immediate skepticism, balanced by an urge to make a wisecrack. Of course, sarcasm is the online lingua franca today, and some would say it has devolved into relentless knee-jerk “snark”—but MAD, under Feldstein’s editorship, had something more amid its mocking juvenilia: a consistent point.
Feldstein’s death at age 88 on April 29 inspired a ripple of obituaries that noted MAD’s heritage as the nation’s leading parodist of the ’60s and on through the ’70s, the forebear to National Lampoon, Saturday Night Live, and a good chunk of the short videos you see on YouTube today. And it’s true. While there were certainly other humor magazines that preceded MAD in the 1950s, none took on so many revered cultural figures or institutions, from Walt Disney (a money-obsessed “Walt Dizzy”) to cigarettes (“So if you insist on killing yourself, let King-size Awaysis take you away.”) to baseball (“Baseball Is Ruining Our Children” by Dr. Frederick Werthless, M.D.). And considering the cultural mores (and forces) of the time, that was a rather brave act. Of course, this editorial trajectory was set by founder Harvey Kurtzman, who wrote much of MAD’s content in its first years. But it was Feldstein who made the magazine a financial success and a cultural icon. Which reveals the difference between a wild creative genius and an efficient editor.
To a certain extent, we have our own Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver to thank for MAD Magazine’s existence. MAD originally started in 1952 as a comic book created by Kurtzman for William M. Gaines’ EC Comics. EC was infamous (and hugely profitable) for its line of horror and science-fiction titles like Tales From the Crypt and Weird Science, which often featured gruesome imagery and adult topics—as well as the greatest assemblage of artists in comics history. In 1954, Sen. Kefauver launched a Senate Subcommittee investigation into the links between comic books and “juvenile delinquency,” where a sweaty, nervous Gaines made a semi-disastrous testimony on what constitutes a tasteful comic-book decapitation vs. an untasteful one. As a result, the Comics Code Authority was instituted (essentially a censorship board), and EC’s comics soon became public enemy #1. Not many shops or stands would carry them any more.
Kurtzman’s ingenious solution: Turn MAD into a magazine rather than a comic book, freeing it from the CCA’s control (while also furthering Kurtzman’s career aspirations). Thus began a two-year run of fervid imagination as Kurtzman took the publication beyond simply parodying other comics and into American culture at large. But, after a contract dispute with Gaines, Kurtzman bailed out, taking most of the staff with him. (He later did fine work with other publishers, including Hugh Hefner, but did not have the same impact as he had had with MAD.) Gaines turned to his ace script writer/editor/illustrator from the now-defunct horror/sci-fi books, Feldstein, to salvage the magazine. Feldstein did a lot more—with his keen eye for talent, he quickly hired new illustrators and writers that took MAD from being a quirky offshoot to a national institution. In the ’60s, what boy didn’t know all about Antonio Prohias’ Spy vs. Spy, Sergio Aragornés’ minute scribbles in the margins, Al Jaffee’s Mad Fold-Ins, Mort Drucker’s movie parodies, Dave Berg’s “Lighter Side of…” strips, or Don Martin’s bizarre-looking (and usually not smart) fellows? It was a lineup that remained intact up into the 1990s.
As a grade-schooler, I discovered MAD via the remnants of my older brother’s collection, left behind as he went to college. I didn’t understand much of the humor at first, or who the subjects were, but the curling gray pages and their amazing illustrations kept my attention. My heart might have belonged to Charlie Brown and Snoopy at the time, but my intellect was being won by the mysterious MAD. I would read its parodies over and over, trying to glean their meaning. I knew they were funny, but I didn’t fully comprehend why. Years later, as I became more of a media consumer, things fell into place and I began to recognize their targets and references. I soon ordered my own subscription, and back issues were carefully stacked in a dresser drawer, in order. I would smuggle copies into school, allowing favored friends to share the best parts. And, inevitably, MAD would influence my own efforts at writing, even for class assignments, which no doubt exhausted my teachers.
How did MAD speak to me—as well as millions of other adolescents? It wasn’t just that MAD’s writers were less than respectful toward things that normally got lots of respect (an appealingly illicit act for a pubescent kid), it was that the derision often revealed the truth. Yes, popular movies are endlessly clichéd and predictable. Politicians tell you whatever you want to hear. Advertising is not to be trusted under any circumstances. And, as a whole, our society gets obsessed over very silly things indeed.
For someone still figuring out the world, these are lessons that will prepare you for the future. And for those who find that a cynical point of view, all I can reply is: What, me worry?