A history of satire, lampoons and lawsuits: The Rockwell celebrates Mad magazine’s 72nd year with first major retrospective

Artist Richard Williams spoofed Norman Rockwell's well-known, and often parodied, 1960 Saturday Evening Post magazine cover for the book “MAD Art: A Visual Celebration” which honored Mad’s 50th birthday.

Artist Richard Williams spoofed Norman Rockwell's well-known, and often parodied, 1960 Saturday Evening Post magazine cover for the book “MAD Art: A Visual Celebration” which honored Mad’s 50th birthday. COURTESY ROCKWELL MUSEUM/EC PUBLICATIONS

Mad’s mascot Alfred E. Neuman appeared on virtually every cover since 1955. The original vacant, gap-toothed face dates to the late 1800s when a Topeka dentist advertised painless tooth extraction.

Mad’s mascot Alfred E. Neuman appeared on virtually every cover since 1955. The original vacant, gap-toothed face dates to the late 1800s when a Topeka dentist advertised painless tooth extraction. COURTESY ROCKWELL MUSEUM/EC PUBLICATIONS

The artists of Mad were without equal in creating jam-packed, claustrophobic confusions of humanity. Art Director Sam Viviano noted that Publisher Bill Gaine’s office often resembled a famous shipboard scene from a Marx Brother’s movie and painted “High Jinks on the High Seas” for a 2022 Mad issue.

The artists of Mad were without equal in creating jam-packed, claustrophobic confusions of humanity. Art Director Sam Viviano noted that Publisher Bill Gaine’s office often resembled a famous shipboard scene from a Marx Brother’s movie and painted “High Jinks on the High Seas” for a 2022 Mad issue. COURTESY ROCKWELL MUSEUM/SAM VIVIANO

By DON STEWART

For the Recorder

Published: 06-28-2024 12:55 PM

“Working for Mad means never having to grow up.” John Ficarra, Mad magazine editor-in-chief 1985-2018

The Norman Rockwell Museum’s current exhibit provides a nostalgic voyage for Baby Boomers, a gold mine for pop historians and a wellspring of ideas and images for graphic artists. Continuing through Oct. 27, the Stockbridge institution is showing the first major retrospective of Mad. Five galleries display some 250 original works of illustration accented with interactive touch screen artwork and video interviews.

“Mad was much more than a magazine,” Steve Brodner said during a press reception. “To my generation it opened up a portal to adulthood.” The political cartoonist and writer organized the show with the museum’s head curator, Stephanie Plunkett.

“I want you to pay careful attention to something you may miss completely,” he told attendees. “These pieces are done with tremendous care and skill … these are very high standards of American graphics art.”

Crime banned, sort of

“Tales Calculated to Drive You Mad” began in 1952, published by Bill Gaines, the owner of EC Comics, which at the time also churned out gruesomeness as a business with such titles as “Tales From The Crypt” and “Shock SuspenStories.”

Harvey Kurtzman wrote almost every word of the new publication and newsstand sales for the first three issues, with 400,000 printings, started off slowly and then tapered off. The fourth issue, however, featured ”Superduperman,” wherein The Man of Steel, Clark Bent, was a lowly copy assistant. Despite his wowie-zowie powers, reporter Lois Pain still found him “creepy.”

The parody was explosively popular, and although National, owners of rights to the Kryptonite-phobic hero, threatened to sue, the publication, now printing 750,000 copies, was off to the races. By the 1970s, some two-and-a-half million copies were sold domestically with each new issue and Mad distributed to a dozen countries.

Gaines was never without controversy. In 1954 he was asked to speak before a Senate subcommittee on juvenile delinquency. A recent EC cover for “SuspenStories” depicted a lurid decapitation. His defense of the image didn’t fly and the Comics Code Authority was created, effectively banning over-the-top horror and crime publications.

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Soon after, Mad, as it was now known, arrived in the larger magazine format. Size matters and in that format it was free of the tenets of the comics code.

As a stunt, a few years later readers were informed that they could mail a request to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, freeing them from the then mandatory Selective Service military draft. The bureau, never noted for lighthearted merriment, reacted and Gaines sent a letter of apology to Hoover, vowing never to make fun of them again. From that time forward the FBI kept a file on Mad.

Once and never again, the magazine published an ersatz, $3 bill featuring its mascot Alfred E. Neuman. Change machines at the time weren’t that discriminating and the phony paper worked. This brought government agents to the magazine offices once more.

In 1961, a music-publishing house representing Irving Berlin and Cole Porter sued Mad for $25 million. They claimed copyright infringement when the magazine created comical lyrics for existing standards. If Mad hadn’t prevailed, alas, “Weird Al” Yankovic would just be another accordion player.

Gaines himself reminds one of a cheery, alternate world Santa Claus. Outside his office window a huge image of King Kong peered in. When a new hire asked for two desks for his office, one devoted to an HO train set, Gaines complied. In the magazine’s golden years, the publisher took the entire staff to Europe for two weeks. When their sole subscriber in Haiti was up for a renewal, the entire staff flew to the island to plead for him to continue his readership.

In a 1987 interview on “60 Minutes,” Gaines was asked what the secret was to the magazine’s success, it being among the 10 most popular publications at the time.

“We don’t really know why it works,” the published said. “We pride ourselves on the fact that we have no philosophy … we try not to analyze it because we may blow it.”

All this and Star Wars, too

Despite its countercultural humor, Mad was among the first in media to warn of the dangers of tobacco smoking. It took on the farce of the Nixon era Watergate break-in and depicted the duplicity of the president himself. Vietnam, multinational corporations, deceptive packaging, the loss of the environment, the shallowness of blowhard politicians, and pretentiousness wherever found, were prime targets.

There were, however, storm clouds on the horizon.

“It’s very hard to be funny,” John Ficcara, said at the press reception. “It’s getting harder all the time because life keeps getting weirder and weirder. It’s harder to mock it.”

For more than three decades he helmed the magazine during its sweetest times, including an issue spoofing former President Obama’s run for candidacy. A cover illustration depicted magazine mascot Alfred E. Neuman eerily resembling the Honolulu native with the slogan “Yes We Can’t!”

Lampoons? Our first president is painted in a famous Revolutionary War scene. He wears a gown and the caption reads “Washington Cross-Dressing the Delaware.”

A silent series of panels shows the puppet Pinocchio christened by the Blue Fairy into becoming a real boy. Kindly old Geppetto is so startled by this transformation that he has a heart attack and is carried off by EMTs.

Among most popular of the silent panels were the Spy vs. Spy cartoons created by the late Antonio Prohias. A political cartoonist in his native Cuba, he fled when he discovered that he was among the many whom President Fidel Castro planned to kill. He never mastered English so his daughter acted as interpreter during editorial meetings.

When Prohias passed on, Peter Kuper took over the cartoon. “Doing comics is so complicated,” he said during the reception. “It’s so ironic that for so long it was considered low art, considering in fact, it’s one of the most difficult art forms.”

Another master of what were often silent panels was the late Don Martin, who created characters whose shoes dripped like Brie cheese over steps.

Ficarra described the artist as a very quiet, mild-mannered man. “You could be in a phone booth with Don and not know that he was there,” he said. “All his madness came out in his drawings.”

Other madness came from contributors known to an older generation: Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Bob Elliot and Ray Goulding, Stan Freberg and Mort Sahl. The full-time staff was described on the masthead as “the usual gang of idiots.”

The twilight years

As fitting tribute to the longest, uninterrupted 55-year career of Mad’s most gifted caricaturist, Mort Drucker, an entire gallery is devoted to his illustrations. Largely self-taught, his work included book, album and Time magazine covers, political coloring books and unforgettable movie parodies.

Sam Viviano, the magazine’s longtime art director, said that Drucker was “a once in a lifetime artist and much more than a cartoonist.”

There was, he said, “His extraordinary ability, the talent of getting one’s likeness … he captured personality and never demeaned them. He really loved humanity.”

The illustrator’s daughter, Laurie Bachner, was present and told attendees that when the magazine parodied “Star Wars,” using her father’s artwork, there was a threatening letter from filmmaker George Lucas’s lawyers.

At the same time, publisher Gaines received a congratulatory letter from Lucas who was overjoyed with the spoof. He described Drucker as the “Leonardo da Vinci of comic satire.”

Gaines sent a copy of the letter to the filmmaker’s lawyers with a few words. “I think we’re done here,” he wrote.

Mad is now a shadow of its former self, some 90% of an issue displaying reprints. It’s published every two months and available only by subscription.

Ficcara said that a variety of factors led to a slow decline, including the advent of video games and computers. The National Lampoon and similar periodicals also eroded the subscription base.

“Mad really started to get co-opted by other things and Mad’s sensibility started to get reflected in TV shows and in advertising,” he said. Yet from the often surreal comedy of “Saturday Night Live” to “The Simpsons” the magazine has cast an enduring influence.

In 1987, during the “60 Minutes” interview, newsman Morley Safer asked the staff “What’s the hardest part of putting out the magazine?”

“Stapling it!” staff writer Dick DeBartolo said.

“What, Me Worry? The art and humor of MAD magazine” continues through Oct. 27. The eponymous, 60-page, full color catalogue magazine is $19.52. Admission is $25 for adults and free for those under 18. The Norman Rockwell Museum is open every day except for Wednesday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.