Max Gaines generally receives credit for inventing and popularizing the comic book in its familiar form. During the Great Depression, he took reprints of existing strips, repackaged them in half-tabloid size, and sold the product. The comic-book boom followed and, while his company, EC, initially made money, many of his rivals did far better with original properties such as Superman, Captain America, and Archie. EC later developed an educational line; it never sold especially well.

In 1948, Gaines died in a boating accident on Lake Placid. His son, William M. Gaines, inherited a company now in debt. He quickly changed the direction, drawing on talent such as Wally Wood, Harvey Kurtzman, and Al Feldstein, and developing successful comics in various genres. While EC's romance and western titles did moderately well for a time, it was their crime, war, and horror comics that redefined the genre, and ranked among the most popular and controversial of the 1950s.

In 1952, Gaines suggested that Kurtzman develop a humor comic. They had both been impressed by college magazines, and wondered if the rowdy, subversive humor that characterized these publications would connect with a mainstream audience.

The result, Mad, first appeared on newsstands in October/November 1952. The first issue spoofed comics by genre: it featured a mock-horror story, a crime comic story, and so on. The stories, written by Kurtzman, ridiculed the conventions that EC had helped establish. The artwork, by a variety of EC regulars, established the "chicken fat" style that would dominate Mad; sight gags and bizarre visuals oozed into every corner of every panel. Bill Elder generally receives credit for inventing the style, but other EC artists, such as Wally Wood, certainly developed it in their Mad illustrations. Until #17, the comic went by the apparent title, Tales Calculated to Drive You Mad. Those first five words would be dropped for the next few issues thereafter, and sporadically reappear throughout the run of Mad’s four-color incarnation.

The first three issues did not sell particularly well, but #4 clicked with a wider audience. That issue featured Mad’s first parody of a specific character; Superduperman! sent up, of course, DC’s premiere superhero. DC threatened to sue; Kurtzman argued that parody was protected by the American Constitution. The case never came to court, however. Gaines simply ignored the objection, DC never bothered to push the matter, and Mad thereafter zeroed in on identifiable characters. Issue #6 features "Teddy and the Pirates" (Terry and the Pirates) and "Melvin of the Apes" (Tarzan), but also their first spoof of a specific film, "Ping Pong" (King Kong). By #10, parodies of Batman and Wonder Woman had appeared, and other popular films had received the Mad treatment. Their satiric/parodic territory quickly expanded to include television and radio shows, and all aspects of pop culture.

The comic connected with teenagers, in particular. The postwar culture tended to take itself very seriously, and Mad began skewering this brave new world, in which citizens had become consumers and advertising set public tastes. Not surprisingly, success bred imitators. These would prove short-lived, though Cracked and Crazy managed to survive, the former into the twenty-first century. Archie comics’ take on Mad, entitled Madhouse, meanwhile, introduced long-lasting character Sabrina, the Teenage Witch in a 1962 story. EC responded to the many knock-offs by launching Panic, the official licensed imitation of Mad.

Mad delivered quality in satire and goofy humor, but it also managed to be decidedly weirder than its competitors. Most comics, prior to the early 1970s, took advantage of a loophole that allowed for a cheaper mailing rate for any periodical containing at least two pages of text.1. Mad accommodated the ruling by purchasing inexpensive stories in obscure foreign languages, and inserting randomly-selected pages into the comic. They also showed a fondness for re-using odd-sounding words, such as furshlugginer, ganef, potrzebie, and veeblefetzer. Other recurring references included the names "Melvin Cowznofski" (spelling varied) and "Alfred E. Neuman." In many illustrations, a strangely-constructed Mad zeppelin flew overhead, for no particular reason.

In 1955, Senate hearings vilified comics and the industry, in response, adopted the Comics Code. The new guidelines virtually destroyed EC's horror and crime lines. By then, Mad ranked among their most profitable publications, so Gaines chose to focus on that, escaping the limitations of the code by turning Mad, with #24, into a magazine.

Gaines made two unusual decisions about the new format. He banned advertisements, because he did not want to be, or even appear, beholden to any potential target of satire. Mad's profits were to come from the sale of the magazine and related merchandise. He also insisted it be printed on cheap paper.

The first Mad spin-off had already appeared: The Mad Reader (1955) recycled older material into a paperback. It also featured an image taken from an old advertisement: a gap-toothed, tousle-haired, crooked-eyed kid.

Issue #23 marked the first regular appearance of the image that would become known as Alfred E. Neuman. The kid now entirely associated with Mad has a lengthy history as an advertiser's icon, going back to the late 1800s. No one has ever found the origin of the image, which had appeared everywhere from dentist's ads to airplane nose art, often accompanied by slogans like, "What me worry?" One unverified story even claims an artist based him on an actual photograph.2 Mad connected the image to the Neuman name in #26, and he has appeared on nearly every cover of the magazine.3 His association with Mad became so complete that in 1963, one John S. Henry sent a letter from Auckland, New Zealand with an image of Alfred instead of an address. It made it to the Mad offices.

In its early years, the magazine often hired "hip" celebrities and disc jockeys to contribute. Ernie Kovacs, Orson Bean, Bob and Ray, Al "Jazzbo" Collins, Danny Kaye, Sid Caesar, and Jean Shepherd all wrote pieces for Mad in the late 50s and early 60s.

Quickly, however, Mad acquired a stable of freelance contributors who became celebrities in their own right, at least among the magazine’s readership. Sergio Aragones, Dave Berg, Dick DeBartolo, Jack Davis, Mort Drucker, Frank Jacobs, Al Jaffee, Don Martin, and Antonio Prohias all became associated with the magazine during its next two decades. Jaffee introduced features such as "Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions" and, in 1965, the fold-in. He also specialized in bizarre inventions. Martin’s hinge-footed characters and loopy sound effects became a mainstay of the magazine. Berg’s cartoons lampooned middle class concerns. Prohias introduced "Spy vs Spy," a Cold War-inspired strip that continues to this day, though others now write and draw the spies' oddball adventures.

By the mid-1960s, the magazine established a format of bookending most issues with a movie parody and a TV show parody. The satire often grew more political, more pointed, and occasionally, prescient. "How Madison Avenue Could Sell America to the World" (#65, 1961) seems more like commentary than satire. "If Magazine Ads Spoke the Language of the Magazine"(1964) presaged demographic-targeted advertising and narrowcasting. Readers started to refer to "Mad ESP" whenever one of the magazine’s far-fetched ideas actually turned up in the real world.

In the 1960s Mad was acquired by the Kinney Corporation which was itself purchased by Warner Communications later that decade, but Gaines was left to run the magazine as he saw fit. After his death in 1992, however, the parent corporation began to make changes. Mad now used slick paper and eventually accepted advertisements. By then, the once-subversive magazine had become an institution and, in a less hegemonic and more ironic culture, seemed less culturally significant. Nevertheless, it continues to sell, and a new generation of artists and writers have found their niche there, including Tom Bunk, John Caldwell, Desmond Devlin, Barry Liebmann, Hermann Mejia, Andrew J. Schwartzberg, Mike Snider, and Bill Wray.

Mad has produced spin-offs and merchandise, including Alfred E. Neuman model kits and action figures, and a board game. A musical appeared off-Broadway in 1966, entitled The Mad Show; Alfred's image featured prominently. In 1980 Mad financed a film, Up the Academy, which introduced future Karate Kid Ralph Macchio. The flick was a disaster, a poorly-written story about a military school which featured some very crude gags and (briefly) Alfred E. Neuman. Mad apologized to their readership and arranged to have all references to the magazine, and Alfred's cameo, removed. In 1995, the magazine lent its name to a tv show. Clearly modeled on Saturday Night Live, Mad-TV features sketch comedy and animations starring the characters from "Spy vs Spy."

Mad began as an anarchic comic book, matured into a savaging of pop culture, and now blends into the mainstream. It appears that it will continue for some time-- and we will always need the mad spirit to remind us that, oftentimes, we already look foolish.

Update: We may still need it, but Mad announced on July 4, 2019, that it would cease publishing new material after August of 2019.

1. If you've ever wondered why older comics contain hastily-written, one-page text stories or historical articles, this is the reason.

2.Joyce Widoff, quoted on page 150 of Reidelbach's Completely Mad: A History of the Comic Book and Magazine. Many people have noticed similarities between Alfred and people born with Williams Syndrome.

3. Alfred-free covers include #115 (1967) #163 (1973) #166 (1974), #195 (1977), 233 (1982), 247 (1984), 254 (1985), 327 and 329 (1994). Some other covers only feature his outline or his feet.


Doug Gilford. "A Mad History Lesson." Doug Gilford's Mad Cover Site.

"Mad Magazine."

Don Markstein. "Alfred E. Neuman." Toonopedia.

Maria Reidelbach. Completely Mad: A History of the Comic Book and Magazine. Boston: Little Brown and Company.

Inspired a board game. You roll the dice with your left hand, move counter-clockwise, and try to lose all your money before the game ends. My brother and I got it for Christmas one year. That I grew up playing the game simply known as Mad, and have still never played Monopoly in my life may explain my perpetual debt and overall ineptitude as a capitalist.

Mad Magazine used to subsist purely through subscription/cover price and money from its parent company, DC Comics (a subsidiary of AOL Time Warner PepsiCo Blockbuster Mazda Fish License & Bait Store, Inc). Starting with (iirc) the April 2001 issue, they're accepting ads.

As of April 2001, the ads seem unobtrusive. They're full-size ads, 2 inside on the color pages, and, unfortunately, one on the back cover, where before parodies would be found. Of course, that ad will still find itself folded into oblivion due to the fact that Al Jaffee's fold-ins are still on the inside back cover, but Mad will no longer be able to do upside down issues or other printing tricks.

When U.S. law mandated the printing of a UPC on every magazine, Mad took that and ran, printing a huge UPC as the cover for the first issue that required the symbol, and continued to make fun of the symbol for years to come, captioning it with comments like "closeup of the space left by Alfred E. Neuman's missing tooth". Hopefully, Mad will continue to seek humor in these new necessities.

MAD Magazine has a rich history of inside jokes which can often confuse new readers. In an effort to help clarify some of these obscure references one might encounter, here is a list of the most common, and their meanings.

  • Potzrebie - Pronounce it as "po TREBZ yeh". This word is peppered throughout Mad Magazine, and is used to replace any random word or brand. This usage is similar to programmer usage of foo. Most fans have assumed this to be a made up word. It is actually Polish in origin, and roughly means desire, or wanted. "w potzrebie" would mean "in need"
  • aeolopile - A greek invention which demonstrates steam power at work. Basically, a sphere which contains water and is mounted at the center on a dowel around which it can freely rotate. Perpendicular to the points which hold it up are two nozzles from which steam can escape. When the assembly is placed over a fire, the steam shooting from the nozzles causes the device to rotate. This is also referenced often in MAD Magazine.
  • Melvin Coznowski (Malvin Koznowski) - The original name of the infamous "Alfred E. Neuman". This monicker was only used for one or two issues before the switch to the current name was made.
  • Hans Brickface - Recurring character name in the early days of Mad Magazine.
  • Max Korn - Name used for any random character's name. Maximum Corniness, get it? See also Biggus Dikkus.
  • the MAD Zeppelin - The classic, bizarre Zeppelin, with the letters MAD along the sides. Steampunk never got it this right.
  • the bird Flip - The random bird that looks like two connected fuzz balls with eyes, a beak, and stork legs. The bird's name is Flip. So he's Flip, the bird. Get it?
  • Roger Kaputnik - Dave Berg's alter-ego. Dave Berg frequently inserted various members of the MAD Magazine staff into his comics, and Roger Kaputnik was the hypochondriac who represented Dave Berg. Frequently.
  • Axolotl - A Mexican salamander with an interesting growth cycle. This animal's name was frequently used in the 60's era of MAD Magazine.
  • borscht - The famous Russian beet soup is another repeatedly used word in MAD Magazine. The usage in MAD Magazine probably originates from the "borscht belt", a region where many of the original MAD Magazine artists and writers were from.
  • farshimmelt - MAD Magazine once again takes a foreign word, (Jewish this time,) and uses it with wild abandon. Often used to represent something "messed-up", it in reality means "moldy".
  • furshlugginer - MAD term used as both noun and adjective, always as an expletive. Can usually be replaced with either a naughty adjective or a naughty noun.
  • ganef - Yiddish for "thief," or can refer to any generic bad person. Apparently, it was one of Harvey Kurtzman's favorite Yiddish words, so it showed up on occasion back in the days when he was almost singlehandedly writing "Mad" the comic book. (Thanks trainman!)
  • halavah - Also known as halvah, this sweet dish is Turkish in origin. It has been adopted all throughout the Mediterranean, with slight (and sometimes complete) differences. Halvah you get from Libya might be completely different from halvah from Greece. Once again, a foreign food product misused often by MAD Magazine. (Thanks Chris-0!)
  • Moxie - Before Coke or Pepsi, there was Moxie. This soft drink, used as a health tonic originally, is unusual in that the brand name has entered common english usage as a term meaning "spunk". This was referenced frequently in MAD Magazine.
  • poiuyt - The name of an optical illusion, involving a three-pronged impossible object. It's referenced often in MAD Magazine. Also, a string of continuous characters on a QWERTY keyboard.
  • veeblefetzer - The Jargon file describes veeblefetzer as such: 'probably originally from "Mad" Magazine's "Veeblefeetzer" parodies ca. 1960) Any obnoxious person engaged in the (alleged) professions of marketing or management.'
  • Arthur the Avacado Plant - Occasionally MAD artists put a drawing of Arthur the Avacado Plant in the background. Arthur is actually an avacado tree that was a real plant at the MAD offices at one time. It is unknown whether or not Arthur still lives there. (Thanks PSlugworth!)

Other inside jokes I've been unable to track down any useful information on frammistan. If you have any info on any of this one or know of any I've missed, please let me know!

A Good Thing gone horribly wrong.

My first experience with Mad came ca. 1990 when my beloved aunt brought us a large carton of back issues from the 60s and 70s—about a hundred magazines. And so I was introduced to the wonders of Alfred E. Neuman, Drawn-Out Dramas, Don Martin, potrzebie and all the rest.

I found much of the humor incomprehensible—I was about 8 years old, and lots of the jokes had to do with politics and culture that had happened several decades ago. However, these magazines were a rich educational resource for me (“Mom, what’s marry-jowna?”) and brought me hours of entertainment. My sister and I, using the dictionary as a reference, laboriously translated the Morse code that appeared on the page with the Spy Vs Spy cartoon. I don’t remember being at all disappointed that it only said, “By Prohias.”

In the early nineties, having read each antiquated issue several times, I bought a brand spankin’ new Mad magazine. I was quite excited at the prospect of reading my new purchase, but I was sorely disappointed at what I found within. Don Martin was gone, there were no jokes about hippies or Nixon, and perhaps worst of all, Spy Vs Spy was drawn by a different artist!

I have read perhaps three subsequent issues of Mad, each time becoming more and more disillusioned. The thing that finally did it for me happened in a video store when I noticed that they stocked Mad. Not having read an issue for several years and bored with standing in line, I felt a little surge of hope. Maybe the magazine had improved over the last few years, maybe it wasn’t really as bad as I remembered. I boldly picked up a copy and flipped open to a random page.

I should have known something was wrong when my eyes were jolted by the bright colors (color? In the middle of the magazine, not relegated to the fold-in where it belongs?) and my fingers felt the glossy slickness of the pages. However, I foolishly plowed on and turned the page. And there it was, a screaming full-page abomination: An advertisement. An actual, serious ad for a real product. Stunned, I scanned the page for a few seconds, searching, praying for the punch line, the irony, even sarcasm. There was none. I felt ill.

I have no idea what happened to that carton of old magazines my aunt so generously bestowed upon my family. Maybe my parents still have it somewhere in their attic, maybe I’ll go find it someday and spend a few hours feeling nostalgic for a time period that was over before I was born. And maybe now, I’ll understand more of the jokes.

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