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 comix 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.
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. http://www.collectmad.com/madcoversite/index.html
"Mad Magazine." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MAD_Magazine
Don Markstein. "Alfred E. Neuman." Toonopedia. http://www.toonopedia.com/alfred_e.htm
Maria Reidelbach. Completely Mad: A History of the Comic Book and Magazine. Boston: Little Brown and Company.