Mad magazine

Mad Magazine Is Dead

The comic magazine's ability to rib culture, politics, and business shaped the boomer mentality, and we should be grateful.


The comics community is abuzz with the news that Mad magazine will, after two more issues, cease publication of original material and abandon newsstand distribution, becoming a reprint title available only in comic book shops (with the exception, Hollywood Reporter reports, of one special issue a year of new content).

Mad began life as a comic book in 1952, the brainchild of then-obscure New York cartoonist Harvey Kurtzman, published by William Gaines' E.C. Comics. Through his work in Mad's formative years and at later humor magazines he launched—Trump (published by Kurtzman superfan Hugh Hefner, and not related to Donald), Humbug, and Help!—Kurtzman became a culture god to a generation of baby boomers who eagerly lapped up a brilliant, acrid, prickly adult with a fresh, warbly-wicked cartooning style to solidify and reify their inchoate sense that aspects of adult American culture were more absurd, more ersatz, sometimes even reprehensible, than their parents, schools, churches, or leaders wanted them to know.

Mad's influence on baby boomer humor and general sense of life is one of those cultural truisms that now sounds like a dull cliche that some Mad-level parodist should josh. But Richard Corliss of Time was not wrong when he wrote that Kurtzman "virtually invented what would become the era's dominant tone of irreverant self-reference," nor was The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik when he wrote that "Almost all American satire today follows a formula that Harvey Kurtzman thought up." (Both quotes from Bill Schelly's indispensable 2015 Kurtzman biography, Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Invented Mad and Revolutionized Humor in America.)

In a Reason feature in May, I wrote about how everything anyone loves about the modern explosion of adult, intelligent arty, self-expressive comics has direct lineage from the work in the 1960s–'80s of Robert Crumb and his cohorts in the first wave of American underground comix. Since the article was not a detailed history of influence in comics history, it did not step back to discuss the ur-influence that lay behind Crumb and other underground comix artists around him, which was Mad magazine.

Art Spiegelman was blown away by Crumb, and through his Pulitizer Prize-winning Maus and his tireless cheerleading for comics in mainstream publishing, museums, and culture is a linchpin of modern art comics. He spoke for himself, Crumb, and nearly all the first-wave underground comix maniacs when he said that "Seeing Harvey Kurtzman's work when I was a kid was what made me want to be a cartoonist in the first place. Harvey Kurtzman has been the single most significant influence on a couple of generations of comics artists." (And not just comics artists on paper—Monty Python's Terry Gilliam's formative job as a young man was as Kurtzman's assistant on Help! in the early 1960s.)

As Bill Griffith, underground comix creator of Zippy the Pinhead and partner with Spiegelman in editing the mid-'70s underground comix magazine Arcade, put it, "Mad was a life raft in a place like Levittown, where all around you were the things that Mad was skewering and making fun of…Mad wasn't just a magazine to me. It was more like a way to escape. Like a sign, 'This Way Out.' That had a tremendous effect on me."

For those of us who grew up in the world Mad made, it's bracing and peculiar to read Crumb and his epigones discuss the explosion of consciousness it caused in them to see the structures, mores, entertainment, and business of the adult world burlesqued, warped, questioned, and mocked. That wasn't normal then. Thanks to Mad, it is.

Everyone doing interesting work in comics, even if they never had a childhood dalliance with Mad, should aim a joyous and respectful Don Martin-esque PHLBTTTT!! in the direction of Kurtzman and all the usual gang of idiots who occupied the pages of the magazine he created for the past 67 years.

To its very first wave of fans, the golden age of Mad was short. When the comics code and the wave of anti-comics fervor of the mid-1950s drove E.C. out of the comics business per se, it shifted its bestseller Mad with its 24th issue to the magazine format it retained ever since. (E.C. ran ads puckishly playing on regnant McCarthyism and suggesting that the people most likely to want to censor comics were likely Communists.)

Gaines sold E.C. in 1961 and a few sales and mergers later it became part of the Warner Bros. empire, more recently officially part of Warner's D.C. Comics. Kurtzman, aware the magazine's comedy DNA was his own, had in 1956 asked publisher Gaines to cede 51 percent ownership of the magazine to him. Gaines refused, and Kurtzman walked. It remains one of comic fandom's cautionary tales of business exploiting art that Gaines pushed out the genius who created Mad and continued to profit from the reputation and style Kurtzman created.

Still, even generations who missed Kurtzman's era in real time continued to have their minds blown and sensibilities tickled by iconic artists and writers such as Al Jaffee, Wally Wood, Dave Berg, Don Martin, Mort Drucker, Sergio Aragones, and Jack Davis who kept the magazine going under successor editor Al Feldstein, who guided it through the late Boomer and early Gen X eras until 1984. Until 2001, Mad carried no paid advertising in an implied promise to its readers that no other considerations came between them and telling the sordid and/or ridiculous truth about the world they were growing up in.

If you were ever a fan, your golden age was usually the first year or so you read it, likely between the ages of 10–13. Mad was diligent about regurgitating its legacy in reprint special issues and paperback books, so if you wanted to check out its past you could. I've been re-reading a lot of old Mad myself lately, and while one cannot say that it "holds up" to an aging mind in 2019—it's more a magazine to absorb and leave behind in adolescence than a lifelong companion—it still manages to provide both interesting insights into old culture and the occasional laugh.

The focus in late '50s issues on such parody subjects as barbeques, weights and measures, box cameras, and fake backdrops to add versimilitude to adult fibs shows a magazine that wanted to elevate the cultural and behavioral sightlines of youngsters who might be reading it. Mad was the youth league version of the same boomer humor that adults were seeing in nightclubs with Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce and on TV with Ernie Kovacs and set the stage for National Lampoon, Saturday Night Live, and everything that follows them.

However Mad old or new reads to me now, I can't forget how, when I finally saw Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece Barry Lyndon on the big screen a couple of years back, I was seeing every frame through the jokes, references, and look of the Mort Drucker–drawn parody in the first issue of Mad I convinced mom to toss in the cart at the supermarket, where it appeared as—what else?—Borey Lyndon. Mad's goofy jokes have been many generation's deeply embedded truths about culture, politics, and business, and that has been a wonderful thing.

The magazine relaunched last year with a new issue number one and the offices relocated from New York to Burbank with a whole new staff, but the new version apparently didn't catch enough fire with paying readers to keep going.

Freighting it with nothing but socio-political-historical weight, doesn't capture all of Mad's magic, which could be as much about goofy silliness. Among the ones that have stuck for life in my mind include the cop in Issue 11's "Dragged Net" announcing a "Stake out!" with a hideous close up of his open mouth with a clichéd cartoon steak laying complete in his maw, and the comic strip musical to the tune of "It Ain't Necessarily So" which goes in part: "Flash Gordon, he flies to the stars! Flash Gordon, he flies to the stars! But I know he's lyin', cause folks who've been tryin', can't even reach Venus or Mars!"

You encounter stuff like this at the right age and it sticks; for another example my image of the hippie era as I learned about it in history will forever be shaped by Dave "Lighter Side of" Berg's evocations of their goofy rangy deluded self-righteous insouciance, right or wrong. Mad's antic "don't take this seriously" style works for youngsters who think they are clever, and youngsters just ready to have expectations upset or notions upended with the magic of unpretentious silliness. It made the world a jollier, more winsome place; we've always needed as much of that sort of popular art as we can get, especially when done as it usually was with Mad with skill, verve, and a basic respect for a reader's intelligence.

Mad continued to deal with real presidents and real issues, and it had been hitting Donald Trump regularly and hard in its newest iteration. Trump insulted Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg by tweeting that America wasn't ready to elect Alfred E. Newman (Mad's goofy mascot who came to appear on every cover) president; Buttigieg purported in his youthful way to not have any idea who Trump was talking about, marking Mad as hopelessly irrelevant.

If one were in the mood to argue with comic book satire you could insist it wasn't fair, didn't deal with issues in a well-rounded way, was anti-Middle America, embued with that smarty-pants mentality of the New Yorker who invented it. Editor Feldstein was proud to believe much of the mentality of the draft-card and bra-burning '60s radical generation was shaped by his magazine.

But Mad's meta-point—that entertainment, marketing, business, politics, middle-class mores, often failed to live up to their own standards or pretentions—was eternal. Even if new issues with new content are no longer being published regularly, the Mad mentality has sunk its roots everywhere in our culture and can never be extirpated, thank Newman. It's as true a case as any of "Mad is dead, long live Mad."

Like most old fans, I stopped picking up new issues a long time ago. But I'll miss it for the world it represented, when a well-conceived periodical package of words and cartooning on paper could not only be supported by an enthusiastic audience but shape the culture in a funnier, zestier, freer direction.

NEXT: Foreign Lung Doctors Can Help Coal Country Residents. We Should Let Them.

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  1. My most fond memory from MAD magazine, was, IIRC, the issue immediately following the ’68 Dem convention. On the back cover was:

    “Only Four Voting Days Left Until 1984.”

  2. Mayor Pete did them in. Should have worried maybe a little.

    1. Mayor Pete does look like Alfred E Newman…
      Of course, Alfred E Newman has a lot more personality than Mayor Pete….

  3. Today we live in a world in which parody and satire are impossible, because any idea or point of view, no matter how absurd, can be found being sincerely expressed by someone. That’s why MAD is dead, SNL not only isn’t but CAN’T BE funny anymore, and it’s hard to tell the difference between stand-up and TED talks.

    1. I think we live in a world that’s all parody, all the time, especially in politics and the news media.

      1. Lefties are trying to be serious. Just because we all think its parody does not change that fact.

    2. Perhaps your are right. Since I am as old as the Magazine I consider myself lucky to have been able to buy the magazine with funds saved by mowing lawns. I treasured every copy even though some of the humor may have been above the intellectual capacity of a 10-14 year old at when I went back over them years late I found more to laugh at and appreciate. Like Bullwinkle and Rocky cartoons there is always some new to discover.

    3. America has been dragged by PC-Think culture into a humor-free era. The last such era in the Western world was that suffered by 1930s Germany. That lasted almost 20 years and cost millions of lives. This one could be worse. A lot worse.

      1. Totally agree, Denan7.

      2. Very astute observation. The humorless Nazis are living among us. I call them political zombies.

  4. RIP

    The commie chicks in GI Shmoe provided me with whack-off material for months when I was a lad.

    1. I suspect a high percentage of men in our age group discovered masturbation while looking at a comic book.

      1. Ms. Marvel used to be way hotter.

  5. I remember the full-page Volkswagen ad they created that caught some flack, including from Volkswagen. It depicted a Beetle floating in water with the caption, “If Ted Kennedy had driven a Volkswagen, he would be president today.”

    1. Correction. It was National Lampoon that had the Volkswagen ad.

      1. Close enough.

        I mean, it’s like people getting all upset at the difference between Star Wars and Star Trek. They’re both space operas, right?

        1. Or Saturday Night Fever and Saturday Night Live. It’s all NYC, right? right?

          1. Or Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell. Unless that’s a Mandela Effect thing and I’m the only one who remembers it.

            1. Howard Cosell answering the phone with “This is. Howard. Cosell.”

              You’re not the only one.

          2. They are both alright for fighting.

  6. Oh no, now where will I go to get my left wing politics masquerading as irreverent comedy?

    1. As I said above, there’s no longer any difference. The face and the mask are the same.

    2. You can’t get The Daily Show on cable?

    3. Saturday Nights on NBC?

      1. He said “irreverent comedy”.

        These days you go to SNL for reverent and unfunny.

    4. CNN 24/7?
      Well, they don’t know it’s comedy…

  7. From my childhood I remember the parody song “Ground Round” (sung to Petula Clark’s “Downtown”) and a Star Trek parody of Nixon’s cabinet. MAD was verboten in my home; I had to read it at other friends’ houses as my mother thought it was as bad as porn!

    1. I remember sneaking MAD to friends whose parents didn’t allow it.

      1. You were one of them kids corroding the yutes of America.

        1. What happens at a sleepover stays at the sleepover.

  8. I member that Barry Lyndon edition well.

    Mad was 100% adolescent boy humor. I never would have looked at it if I didn’t have a brother. Today boy humor is verboten.

    RIP Mad.

    1. Your brother also had a stack of classic playboy this high. Penthouse even.

      Mom and dad knew. Mom said something dad was just leave the boy alone.

    2. Read Peck’s Bad Boy.

  9. The final issue of ‘Mad’ has to have The Dotard on it. That is the only proper way to go out.

    1. In fact, it should depict Trump’s fat mug and greasy hair Alfred E Newman style with the simple caption of “Worry“.

      1. They could call it the “Why we went out of business” edition.

        1. They’ve been struggling for well before Trump. Just the general issues magazines have been having. Also, just having less and less talent over the years. This type of comedy is prevalent nowadays, Mad doesn’t present a unique value anymore.

    2. Sarah Palin’s Buttplug
      July.4.2019 at 2:37 pm
      “The final issue of ‘Mad’ has to have The Dotard on it. That is the only proper way to go out.”

      Naah. It needs a middle-aged loser day-trader with a coke habit named turd, dying of TDS.

      1. +1000

  10. j

  11. Get Woke out of your coma. R. Crumb has been non personed as a sexist and racist.

  12. Since I grew up in the sticks with the Ojibwa as the only non-whites around, MAD introduced me to Jewish culture with their references to gefilte fish, bagels, bubbe, zayde, etc.
    That and German military history :O

  13. What’s a magazine? /millennial

    1. Uh, no. We grew up with magazines. I got most of my playstation demo discs via magazines like EGM.

      As gen X and the rest of you older folks get old, you’re forgetting that millennials are getting older too. If the millennial generation started in early 1980s and ended in the mid-to-late 1990s, that means that the oldest millennials are in their late 30s (some are even turning 40 next year) and the youngest millennials are in their mid (not even early) 20s. Our generation now occupies the life stage “settling down, popping out children”. We’re getting older, we’re more worried about our 401(k)s and we’re getting a little more conservative now. Also, we remember magazines and cassette tapes. We remember dial-up internet and pay phones. We are too young to remember the days when you used to push a hoop with a stick to entertain yourself, though.

      Gen Z probably has very little memory of significant magazines, so you could deride them too if you need to make yourself feel a little better about how ancient you are.

  14. However Mad old or new reads to me now, I can’t forget how, when I finally saw Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece Barry Lyndon on the big screen a couple of years back, I was seeing every frame through the jokes, references, and look of the Mort Drucker–drawn parody in the first issue of Mad I convinced mom to toss in the cart at the supermarket

    I had the exact same experience, except it was with the movie Aliens. And this point:

    f you were ever a fan, your golden age was usually the first year or so you read it, likely between the ages of 10–13. …it’s more a magazine to absorb and leave behind in adolescene than a lifelong companion

    Also perfectly matches how it was for me.

    1. I remember the Star Wars parody immediately after Star Wars.

    2. Spock to captain after doing a survey of a just-captured Klingon ship: Captain I have surveyed the ship and I have found no bathrooms.

      Captain: I guess we will have to go where no man has gone before.

    3. When I saw “Airplane”, I realized that it was made in the style of a Mort Drucker movie parody.

  15. Sadly the magazine will be missed. While I have not read the magazine for years, I know that it gave me a great appreciation for satire in my formative years. I still appreciate that satire in articles and books. I sometime wonder if current and future generations will understand that your can respect and believe in things and still makes jokes about those beliefs. MAD magazine did not make me want to tear things down, but it did make me understand that nothings perfect.

  16. for some reason I remember mad magazines long-standing fight with the UPC symbol that they were forced to put on their cover, which the artists collectively hated.

  17. The earliest (I think) memory I have was the delicious title Voyage to See What’s On the Bottom. I don’t remember the content itself.

  18. I was probably around 10-13, too. But this was the mid-to-late 80s, and it was a stack of old Mad that a distant relative owned.

    I really didn’t understand fully all the ancient world depicted, but it was entertaining. The one feature which I really enjoyed was the foldable back page art/satire, political satire resonating particularly strongly with me as I learned intermediate reading (i.e., after Little Goldens, etc) starting with newspapers… Doonesbury and whichever op-ed cartoonist was printed in either the local rag or the

    Seems to me at some point Mad became Cracked, and I never really enjoyed Cracked, it relaying a future-gen sense of humor and culture I found to be as bewildering as that ancient-gen culture was.

    So it was a short-lived ride.

    I don’t think it ultimately failed for any nefarious sociopolitical reason as suggested; rather it is only the latest in a long list of casualties wrought by the advent of the Internet Age.

    There are such irreverent publications extant online; I occasionally like xkcd and periodically check Oglaf.

  19. I read it as a kid until the mid 80s.

    It’s amazing how much political humor even then had been recycled. I remember in high school (mid 80s) being the only one that knew who Spiro Agnew was (or really, even Watergate) because I was a reader of Mad.

  20. It was never all that funny, but it’s pretty much impossible to do humor like that now, with almost everything off limits and people offended so easily.

  21. Mad’s influence on baby boomer humor and general sense of life

    And that right there is the biggest reason it’s dying. It was designed to specifically appeal to the irreverence of the hippie generation. When those folks grew up and started having kids, families, and jobs, MAD lost it’s main reason for existing.

    They’ve been going downhill for a long time and it’s more of a surprise that it lasted this long. Their talent drain reflects the same thing going on in most legacy media these days–a bunch of overeducated yet very stupid and unselfaware people jerking themselves off.

    1. You’re late. The connection between MAD and jerking off has already been discussed above.

  22. Howard Stern still talks about MAD and will likely have a eulogy prepared when his show returns from vacation. “I was about to write a letter to MAD, Robin”.

    As it happens Stern is struggling to stay relevant and is a shell of what he once was. His show is now about cats and guys jacking each other off in studio. He will soon go the way of MAD. Sad to see former greats turn into sad parodies of themselves.

    1. In the 80s and 90s Stern was ahead of his time in both pushing boundaries and knowing how to brand himself. He can’t do that anymore because most media these days reflects the same type of trolling, lowest-common-denominator degeneracy that he marinated himself in to piss off his bosses, because the people who liked his stuff in his heyday are now the middle managers at TV and radio stations.

      And because he’s so entrenched in the Hollywood mainstream now, he doesn’t dare challenge the cultural status quo by dunking on self-important celebrities and media figures like he did in the 90s.

      He’s also in his mid-60s. There’s nothing edgy about someone who’s old enough to be a great-grandfather talking about fart jokes, porn stars, and masturbation. It’s just sad.

      1. a great-grandfather talking about fart jokes, porn stars, and masturbation.

        Sounds like the average Reason commenter.

      2. Did you see the recently leaked video from ’13 where Stern is harping on his crew to get A-list celebrities booked? He actually implored a gay staffer to reach out to a gay celebrity…because he’s gay too. It was so awkward because Howard wasn’t kidding.

        It’s a phenomenal 59 minute video if you find the time. His slide show is rife with spelling errors and inaccuracies. It’s both sad and hilarious.

        1. Howard needs to just accept that he’s at the “how do you do, fellow kids?” stage of his career and retire. He’s not bringing anything new to the table anymore, and because he built said career on juvenile antics rather than laid-back Americana like Paul Harvey, he can’t even make things work as a nostalgia act.

  23. “If you were ever a fan, your golden age was usually the first year or so you read it, likely between the ages of 10–13. Mad was diligent about regurgitating its legacy in reprint special issues and paperback books, so if you wanted to check out its past you could.”

    I actually found the golden age in those special reprint issues. The current ones (late 1960s for me as a 10-13-year-old) just seemed a bit tepid.

  24. No one mention Spy vs Spy. How does someone talk about mad and forget them. I do not remember to much politics in Mad. Mostly I remembered and like it’s dark humor.
    The one I like had a guy on death row waiting to hear word from the governor hoping for a pardon, When a guy walks in and say I have word from the governor. He tells the guy in the electric chair to hold a couple of cables. The man then walks out and you see the cables are connect to the governor car batteries, The man then yells “The governor says let it rip”.

    1. Spy vs. Spy was always my favorite part of Mad.

    2. Ah Spy vs Spy! Loved it, but had forgotten it was in Mad. Probably because the Spy vs Spy video game occupied much of my youthful attention [Pretty sure it was for Apple II or IIe. Even *that* memory is cloaked in the recesses of time!]

      1. Same here and yes it was on the apple //e + the commodore 64. I had the Apple //e and played it a lot.

  25. For better or worse — my parents (and perhaps other today) would say the latter — Mad’s Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions was a big part of my childhood.

  26. I loved the political digs. Not conservative, not liberal, shit like that would have killed the magazine. Just digs at politics. Digs that were funny because they hit home. Parents hated the magazine because parents had too much of their identity invested in politics, but kids know it was all bullshit. And if you can’t poke fun at bullshit, who can you poke fun at?

  27. Loved the movie parodies. MAD was a staple growing up in the mid 1960’s.

  28. At least we still have Lou Reed.

  29. I’m part of the Gen X Mad Mag years. But my sister is a Boomer and had those issues which me and my friends devoured.

    End of an era for real.

  30. I blame Mad for my blunt sarcasm.

  31. Me? I am not worried.

  32. “…it had been hitting Donald Trump regularly and hard in its newest iteration.” Got woke, went broke.

    I read several of the old reprint book collections over and over. The magazine had run a wide gamut of subjects and seemed to be a pretty equal opportunity skewer-er when they did political stuff. But by the 80’s they’d gone far left on political stuff and were putting political gags in things that would’ve been far better without. One (of many) was illustrations of onomatopoeia where one panel had a guy in a baseball uniform batting a football with “BO!” (Bo Jackson) and another with a bull shitting with “BUUUUSH!” as a tasteless offensive dig against George W. Bush.

    That comic strip musical was brilliant, one of the best things ever in MAD.

    1. They don’t get that conservatives read their (not just Mad) stuff too. Why they choose to alienate part of their readership (or viewership) strikes me as ill-advised if not lazy.

      Once it’s perceived you swing to one side too much, you lose your audience in all that didactic bull shit. It gets all so boring, predictable and smug. See late night talk shows.

      It’s like jumping the shark.

      1. Once you lean forward to far to one side, it creates a nasty feedback loop. You lose one side, then as you bring on new writers they tend to cater to your newer readership, which causes you to lean even further to that side. Which causes centrists that lean to the other side to stop paying, which causes your audience to lean even further, repeat until you have a fringe readership too small to pay the bills.

        1. Universities are in the middle part of that process.

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  34. I remember Mad doing a thing on deceptive toy advertising and tricks used by candy bar makers to deceive kids into thinking the candy bar inside the wrapper was bigger than it actually was. That’s where I got my BS detector.

  35. My favorite section was “scenes we’d like to see”. At 10 (1952) I wished they published more often because I couldn’t get enough. I ran to the store after calling to make sure it had been delivered.

  36. […] Mad Magazine Is Dead – This isn’t funny at all, but it’s relevant to one of the institutions (in more than one way) of comedy. […]

  37. […] The comics community is abuzz with the news that Mad magazine will, after two more issues, cease publication of original material and abandon newsstand distribution, becoming a reprint title available only in comic book shops (with the exception, Hollywood Re… Read More […]

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