Mad Magazine #1

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

I recently purchased Absolutely MAD Magazine - 50+ Years, a DVD that contains every issue of Mad Magazine published between 1952 and 2005. That’s over 400 issues. I’m looking forward to reading all of them over the next couple of years and I plan on offering some commentary on each one. I thought it’d be interesting to see how the magazine changed over 50+ years and also use it as a window into the popular culture and trends of the times.

The first issue of Mad doesn’t look or feel like the Mad my generation is familiar with. It was comic-sized, it didn’t feature Alfred E. Newman anywhere in the book, and its brand of satire focused almost entirely on genre comic books. The book was the brainchild of Harvey Kurtzman, legendary cartoonist and editor. Harvey was pulling triple-duty at the time, editing EC Comic’s Frontline Combat and Two-Fisted Tales in addition to Mad. Despite his heavy workload, Mad #1 was an achievement in satire and storytelling, undoubtedly helped along by the talented illustrators and humorists Harvey managed to wrangle together to pitch in some pages.

The first story was a spoof on horror comics called “Hoohah!” It’s a fitting way to start the mag, considering EC Comics popularized horror comics in the 50s. It lays the gauntlet down and lets the reader know that nothing’s sacred in the eyes of the Mad Men, including EC’s own cash cow. “Hoohah!” was illustrated by Jack Davis and lampooned most of the horror comic conventions – the haunted house (and the protagonists’ increasingly illogical decisions to explore it), the creepy butler, the contrived back-story, the “gotcha” ending. All-in-all it was a fairly straight-forward parody, the best gag being Galusha, the male protagonist, constantly trying to sneak away from the house only to be wrangled back by the headstrong and horror story telling girlfriend, Daphne.

Wally Wood’s sci-fi spoof “Blobs!” was a take-off on the old morality tale. We’re in the distant future, where society’s dependence on machines has made everyone fat and lazy. Kurtzman and Wood were indeed futurists; I just don’t think they realized the future they predicted was coming down the pipe a lot sooner than 1,000,000AD. One of the more interesting aspects of the piece was how the machines were making men’s jobs easier and women’s housework easier. It’s a product of the times, of course, but I guess even futurists get some things wrong. Also, according to the cartoon, men of the future will rely on “disposable prefabricated robot women” for their sexual pleasure. Sales of the Real Doll compared to Viagra and porn downloads seem to be disproving that theory, as well, but time will tell.

The Mag then has two short stories, really smart, trippy stuff. One’s a sci-fi story about a boy that contemplates the infinite by studying a salt advertisement only to be sucked into the advert and the other tells the history of erasers via a Korean War parable transplanted into Roman times. Yeah, I know.

And then there’s Will Elder’s crime spoof, “Ganefs!” My favorite story of the issue, the visual gags were masterful and the nuances of the elaborate extortion-plot and escape plan perfectly lampooned all aspects of crime and action movies that we still see today. I laughed harder and harder as the characters run away from the coppers by car and then boat and then underwater, using their gun barrels as snorkels. An obvious but well-executed twist ending caps off the story perfectly and strengthens my undying love and appreciation for everything Will Elder has ever done.

The final story’s a western called “Varmint!” with art from John Severin. Plenty of great visual gags accompany a funny satire of the hard-as-nails, never-back-down cowboy looking for his man and killing anyone who gets in his way. I’m a fan of the slow pace and the heavy exposition that continuously streams from the characters' mouths. The story itself, about a cowboy that doesn’t realize that he’s the man he’s looking for, reminds me quite a bit of Atlas/Marvel Comic’s Outlaw Kid. Outlaw Kid started to run two years after this issue of Mad was published (but the whole “Outlaw Kid was looking for himself” angle wasn’t introduced until 2000), so Mad’s version of the story certainly came first. It makes me wonder if it was an often-used cowboy storyline from way-back-when or there was a little bit of influence taken from the Mad concept. As an interesting side note, John Severin actually supplied some covers for the 1970s relaunch of Outlaw Kid.

The rest of the mag consists of house ads, an ad for German-crafted binoculars (seven-years after WWII and we liked the krauts again, apparently), an ad for a mystery product that will turn you into a muscular girl-magnet, and an ad for an auto repair manual. Ads like these will be mercilessly skewered in future issues of Mad.

So that’s issue one. I don’t expect to be anywhere near this detailed for all 450+ issues but I at least wanted to start it off on the right foot.

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