Adieu, Mad Magazine
As many of you have heard by now, MAD Magazine will be ceasing the publication of new content. First reported by the Hollywood Reporter, multiple employees with MAD Magazine have been able to confirm that the magazine is making a drastic shift in how it publishes content. MAD is leaving the newsstands, instead of becoming published only to the direct market and subscribers. Various creators have also confirmed that MAD will no longer be publishing new content on a regular basis, instead of reprinting jokes and parodies from their 67 years of publication.
MAD Magazine first began in 1952, published under EC Comics and editor Harvey Kurtzman. Kurtzman worked triple duty as an artist and writer as well, working with legends Wally Wood, Will Elder, Jack Davis, and John Severin. However, the name of the book was simply “Tales Calculated to Drive You MAD,” and it was considered a comic book under the EC branding.
The early days of MAD focused on the general parody of genre concepts. This lasted until the third issue, where specific parodies of Dragnet and the Lone Ranger would come in. Unlike the later days of MAD, as you can see, this book was published in full color as a comic book.
Come to the rise of the Comics Code Authority, this would end as MAD moved to a magazine format with issue 24. This shift meant MAD had more autonomy to be as bizarre and unique as they wanted with humor and meant that the CCA had no way to censor them. MAD would be the only publication from EC to survive the CCA’s initial launch, which at times seemed specifically worded to shut down the company. Ironically, this wasn’t done specifically to avoid the CCA, but to keep Harvey Kurtzman on as editor and creator.
While the magazine moved to black and white, the page count also dramatically increased from 36 to 68. This gave the magazine more room for parody, and eventually at least one major pop culture skewering a month. Kurtzman himself would leave the book after three more issues, finding his calling elsewhere at the time.
Other popular features the magazine had included the timeliness Spy vs Spy, first premiering in 1961’s issue 60. Drawn and written by Antonio Prohias, this one was a personal favorite of mine. A Cuban ex-patriot who fled the country mere days before Castro took over the media, Prohias would skewer the Cold War in general with spy antics and over-the-top violence silently. The Spies would prove remarkably popular, receiving two different video game incarnations and multiple paperback book collections. Prohias would step down in 1987 after over 240 different adventures of the two Spies, but the strip was picked up by other creators and will be present in the final issue.
Starting in 1964, MAD Magazine added a revolutionary joke delivery system: the Fold-In. Created by legendary Al Jaffee, the Fold-In was devised as a reply to Playboy’s Centerfold pull out. Rather than unfolding to reveal a pin-up model or a poster, the artwork would fold in on itself in order to tell a joke. As the Fold-In evolved, it would eventually comment on all aspects of American society. The publisher Bill Gaines loved the concept. He would joke the collectors are anal enough to need two copies: one to fold, and one to keep in perfect condition!
Another long-running feature, “The Lighter Side of…” began in 1964. Created by Dave Berg, the style was more realistic than the majority of the art found in the rest of MAD. The humor was also milder than the rest of the magazine and was even accused of being old-fashioned at times. It was still one of the more popular features of the magazine until Berg passed on in 2002.
Many other famous artists have made their home with MAD Magazine. Sergio Aragones often called the fastest cartoonist alive, joined the magazine in 1963. Aragones spoke little English at the time but was taken in by the editors and creators of MAD like he was family. In fact, Antonio Prohias actually called Aragones his brother, causing no end of confusion in their early days with the magazine. While Aragones has struck out on his own with tons of individual projects, like his own Groo the Wanderer, it’s hard to argue that he would have had as much success if he hadn’t been with MAD first.
Don Martin is another artist it’s hard not to think of when you remember MAD Magazine. After joining with issue 29, Martin would work closely with the magazine until 1988’s issue 277. Despite parting ways with the magazine due to creative ownership and payment issues, Don Martin’s work was iconic and off the wall in ways that helped establish an identity for the magazine in the early days.
As MAD evolved through the years, they were eventually sold from EC Comics to the Kinney Parking Company. Despite being owned by a company that originally focused on things like parking structures, this company would also purchase struggling entities like Warner Bros and DC Comics. By the mid-90s, the Warner conglomerate chose to put MAD Magazine directly under DC as one of their publications, which resulted in mass merchandising of mascot Alfred E Neumann not seen since the magazine’s heyday back in the 1970s.
The magazine would be convinced to add actual advertisements that weren't parodied in 2001, which allowed the magazine to actually have color segments for the first time since it was a comic book. Flagging sales and quality concerns would move the book to a quarterly magazine in 2009, then back to bimonthly in 2010. While DC moved from New York to LA in 2015, MAD remained in their New York offices for a few more years. 2018 would have the magazine’s original run end, with 30-year editor John Ficarra choosing to step down and a new crew would oversee the relaunch of the magazine in LA.
Which, as you can see, lasted about a year.
Every fad has its imitators and hangers-on. Marvel would put out their own attempt at MAD with Crazy Magazine, but it suffered from low sales compared to MAD. Marvel ran the book from 1973 to 1983 and would populate the books with Marvel-centric spoofs, rewrites, and parody. Sick would also enter the market in 1960 but would take the rebellious humor to extreme distances. Of note is that the book was made by Captain America’s co-creator Joe Simon, and the magazine would last until 1980 with constant contributions from MAD Magazine contributors.
The longest-running of all of these, though, goes to Cracked Mazagine. Launched in 1958, Cracked would hang on by their proverbial fingernails until 2007 with a long-running rivalry with MAD that spanned decades and ‘raided’ creators. While Cracked was canceled in 2007 after a disastrous revamp, the name does live on with humor and listicle website Cracked.com.
MAD Magazine has always been a bastion of bizarre and off the wall humor, but not all of it has aged well. During the magazine’s heyday, the 1970s and 1980s, humor towards the LGBT community were more mean-spirited and offensive. The one that always springs to my mind is from their Star Wars parody in 1977.
Unfortunately, this was not changed when the 1999 Star Wars special was released to cash in on The Phantom Menace. While colorized in a wonderful fashion, any questionable jokes were left in.
MAD Magazine may not be leaving us for good, but it does leave a complicated legacy for now. As mentioned above, the magazine will still remain in publication for as long as the direct market can support it. It has been said that MAD will continue to make special publications and new content will come out with their year-end specials. Unfortunately, with MAD off the newsstands, it is questionable if any new readers will ever come across their content again.
At this point, MAD Magazine is on life support. Time will tell if this is just a recovery period for the magazine, or if MAD will suffer a slow retirement that happened to all their imitators all those decades ago.
Yes, we worry.