Mad magazine has a place in American pop culture as one of the most successful humor magazines ever published. It's also great bathroom reading. Here's a brief history.
In 1947 Max Gaines, owner of Educational Comics (which published biblical, scientific, and historical comic books), was killed in a boating accident. He left the business to his 25-year-old son, William, a university student.
The younger Gaines renamed the company Entertainment Comics (EC) and got rid of the stodgy educational stuff. Instead, he started publishing more profitable crime, suspense, and horror comics like Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horrors, and House of Fear.
THE BIRTH OF MAD
Gaines paid his writers and artists by the page. Most of his employees preferred this-but not Harvey Kurtzman. Kurtzman was a freelancer who worked on Frontline Combat, a true-to-life battle comic that portrayed the negative aspects of war. He enjoyed writing it, but it took so long to research and write that he couldn't make a living doing it. So he went to Gaines and asked for a raise. Gaines refused, but suggested an alternative-in addition to his current work, Kurtzman could produce a satirical comic, which would be easier and more profitable to write. Kurtzman liked the idea and immediately started creating it.
The first issue of Tales Calculated to Drive You Mad: Humor in a Jugular Vein debuted in August 1952. It was a flop...and so were the next two issues. But Gaines didn't know it; back then, it took so long to get sales reports that the fourth issue-which featured a Superman spoof called Superduperman-was already in the works before Gaines realized he was losing money. By then, Mad had started to sell.
Gaines didn't expect Mad to be as successful as his other comics, but it turned out to be the only one that survived the wave of anti-comic hysteria that swept the country during the McCarthy era.
In 1953, Frederic Wertham, a noted psychologist and self-proclaimed "mental hygienist", published a book called The Seduction of the Innocents, a scathing attack on the comic book industry. Few comics were left untouched-Wertham denounced Batman and Robin as homosexuals, branded Wonder Woman a lesbian, and claimed that such words as "arghh", "blam", "thunk", and "kapow" were producing a generation of illiterates. The charges were outlandish, but the public believed it; churches across the country even held comic book burnings.
To defend themselves, big comic book publishers established the Comics Code Authority (CCA) to set standards of "decency" for the comic book industry and issue a seal of approval to comics that passed scrutiny. (Among the co-called reforms: only "classic" monsters such as vampires and werewolves could be shown; authority figures such as policemen, judges, and government officials could not be shown in any way that encouraged "disrespect for authority," and the words "crime", "horror", and "weird" were banned from comic book titles.) Magazine distributors would no longer sell comics that didn't adhere to CCA guidelines.
Gaines refused to submit his work the the CCA, but he couldn't withstand public pressure. By 1954, only four EC titles were left. Amazingly, Mad was one of them.
Gaines knew Mad wouldn't survive long unless he did something drastic to save it. So rather than fight the CCA, he avoided it: He dropped Mad's comic book format and turned it into a full-fledged "slick" magazine. Thus, it was no longer subject to CCA censorship.
The first Mad magazine was published in the summer of 1955. "We really didn't know how Mad, the slick edition, was going to come out," one early Mad staffer later recalled, "but the people whop printed it were laughing and getting a big kick out of it, so we said 'This has got to be good.'"
The first issue sold so many copies that it had to be sent back for a second printing. By 1960, sales hit 1 million copies, and Mad was being read by an estimated 58% of American college students and 43% of high school students.
In 1967, Warner Communications, which owned DC Comics, bought Mad, but it couldn't affect sales or editorial content: as part of the deal, Warner had to leave Gaines alone. In 1973 sales hit an all-time high of 2.4 million copies; since then they've leveled off at 1 million annually in the United States. There are also 12 foreign editions. Gaines died in 1992, but Mad continues to thrive.
WHAT, ME WORRY?
Alfred E. Neuman has been Mad magazine's mascot for years. But his face and even his "What, me worry?" slogan predate the magazine by 50 years. They were adapted from advertising postcards issued by a turn-of-the-century dentist from Topeka, Kansas, who called himself "Painless Romine".
(Image source: Kansas State Historical Society)Mad artists were able to rationalize their plagiarism, according to Harvey Kurtzman, after they discovered that Romaine himself had lifted the drawing from an illustration in a medical textbook showing a boy who had gotten too much iodine in his system.
Kurtzman first dubbed the boy "Melvin Koznowski". But he was eventually renamed Alfred E. Neuman, after a nerdy fictional character on the "Henry Morgan Radio Show." Strangely enough, that character had been named after a real-life Alfred Newman, who was the composer and arranger for more than 250 movies, including The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Grapes of Wrath.
*In 1965, Mad magazine was turned into an off-Broadway play called The Mad Show. Notices were sent out to New York theater critics in the form of ransom notes tied to bricks. The show gave performances at 3:00 p.m. and midnight, and sold painted rocks, Ex-Lax, Liquid Drano, and hair cream in the lobby. The play got great reviews from the press and ran two years, with bookings in Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, and other major cities. It was reportedly a major influence on the creators of "Laugh-In".
*The Mad Movie, Gaines' first attempt to adapt Mad for the silver screen, was dumped before production began, and Up The Academy, Mad's second effort, was so bad that Gaines paid $50,000 to have all references to the magazine edited out of the film. An animated TV series in the early 1970s was pulled before it aired. In the mid-1990s, "Mad TV" debuted on the Fox network.
_________________________The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Legendary Lost Bathroom Reader.
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