MAD Magazine may fold up, but Alfred E. Neuman will always have the last hurrah

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As the gap-toothed freckled hero took his final bow, let’s take a look at some of the MADdest of the ‘Usual Gang of Idiots’…

In this dog-eat-dog world, we can’t possibly afford to be as happy-go-lucky as Alfred E. Neuman. But we can certainly try. | AP

I grew up in a household filled with towers (appeared like towers to a toddler) of back issues of Mad. As I couldn’t read, the only thing that made any (a LOT of) sense to me was Spy vs Spy. Simple, uncomplicated, black and white, and amusing. I would see them try (and fail) to kill each other using a plethora of weapons (bombs, maces, sharks, super glue) at their disposal. Each panel more outrageous than the next. This might sound shocking to some (especially in today’s hypersensitive, easily triggered world) but censorship was an alien concept in the house I grew up in. The biggest shelf at the bottom of my bookshelf is crammed with hundreds of Mad magazines, some torn, old, discoloured, falling apart and missing covers.

My father had rummaged around in second-hand bookshops in his youth to get most of the back issues (that his father definitely disapproved of his choice of reading matter is an entirely different story). When I look through some of them, I find my own illustrations jostling for space in those panels.

Now that Mad is closing down I get that sinking feeling. After all, this is where I thought I would go to work one day. Wistful thinking, maybe, but if only dreams were horses…

 

 

Alfred E. Neuman was one of the first characters I learnt to draw. With his red hair, freckles and signature gap toothed grin he was easy enough, smiling at me beatifically from the cover with his motto “What, me worry?” Neuman also happens to be one of the best masters of disguise — Batman, Yoda, Tom Cruise (the Top Gun version with Kelly McGillis sticking her tongue out behind him), Barack Obama, Harry Potter and even Justin Bieber, weird hair and all. Any cosplayer can only aspire to attain his levels of verisimilitude. Every issue of Mad is prefaced with his wise words. Sample: “If you were to kick the person responsible for most of your problems, you wouldn’t be able to sit down for a week”, “He who fights and runs away lives to run another day”, “Blood is thicker than water... but it makes lousy lemonade!”, “Man does not live by bread alone! Once in a while he needs buttering up!”, and most importantly, “When you’re in deep water it’s a good idea to keep your mouth shut!” — very practical counsel, if you ask me.

Opening an issue of Mad, you’d be greeted with their mailbag, the LETTERS AND TOMATOES DEPT. The letters are as quirky as the magazine itself and the letter-writers are rewarded with an instant reply. Sample this reader’s question: “I am hoping you can explain MAD artist Al Jaffee’s fixation with bones. Every time he draws barf there are bones in it. No one throws up bones! You would choke to death first!” Mad replied: “Wend-o, you are wrong. Al Jaffee does not have a fixation with bones, he has a fixation with barf! The multiple appearances of bones are just one of those funny little coincidences!” And another one: “…wondered where you get all your ideas for features from? Do you have ‘think tanks’ or something?” and the Mad reply: “The only ‘tank’ we have in the office is the one we keep ‘Henry’ our hamster in!” Mad is a magazine that takes its readers and subscribers seriously enough to respond to them with the utmost facetiousness.

The Mad version of the latest blockbuster (with its not so flattering caricatures of the cast) is likely to be more memorable than the actual blockbuster. Mort Drucker, who illustrated most of them, imbued the on-screen characters with new verve. In their Star Roars version, Bar-Stool (R2-D2) asks Cree-Pio (C-3PO) “Beedee! Boop! Tweet! Translation: If we are both robots, Cree-Pio, how come we look-and-talk-so different?” Cree-Pio shoots back, “Because I happen to be a magnificent articulate golden Adonis and you are a sawed-off incoherent stupid sack of bolts!” To which Bar-Stool responds “Beepdeep! Boop! Translation: I knew there had to be a scientific reason for it!”

 

 

Mad apparently ran into a spot of trouble when they featured a parody of The Empire Strikes Back in 1980. George Lucas’ lawyers sent a notice to stop publication of that issue and to destroy even the printing plates. Mad sent a response right back — a letter from Lucas himself praising the parody: “Special Oscars should be awarded to Drucker and DeBartolo, the George Bernard Shaw and Leonardo da Vinci of comic satire.” They didn’t hear from the lawyers after that. Who can forget his 1982 October cover featuring the entire cast of the hit series M*A*S*H with Alfred E. Neuman as a spot-on rendition of Radar, complete with trademark spectacles and hat?

Yet another staple is The Lighter Side Of… brought to you by the BERG’S EYE VIEW DEPT. Written and Illustrated by Dave Berg is a series of panels depicting everyday scenarios on eclectic topics ranging from Sleep to Employment, Relationships, Smell (after months of experimenting with various expensive fragrances, a girl reveals to her friend, the only one that got a reaction out of her boyfriend was the smell of beer. She says this as she empties a can of beer on her head), Finance, Doctors, etc. A sporadically recurring character, is hypochondriac Roger Kaputnik with his doctor in tow. Kaputink was actually Berg’s own self-caricature. His colleagues and publisher also appeared in his panels, the latter whose head was often mounted on a wall, like a moose head. That is where I learnt my first coke maxim (altered from beer, I was eight at the time) — don’t look at a glass of coke as half full or half-empty, take it in a can. Still holds true to this day.

Mad’s maddest artist was of course Don Martin. His panels emitted sound that stayed with you. His wild and wacky illustrations of people with hinged feet came punctuated with unique onomatopoeias — BLAM BLOOM BLAM BLOOM (the sound of guns firing at a yeech monster), BLIT (eyes being vacuumed), FWOOSH SPLASHLE (man being splashed in the face by a horse) and AAAAGH EEEEEOOOW ACK! UGH UGH MMP AGH! AEEK (painful extraction of a deep-rooted tooth). Sometimes these were more memorable than the cartoon and unknowingly crept into your vocabulary as well. The sheer vastness of sounds conjured by Don Martin warranted a cataloguing, which is available, should you wish to know, for example, what a man having a heart attack sounds like (ACK GAK GARK!). For the hardcore Don Martin fans, Running Press came out with his artwork in two hardcover volumes, red and complete with his rendition of the Mona Lisa and The Blue Boy on either cover. Believe me, it’s worth blowing all your money on! Sample these gems: a man in a restaurant orders a soup which comes with a couple of flies floating in it, he angrily calls the waiter and demands another soup. The waiter returns with a soup with even more flies swimming around, the man now happily drinks it. Another one: a burglar is robbing a safe in a skyscraper, a bat flies in through the window (FlIFF FLIFF) and (PAF) turns into Dracula. Shocked, the burglar turns around and then says: “Whew! For a second there I thought you were Batman!”

Later editions got thinner, and there was no more Don Martin. Duck Edwing’s TALES FROM THE DUCK SIDE DEPT. began after Martin left Mad. Don ‘Duck’ Edwing, who signed his name, with a little duck illustration (his wife went by the name Cluck) initially wrote the gags which Don Martin illustrated. He was Mad’s unsung hero, as much of his writing went uncredited in the early years. His bulbous-nosed characters’ main job was to torture people in different settings; from a group of cannibals to medieval executioners to a Mexican firing squad. Duck later took over Spy vs Spy from Antonio Prohías. Prohías, a Cuban cartoonist who fled the Castro regime, was the original creator of the Spy vs Spy series, long suspected of having been trained by the CIA.

Sergio Aragonés is the creator of A MAD Look at things from the SERGE-IN-GENERAL DEPT. Another favorite of mine. A MAD Look at things features wordless cartoon panels themed on a variety of subjects from UFOs, Disney Classics, Art, Hospitals, etc. He also did the tiny illustrations you find on the margins of the magazine, called Drawn out Drama or marginals. These would be scattered throughout the magazines anywhere, unconnected to the main text of the panel or article. It could be dolphins swimming up to the beach, attracted by the music emanating from a radio beside a sunbathing woman; or a handyman wondering why there is no water coming from the pipe, failing to notice the flowers growing near the leak; or the flying rocket right in the middle of the dividing space between the panels.

 

 

And on the last page (the back flap) of the magazine you had the classic Mad Fold-In. This was something I looked forward to in every issue. There’s the quiz question to ponder in the left corner with an image below along with some text, two triangles marked A and B placed on either side below it. Carefully folding the page (this was the trickiest part; you needed to get it just right — in fact, all of this careful folding turned out to be beneficial in the future for me, engendering patience and delicate manoeuvring skills that stood me in good stead in laboratory classes) revealed the answer to the question. Sample: The panel is captioned “What problem has stumped many of our greatest technological minds?” with an image of scientists arguing in thought bubbles; on folding, we find the simple-enough answer: “Remembering their passwords.”

In one of the issues (January 1991) Alfred E. Neuman reminded us gleefully that the TIME magazine wrote Mad off four years after it was born (“…MAD — a short lived satirical pulp…”). The fact is, I kept repeatedly going back to the Mad magazines and still do, I think it helped me grow a little. Fact also is that Martin, Berg and Prohías had been dead since 2000, 2002 and 1998 respectively when I was still too young to know. But that didn’t stop them from helping me grow.

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