“Don’t Go Away, Mad”
By Robert Anton Wilson
from Ralph Ginzburg’s fact:
Volume 2, Issue 6
Though the John Birch Society is fighting Mad, and even Mad Aye’s just aching to get Mad, the Madmen remain as uninhibited – nay, as madcap as ever. Reason: the millions of Madolescents who, are confirmed Maddicts have lots and lots of Mad money
Up to now, the Radical Right has been pretty lucky. True, it has antagonized a lot of librarians, psychiatrists, and P.T.A. members, but these groups have always been, as enemies go, rather meek and ineffectual. But now the Right Wing’s luck has run all the way out. For it has gone and picked on Mad Magazine, and now it is no longer messing with amateurs and softies but with the most savage and artful assassins in America today. The Right Wing has gone from fighting Girl Scouts to tangling with hell-for-leather Marines.
It took an unusual amount of valor combined with an extraordinary lack of discretion to attack Mad, and, logically enough, the men responsible were both retired Army generals. First, a brigadier general denounced Mad on a TV show down South, calling the magazine “the most insidious Communist propaganda in America today.” His wrath was inspired by Mad’s having published a hipster version of the Gettysburg Address (“Fourscore and like seven years ago. . .”). Next, Maj. Gen. Edwin A. Walker hurled down his gauntlet by publicly announcing his little list of pet peeves – and la, Mad Magazine led even Harvard University.
The Madmen nursed their wounds, bided their time, and then – in their July, 1965, issue – struck back. “The magazine’s inside back cover depicted a Right Wing rally on the steps of the Statue of Liberty. The reader was asked to fold the page according to instructions supplied at the top – and then the picture changed and the rally’s leader was shown running a sword through Miss Liberty’s heart. Two months later, in its September issue, Mad portrayed a day in the life of a John Birch Society policeman, including his attendance at a Birch Society meeting to hear a lecture on “Better Policemen for a Better Police State.” Obviously, these attacks have been just warm-ups; more is to come.
Hoping to stimulate the feud a bit more, Fact sent a. copy of the Mad article to Robert Welch, dictator of the Birch Society, and asked for his comments. Alas, Mr. Welch is wisely hightailing it for the hills. Wrote Mrs. Mary F. White, Welch’s assistant: “We feel that it would be much better to ignore both the ‘article’ and its source.”
By running away after attacking Mad, Mr. Welch was doing a typically Right thing and an untypically right thing. After all, others who have fought with Mad in the past have lost abysmally. Ten years ago, for example, Time Magazine, with its usual uncanny accuracy, called Mad “a “‘short-lived satirical pulp.” Mad waited a few years, then ran a devastating satire on monopoly newspapers, including one mock story, that read “as follows:
DAILY MONOPOLY WINS COVETED “HENRY R. LUCE AWARD”
FOR EXCELLENCE IN NEWS REPORTING
New York, Feb. 13-Henry R. Luce, Editor-in-Chief of LIFE and TIME Magazines, presented The Daily Monopoly with his annual award for “Excellent News Reporting” today.
“Of all the newspapers considered,” said Luce, “The Daily Monopoly most closely follows the long-established journalistic traditions of LIFE and TIME in not allowing such mundane and unimportant things as facts to stand in the way of the personal feelings and prejudice of its publisher and editor in the presentation of straight news.”
Nor is being in the firing lines anything new for Mad. Once it urged its readers to subscribe to the “Crime-of-the-Month Club” by writing to “Mafia, Italy.” This prompted a stern rebuke from a postal inspector – the Italian Government had protested to the State Department, which asked the New York Post Office to investigate.
Another time, Mad ran an article on games, including a section on “How to Become a Draft Dodger.” It recommended its readers, in order to get their official Draft Dodger card, to write to J. Edgar Hoover. Not long after, an FBI man paid a formal-visit to the Madhouse on New York’s Lexington Avenue to warn the staff that Hoover was decidedly not amused.
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Despite its penchant for trouble and its passel of enemies, Mad is thriving as no other American satire magazine ever has. It boasts a circulation of 1,900,000, which includes 43% of the nation’s high-school students and 58 % of the nation’s college students, as well as adults like Herbert Gold, Jack Kerouac, and Orson Bean, in addition to virtually every cartoonist and humorist in the country. Maddicts adore their magazine as much as Cassius Clay adores Cassius Clay. They send the editor 1500 letters every week, and a few readers have collected every single copy since Vol. 1, No.1, 13 years ago. At the 1960 Republican National Convention, Mad fans even squirmed past guards to wave an ALFRED E. NEUMAN FOR PRESIDENT sign in the middle of a Goldwater demonstration. Neuman, an imbecilic child with buck teeth and a fatuous grin, is Mad’s mascot, like Playboy’s bunny. In fact, china busts of Neuman sell in the millions, and his motto – “What-me worry?” – has become so famous it may soon appear in Bartlett’s. Mad’s camp followers also purchase Swedish, Danish, and British editions, three “annual” reprint editions every year bearing such titles as The Worst of Mad, More Trash from Mad, and Son of Mad,plus paperback reprints and hard-cover rereprints. Like all ingroups, Mad readers have their own language, which consists of nonsensical words like “potrzebie,” “furd,” “veeblefetzer,” “axolotl,” and “eccch.” One fan has published a cross-index to the magazine, The Complete Mad Checklist. A few other fans have gone so far as to print entire magazines devoted to Mad, one of which, entitled Hoo-hah, publishes articles like “What is Potrzebie?” (Answer: a Polish word for aspirin.) ,
Mad has even given birth to a classicist cult, just as film and jazz have. Where your film classicist dotes on the early Griffith and Eisenstein and deplores the decline of the art since sound was introduced, and your jazz enthusiast puts down every innovation in the blues since 1928, the Mad classicist claims that the first 3 years (1952-55) were the best, and that Mad has been going down ever since. When asked about this cult, Mad editor Albert Feldstein replies tersely, “Nuts to them. No further comment.”
This is a sore point with the 39-year-old Feldstein, since Mad had a different editor in those years, one Harvey Kurtzman, who left after a dispute with Mad publisher William M. Gaines. Feldstein prefers not to discuss the Kurtzman cult, but Gaines will discuss it eagerly and at great length, pointing out that Kurtzman has started three magazines since he left Mad. One of them was called Trump, and in this venture Kurtzman had the solid backing of Playboy’s Hugh Hefner, trying to duplicate his success in swiping the Esquire formula. Trump, along with Kurtzman’s two other imitations, failed, and now he and artist Will Elder are doing a comic strip, “Little Annie Fanny,” for Playboy.
To get his side of it, I telephoned Kurtz man in Mt. Vernon, New York. “I’ll admit,” he told me, “that Feldstein has a successful formula -he touches the mass market more than I did. However, Al Feldstein did an imitation of Mad when it first came out, called Panic, and it failed. Mad has cornered the market. It had a running head-start and a lot of money to work with.” Kurtzman also mentioned being miffed because the early annual Mad collections don’t have his name on them. “I really got them together myself and laid them out and made the covers, and they all had my name on them. After I left, my name was carefully deleted in the collections. A kind of dirty pool.”
* * *
The reason for Mad’s maddening success might astonish its readers. Writer Richard Gehman hinted at it when he said, “The main reason for Mad’s popularity is its thumb-nosing attitude.” George Lea, a Chicago writer, says “Mad puts everybody and everything on.” Al Feldstein, Mad’s editor, is closest when he says, “People enjoy satire because in laughing they get rid of some pent-up hostility.”
The most penetrating analysis ever made of Mad was a study by psychologist Charles Winick, writing in the Merrill-Palmer-Quarterly at Behavior and Development in July, 1962. According to Dr. Winick, the very name – Mad suggests hostility. What Mad does is to let its teen-aged readers vent their antagonism toward adults and the world of adult_ in an acceptable way.
The magazine, says Dr. Winick, “largely mocks the adult world. This is a world in which the magazine’s readers have not yet engaged directly, but which they are approaching during a period when they are trying to learn who they are and what their feelings’ are. By enjoying satire on this adult world, they can approach it while mocking it.”
Dr. Winick goes on: “A major problem of adolescents is how to express their hostility while seeming not to do so. One noted expression of this conflict was ‘Hound Dog. . . .’ This rock-and-roll record sold 5,500,000 copies, almost all to teen-agers. Its lyrics represent pure hostility. . . . Elvis Presley, the nonpareil exemplar of the rock-and-roller’s hostility toward the adult world, is the first performer in history to make a long-playing record that sold over a million copies. Another example of adolescents’ ability to use media in this way is the extent to which they will seem to read all of a school-circulated magazine (i.e.,Reader’s Digest) which has both serious and humorous material, but will pay attention to the jokes and cartoons, and largely ignore serious material.”
Mad, in short, gives its young readers a socially acceptable outlet for releasing their aggressions against the frightening world that adults have built around them. Says Dr. Winick: “The adolescent readers of the magazine face the prospect of going out into the adult world, not with anxiety but with an opportunity for gratification through laughter, as they achieve symbolic mastery over the adult world by continually assuring themselves that its institutions and personalities cannot be taken seriously.”
Among the adult institutions ridiculed again and again by Mad are movies, magazines and newspapers, television, and – especially advertising. Mad has satirized virtually every major advertising campaign of the past 13 years. It is Mad’s forte. Every time a new cigarette ad is launched, Mad will parody it – including a blunt reminder that cigarettes cause cancer. For example, in a parody of a famous Lucky Strike ad, Mad first ran a picture of a rough hombre smoking a Lucky, carrying a rifle, and being admired by two younger men. The line underneath: “Likely Strife separates the men from the boys. . . .” The next picture showed the same fellow, still carrying his rifle, but in a doctor’s office now-being told he has lung cancer. The line underneath: “. . . but not from the doctors.”
Every new liquor ad is also picked up by Mad-with a jolting suggestion that the customer will probably wind up with a case of the DTs. Old Crow whiskey has recently been running stories of great moments in American history that were connected with its booze. This drew from Mad a picture with these lines: “John Wilkes. Booth gets primed for the job with Old Croc. . . . American idiots, alcoholics and assassins have been getting up their nerve with Old Croc for 127 years.” When the American Medical Association began its series of “Great Moments in Medicine,” Mad struck back with a painting, on the same style as the A.M.A. ads, showing a “Great Moment” called “Presenting the Bill.” The unfortunate patient, just recovering from a heart attack, ‘is shown suffering another one as he finds out how much the doctor is charging him. And Life Savers ads were parodied in a dentist’s bill, with Life Savers in place of the zeroes, “Decayers” in place of “Life Savers,” and the terse motto, “The best friend your dentist ever had.”
The most brutal of Mad’s recent onslaughts was against Bayer aspirin. “Bayer needs fast relief!” shrilled this ad. “Disastrous rumors about all aspirins being alike is causing company GREAT CONCERN. You can’t imagine how sick the Bayer people are about-this vicious rumor.” Off to one side is Bayer’s familiar cross-section of the human body, with the stomach bearing a new motto: “What are you doing here for a headache, stupid?” Opposite this is the usual criss-crossed “Bayer” trademark with the caption, “Men who know medicine recommend aspirin. The trouble is, they never recommend Bayer by name-despite the billions of free samples we send them. . . because aspirin is aspirin, darn it!” The usual panel of satisfied customers appears somewhat distorted: “I take Bayer because competition from other aspirins is giving me that anxious feeling of NAUSEA,” says a gent inconspicuously labeled as the president of the Bayer Aspirin Company. “I take Bayer because aggravation from my client is giving me that gut-ripping feeling of ULCERS!” enthuses the president of Fink Advertising Agency. But a simple housewife says bluntly, “I don’t take Bayer because I get plain just-as-good aspirin much cheaper, which gives me a feeling of THRIFT.” She is holding up a bottle of “1000 aspirin $0.79.”
Mad’s ridicule of other American institutions is often quite as brilliant as its take-offs on advertisements. What it did to Reader’s Digest was a classic. Showing a mock cover of the magazine Reader’s Digress, it listed these typical articles: “We Are Losing Idaho and Montana to the Russians”; “What Your Dog Should Know About Sex”; “We Is Winning the Education Battle with the Reds”; “The Day They Shot Jim Bishop”; “The D.A.R.-A Communist Menace”; and, “My Twenty-Five Favorite Dirty Jokes, Passed Off by The Reader’s Digress as Wholesome American Folklore.”
One feature of Mad’s satire is only discovered when you wade through a few hundred issues and copy out excerpts for use in an article about Mad, as I have recently done. This discovery is that, without the charming illustrations by Mad’s artists, Mad’s words seem more blunt and considerably braver than they do in the company of the illustrations. The hostility becomes more naked, less jovial, when the illustrations are missing. Mad’s appeal, obviously, is as a catharsis for those who feel they will go berserk if some form of counterattack against Mad Avenue’s calculated insults to our intelligence is not provided for them. The teen-agers apparently are the ones, not yet “adjusted” to our society, who need this form of counteraggression most.
* * *
The men who run Mad are, not surprisingly, a little like rambunctious adolescents themselves. William M. Gaines, the 200-pound publisher, is a resolutely noncommercial individual who has nevertheless made a million dollars several times over in his 43 years. E.C. Publications, the firm that publishes Mad, has always been more of a joke than a business to him. He calls an editorial conference by honking a Harpo Marx horn, and clears the air (when a conference develops disagreements) by firing a blank cartridge from an old Western pistol. He has never installed an inter-com system: When he wants to speak to the editor, he bellows, “Hey, Al!” When the editor wants to speak to Gaines, he bellows, “Hey, Bill!” The offices are decorated with signs bearing such inspiring mottoes as “GOD BLESS OUR FALLOUT SHELTER, “DOWN WITH GOOD TASTE,” and –largest of all – BILL GAINES IS A RAT FINK.”
Typical of Bill Gaines’s way of running a business is a whim that struck him in 1960, when he discovered that Mad’s only subscriber in Haiti had not renewed for 1961. Gaines immediately did what seemed logical to him. He chartered a plane and flew the entire 9-man staff of Mad to Haiti, where they sought out the recalcitrant subscriber and knelt on the ground before him, begging him to renew. When the subscriber continued to play hard to get, Gaines presented him with an honorary gift subscription for life, gave the staff a week at a Haitian hotel at his own expense, and flew back to New York.
Again like an adolescent, Gaines loves practical jokes. For 4 years he had Mad’s office boy convinced that he had a criminal twin brother, “Rex” Gaines. frequently Bill would leave the office early, then the villainous “Rex” would lurch in, ask the terrified office boy some incomprehensible and sinister questions, snatch a few dollars from the petty-cash box, and disappear. Filially tiring of this game, Bill told t4e office boy that “Rex” had departed on a world cruise, and never brought him back.
* * *
Gaines got into the satire business more or less by accident. Educated at New York University, he was preparing for a career as a chemistry teacher when his father was killed in an automobile crash and he inherited E.C. Publications, then a fumbling little company putting out such comics as Picture Stories from History and Picture Stories from the Bible. Parents approved of these comics, but children found them dull and traded 10 of them for one Batman. Gaines, a fan of horror magazines and old horror movies, introduced two new B.C. comics, Vault of Horror and Tales of the Crypt. (Some of the most gruesome stories were written by Gaines himself, in collaboration with Al Feldstein, who now edits Mad.) Kids went for these comics in a big way, and even some adults began reading them and sending Gaines fan letters; for a while it looked as if E.C. Publications was on its way to a big success in the horror field. Then the roof fell in.
Dr. Fredric Wertham, a New York psychiatrist, wrote a book, Seduction of the Innocent, charging that crime and horror comics were a major cause of juvenile delinquency, and his worst examples were drawn from Vault of Horror and Tales of the Crypt. Mothers’ groups and P.T.A.s around the country began passing resolutions condemning Gaines; local censorship drove his books out of the candy stores in many places; and, finally, the late Sen. Estes Kefauver summoned Gaines to appear before his Congressional Committee in 1952. Both Kefauver and the nation’s press portrayed Gaines as a callous monster, seducing children into sadistic practices and lining his pockets with the profits of crime. ”
Bill Gaines was almost crushed by this experience. He believed-and still believes that his horror books were genuine literature in the tradition of Poe, Hoffmann, and Lovecraft. Confronted by Kefauver’s moral indignation, Gaines mumbled and shambled nervously and behaved exactly like the guilty wretch Dr. Wertham had accused him of being. When the ordeal was over, Gaines came back to New York, stopped publication of his horror comics, and concentrated his energies on the new comic, Tales Calculated To Drive You Mad, which he had just launched as a parody of his horror books.
The first issue of Tales Calculated To Drive You Mad consisted, of a parody of one of Gaines’s horror comics, a parody of one of his science-fiction comics, a parody of one of his competitors’ crime comics, and a parody of a Western movie (“Varmint”). Tales Calculated To Drive You Mad succeeded so well that, by 1955, it was outselling the combined total of all the horror comics before they were abandoned. Gaines then shortened the title to Mad, converted to slick paper and an adult format, and raised the price from 101 to 251 (it’s 301 now). The rest is history.
Despite his success with Mad, Gaines is anything but ambitious. He loves to tell the story of a brief conversation he once had with Hugh Hefner. Hefner asked him, “What new projects are you starting?'” Gaines replied firmly, “None.” Hefner gasped in horror, “None?” “It was like blasphemy,” Gaines chuckles, as he tells the story. “Nothing could have shocked Hefner, I’m sure, any more than that.”
Yet Gaines does retain a pained nostalgia for the old Vault of Horror days. So do many of his old readers. Recently the publisher showed me a letter from a man, a Ph.D. in the physics department of a leading university, who confessed being a Vault of Horror fan and begged Gaines to revive that magazine. “I get two or three letters like that every month,” said Gaines proudly. But when I asked him if he might bring back Vault of Horror, his lips pressed together determinedly and he said, “Never.”
Former editor Harvey Kurtzman, who admits “I see red when I talk about Mad,” nonetheless has many kind words to say about Gaines. “I think Bill is an intelligent man. There was always a straightness and an honesty that impressed me about Gaines. I never knew him to sell out. He has integrity.”
On the other hand, Kurtzman left Mad because he couldn’t take what he calls Gaines’s paternalism. “I was just being strangled under his paternalism. He holds his people very tightly and jealously, and he treats them like little children. You have the feeling that you just don’t have any rights. Instead of just handing you a bonus at Christmas time, he’d buy us-oh, one guy would get an outboard motor, another guy. . . I remember once I got a very expensive camera-projector set. Well, the point was, if I did good work, I wanted cash for it, cash 1 could spend for myself.”
Another former Madman, artist Will Elder, says of Gaines: “I felt Bill had to be the nucleus of activity, or else he was quite cold. And I think he kind of did all the thinking for us. 1 knew a lot of us resented that.”
Finally, editor Feldstein has this to say about his boss: “Mr. Gaines is a unique publisher. He’s honest. He’s not money-mad-regardless of what some people say. And Bill gives me complete editorial freedom, except for working in an advisory capacity, where he might feel 1 was going overboard with a legal problem. He has refused to merchandise this magazine, and he has not opened the pages for ads. Yes, we have been approached for ads-by the Coca-Cola people. We turned them down.”
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Mad is certainly to be praised for its honesty, for instilling a healthy attitude of skepticism in America’s adolescents, and for being an hilariously funny magazine. But it does have its faults. What most readers object to, however, is startling: Alfred E. Neuman, Mad’s mascot.
Gaines is so fond of Neuman that he has turned down thousands of offers from companies that want to make Alfred E. Neuman wrist watches, calendars, etc. Once Gaines let an Alfred E. Neuman T-shirt be marketed, but soon had qualms and withdrew it from the market. “I can’t commercialize Alfred,” he said. (The picture itself may have originated in a noncopyrighted ad for an Ohio State Fair in 1892. As for the name, Alfred E. Neuman was a mad scientist in one of the horror stories Gaines and Feldman wrote for Tales from the Crypt.)
According to Dr. Winick, who conducted a poll of 411 regular readers of Mad, one-half of those who expressed any dissatisfaction with the magazine did so because of Neuman. Their explanations were that he “runs too often,” “looks too dopey,” and so on. (Curiously, most of the students who liked Neuman were doing poorly in school. Says Dr. Winick: “It can be speculated that the less successful students are more likely to identify with Neuman because he conveys a feeling of failure, defeat, defensiveness, and uninvolvement. His non-worry slogan has a ‘let the world collapse, 1 don’t care’ quality, and his appearance suggests stupidity. . . . The less effective adolescent might like Mad because of Neuman, who represents fecklessness and nonachievement.”)
The ubiquity of Alfred E. Neuman, though a minor matter, is one thing definitely wrong with Mad. Richard Gehman complains of the magazine’s occasional monotony. Then there are the stories that are just plain silly-like the loathe some Spy vs. Spy feature. And then there is the complaint that virtually everyone hurls at any magazine at one time or another: that it’s edited by formula. As artist Will Elder says, “1 thinkMad has found a formula, and it’s happy with it. It’s the same old cookie they keep stamping out. Occasionally they come out with something real good, but its not enough. And I think their formula is running the magazine downhill-because nothing new is done, nothing experimental is done.”
The most current criticism of Mad, however, is not that it’s edited by formula, but that it sedulously avoids important social issues. In other words, that even Mad has a few sacred cows.
Esquire Magazine was among the first to assert this, last year, in a weak parody of Mad. “Hey, gang!” wrote Esquire. “Have you ever noticed how we are the leading magazine of satire and act brave about daring to poke fun at all kinds of sacred cows, but mainly we never criticize anything that really matters:?” Some topics Esquire suggested: integration, capital punishment, poverty, and fall-out.
As usual, though, Esquire was a few years behind the times. Mad used to avoid important issues; but no longer. If. any thing, Mad seems to be turning into an illustrated version of the Nation. .
In the last few years Mad has dealt with capital punishment, poverty, labor-management relations, problems of Latin America, – nuclear war, and-as the attack on the John Birch Society shows-with politics. The funny thing is, these articles usually haven’t been funny. As one reader, Rick Wood of Memphis, Tennessee, wrote to Mad recently, “In the old days, Mad Magazine aimed its satire at such allied industries as comic books and advertising. Today, the admitted clods at Mad aim their barbed shafts at government, art, politics, and anyone else unfortunate enough to stand in their way. Today, thru progress,Mad is sharply satiric, bitter, pointed, and fraught with meaning. Once upon a time, Mad was funny!”
The fact is, this is probably the most serious criticism to be made of Mad-it’s getting a little bit too serious, too social-minded, and in that direction lies disaster. For most of Mad’s readers are simply not interested in international affairs and in major social problems. In his survey, Dr. Winick found that “Respondents expressed no interest in seeing problems of adolescence like parents, vocational choice, or sex treated by the magazine. Its readers seem to prefer that matters close to them not be satirized, with the exception of movies and education, which are both relatively external institutions. . . . Adolescents may have difficulty in perceiving comic elements in situations in which they themselves are involved.”
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But if Mad does keep on its present road and does begin losing circulation, and if Bill Gaines suddenly decides to take a whack at the old horror comics again, there would be at least one benefit. For it has been rumored that at typical Mad story conferences, the entire staff tries to outdo one another in telling sexy and scabrous stories, none of which, of course, ever appears in the magazine. “We have,” boasts editor Feldstein, “the greatest collection of unprintable material in the world. Compared to us, the Kinsey Institute is just a library for kindergartners. And we’re going to publish all of it-in our last issue.”
That last issue will certainly be something to see. I only hope that, long before it arrives, Mad has gotten around to giving the John Birch Society the coup de grace.