As a cultural reference, MAD magazine may have died decades ago. This is a not a disparagement, but a statement of fact. The kind of satire the august, anarchic comic first unleashed on the world of 1952 debuted in a cultural milieu that is no more, and a form—the illustrated, satirical periodical—that is increasingly niche. MAD left an indelible impression on American publishing’s past, but as the magazine’s legendary cartoonist Al Jaffee tells The Washington Post, “it’s mostly nostalgia now.”
Responding to the market’s cues, MAD will more or less disappear from newsstands, publishing legacy content on a subscription-only basis and on the direct market, “a.k.a. specialty and comic book stores,” writes Gizmodo, “like the vast majority of DC’s comics output is already.” MAD shaped itself in opposition to Cold War paranoia and never seemed to find a new edge after favorite targets like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan left the scene. The magazine turned almost exclusively to pop culture parody in the 90s. As ABC News reports, MAD “peaked at 2.8 million subscribers in 1973,” then began its decline, with only “140,000 left as of 2017.”
The magazine’s founding editor, cartoonist Harvey Kurtzman, passed away in 1993. His successor Al Feldstein, who brought the magazine to international prominence, died in 2014. MAD‘s longtime, tight-knit staff of writers and cartoonists are mostly retired, and most are sanguine about the winding down. “It’s been a logical development,” comments another MAD cartooning legend, Sergio Aragonés. To wit, after Issue 10 (MAD re-numbered last June) comes out this fall, there will be no new content, “except for the end-of-year specials,” notes The Post. “All issues after that will be republished content culled from 67 years of publication.”
This still represents a great way for newcomers to MAD to catch up on its wildly skewed view of the last half of the 20th century, though some imagination is required to appreciate how subversive their humor was for much of its run. MAD inspired countless offshoots in the decade after its founding, setting the tone for radical campus publications, countercultural cartoonists, and comic writers, some of whom went on to become Stephen Colbert and Judd Apatow, who both wrote in the pages of MAD about how much the magazine meant to them during their apprentice years.
The list of MAD devotees, both famous and not (I count myself among the latter), runs into the millions, but it runs along some obvious demographic divides. As the magazine is poised to become a gift-shop version of itself, tributes have poured in for its editors, writers, and cartoonists—all of them, to a man, well, men. And most of those tributes—those from prominent cartoonists and writers claiming MAD as a formative influence, at least—are also from men of a certain generation, most of them straight and white.
Such market segmentation, one might say, speaks to the way MAD‘s brand of political satire remained embedded in its heyday. As laid-back cartoonists Jaffee and Aragonés recognize, you can’t stay young and relevant forever—though MAD had a remarkably good run. The Post offers a notable example of Mad’s passage into history. When the current president “mockingly referred to Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg as Alfred E. Neuman”—the once-ubiquitous, gap-toothed symbol of take-no-prisoners irreverence—the 37-year-old Buttigieg replied, “I’ll be honest. I had to Google that.”
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
Wow. You were somehow able to squeeze in a straight white male comment in there! That takes talent
Their quality deteriorated from their prime. They haven’t been that funny for over twenty years, which is a shame because they used to be hilarious.
Maybe you just got twenty years older Ronny
I loved it in the 70s when it was as difficult to get in Ireland as Playboy And I have been loving it ever since.
It’s always been high-class humor with high-class artwork.
I was saddened when Cracked disappeared from the newsstands and I’m saddened again.
The foldouts and the string pictures, Capt klutz, all such great fun, and on paper. Kojak,
Jaws, Jurassic Park, and every disaster movie ever made, all parodied excellently.
I’m sixty-three now and I wonder if our kids are getting, from their computer screens, all that I got from the comics, the anticipation, excitement, that feel and the smell of paper.
“So long as the memory of certain beloved friends lives in my heart, I shall say that life is good.”
Every Saturday during the Sixties my sister, brother, and I would hound our mother for the latest issue when she would get back from grocery shopping, whether it was time for a new one or not. Buying a subscription may have been the smartest thing she ever did.
I loved that magazine; in my Edmonton, Alberta, apartment in the ‘seventies, I could not wait for next month’s edition to come out. Mort Drucker, George Woodbridge, et all – fantastic cartoonists with a sense of humour that was right up my street. The articles on packaging, the shopping catalogues, the classified ads such as A Smattering of Spanish by Schlager and Fong, and the bar-bells that were only dropped once and could be seen in the apartment several floors down, how to install a TV, and so on, still have me laughing when I often think about them even now. I really miss that kind of humour – it certainly shaped mine!
They seemed to have lost their way sometime in the 90’s but the last couple of years saw a return to form. With the material Trump provided by just being it would’ve been hard to miss but some of the pop culture spoofs were on par with the stuff I remembered as a kid reading MAD in the 1980’s. So long old friend…
i noticed the same thing that Lonnie did……another hate-filled liberal jab at straight, white men………
There is no “hatred” either expressed or implied in this piece. You’ve supplied that interpretation yourself.
I miss MAD mag…bring it back!! Paddles, Frankenstein I don’t care we need that humor in 2021!! Instead of chanting “lock ____ up” we should be rallying “bring MAD back,!!
I used to be a regular reader and regret that it stopped publishing in Britain. Especially enjoyed their musical parodies- pity they never parodied “Cabaret “.
I loved the MAD magazine since moved over to Canada from Brazil in the 80´s. Each month was a expectation to a new edition.
Very sad to know that an era is ending. That´s life…
Got a few laughs out of it. Still do!
Too bad my kids wont experience the world of MAD.