Four decades of razzing

Monday Book Reviews

February 10, 1992|By Neil A. Grauer

COMPLETELY MAD: A History of the Comic Book and Magazine. By Maria Reidelbach. Little, Brown. 216 pages. $39.95. FURSHLUGGINER. Potrzebie. Veeblefetzer. It's crackers to slip a rozzer the dropsy in snide. These are among the words and phrases likely to rattle around the increasingly addled brains of middle-aged boomers who spent their adolescence giggling and guffawing through the pages of Mad magazine, where such nuggets of nonsense spiced already pungent parodies, satires and spoofs.

Mad, the Peter Pan of publications, may mark its 40th birthday this coming summer, but unlike its original readers, it has never grown up. Thank heavens.

As Maria Reidelbach amply demonstrates in her large, lavishly illustrated history of Mad, it has spent four decades razzing everything relentlessly and providing "a detailed, funny counterattack against the hucksterism of Madison Avenue, the chicanery of politicians, the pretensions of those in authority and the hypocrisy of everyday life." Candice Bergen observes, "Without Mad it would have been harder to survive a Republican upbringing." Clearly, we need it now more than ever.

Mad's origins are as offbeat as its contents. Begun in 1952 by comic book publisher William Gaines as a nose-thumbing satire of his very own horror, science fiction and gangster comics, then under congressional attack for their supposedly corruptive influence on the young, it quickly supplanted all of his other publications.

Mr. Gaines' father, Max, virtually invented the comic book in 1934 with Famous Funnies, which reprinted Sunday color comic strips; and Mr. Gaines himself was the originator of such horror comics as "The Vault of Horror" and "Tales from the Crypt." These became the special objects of uplifter ire and prompted the comic book industry to impose a rigid, self-censoring code in 1954.

Abandoning all his horror and suspense publications, Mr. Gaines concentrated on Mad and turned it into a magazine in order to avoid the guidelines of the Comics Code Authority, which went so far as to prohibit use of the words "crime, horror, terror and weird, even weird," he still recalls with dismay. Mad could have survived without horror or terror, but never, ever without weird.

Mr. Gaines, a benevolent despot as publisher, has given remarkable freedom over the years to his staff, billed on the magazine's masthead as "the usual gang of idiots." Ms. Reidelbach at last accords them brief biographies and individual recognition. Tidbits also are offered about the magazine's writers, among whom in its earliest days were Ernie Kovaks, Sid Caesar and Carl Reiner.

The writing and artwork in Mad have made their mark. Important freedom-of-the-press court rulings have been rendered in cases stemming from Mad parodies that were written to the tunes of well-known songs, and the early artwork in Mad influenced the incubating talents of such current cartooning heavyweights as Gahan Wilson, master of the macabre; underground comix star R. Crumb; Bill Griffith, creator of Zippy the Pinhead and (not surprisingly) pop artist Andy Warhol. "Mad made me fall in love with people with big ears," Warhol is quoted as having once said. "That's a good influence, isn't it?"

He was referring, of course, to Alfred E. Neuman, once dubbed Mad's "guardian gargoyle." Ms. Reidelbach's chapter on Neuman's "untold story" may be the most fascinating in the book. Researchers, set to digging by copyright infringement cases or plain curiosity, have found prototypes of the idiotically grinning Neuman going all the way back to the 1890s. Who first created him, and for what, remains mysterious.

The decline in the number of teen-agers, Mad's main audience, has caused its circulation to dip, but it remains a healthy 1 million or so. It also remains a highly profitable magazine, even though it never has accepted ads and does not advertise itself elsewhere.

Ms. Reidelbach, as much a scholar as she is a fan, inserts some criticisms among the accolades. She notes that sexist stereotypes were long a part of Mad's modus operandi, and that its staff remained exclusively male until as late as 1985. She also quotes Jules Feiffer's pointed observation that Mad's satire has a disconcertingly monotonous theme: ". . . Everything stinks. Everything's a gag, a joke, a put-on . . . so there are no changes to be made and no reason to be involved."

Mr. Gaines and the other Mad folk shrug at such complaints. They have always refused to take themselves or their magazine's mission seriously, Ms. Reidelbach notes. About the most that Mr. Gaines will admit is that "editorially, we're trying to teach them, 'Don't believe in ads. Don't believe in government. Watch yourself -- everybody is trying to screw you!"

Put that in your potrzebie and smoke it.

Neil A. Grauer is a Baltimore writer and caricaturist.

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