Mad Magazine, RIP

by James Scott Bell

Alfred E. Neuman

And so it ends, after 67 years. One of the great American institutions, Mad Magazine, is closing up shop. Gone but not forgotten will be the famous Mad mascot, Alfred E. Neuman, whose mysterious background is discussed here. So popular was he that he occasionally ran for president, with the slogan: “You could do worse… and always have!”

Along with my parents and my teachers, Mad played a major part in the formation of my young life. Its influence is with me still—and I hope it always will be.

My big brother bought Mad religiously, and thus I got the issues second hand. I learned about politics from Mad. I knew who Castro and Khrushchev were only because of the cartoon renditions within its pages.

In those years they had literate, educated satirists who were able to skewer sacred cows with a precise wit that appealed to adults, too. And the artists! Here I must call out two of my favorites—Mort Drucker, master caricaturist; and Don Martin, whose mind-bending cartoons blew right past the safe and predictable into uncharted realms of hilarity.

Of all the talent, though, my absolute favorite was the poet laureate of Mad, Frank Jacobs, who, at age 90, is still among us. Jacobs did the libretti for many of the Mad satires of famous movie musicals. I also have a first edition of his legendary collection, Mad For Better or Verse. The amazing thing about Jacobs is that his satirical songs always scanned perfectly along with the originals. He never hit a bad note.

Here’s an example. One of the first political pieces I remember from Mad is East Side Story, a send-up, of course, of the Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim musical. It was Jacobs at his best, along with the fantastic caricatures of Drucker (also still alive, also 90. Comedy is healthy!)

Remember how West Side Story begins with the “The Jet Song”?

When you’re a Jet
You’re a Jet all the way
From your first cigarette
To your last, dying day!

Well, East Side Story begins outside the U.N., with all the major Communists of the day, led by Nikita Khrushchev, snapping fingers and singing:

When you’re a Red
You’re a Red all the way
From your first Party purge
To your last power play!

When you’re a Red
You’ve got agents galore;
You give prizes for peace
While they stir up a war!

You set off a test,
And when you’re halfway through it–
You point at the West
And say they drove you to it!
That’s how you do it!

We are the Reds … With a punch in the face … Which we’re aiming today … At the whole human race … At the whole–! Ever–! Trusting–! Human–! Race!

That, my friends, is genius.

Some of the other satires I recall from Mad’s golden age include Who in Heck is Virginia Wolfe?, Voyage to See What’s on the Bottom, 201 Minutes of a Space Idiocy, Botch Casually and the Somedunce Kid, and my personal favorite, Hack, Hack, Sweet Has-Been or Whatever Happened to Good Taste? This was a combo satire of the films Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? It featured the following cast: Olivia DeHackhand, Bette Devious, Joan Clawfoot, Joseph Cuttin, Agnes Gorehead … and Greer Garson as a headless torso.

I ask you, what child soaked in such material could fail to grow up into a happy and productive citizen?

And whenever Mad turned its gimlet eye upon social structures, it skewered them with unerring insight. As in their 1961 send-up of the suburbs, titled “A Child’s-Eye View of ‘The Affluent Society.’ ” Look at the chapter called “The Lessons” and tell me it’s not still timely:

Children in the suburbs are kept very busy.
They are forced to take many lessons.
Lessons on how to dance,
Lessons on how to play musical instruments.
What does the suburban child learn at these lessons?
He learns that he is pleasing his parents!
Too bad he cannot take lessons
On how to be a child!

Suburban children must be a credit to their parents.
They must not lie.
They must not cheat.
They must not steal.
Poor suburban children,
They are so unprepared for the adult world!

So goodbye old friend. I shall remember you fondly. And whenever the kultursmog becomes thick with putridity, and the zeitgeist attempts another brain heist, I will bring to mind Alfred E. Neuman’s immortal words to live by:

“What, me worry?”

So what periodical was your favorite as a kid? How did it influence you?

What You Can’t Do with an e-Book

I recently received a box in the mail. It was from a life-long friend, a gent named Bill Plant who is responsible (or maybe irresponsible) for shaping much of my taste in literature. While Bill and I remain close friends, we aren’t in the habit of sending each other gifts on the spur of the moment, so I had no idea what was in the box. It could have been anything from a head to…well, anything. After making sure that it wasn’t ticking, crying, or leaking, I commenced to open it, a formidable task since Bill apparently used three rolls of scotch tape to seal it. After some effort, I folded the flaps back, pulled out some newspaper packing, and…well, I’ll confess, The Kid got just a little misty-eyed.
The box was full of books. Paperback books. From the 1950s. They were marked up and in one case a little chewed up and some of them had the binding falling loose and they all had that sweet scent of slow but inevitable decomposition. In other words, every one was a little treasure. These were USED, used books. Bill deals in antiques, and will buy items such as books in inexpensive lots in the hope of finding an acorn or two among the Buena Sierra. Collectors, alas, aren’t much interested in paperbacks that are dog-eared, or have had a crayon taken to them, or that have been labeled, using an indelible marker, with a five cent price tag.  took a bunch of such and sent them to me. I don’t think I’ve had a better present in quite a while. It reminded me of one Christmas, some fifty years ago, when my mother ordered a bunch of science fiction paperbacks for me from the gone but not forgotten S & SF Bookstore in New York. It was a laborious procedure back then — check books off an order list, write a check, send the whole kit and  caboodle off in the mail and wait six weeks for delivery — since the only “Amazon” most folks knew then was either 1) a river in South America or 2) Irish McCalla. But when that box arrived, it was special. And so was this one.
So what would I possibly want with such a litter of mutts? The idea of it, pure and simple. These were books that had been read and re-read before being consigned to a cellar or an attic or the back shelves of a used bookstore.  Most of it was science fiction. There were Ace Doubles in that box. Ace doubles. These consisted of two covers and two novels bound into one; read one, flip it over, and there was another novel waiting for you.  Hard Case Crime is going to publish two Lawrence Block novels in the doubles format in May 2012, and I can’t wait. But these were the original thing. A few short story collections were in that box, and included forgotten stories by famous authors (“Death of the Senator,” by Arthur C. Clarke, for one). There were a couple of early and forgotten novels by authors who have gone onto better things (Robert Silverberg’s THE PLANET KILLERS); and some soft core science fiction porn (are porn paperbacks even published anymore?). Then there was a copy of GALACTIC DERELICT by Andre Norton, one of the first science fiction books I ever read.
Yes, there were a couple of mysteries and thrillers as well. I was six years old when Marjorie Carlton wrote ONE NIGHT OF TERROR. It got past me the first time but I’m going to read it this year. And there were a couple of Carter Brown novels in that box.  Most of the ladies who contribute to The Kill Zone are probably too young to remember Carter Brown. but gentlemen, certainly most of you do.  “Carter Brown” was the pseudonym for Alan Geoffrey Yates, and there was a time when he ruled the revolving wire paperback racks. Who could forget those Signet covers? I fogged up my eyeglasses in many a drugstore perusing the wares of those gaudy damsels while pretending to look for Mad Magazine paperback collections. I have discovered, belatedly, that the stories aren’t bad either.  It occurred to me a couple of nights ago, while reading   NO BLONDE IS AN ISLAND, that I had never actually read a Carter Brown book until now. I had committed many a cover to memory, however.
Some of the older paperbacks are now appearing in e-book format.  I discovered recently that all of those Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books which I purchased with my allowance a half-century ago are available in Kindle format, and for free; and there are even three Carter Brown books up for sale. It just isn’t the same, however. The smell and the small, non-adjustable print and the feel of paper and ink aren’t there. It’s like having a rabbit and a hat that sit next to each other without any involvement or relationship: there’s no magic. That may sound strange — if pressing a couple of buttons and having an entire book appear in a wafer thin tool that you can slip in a coat pocket isn’t magic, then what is? — but it’s true. We get something, true, but also we give something up.
So. If you had a friend as good as mine (and Bill, I know you read these posts, and you remain the best), and that friend sent you a box such as I received, what books would you want to find in it? What would bring a smile to your face, and a tear (or five) to your eye?