“There will no longer be new content — except for the end-of-year specials, which will always be all new,” publisher DC Comics said in a statement. “So starting with issue #11 the magazine will feature classic, best-of and nostalgic content from the last 67 years.”
I first stumbled across it when I was, like, 8 years old, on a family vacation in Atlantic City during the late 1960s. That life-changing moment came while checking the comic book racks at a candy store near our hotel (the Traymore, which was eventually collapsed in grand, dynamited glory).
‘Mad was right. Adults are ridiculous. And you must laugh at them.’
My eyes were hijacked by a special issue of Mad — probably boasting a self-deprecating cover that touted its contents as a repackage of the usual trash or some-such — with stickers inside that I promptly stuck onto the cover of a school notebook. I remember staying up that night, wide-eyed and absorbed, feeling privy to secrets behind a jimmied-open door that could never again be shut. I was instantly hooked on everything from the movie parodies to “Spy Vs Spy” to stand-by features such as “The Lighter Side Of…”
A couple of years later, while on a trip to Manhattan with my little brother and our mom, we walked past 485 Madison Avenue (which Mad obsessives knew as 485 MADison Avenue, as it was printed in the small lettered colophon below the masthead and contents).
I stopped in my tracks, looked up and said, “That’s where Mad magazine is!”
My mother gutsily suggested going upstairs to check out the office. We did. We met publisher William M. Gaines and sat in his amazingly cluttered lair where a menacing zeppelin hung from the ceiling, snagged a few minutes with Al Jaffee (who created the magazine’s ingenious “Fold-Ins”) and brought home a handful of foreign editions.
I remember this line from a British one: “Why are there nomads in the desert? There are no news agents.”
We exited the building and proceeded out to Madison Avenue where a man in a suit pretty much stepped on my brother. Mom began picking up the startled kid and said, “Mister, excuse me.” He looked down at the crumpled boy, did not break stride and replied, “That’s the way it goes.”
Mad was right. Adults are ridiculous. And you must laugh at them. I’m still laughing at that guy.
Two summers after the mind-blowing meet-up with Gaines and Jaffee, in the early 1970s, my parents decided that Mad had done its job too well, turning me into an anarchistic, authority-questioning, wiseass. New issues became verboten for a summer or so.
No problem — until the ban lifted, I kept up to date via issues covertly read in the home of my friend Glen Landesman. I don’t remember if the clamp-down included issues of Cracked, Sick and Crazy (Mad knockoffs that were Oxycontin to the heroin-strength of the real thing), but I probably didn’t bother too much with them. Fortunately, there was no mention made of the smart-alecky rock-bible Creem, and it helped me through the dark days.
Plus, I was able to call a phone number associated with Gaines whenever I felt like it. Amazingly, he had a listed number in the Manhattan White Pages. Deploying a phone scamming technique I picked up from Abbie Hoffman and his Yippies (hey, calling New York from New Jersey was expensive in those days — sorry Bell Telephone), I’d go to the pay phone outside of Grand Union and call the number for free. I’d always get an answering machine but it was a kick to hear William M. Gaines saying he couldn’t come to the phone because he was busy cleaning his oven while learning Sanskrit (and other zany things). Sometimes I’d leave a message, claiming to be Rex Gaines, the aggressively sadistic twin brother that the publisher masqueraded as when he felt like terrorizing timid staffers. Hopefully he heard it and smiled.
During high school, in the dog-days of the ’70s, I wrote a letter of appreciation to Gaines. Generously, he invited me to come up for a visit. At this point, I was also super into the violent, ingenious, banned-in-the-‘50s EC Horror Comics that preceded Mad (apparently the Archie people had a role in sidelining this higher quality competitor; but Gaines got revenge: in an early issue of Mad, “Archie” was scorched as “Starchie” with druggy/juvenile-delinquent versions of Archie and Jughead while “Biddy” and “Salonica” resembled torpedo-breasted Stepford teens). I made the pilgrimage with Landesman and our pal Steve Weil. This time, Gaines showed us drawing boards that had the original EC art-work. He made us wear white gloves to handle the precious illustrations. It was amazing to see the pages for real.
Best of all, I brought my copy of his biography, “The Mad World of William M. Gaines,” for a signature. Weil and Landesman voiced wishes that they had books of their own.
“No problem,” said the large and larger than life Gaines. He reached to a shelf, brought down two copies and said, “I’ll sell these to you boys for 50-cents off the cover price.”
They dug into their pockets, handed him lucre and he added wrinkled singles to his giant wad of bills.
We went to Port Authority, took the bus back to New Jersey, and I think I bought a copy of Screw (really, a pervy, illegitimate sibling of Mad). I would have spirited it up to my bedroom and stashed the X-rated rag between rarely listened to record albums.
After college, at my first magazine job, the art director had good enough taste to hire Mad utility player Paul Peter Porges to illustrate a humorous take on country-club tennis. I was dispatched to Porges’ studio, across from the then seedy Union Square Park — this was in the 1980s, before Tuinol dealers had been pushed out by farmers selling heirloom tomatoes — upstairs from the coffee shop that would become Coffee Shop, to pick up illustrations and bring them back to our office.
Porges and I chatted for a bit.
Of course, I said, “I used to love Mad magazine.”
He sourly replied, “Everybody used to love Mad magazine.”
The response was more prophetic than he could have known. Things change, tastes and technology evolve, magazines come and go because the new generation of would-be readers don’t love them as much as the preceding one. That’s life (and Life).
Still, I feel a little bad for kids who never pored over the marginalia of Mad’s pages and allowed its anti-establishment views to inform their own. No doubt, the magazine compelled me to question authority, laugh at myself, make fun of everyone else, embrace oddness and generally view the world with a bit of a healthily cockeyed perspective. Hearty thanks to William M. Gaines and — as proudly promoted on Mad’s masthead — the usual gang of idiots.