The Wisdom of Mad
During a time that some called the Age of Conformity, one magazine lampooned even the most sacred topics.
“From Madness to Dysentery: Mad’s Other New York Intellectuals” by Nathan Abrams, in Journal of American Studies (Dec. 2003), Cambridge Univ. Press, Edinburgh Bldg., Shaftesbury Rd., Cambridge CB2 2RU, England.
During the decade that many intellectuals still regard as the Age of Conformity, one publication was willing to take on every sacred cow: Mad Magazine. Its joyous 1950s nihilism helped prepare the way for the adversary culture of the 1960s.
Mad began, in October 1952, as a comic book aimed at teenagers. Comic books, which first appeared in the mid-1930s, became a truly mass medium during and after World War II; by 1947, they were selling 60 million copies a month. In the 1950s, they were portrayed as a national menace, a cause of juvenile delinquency and other social ills. Congressional hearings were held. To ward off government regulation, Mad’s publisher, William Gaines, set up the Comics Code Authority to ensure that every comic book was certifiably “wholesome.” He had no intention of making Mad meet that criterion, so in 1955 it became a “magazine” instead. Mad later took its revenge with an article that blamed juvenile delinquency on baseball.
Mad sent up its rival publications (by turning innocent teens Archie and Jughead into chain-smoking juvenile delinquents, for instance), along with movie stars, television shows, pop singers, politicians, and advertisers. After the magazine satirically exposed the ads for various consumer products hidden in TV shows and movies, the Federal Communications Commission and Congress pressured the TV networks to cut back on the practice. Mad itself ran spoof ads for bogus products such as “Ded Ryder Cowboy Carbine” rifles. Rooted in pop culture, the magazine anticipated pop art.
Though Gaines always insisted that Mad had no political agenda, it took on politicians such as Senator Joseph McCarthy (in 1954), and “was not afraid to critique either side in the Cold War struggle,” writes Abrams, who teaches modern U.S. history at the University of Southampton, England. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (who had a bald pate like the “Mr. Clean” of liquid cleaner fame) became “Mr. Mean: All-Commie Brainwasher” in a Mad parody of an ad that had asked, in all seriousness, “Is Your Bathroom Breeding Bolsheviks?”
Mad refused “to affirm or support” anyone or anything, says Abrams. It treated student radicalism of the 1960s with the same irreverence it did everything else. But it made enough of an impact that Marshall McLuhan and many other intellectuals of the day felt compelled to take its measure.
Mad, since absorbed by a media conglomerate, survives in body, if not in spirit, says Abrams. The familiar face of Alfred E. Newman still continues to stare out from Mad’s front page, his “toothy grin a reminder of [the magazine’s] mordant history.”