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Mad Magazine

[The Economist/Intelligent Life, 2014]

A CURIOUS FEATURE of my childhood in Nairobi at the end of the Seventies was a shelf incongruously stuffed with cheap little paperback collections of American cartoon humour. They retailed for a few shillings a go at a bookshop in the Westlands shopping centre, and my family had picked up dozens over the years. They included Charles M Schulz's wonderful Peanuts, the not quite so wonderful B.C. and The Wizard Of Id (both distinctively rendered by Johnny Hart), and best of all, pocket anthologies from the golden era of Mad magazine.
   Not that, as a nipper, I knew there had been such an era. Or even that it had begun almost 30 years previously and ended little more than a decade later. I didn't understand nine-tenths of the references. Fifties America might as well have been the Middle Assyrian Empire to a small boy in Africa. But I didn't need to. Mad not only mocked the meat it fed on; it transcended it.
   This week Al Feldstein died, at the age of 88. He was the last of early Mad's three presiding genii - the others being founding editor Harvey Kurtzman, and EC Comics publisher William M. Gaines, who governed it with a light, indulgent but when necessary firm touch. Kurtzman defined its character and tone. With in-jokes, running gags and dialect either invented (“hoohah!”) or borrowed from the Yiddish and Polish of immigrant New York (“potrzebie”; “furshlugginer”; “veeblefetzer”), he made it a kind of treehouse club for bright and impudent contributors and readers alike. Mad has been imitated ever since, across the media, by every ingenious, irreverent crew of hit-and-run wiseacres to masquerade as “the usual gang of idiots.”
   Feldstein took editorial command in 1956, a year after Mad's transformation from comic book to magazine. By 1958 he had its circulation up to a million copies an issue and rising, as he guided it through the latter period

of a great, buccaneering run, unmatched in American pop-cultural satire until the first ten seasons of The Simpsons. The writers on that show frequently paid tribute to the source that nourished so many of them - most memorably in The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson, wherein Bart makes a pilgrimage to the Mad office.
   Kurtzman's Mad dealt initially in inspired lampoons of popular comics, written with an anarchic vim recalling the work simultaneously turned out across the Atlantic by Spike Milligan for the Goons, and illustrated by artists brilliant at both pastiche and invention. Feldstein's magazine traversed the entire American landscape for targets, scattergun in hand. Its look, heavier on illustrated text than strips, was in part enforced by the happy accident of the departing Kurtzman stealing away its old-school draughtsmen, and Feldstein bringing in left-field successors.
   Alongside the modern, sketchy monochrome stood glossy, colourful, full-page illustrations, and covers featuring magazine mascot Alfred E Neuman, a cheery simpleton-cum-sage whose face predated the century. His motto, “What, me worry?” might be read as idiocy, or zen wisdom - encapsulating the Smart Guys Acting Dumb dichotomy at the heart of the magazine.
   What I didn't know at ten, but do now, is that at its peak Mad spoofed contemporary Americana with such incisive, delicious and at times delirious elan that if today you want a pinpoint portrait of the era, you can do little better than read the parody. (Mad rivals, aptly, Mad Men in that regard - with the advantage that it was created on the spot rather than after the fact.)
   What I did know, and still find, is that it never ceases to be a joy. Dipping into the elegant, annotated decade-by-decade compendia now available makes for a fair substitute, but how often I wish I still had those shabby, well-thumbed little paperbacks.

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