Wednesday, July 26, 2006

How I Went Mad In The 1950s

As a kid I never kicked and fussed when Mom took me to the grocery store, because it gave me a chance to stand near the magazine rack and paperback book spinner, ogling the sexy covers.

On one occasion in 1955 or thereabouts I spotted a book I'd never seen before. It was The Mad Reader. I opened it up to the first panel of Wally Wood's "Superduperman" story, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The problem is, as much as I wanted this book, and I wanted it really, really bad, Mom wouldn't buy it for me. Mom was aware of stories in the press about evil comic books turning children into juvenile delinquents, and while she let me read comic books she approved of (Uncle Scrooge, Little Lulu, etc.), she wasn't about to go over the line to something like Mad.

I went home disappointed, but then my obsessive-compulsive disorder kicked in. When I wanted something as bad as I wanted this book I usually kept up a whining, obnoxious pleading until my parents caved in. Since Mom had said no, I went to my dad. Dad was usually more easygoing when it came to things like this. Of course, listening to me bellow, snivel and whine for about an hour was all it took. He got into his 1955 Ford company car and went to the store to find the book for me.

It's said that Mad, in its original comic book incarnation was a flop saleswise until issue #4, which had the aforementioned "Superduperman" story. From that time on Mad became a cult favorite. Even my future brother-in-law, who was in in high school in the early '50s, bought Mad, as did his buddies. I didn't know any of that, though. I just knew that I recognized who Superman was, I knew who the Lone Ranger was, I knew the comic book character, Archie, and I was absolutely fascinated by the grotesque and funny artwork of Wally Wood, Bill Elder and Jack Davis, which took all of those characters and turned them inside out and upside down. It turned them into jokes! All of it was new to me at the time, though. From that book I went on to seek out other Mad paperbacks, like Mad Strikes Back, Inside Mad, and Utterly Mad. From the time I first held these books in my trembling junior-size paws I was totally hooked, a junkie to the drug of Mad-ness.

Mom's problem with Mad was the effect the drawings had on her, which was the exact opposite of the effect they had on me. She claimed they "made her head spin." They did that to me, too, but in a good way.

Take Bill Elder's version of Archie, called "Starchie." The art is very close to the original. The people who produce the Archie comic books like to tout their comics as being "wholesome," but there was no doubt that the whole subtext of their comic books was some sort of triangular sexual thing going on between Archie, Betty and Veronica. The author and editor of Mad, Harvey Kurtzman, always went for the most obvious satirical elements of what it was he was lampooning, and that is the crux of this story, behind its more obvious elements of Starchie and gang being juvenile delinquents.
The Lone Ranger was a guy who traveled around with a Native American companion and wore a mask. As in this Mad version called "The Lone Stranger," he steered clear of womenfolk. One might ask why…? And did he and Tonto share body heat around the campfire? Anyway, when I saw this Jack Davis panel of the Lone Stranger being chased by the ugly "girl," I laughed my guts out. Yes, the lady chasing the Lone Stranger is actually a man in drag. Hmmm. I was a big fan of Mad in the 1950s, but the two entities, the Mad paperback books and the regular Mad Magazines being published every couple of months were entirely different things. I wondered why, but didn't know what made them different until a few years later when I found out about the stories of the two editors, first Kurtzman, then Al Feldstein, about the Comics Code, about the color comic book after 23 issues becoming a 25¢ black and white periodical. Much to my mom's chagrin, and despite a lot of yelling, public burnings of my magazine collections, and even outright theft of mail-ordered copies of early Mad comic books, I didn't give up on Mad until I was ready to, which was sometime in the early '60s.

Whatever happened with The Mad Reader, though, I'm sure happened with a lot of people in my generation, aspiring cartoonists, comedians, actors, whomever. It was an epiphany for me to know that such brilliance could exist in parody and satire and looking back on that book today I still see the sort of genius I saw many years ago the first time I pulled it off the paperback rack.

Ciao for now, El Postino

*The copy of Mad Reader at the header of this article is not my original Mad Reader, which was destroyed at some point by my mother in the mid-to-late 1950s. This is a copy of a first printing I picked up in California 20 years ago.

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