- Written by Randal C. Hill Randal C. Hill
In Lewis Carroll’s 1865 classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice remarks to the Cheshire Cat, “I don’t want to go among mad people.”
The grinning cat responds, “Oh, you can’t help that. We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” asks Alice.
“You must be,” explains the cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
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If something affected the national psyche, Mad magazine wanted to poke fun at it.
Impressionable adolescents who read Mad were warned constantly about society’s half-truths, double standards, fine print, deceptive advertisements, and sneaky product placements.
The world is out to get you, implied the messages, so be prepared.
Along the way, Mad’s clever and invaluable lessons undoubtedly helped avid readers develop their critical-thinking skills.
“If you were growing up lonely and isolated in a small town, Mad was a revelation,” said counterculture cartoonist R. Crumb. “Nothing I read anywhere else suggested there was any absurdity in the culture.”
Everyone and everything were fair game. Superman. The Ku Klux Klan. Wonder Woman. The Hell’s Angels. Howdy Doody. Barbie and Ken. All suffered the sting of Mad’s gleeful barbs, as did highly respected politicians and established world leaders.
Top-flight Mad caricaturists brought easily recognizable pop-culture celebrities to its pages, and recurring cartoon columns, such as the triangle-headed Spy vs. Spy characters, kept young readers amused — and on their toes — during the oppressive Cold War of the 1950s.
Mad first appeared as a 1952 horror comic book that was a satire on (of all things) other horror comic books.
New York funsters and comic-book veterans William Gaines and Harvey Kurtzman were Mad’s publisher and editor, respectively, and what their eight-times-a-year periodical brought to the nation’s teenagers eventually morphed into a bible of juvenile-appearing blasphemy that took delight in flagrantly casting a wide satirical net and laughing at just about every rock-solid institution in America.
In 1954, Kurtzman adopted a forgotten and unnamed advertising image for Mad that had been around since the 1890s. He dubbed him Alfred E. Neuman, and Neuman rose to fame as a grinning, jug-eared, gap-toothed simpleton whose motto was “What, me worry?”
As the Mad mascot, he came to symbolize everything vacuous about the publication. Neuman’s iconic portrait often replaced the faces of celebrities who were being lampooned in that particular issue.
For a while, Neuman had a lady companion, a cartoon character named Moxie Cowznofski. But Moxie made only a few appearances in the late 1950s, possibly because she looked too much like her “significant other.”
Mad kept the chuckles coming as it created a series of nonsensical words, such as furshlugginer (an adjective expressing contempt), blecch (a term synonymous with disgust), and potrzebie (a word with no meaning or definition whatsoever).
Unique in its controversial social satire, Mad would eventually influence such pop-cultural icons as National Lampoon, The Simpsons, and Saturday Night Live.
When the fun-loving William Gaines died at age 70 in June 1992, the New York Daily News headlined his obituary “What, Me Dead?”
Although Randal C. Hill’s heart lives in the past, the rest of him resides in Bandon, Ore. He can be reached at email@example.com.