It's a mad world

Comics - Nathan Abrams on how <em>Mad Magazine</em> led the assault on cold-war America

One of the most curiously overlooked publishing phenomena of the 1950s was the appearance of the comic book Mad in October 1952. For its satirical insights, its characteristic disrespect for the institutions of cold-war America, Mad had no contemporary rivals in the genre. In 1959, it was observed in Newsweek that "Mad each month sticks a sharp-pronged fork into some part of the social anatomy". And Gloria Steinem recalled: "There was a spirit of satire and irreverence in Mad that was very important, and it was the only place you could find it in the 1950s." Even Marshall McLuhan considered Mad worthy of mention in his influential study Understanding Media. Noting its "sudden eminence", he attributed this to its "ludicrous and cool replay of the forms of the hot media of photo, radio and film". Strange, then, that very little attention has been given to Mad beyond its own retrospective publications.

The first issue, the full title of which was Tales Calculated to Drive You MAD - humor in a jugular vein, was 32-pages long, cost ten cents and was primarily targeted at the teenage market. It was initially written and edited by Harvey Kurtzman, until September 1956, when he was lured away to work on Hugh Hefner's new publication, Playboy. In 1955, William M Gaines, Mad's publisher, transformed it into a 25-cent, black-and-white, bimonthly magazine, renaming it Mad Magazine in the process. It was at this point that Time somewhat mistakenly referred to Mad as "a short-lived satirical pulp". Less than two years later, Time would eat its words: "Through such zany mockery of the solemn, the pretentious and the inane, Mad is compiling a growth chart that is no laughing matter." By the late 1950s, the magazine was second in popularity to Life among high-school students.

Originally, Mad turned its mocking voice on other comic books, dismembering anything that seemed "traditional" or "innocent" about them. In its hilarious pages, it turned Mickey Mouse back into vermin, a little rat-faced thug with five-day stubble ("Mickey Rodent"); the innocent teenagers Archie and Jughead became chain-smoking juvenile delinquents; the western hero, an isolated fool ("The Lone Stranger"); and the triumphant superhero, an unbearable bungler ("Superduper Man!"). Later, Mad's creators turned their attention to other media parodies - television, advertising, the movies - devouring the artefacts and cultural forms of "the good life" of the fifties with relish.

Despite the hesitance of Mad's editors to acknowledge the magazine's involvement in political satire ("we like to say that Mad has no politics and that we take no point of view"), it was not afraid to tackle political issues. Its 1954 attack on Senator Joseph McCarthy entitled "What's My Shine?" (a combined reference to the long-running game show What's My Line? and David Schine, McCarthy's odious sidekick), came at a time when other elements of the press were still some way from a full condemnation of the demagogue from Wisconsin. Mad focused on McCarthy's sensationalism and his use of the media, particularly television: "And so, as Mr Smurdly is gently propelled from the studio, we switch to Number Two camera . . . and procede [sic] with the proceedings!" Using the game-show format, the magazine parodied the endless points of order of McCarthy ("McCartaway) - "One ham on rye . . . no lettuce or butter! . . . container of milk and a Danish! . . . tell the boy to bring a couple of straws" - Schine constantly whispering in his ear, and the adoration with which the assembled journalists hung on to his every word.

Although, as editor, Kurtzman sought to downplay the significance of the satire - "McCarthy was a special case. He was so obvious. And so evil. It was like doing a satire on Hitler" - Mad, born as it was during the height of the domestic cold war in America, could not have failed to ignore the political context in which it operated. Indeed, its very title anticipated and played upon apocalyptic fears of nuclear Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). Five years before Dr Strangelove and Catch-22 assailed the core values behind the construction of American identity during this period, Mad was mocking American neuroses about the Soviet Union. Its 1959 phrase book for American tourists travelling behind the Iron Curtain offered the following "handy phrases": "When will I get my camera back?" "Has the chambermaid finished searching my luggage?" "What time is the ex-Commissar's funeral?" "What time is the new Commissar's funeral?" "Our guide is very friendly?" "Why was our guide liquidated?" "Waiter, there's a dictaphone in my borscht!" "The handcuffs are chafing my wrists." "Do you have a cell with a view?" "Will I need my galoshes in Siberia?" "I demand to see the American consul!"

Elsewhere, Mad humoured the cold-war linkage of communism, disease and advertising. "If official America radiated health, Mad insisted on the importance of the 'sick'," noted one critic. Where one advert asked "Is Your Bathroom Breeding Bolsheviks?", Mad advertised "Mr Mean: All-Commie Brainwasher". Beneath a picture of a stern Khrushchev, the copy read: "Better watch him closely or he'll clean us out of our homes, cars, offices, factories, schools, everything!"

Turning its zany gaze on every aspect of American life in the 1950s and 1960s, Mad fulfilled a pivotal role, giving teenagers a political education over their breakfast cornflakes. Although still around today, its satire has become diluted. Perhaps the endless copying of the magazine has diminished its impact. Located at the margins during its early years, Mad's arrival at, and acceptance into, the mainstream was signalled by its absorption into Time-Warner. The very institution that had once described Mad as a "short-lived satirical pulp", and was the target of its parodies, now owns it. Nonetheless, the familiar face of Alfred E Neuman still continues to stare out from the front page, its toothy grin a reminder of its mordant history.

Nathan Abrams is a freelance writer. He also teaches history and film at Birkbeck College

This article first appeared in the 28 February 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why the party still needs its soul