2017-06-14 04:58:42 UTC
What, He Worry?
Published Tuesday, June 13, 2017 at 11:11 AM.
Rumors abound that the magazine known as MAD — an institution that's been around exactly as long as I have — will soon cease publication. I'm pretty sure this is not so, though it is about to undergo some massive changes and no one is saying quite what they'll be. One biggie though is that its office of operations is shifting from New York, New York (across the street from where Stephen Colbert does his show) to Burbank, California (across the street from where Ellen DeGeneres does her show). With this migration will come a brand-new editorial staff consisting of…
Well, if the folks in charge of DC Comics have decided who the folks in charge of MAD will henceforth be, they've kept it a lot more secret than anything in the Trump White House. I don't know and no one currently involved in the production of MAD seems to know.
Some history. MAD started in 1952 and was originally owned by the infamous William M. Gaines. He sold it in 1961 to a conglomerate called Premier Industries that had grown out of a company that made venetian blinds.
Venetian blinds…irreverent humor magazine…you can see the obvious connection there. (By the way, Wikipedia — which of course is otherwise infallible — has this all wrong.)
Gaines stayed on as publisher with a contractual guarantee of absolute independence so everyone else stayed on. A few years later, Premier sold MAD to its distributor, Independent News, which was a division of National Periodical Publications, publishers of DC Comics. Gaines continued to have total control of his magazine.
Then in the late sixties, National Periodical Publications was acquired by Kinney National Services, another conglomerate — this one, built out of a company that dealt in parking lots, limousines and funeral services. Another obvious connection. Kinney eventually got so big, it acquired Warner Brothers and other businesses and was later reorganized into Time-Warner, which one day will acquire you and all of us unless Disney gets us first.
Gaines continued to have control but time has a way of chipping away at things and so does Time-Warner. His death in 1992 didn't help things and DC Comics began assuming more direct control.
Throughout this period, sales of MAD declined, just as sales of almost all magazines in this country have declined, many to tiny fractions of past heights. There is no major, long-running American periodical that is selling anywhere near as well as it used to sell and MAD is no exception. This has extinguished any viewpoint that MAD is first and foremost a print magazine and that other exploitations of its name and reputation are still just adjuncts to that. The view now is that MAD is a valuable property to be "monetized" by the various divisions. Some of those endeavors, like the MAD TV shows, have been rather lucrative.
Harvey Kurtzman was, as we all know, the first editor of MAD. He left in 1956 after a dispute with Gaines, and the editorship was filled from then until 1984 by Al Feldstein. After Feldstein retired, they split the editorial position between Nick Meglin and John Ficarra, and then Meglin retired in 2004.
Ficarra has been at the helm since then. Over the years, the quality of the magazine has varied a lot but in my opinion, it's been high for the last decade or so with some of its sharpest writing ever. John is a friend of mine but I have been telling him for more than a decade that MAD is important to me and if I ever think the magazine sucks, then screw the friendship — I will say so loudly and say it everywhere I can. I have not had to do this. Unlike a lot of purists, I thought it was okay and even necessary when MAD went to a mostly-color format and began accepting advertising. It is still, I believe, a fine humor magazine.
Still, you can only make so much money these days publishing a fine humor magazine. Most large comic book companies now make such a high percentage of their incomes via media and merchandising that actually putting out product on paper is relatively unimportant. Most do it out of tradition, because they don't want to admit that the properties aren't so popular in their native format, and as a place to develop new ideas that can become TV shows, movies and videogames. MAD could not have survived this long had it not joined that shift in focus.
A few years ago, DC Comics — accepting this shift — closed down its New York office and relocated to Burbank. MAD stayed behind — a last vestige of its independence — but that's over with. The current editorial staff in Manhattan will edit the magazine through #550, which will go to press at the end of this year and come out in February of 2018. After that, no one there knows what the heck will happen to it but clearly it will happen in Burbank without them. One production artist who has only been there a short time will make the move west. No one else.
One would like to assume Time-Warner has good, new folks lined up to assume command out here, even if things have not yet been finalized. Longtime MAD contributor Tom Richmond has heard that MAD will remain a magazine. It will not move back to the comic book format it had for its first 23 issues as some have speculated. Tom's blog would be a good thing to keep an eye on if you're looking for up-to-the-minute news on the future of Alfred E. Neuman and the magazine he adorns.
Tom notes the uncertainty that he and many other MAD contributors share. Many, perhaps most of them have not been there long and probably regard it as just an occasional assignment. But there are those who have served the magazine well for so long that it has become not only a major part of their incomes but their identities, as well. The work of Al Jaffee has appeared in 495 of its 546 issues, Sergio Aragonés has been in 469, Dick DeBartolo has had articles in 460 MADs and there are others among The Usual Gang of Idiots with lower but still impressive totals. The last few years, Tom Richmond with his terrific, MAD-worthy caricatures has filled more of its pages than anyone else.
They'd kinda like to know what's going to happen. Tom says he's hoping for some sort of announcement next month at Comic-Con International.
As a long-time MAD fan/historian (and contributor of two whole pages to it), I'm eager to know for my own reasons. I do not believe that an institution like MAD has to remain the same forever. The world changes and most things need to change with it. The fear is that in changing, MAD might wind up being MAD in name only, losing what its name stands for…and we have a dandy and true Worst Case Scenario to look at as an example.
Once upon a time, the name and logo of National Lampoon denoted an irreverent and wildly-popular humor magazine. It also represented a pool of brilliant contributors and a style and a standard. Separated from those contributors (or others of equal merit) and that style and that standard, it became just a label to be slapped on some pretty crummy products…and not even a particularly effective label. It no longer identifies something that has a kinship to the material — the magazine and the first few movies to have that name in their titles — that made that name notable.
I"m not saying this will happen to MAD, just that it would be a dreadful shame if it did. I am hardly the only kid of my generation who had his sense of humor shaped to a meaningful degree by MAD and who learned to look at the world with a certain amount of healthy, irreverent skepticism. I sure hope the franchise does that for future generations and isn't just used to sell them a shitload of stuff unworthy of the name.