Mad Magazine and editor Al Feldstein: An Appreciation

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In my mother’s house in Northeast Tennessee, at the top of a staircase that is far too narrow, steep and rickety for her to climb with any regularity, sits the last of my childhood bedrooms. Predictably, given its former tenant, it’s kind of a mess even today, a dusty three-dimensional collage disguised as something habitable and seemingly hammered together out of antique furniture, stacks of obsolete videotapes, B-movie and album posters and pictures of musicians decades old, or in a few cases (Freddie Mercury, Kurt Cobain, Joey Ramone), decades deceased. Every time I visit my mother’s farm it’s like sleeping in a time capsule, which honestly isn’t all that bad a deal. I can see empty, vaguely rectangular blue spaces on the wall, indicative of the choicest few posters, which migrated with me when I moved to Ohio. My old room is a valuable link, mentally and emotionally, to the teenager I used to be, and I think that’s just as much for the few items that are missing as for the many more that are preserved. The blank spaces on my teenage bedroom wall are a bridge from that time to this one, turning the room from a mere shrine I visit occasionally into something more like a living document. Those empty spaces center me. They help me understand how connected everything was, and how connected it remains.

There’s comfort in nostalgia, obviously. I hope to pay more respect to Mad Magazine on the somber occasion of longtime editor Al Feldstein’s passing here than just to offer personal anecdotes and the odd fun fact. And if I fail, I hope it will be in grand Mad style (as I remember it), where the objective of the piece is maybe clear enough, but the path taken to find it is winding, distracted, digressive, circuitous even. We don’t learn this truth about childhood until we have the age and wisdom to discover it for ourselves: there are just too many interesting stops along the way to get particularly torn up when the trip takes longer than expected. Kids always want to grow up before their time. Mad split the difference and gave them a window into adult thinking and the larger world, but pitched it on a level they could understand. “Don’t buy the crap they’re selling you out there,” it seemed to say, before adding, self-deprecatingly, “buy the crap WE’RE selling you.” Mad opened a window within me intellectually, and not just in its mission statement of questioning authority and deflating the pomposity of Establishment thinking. It instilled in me a desire to understand so many things I didn’t at the time – pop culture references, human behavior and foibles, the news of the day, however trivial or dire. Maybe it wasn’t the noblest way to spend my time, or the most reputable companion, but it was a clarion call I responded to. Mad Magazine hasn’t been an active part of my life for the better part of three decades now, but its persistent influence on me – and on legions of other awkward young goofs who found in its pages solace from the real world (built from a gleeful, merciless skewering of that same real world) – is rich and undeniable.

At an age where other kids were losing themselves in comic books (though I did always have a weakness for Marvel’s Ghost Rider) and the vast majority were reading nothing at all, I read Mad Magazine religiously. I loved it from cover to cover, and even the parts I realized were patently dumb I at least recognized as dumb fun. Every cover contained some permutation of iconic troublemaker Alfred E. Neuman – freckled, big-eared, with an outward dimness I always chose to read as serenity, or implacability – a sort of combination mascot and gatekeeper, beckoning us in whilst keeping the terminally serious-minded out of our playground and secret world. A wise quote from the man himself adorned each table of contents*. Mort Drucker illustrated so many of the mag’s best movie satires, filling the edges of his frame with incredible detail that rewarded the thorough reader. Cartoonist Sergio Aragones took this idea even further and inserted little one act comedies into the margins of the pages themselves, ten or more per issue (sort of an ancient precursor to the concept of hidden in plain sight DVD and Blu-ray “Easter Eggs”). Artist Dave Berg drew “The Lighter Side Of…”, a disarmingly straight-laced column that wouldn’t have been too out of place in the Sunday newspaper, while the bizarre comic panels of his doppelganger Don Martin featured oddly-shaped, impossibly prim humans drawn in a style so singular (and delightful) that it has never to my knowledge been attempted, let alone approximated.

*The Neuman quote I always remember goes, “The problem with President Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ defense system is that it may cause the Russians to build an ‘Empire Strikes Back’ system in response.”

Each issue also featured the latest salvo in Antonio Prohias’ sly, ongoing Cold War satire “Spy vs. Spy”, wherein two mute counter-intelligence operatives attempt to kill each other via cunning and increasingly complex and ridiculous methods. Neither spy was ever identified as good or evil, or as an explicit avatar for one Cold War participant or the other. One was jet black, the other lily white, both were insidious and single-minded, and each was about equally successful, which meant he ended up dead only half the time. That was Mad Magazine for you. At a point in my lifetime when stakes were undeniably high, political gamesmanship was next level, and patriotic fervor in America was probably at its zenith, here was a prominent creative voice saying that war was not only absurd but also patently futile. Who could possibly care about crowning a winner if everybody dies? Mad mocked and chided the popular and the powerful with deft efficiency. Al Jaffe’s regular back cover “Fold-In” invited readers to see mundane things from different, often surprising angles, and his periodic feature “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions” taught me all about the joys of sarcasm, which I would use to great effect as I got older. Mad could wield a scalpel or a scythe with equal utility, and, in fact, deployed all manner of tools over the course of an issue. It never spelled out the meaning of “Spy vs. Spy” to its audience because it didn’t have to. It also maintained a cordial, ground level relationship with its readership, including a lively “Letters to the Editor” section that was a highlight of every issue. Kids like me wrote into Mad each and every month, and the “editor” responded to their letters with cutting hilarity**. Of course we loved it. The relationship was not only set, it was cast in stone. We trusted Mad, and it rewarded us with all sorts of treats in return.

**My abiding memory (out of so many to choose from) of Mad is actually the stock “editor” response to any letter which had the nerve to complain about an article or issue: “All complaints must be presented in person at our Customer Service Center in Backtash, South Korea.” I still use that from time to time.

My mother unwittingly introduced me to Mad Magazine, and for that I am eternally grateful. I remember her walking into my bedroom and dropping a stack of about ten, which she’d purchased at a yard sale for a total of $1, on my bed with little comment. Who knew what else I was reading way back then? It may have looked like an improvement to her, although I think she was just breaking out of the mold of a typical parent somewhat. On top of the stack was my favorite cover of Mad ever, released at the time of 1982’s Superman II, which depicted Superman, hands on his hips in a faux-heroic pose, standing on the surface of the moon wearing only an undershirt, unflattering boxers and a clearly annoyed look on his face. In the background Superman II’s trio of Kryptonian villains huddle together, laughing uproariously at him, while on the other side of the frame, Alfred E. Neuman runs toward him with a freshly dry-cleaned supersuit. What the hell is this, I thought? The difference in this case being that I could dive right into the magazine and find out. Over the years, I not only collected Mad but followed Mom’s lead and bought occasional back issues for myself at yard sales and used book stores, and they began rapidly accumulating in the bottom drawer of a ridiculously large oak desk that still sits in my time capsule bedroom in Northeast Tennessee, some 350 miles away. I had at least 100 issues and probably more. They’re all still there too, untouched for years now – mint condition, or something akin to it, with, if there’s any balance in the universe, that Superman II issue sitting right on top. I have no intention of selling them. Just now I wouldn’t mind reading one.

Mad Magazine was my introduction to the value of skepticism, the art of satire, the joy of irreverence, and, perhaps, to the very concept of humor. I will always appreciate the commitment of its editors and writers and artists (so many of whom I can still identify by their work) to creating and publishing something so diverse, cheerfully defiant and worthwhile. Chief among them is Al Feldstein, recently deceased, who stewarded Mad as editor in chief from soon after its origin as an EC Comic (home of Tales From the Crypt, among others) offshoot in the 1950s through 1985, the heart of my readership. Feldstein was an award-winning artist and writer in his own right, and the period in which he edited Mad, his humane but smart-alecky worldview permeating the magazine to the marrow of its bones, can’t help but be considered its golden age. His passing is what first got me thinking about the old warhorse. It gives me comfort to imagine that he, specifically, was the “editor” responding to reader mail, especially given some of those quips. Mad knew its readers were young but it also believed they were smart, and not only did not talk down to them, encouraged them tacitly by involving them as co-conspirators in its never-ending war against The Establishment. I’ll never forget that sense of inclusion, of being in on the joke for the first time in my life. It was empowering. Mad taught me to recognize and treasure cleverness, and not to laugh at everything, but only at what was really funny. Mad taught me how to tell the difference. It launched so many ships, mine included (however far down the list). From a former little boy who would like nothing more right now, as a grown man, than to dig into the treasure trove in that old oak desk for an hour or two, thank you, Mad Magazine.

And thank you, Al Feldstein, for absolutely everything. Rest in peace.

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