Mad Lives

The Mad Reader: written by Harvey Kurtzman; illustrated by Harvey Kurtzman, Bill Elder, Jack Davis, Wally Wood, and Basil Wolverton (1952): This 50th anniversary edition of the first paperback collection of comic-book stories that originally appeared in Mad still has the power to amuse and amaze.

Kurtzman was the rare comic-book writer-artist-editor who was proficient at both comedy and drama. EC Comics created Mad to take advantage of Kurtzman’s comic and satiric abilities, and the result was Mad — first a comic book, later a magazine so as to escape the censorship of the Comics Code Authority. Kurtzman, along with his artistic collaborators, pretty much invented the entire language of Mad that would continue to this day, spilling out from the magazine into movies, television, and the Internet. The Airplane and Scary Movie movies are clearly the children of Mad. So is The Onion. So is SCTV.

The artists were really co-writers at certain points, especially Elder and Wood, who crammed the backgrounds and sides of the panels with various visual and linguistic jokes that weren’t in Kurtzman’s scripts or lay-outs. Those crammed panels became one of the hallmarks of Mad for generations of readers. How much stuff was going on in the margins?

Elder and Wood also set the artistic tone for decades to come. Wood could be an astonishing mimic of other artists when he wanted to be, but he also brought his own comic sensibilities (and Va-va-voom women) to the proceedings. Kurtzman and Wood’s parody of Superman still stings today — it could almost be a commentary on the recent Man of Steel movie.

Bill Elder could also parody the style of others, but he was really the exemplar of the crowded, kitchen-sink panel. While the main comedy goes on in the foreground, comedy and satire also pop off everywhere else in the panel, often with little or no relation to the main plotline. It’s a brilliant stew that rewards repeated reading. Whole lotta squinting going on.

While the parodies here are of specific 1950’s targets — the radio and TV shows Dragnet and The Lone Ranger, Superman, Archie Comics — some of those targets persist today, and even the Dragnet parody has its own relation to the present in its parody of jargon-heavy police procedurals. Parodies of print ads and a parody of the McCarthy-Army hearings (!!!) fill out the volume. This is really an essential bit of 1950’s popular culture. Highly recommended.

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