“Engaged Levity”: Mad and the Underground Comix

In my last post looking at the roots of underground comix, I discussed how, in the 1950s, the moral panic resulting from psychiatrist Frederic Wertham’s campaign against comic books helped inspire the Comics Code Authority. The Code sapped much of comics’ creative energy by forcing artists and writers to work within draconian limits set by publishers more interested in avoiding controversy than promoting free expression. In his recent history of American comics, Jeremy Dauber points out that the comix artists who emerged in the next decade were “inevitably drawn to material then absolutely verboten under the Code, like graphic sex, extreme violence, unfettered use of language, and offensive stereotype.” The emergence of the undergrounds within a decade of the comics panic can be understood at least partially as an ironic result of the stifling effect of the Code: the resulting penned-up energy – during a time of profound cultural and political upheaval – eventually exploded in publications that made the titles Werther had targeted look perfectly tame in comparison. 

While the undergrounds represented a uprising by artists, writers, and publishers against the strictures of the Code, the Code spawned a more immediate accidental legacy that was a singular influence on the comix: Mad, the magazine that gleefully skewered virtually every aspect of American society, culture and politics for generations, giving youth a shared vocabulary with which to mock constituted authority. Virtually every major figure in the underground comix movement cites Mad as a critical inspiration and influence. Beyond shaping the content of the comix, Mad’s founding editor Harvey Kurtzman provided an early platform for many of its most significant exponents: as comics scholar M. Thomas Inge notes, Robert Crumb, Spain Rodriguez, Gilbert Shelton, and Skip Williamson all worked for Help!, a satirical magazine Kurtzman edited after leaving Mad. As Mad’s irreverence played a significant role in inspiring the undergrounds, it was also instrumental in the development of a larger nonconformist culture that arose in the shadow of the conservatism that defined much of American culture in the fifteen years or so following the end of the Second World War. Moreover, Mad played a particular role in fostering a sense of social, cultural and political engagement in a few generations of youth united in their mocking disdain of the Establishment.

In 1952, William M. Gaines, publisher of EC Comics, famous for horror, crime and war titles that are an essential part of the comics canon, launched Tales Calculated to Drive You MAD (“Humor in a Jugular Vein”). The comic – more of a meta-comic – was edited by Harvey Kurtzman, who drew on EC’s stable – which included comics legends like Jack Davis, Will Elder, Wally Wood, and John & Marie Severin – to create a comic book that spoofed the standard comic-book genres, from superhero stories through teenage romance tales. While EC’s controversial titles fell victim to the comics panic, Mad avoided the purge by becoming a magazine, thereby exempt from the strictures of the Code. 

Mad’s guiding ethos was that the entire system was suspect; as a consequence, like the many of the underground comix it inspired, Mad didn’t take partisan sides. Though Mad’s core anti-establishment orientation may have led some of its targets to believe that the magazine was sympathetic to a broadly left ideology, it was as likely to spoof “both McCarthyism and the Beat Generation, Nixon and Kennedy, Hollywood and Madison Avenue.” Nobody with any degree of power was immune from skewering, from workplace management to school principals to whoever happened to occupy the highest rungs of power at any given moment – or, critically, the movements and people protesting them.

In his examination of the Jewish roots of Mad, Nathan Abrams situates Mad in a vibrant “alternative New York intellectual” community that was “unafraid to criticize or dissent from the prevailing mood of Cold War America” and “went on to shape the New Left and counterculture.”  Regular contributor Al Jaffee called Madone of the things that made the 60’s … [and] Watergate-era cynicism possible.” Mad’s core subversive message – that authority of any time was a legitimate object of ridicule – was central to the broader counterculture of the times. In his 1970 Playboy survey of the undergrounds, Jacob Brackman recalls Mad “[doing] more than all the Young Socialist rallies ever held to keep some of us from identifying with the good old Saturday Evening Post.” By combining comics’ accessibility with their potential for deep and broad intertextuality to call out the greed, incompetence, and stupidity that permeated modern life, Mad played a critical role in shaping the outlooks of a generation who would, for better or worse, be at the center of a set of profound social, cultural and political upheavals. 

In that last post, I quoted a comics artist describing the 1950s as “a bad time to be weird.” Psychologist Charles Winick, in a 1962 study of the role of Mad’s popularity with American teens, argued that during the Eisenhower years, America’s tradition of satirical writing went into decline as the Cold War’s “preoccupation with un-Americanism” limited the space available for nonconformist humor. Neither of those takes stand up to close scrutiny: Cold War conservative cultural conformity existed alongside what Inge calls a “larger cultural and ideological shift that questioned all the traditions and institutions of the past, found them morally and spiritually empty, if not downright dangerous and destructive,” and turned to “biting satire and acerbic parody” in response. The 1950s were a great time to get in on the ground floor of a countercultural movement that treasured being weird. 

This more nuanced reading of the era’s cultural landscape was staring Winick right in the face, but being too close to the time he was writing about, he failed to see the exceptions he noted as more than outliers, but as part of an emerging seismic cultural shift. Winick situated Mad alongside contemporaneous forms of rebellious cultural expression that thrived at the same time as – and because of – America’s postwar conservative turn. Like rock-and-roll, Mad was “suggestive and rebellious,” revealing readers’ “desire to break away from social norms” and signalling membership in the hip crowd. Indeed, Mad was part of a widespread valorization of nonconformity that emerged in the face of 1950s conservatism evident in the work of a number of figures, both hip and popular with wide audiences: “sick” comedians Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, and Joan Rivers; comics artists Jules Feiffer, Walt Kelley, and Charles Schulz; actors James Dean and Marilyn Monroe; the Beat writers, notably Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac; and rock-and-rollers like Little Richard and Elvis Presley. Like these people, Mad influenced the cultural upheavals that were on their horizon. 

Mad’s cultural impact owed much to its roots in comics, which gave it wide popular appeal while allowing creators to take advantage of the medium’s inherent potential for multilayered commentary. Comix writer and scholar Paul Buhle notes that aside from their role as a satirical venue, the undergrounds engaged in “play and commentary on comic art forms.” Comix artists embraced new narrative, textual and visual approaches, expanding the medium’s artistic and literary boundaries. At the same time, being grounded in near-universally familiar comic structures, visual grammar and tropes allowed the comix to deliver mind-bending ideas to a broad and eager reading audience. Like the underground creators it inspired, Mad both leaned on and subverted the traditional comics tropes and iconography that spoke to young people in a language they were intimately familiar with, and in the process, made dangerous ideas about bosses, teachers and parents more accessible to them. 

Comics’ subversive power is partially rooted in how they are (still) often not taken seriously as art or literature. Because they have been deemed unworthy of critical attention for most of their history, they have long helped spread subversive ideas “under the radar.” Moreover, comic illustration aesthetics can make dangerous messages appear less threatening: Winick speculated that Mad’s comics format took some of the “sting” out of its satire; Robert Anton Wilson, author of the Illuminatus and Schrodinger’s Cat trilogies, argued that absent its “charming illustrations,” Mad’s “hostility” would be “more naked, less jovial.” No doubt that Mad embraced comics’ reputation as something not to be taken seriously: it frequently and proudly referred to itself as “trash” or “garbage,” and, most famously, the masthead described Mad’s bullpen of artists and writers as “The Usual Gang of Idiots.” 

But Mad was not produced by or for “idiots.” Yes, the magazine was packed with juvenile gags, but to truly appreciate Mad, readers not only required a particular sense of humor, they needed to be able to decode a broad set of references. Ironically, while the magazine’s comics format helped undermine its intellectual reputation, comics’ very nature gave the “Usual Gang of Idiots” virtually unlimited opportunities for deep intertextuality using textual or visual cues. Any available space was an opportunity for a gag, and any given article could contain obvious or more hidden references to political, cultural, and historical moments and personalities, alongside in-jokes that would only resonate with regular readers. Mad’s ability to speak truth to power, and to undermine that power with laughter, relied on a readership that demonstrated a relatively sophisticated set of shared references. 

When it came to that readership, Mad and Werther shared a common insight: youth were vulnerable to indoctrination, and this gave adults a critical responsibility. Werther saw his as shielding youth from corrupting influence; Mad, on the other hand, helped prepare young readers “for dealing with the … surprises, horrors, deceptions and successes” that would face them in the second half of the twentieth century. Longtime contributor Al Jaffe saw Mad’s ethos as the product of the tortured times from which it emerged, decades defined by “one war ending, then another starting in Korea, and then another in Vietnam.” Even in its 60s heyday, critics understood that Mad played a vital role for people coming of age in turbulent times. Winick called Mad a “socializing agent” that promoted challenging authority while simultaneously laughing at rebellious figures: the reader could “be an inside ‘dopester’ while chivying inside ‘dopesters.’” For Wilson, reading Mad was cathartic for those looking for “some form of counterattack against Madison Avenue’s calculated insults to our intelligence”; he speculated that teens, learning to independently navigate a society that treated them like idiots “[needed] this form of counter-aggression most.” 

Brackman maintained that comix artists needed to push harder than Mad’s creators because they faced higher stakes than they did when they’d read Mad as kids: as he was writing, rebellious youth were facing off against “sadistic cops, Wallace-loving/long-hair-hating hard-hats, blood-hungry military officers, duplicitous narcs, [and] threatening machines.” While it’s undeniable that comix went places Mad never could, Mad was always in conversation with the issues at the heart of the counterculture. Even before launching Mad, Kurtzman was addressing one of the key questions driving the 1960s rebellion: the link between patriotism and military aggression. As Inge notes, Kurtzman’s 1950s EC war titles foreshadowed resistance to the war in Vietnam, revealing war as “grim, debasing and dehumanizing, not patriotic or heroic.” Early issues parodied the Beats. By 1965, as America’s commitment to Vietnam was intensifying and revolutionary moments like the University of Michigan teach-in against the war, the Watts uprising, and the Berkeley Free Speech Movement signalled the emergence of new radical challenges to the Establishment, Mad came for the John Birch Society and the draft. 

Mad 139, December 1970.

At the same time, Mad wasn’t afraid to challenge those who challenged authority. Jack Davis’s cover illustration for the December 1970 issue warns of the dangers of groupthink, even if it exists in a context of advancing progressive ideals: Mad icon Alfred E. Newman is attending a college football game, wearing a raccoon-fur coat that was all the rage on campus fifty years earlier. Behind him is a crowd of hippies, carrying signs that read “Free Bobby” (a reference to Bobby Seale’s trial following the events at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago), “Peace Now,” and “Power to the People.” Except this crowd is not at all interested in peace, now or ever: they are enraged, carrying bricks and baseball bats, and a police officer lies beaten and unconscious. The caption? “Mad: The Magazine of the Loud Minority,” a reference to the “Silent Majority” of white, working-class voters Nixon had targeted in the 1968 election and an indication not of allegiance to the crowd of protesters, but to the goofy, clueless kid wearing a “loud” outfit. As his pennant implies, Alfred wants us to “Beat [the] State” by laughing at it, not by throwing bricks.

Yet, critically, as Mad’s fixation on the sheer absurdity of American life and its commitment to attacking anyone with power regardless of affiliation could have led it to embrace a sense of nihilism, it didn’t accept fundamental brokenness as inevitable. The critic Russel Peterson dismisses much of political satire as “easy nihilism,” encouraging audiences to conclude that “if nothing is sacred, that nothing is at stake.” Certainly Winick saw Mad as fundamentally nihilistic, so focused on tearing down targets that there was no energy left to propose viable alternatives. No, Mad didn’t propose viable alternatives, but, as Inge observes, along with helping equip readers to better resist indoctrination, Mad helped discourage apathy and resignation  by advocating for “the liberation of laughter”: as Jaffee argues, Mad advocated intellectual rebellion in the name of prompting readers to better the world, not turn their backs on it. The mass youth popularity of comics, combined with overlapping, intertextual references to relevant social, cultural  and political questions, fostered “engagement rather than disengagement in a generation of readers growing into new opportunities to challenge authority. St. Onge sees reading Mad as a “type of democratic praxis” that he calls “engaged levity”: effective satire, he maintains, carves out common ground between people who, regardless of any other differences, become united in a shared laugh at a fundamentally broken state of affairs. Mad’s unflinching criticism of power, an attitude inspired by a world emerging from unspeakable tragedy and seemingly plunging towards existential catastrophe, can be a precursor to more public engagement in the name of shared values.

Some comix were, in fact, fundamentally nihilistic, especially when it came to women and sexuality (the topic of the next post in this series…). That said, Mad’s core commitment to employing ridicule as a way of speaking truth to power – an act of democratic engagement, not of nihilistic rejection – permeated the undergrounds. The Freak Brothers standing up for the little guy by outsmarting Norbert the Narc; Spain Rodriguez’s working-class romanticism; Trina Robbins’s Belinda Berkeley revealing the misogyny that pervaded not only mainstream society, but the counterculture as well: comix took the side of the less powerful against dumb and evil people and institutions. 

Yours truly collects Mad paperbacks.

Like with Doonesbury, reading Mad when I was a kid broadened my familiarity with, and, in my formative years, sharpened my understanding of history, politics and culture. Rereading the issues of Mad that I’d read back in 1970s and 80s, I’m struck by how many of my first memories of the historical personalities, events and debates that fascinate me decades later first came into my awareness in those pages – especially the paperbacks and “Super Special” paperbacks that compiled material from years before. Watergate; the women’s liberation movement; generational conflict over changing social mores: these questions and more were either the subject of, or more-or-less obliquely referred to in, countless articles that shaped my sense of humour – and, for better or worse, my sense of right and wrong. 

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