What, Them Worry?

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But the truth is, Mad switched to its current format only because Gaines wanted to keep Kurtzman, who wanted to move away from "the crumminess of the traditional comic-book format--the cheap paper, the poor printing, the low price, and all the rest." He wanted to create a grown-up magazine, a "real" magazine, and Gaines agreed to the switch in 1955. It was not enough: Kurtzman ended up leaving Mad in 1956 even after Gaines offered him 50 percent ownership. Kurtzman was too ambitious and too restless to remain with his old friend, and he went on to start up a number of ill-fated humor magazines, among them Trump (funded by Hugh Hefner), Humbug, and Help!, the latter of which employed such young nobodies as Woody Allen and Robert Crumb. Had he remained with Mad, Kurtzman, who died in 1993 at 68, after struggling with liver cancer and Parkinson's disease, would have been a wealthy, famous man. Instead, he's merely a legend.

"The only track Harvey was ever on was upgrade, upgrade, upgrade," says Jaffee, who attended the High School of Music and Art in New York with Kurtzman in the 1940s and worked at Trump and Humbug before rejoining Mad full-time in 1956. "Upgrade means spend more money, and Bill was the bankroll, and Harvey was the genius, and Harvey's genius was in saying, 'I want to get Norman Rockwell to do our covers,' and Bill was saying, 'No, no, no, let so-and-so do it, he works cheap.' Harvey got tired of doing a comic book when he saw that he could be successful with satire, so Bill had to go along with upgrading the magazine. What he couldn't go along with was upgrading Harvey's share, although he went pretty far. Hefner appealed to Harvey's sensibilities, because Hefner was willing to plow back the profits and build an empire, and Harvey wanted to build an empire of good magazines, and he felt Hefner would go along with that, where Bill would fight him every inch of the way. That's one of the reasons why, no matter what Bill offered Harvey financially, he was still going to go with the dream of Hefner helping him get to Mt. Olympus."

For years now, Kurtzman's child has felt like a vestige--an antique always covered in dust, no matter how much Pledge you use. With its black-and-white illustrations and cache of familiar names who've lingered in the magazine since the 1950s and '60s--among them such icons as Aragones, Jaffee, and Mort Drucker (most identified as the artist responsible for the movie and TV parodies)--Mad looks, on the surface, little changed since its heyday. Even its parodies of South Park, Tom Green, Britney Spears, and Behind the Music seem one step behind the times; they look like something lifted from an issue printed in 1972, despite the up-to-the-minute subject matter. Reading Mad today is little different than watching MTV in black-and-white; it makes today seem a little bit like yesterday. The editors will admit that has certainly led to its decline in readership: Its once-faithful readers have grown up, even if Mad cannot and will not.

"We're black-and-white in a color world," Meglin says. "It feels like we're coming from the days of black-and-white television, and on top of that, it's drawn in the narrative format that comic books and comic strips are still part of, so people think it's less adult than text, so they move on before they should. Their sensibility may still very well be wrapped in Mad's material and Mad's approach, but they're at the age where they don't want to appear in a subway car or a bus reading an issue of Mad and not a grown-up magazine, if you will. That has a negative effect on readership."

Mad has struggled to remain relevant in the age of Howard Stern and Eric Cartman; long-gone are the West Side Story and Ladies' Home Journal parodies, replaced instead by such features as "Monroe," featuring a troublemaking kid, his porn-obsessed dad, and a mother who's always falling out of her teeny bikini. And the magazine has become obsessed with sex and shit jokes; Mad, which once refused to work blue, is working brown. And while Aragones insists he loves the evolution--"Hey, I laugh at a lot of fart jokes," he says, chuckling--Meglin has struggled with the inevitable change, which began in April 1997, when Alfred E. Neuman appeared on the cover of the magazine Xeroxing his ass.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky