Brainiac On Banjo #042: We’re Not Getting Mad…

All your children are poor unfortunate victims of lies you believe / A plague upon your ignorance that keeps the young from the truth they deserve. – Frank Zappa, “What’s The Ugliest Part of Your Body?”

For those who have been following the long and lingering death of Mad Magazine, a couple days ago things took another turn for the worse when it was announced that after two more inventory-burning issues, the legendary publication would stop running new material.

That’s sad. 67 years ago Mad changed the nature of our culture, being the first comic book to confront our nation’s culture and its many foibles head-on. It was an important part of a vital movement in the 1950s spawned by innovators such as Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory, Second City, Ernie Kovacs and Moms Mabley. Mad was all the more important by being the first specifically oriented to those not yet old enough to vote.

Its founders – Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, Wally Wood, Jack Davis and “the usual gang of idiots” – had a profound influence on the world of comic art. Their work inspired a generation of youngsters who took the concept to further heights – creators such as Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Skip Williamson and Denis Kitchen.

Mad was (I use the past-tense as an acknowledgement of reality) done in by the collapse of the newsstand magazine distribution system, to be sure, but more by a growing lack of courage by its owners. For about a half-century it’s been owned by DC comics, which is part of WarnerMedia, which is part of AT&T, which deploys a modernized version of the Death Star as its corporate logo. Baby Boomers learned the art of wiseass rebellion from Mad; our successors picked up those skills from The Simpsons, Beavis and Butt-Head, South Park, and dozens of undisguised brainy malcontents lurking on the internet.

In other words, Mad Magazine grew lame. It no longer spoke to rebellious teen-agers (which, of course, is redundant). It no longer brought truth to power. It was no longer subversive… but teen-agers still are.

This is not to say that its owners didn’t give it the old college try. A year ago they rebooted Mad and hired the brilliant Bill Morrison to edit it. Bill is best known as the cofounder and creative director of Bongo Comics, which took his long-time collaboration with Matt Groening on The Simpsons and Futurama to the comic book format. Mad was now home to creators such as Steve Vance, Bill Wray, Ian Boothby, and Bob Fingerman. Each issue was better than the previous, and despite the odds readers had hope for its survival. A year later, Bill was out – part of DC’s first round of executive cutbacks. The handwriting was on the wall.

And now, after its tenth issue (reboot, remember?), it will become a bimonthly reprint magazine. Well, they’ve got to keep the trademark alive. Don’t tell WarnerMedia they can do that with their Mad website and the many television reincarnations. Print media is dying fast enough.

AT&T is under no obligation to continue pouring money into the black hole of newsstand sales, and, as I just said, DC did try its best… more or less. I won’t take this opportunity to discuss corporate politics. Governmental politics makes me mad enough.

But make no mistake: the brainchild of Harvey Kurtzman is not an idea whose time has come and gone. Just as Ernie Kovacs begat Robin Williams and Lenny Bruce begat George Carlin, social satire is here to stay. Right now, it’s moved on to streaming television and to our relatively-smartphones. You can’t beat it to death, and it works best when under attack.

The spirit of Mad Magazine will live on in those hearts courageous enough to hoist pen to paper.