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Children of MAD : COMPLETELY MAD; A History of the Comic Book and Magazine By Maria Reidelbach , (Little, Brown: $39.95; 208 pp.)

December 01, 1991|Randy Cohen | Cohen won Emmy Awards in 1985, 1986 and 1897 for his work as a writer on "Late Night With David Letterman." His most recent book, "Diary of a Flying Man" (Alfred A. Knopf), is a collection of humorous stories.

My generation of comic writers grew up reading Mad, and it shows in the Zucker brothers' movies, "Airplane" and "Naked Gun," in the parodies of "Saturday Night Live" and in the National Lampoon. There is a pleasing parallel between editor Al Feldstein's pseudo-cynical assertion "We approached MAD editorial with the fact that these kids were reading trash, and if they wanted to waste their money on it, OK," and David Letterman's oddly modest advice to his writers: "We're not doing brain surgery, here. We're just filling holes in the NBC schedule." Letterman's savvy mockery of the talk-show form had its precursor in Mad's satirizing magazine formats. For instance, each article, even a one-shot, is labeled a "Department," whose name includes a lame pun: Spy versus Spy runs as the "Joke and Dagger Department."

Mad began in 1952 as a comic book spoofing other comic books. It was produced by EC, the company started by Gaines' father, Max. EC also published Saddle Justice, Moon Girl and Crypt of Terror. In 1955, amid anti-comics outrage and congressional hearings, distributors agreed to handle only comics that adhered to the rules of the newly created Comic Codes Authority, which meant, among other restrictions, that "Policemen, judges, government officials and institutions could not be presented in a way that created disrespect for established authority." It was Mad's job to create disrespect for established authority, and so to circumvent the code, Gaines transformed the comic book into Mad magazine.

"Completely Mad" sketches a lively history of both Mad formats, excerpting old favorites such as Sergio Aragone's Marginal Thinking Department, Dave Berg's Lighter Side, Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions, Scenes We'd Like to See, Passionate Gun Love magazine, and innumerable ad parodies. Reidelbach is particularly interesting describing Mad's early days and its struggles with the code. She is less effective providing a social context for Mad, relying on cliches like: ". . . the children of the 1950s generation rebelled heartily against their strait-laced parents, taking up first with Elvis Presley and other rock-and-rollers, then moving on to involvement in leftist politics and experimentation with psychedelic drugs." But she has assembled a goofy scrapbook of Mad features that vividly remind me of how I wasted my youth, and for this I am grateful.

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