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Hello, Neuman

It's a Mad Mag world at Fullerton museum as 'Humor in a Jugular Vein' taps the art and artists that have satirized pop culture since 1952.

June 11, 1998|KENNETH WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It ain't Thomas Paine's "Common Sense," and it may not carry the weight of the Federalist papers, but let's give Mad magazine its due.

With its caustic wit and biting satire skewering the conventions of "the American way of life," Mad--established in 1952--helped pave the way for the cultural revolution of the '60s and '70s, according to cartoon historian Mark C. Cohen.

"It taught people to question authority," the 55-year-old Santa Rosa resident said during a recent telephone interview.

"People of my generation first became interested in national and international issues by reading Mad magazine," he added. "I don't think anything has had a greater influence on popular culture."

Indeed, its influence is strongly felt today in such satire-rich TV programs as "The Simpsons," "South Park" and "Saturday Night Live."

Cohen, a cartoonists' agent who represents some of the best known strips in the business--including Peanuts and Family Circus, and artists at Playboy and Penthouse magazines--has collected comic book art since 1956.

Today his collection exceeds more than 6,000 original works, some 600 of which are Mad art spanning nearly 50 years.

More than 130 of his favorite pieces are included in "Humor in a Jugular Vein: The Art, Artists and Artifacts of Mad Magazine," which opens Saturday at the Fullerton Museum Center.

"It's a sickness," joked Cohen, who also is the show's curator. "I was a fan from the very first issue, [even though] I had to sneak it into the house," which was in Stockton, Calif.

As did many kids at the time, Cohen was forced to hide his favorite reading materials from his parents, who took a dim view of comic books, especially ones from Mad publisher William Gaines.

"There was a national paranoia at the time toward comic books because a psychiatrist named Frederic Wertham had written a book [in 1953] called 'Seduction of the Innocent,' which blamed juvenile violence on comics," Cohen said.

Gaines--who had raised eyebrows with "Tales From the Crypt" (which inspired the TV series of the same name), "Weird Science" (which didn't) and other lurid titles he published under the flag of New York-based EC Comics--was singled out by a federal commission headed by Sen. Estes Kefauver (D-Tenn.)looking for links between comic books and juvenile delinquency.

"Because of the Kefauver commission, Gaines couldn't get distribution for his comic books," Cohen said.

"So in 1954 he changed Mad from a dime comic to a 25-cent magazine. And since they called it a magazine instead of a comic book, then it was OK . . . just another example of your tax dollars at risk," Cohen added ruefully.

Mad was conceived by EC editor Harvey Kurtzman, who envisioned a comic book that would lampoon other comics of the day. The first issue was published in the summer of '52. Kurtzman left EC a few years later; Gaines published the magazine until his death in 1992, after which it was taken over by current publisher Paul Levitz and editor-in-chief Jeanette Kahn of DC Comics.

"It absolutely took the country by storm," said Frank Jacobs, a longtime Mad writer and author of the biography "The Mad Mad World of William M. Gaines."

"People went bonkers for 'Super Duper Boy,' 'Bat Boy & Rubin' and 'Little Orphan Melvin', " said Jacobs, who has written hundreds of song parodies for Mad.

The consumer-based culture of the 1950s proved to be such fertile ground for laughs that Mad soon found a niche in poking fun at the advertising industry.

Before long, Mad artists were aiming their pens at everything from politics to popular culture, holding up a mirror to catch a loopy reflection of the opinions, fears and values of the baby-boom generation and their parents.

"During the student unrest of the '60s and '70s, some people wanted to blame us, but we were just writing about what was happening," said David Berg, who, along with Mad veterans Al Jaffee and Sergio Aragones, is a regular contributor to the magazine.

"We reflected things, but we really didn't cause them," Berg said by phone from his home in Marina del Rey.

Still, the magazine's continuing influence on popular culture is hard to deny. Its impact is felt not only in such wisecracking television shows as "Married . . . With Children" and "Beavis and Butt-head" but also in the ongoing spate of parody feature-length films, from "Airplane" to the "Naked Gun" series.

"The people who direct these shows grew up with Mad," Jacobs said. "There's never been a magazine that has so consistently put movies and TV shows in caricature form with such continuity and funny consistency. It set the tone.

"Before Mad came along, the satirical and outrageous were hard to come by," Jacobs said. "Mad introduced those elements to the younger generation."

It was a winning formula. Mad's circulation climbed to 2 million at its peak in the mid-'60s.

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