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The Face of the Fabled Village Idiot

June 11, 1998|KENNETH WILLIAMS

Colonel Sanders, Tony the Tiger, Bob's Big Boy . . . of the many trademark faces cluttering the American inconographic landscape, few can match the audaciousness of Mad magazine's gap-toothed mascot, Alfred E. Neuman.

But according to cartoon historian Mark C. Cohen, the origins of the mischievous, grinning imp have fallen out of reckoning. In fact, nobody really knows where the famous "What, me worry?" kid actually came from.

"Harvey Kurtzman, editor of early Mad found the image and put it on the first Mad paperback in 1955," Cohen said. "But the origins of the face itself are unknown."

The earliest known image of Neuman was painted on the side of a 19th century traveling dentist's wagon with the slogan "It didn't hurt a bit."

The original caption, said Cohen, was "Me worry?" and it was frequently used in advertisements.

In fact, the face appeared on anti-Franklin Roosevelt campaign ads in the 1930s with the slogan "Me worry? I'm in favor of a fourth term," Cohen added.

The Kilroyesque visage was even seen as far away as Austria, where poor Alfred was used as a poster boy for anti-Semitic propaganda during World War II.

After Mad adopted Neuman as its official mascot in the 1950s, the magazine was sued for copyright infringement by Helen Pratt Stuff, whose husband, Harry Spencer Stuff, had copyrighted the image in 1911.

Cohen said Stuff managed to win a couple of suits, but the decisions were eventually overturned after it was shown that earlier images did exist.

According to Jim Tierney, a comic book collector and owner of Halley's Comics in Costa Mesa, the face is actually a common icon representing the fabled village idiot found in many cultures.

Tierney believes that a little bit of Alfred E. Neuman can be seen in the faces of '50s TV puppet Howdy Doody and famed ventriloquist Edgar Bergen's Mortimer Snerd character.

But it was longtime cover artist Norman Mingo who took the leering, pumpkin-headed character, softened his image and gave a face to America's favorite humor magazine.

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