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Obituaries

Dave Berg, 81; Writer, Artist for Mad Magazine

May 24, 2002|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dave Berg, one of Mad magazine's best-known writer-artists, whose slice-of-life cartoon strips "The Lighter Side of ..." were one of the humor magazine's most popular features for more than 40 years, has died. He was 81.

Berg died of cancer May 16 at his home in Marina del Rey.

Berg's insightful comic take on American life first appeared in the pages of Mad in 1956, when he began freelancing for the magazine. "The Lighter Side of ..." began in 1961 and appeared in 365 subsequent issues.

"Dave was a visual critic, but a warm-spirited critic, not a hard-nosed critic," said Nick Meglin, co-editor of Mad.

"He was not a cynic at all. He saw the American scene as a wonderful example of our culture, our society and our life, and did comments on that.

"There were not major political statements being made here. It was just vignettes that he personally witnessed and did variations on of everyday life wherever it occurred."

Berg might comment on the vulnerability of the American public in dealing with car mechanics, for example, or comment on what's happening in the nation's schoolrooms and living rooms.

"It was not earth-shattering commentary," Meglin said, "but he did talk about whoever controlled the remote, controlled the household."

Berg originally offered his humorous observations on a single theme such as "The Lighter Side of Dining Out." But in the late 1960s, he switched to offering vignettes on a variety of topics, usually 15 different cartoon strips that ran on four or five pages.

Berg often incorporated friends, family members and Mad colleagues into his cartoons, such as drawing the head of Mad publisher William M. Gaines hanging on a wall like a mounted deer head. He also regularly included a strip featuring himself under his alter ego, Roger Kaputnik.

Berg's son, Mitch, has been appearing in his father's strips since he was a child growing up in New Rochelle, N.Y.

"He'd see me doing something and say, 'OK, buster, that's going in,'" Berg recalled.

"You can watch me grow up--as a kid, a teenager, then a hippy. I opened a nightclub and became well dressed, then went back to hippy for a while. In the most recent drawing of me, I'm wearing a cowboy hat and boots with long hair. People recognize me and ask me to sign autographs all the time."

Not that he ever minded.

"Especially when I was younger--in elementary school, junior high, high school--that was a big kick--everybody seeing me as a cartoon guy."

Berg was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1920, the son of a bookbinder. Displaying artistic talent at an early age, he received a scholarship to attend a Saturday morning art class at the Pratt Institute when he was 12.

After high school, he attended Cooper Union Art School in New York, where he met his future wife, Vivian.

At 20, he landed a job inking backgrounds of the newspaper comic feature "The Spirit" at the studio of Will Eisner. In time, he and fellow artist Jules Feiffer wrote the scripts together, with Berg doing the rough art.

Berg moved on to writing and drawing the comic book series "Death Patrol" and "Uncle Sam." As a member of the Army Air Corps during World War II, Berg served as a war correspondent on Iwo Jima, Guam, Saipan and later in Japan.

After the war, he worked under Stan Lee at Timely Comics (the original name for Marvel Comics) and at Archie Comics. Then came Mad, which Berg referred to as "the main attraction, the big event, the grand opening."

"They were satirizing commercials, movies and TV programs," he told Contemporary Authors. "I added something new--people. That's when 'The Lighter Side' was born. It was more than just gags, it was a psychological and sociological study of the human condition, and truth in humor."

Over the years, Berg wrote and drew 17 Mad books, with titles such as "Mad's Dave Berg Looks at Living," "Mad's Dave Berg Looks at Things," and "Mad's Dave Berg Looks at the USA."

The books, which sold in the millions, added to his fame and recognizability among Mad fans: He always drew himself on the cover. On "Mad's Dave Berg Looks at Our Sick World," for example, he drew himself with his ever-present pipe and a stethoscope touching planet Earth with Mad's Alfred E. Neuman holding up the Earth like Atlas.

Berg was heavily involved in the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts in Westchester County, N.Y., and later served as president of B'nai B'rith in Marina del Rey. He wrote two humorous religious books: "My Friend God" and "Roger Kaputnik and God."

Although he cut back a bit on his Mad output in the last few years, there are still more installments of "The Lighter Side of ..." to come.

Meglin said that he and his Mad magazine colleagues had an editorial discussion Wednesday morning over what to do with the several Berg installments that have yet to run.

"In the last 10 or 15 years, we've ended every one of his segments where he's at the doctor, because he had so many wonderful gags about his visits to doctors, with diets and his own problems," Meglin said.

In those, Berg was his Roger Kaputnik alter ego.

"The decision was made that we'll probably let it run with the doctor segments as he drew them," Meglin said. "This is his work and his work shouldn't be edited now that he's passed away."

The final "The Lighter Side of ..." by Dave Berg will run in the September issue, which will mark the 50th anniversary of Mad.

In addition to his wife and son, Berg is survived by a daughter, Nancy Berg of Woodland Hills.

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