When I was a kid, I loved loved loved MAD Magazine: I loved Alfred E. Neuman’s gap-toothed grin on the cover, I loved Don Martin’s wacky comic strips, I loved the fake ads, I loved the movie and TV show parodies that I didn’t understand (to this day there are certain movies that I only know about via MAD), I loved the Sergio Aragonés doodles that hid in the margins, I loved “Spy vs. Spy,” I loved the endless recycling of strips and parodies that were older than I was by a longshot, I loved Al Jaffee’s ”fold-ins” (even though they quickly wore down to unfunny illegibility within minutes), I even loved the perennially unfunny “Lighter Side of Strip.” I think most of all I loved the bizarre guttural language of MAD–the unpronounceable explosions of fricatives and glottals, the joyful and rude “smrzzps!” and “schlups!” and “putzes” that provided the perfect soundtrack for my pre-adolescent pre-angst. Surely, this was the special argot of the adult world, the perfect onomatopoeia of grown-up comedy. Even as a young kid, I knew that MAD was in some way offensive, that it somehow tested the bounds of decency. Of course, I mistook what was essentially puerile for something more urbane.
So I was initially disappointed when I received Maria Reidelbach’s Completely Mad for Christmas one year. I guess I was expecting it to be a special all-color glossy hardback anthology. Eventually, I got around to reading it, and thus I learned the history of EC Comics and the censorship trials that the brand–and comics in general–had to endure. To this day, again and again, comic books come under the fire of those who wish to censor (check out the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund’s short history of censorship in comics to learn more).
Under the editorial direction of William Gaines, EC Comics in the early 1950s specialized in horror, sci-fi, and true crime comics, publishing classic titles such as Tales from the Crypt and Weird Fantasy. These comics featured twisting and twisted plots, boldly illustrated with strong lines and graphic images. In a repressed and fearful age, EC Comics openly addressed problems of racial segregation and arms proliferation. The lurid artwork and progressive themes finally proved too much for Dr. Fredric Wertham, who addressed the supposed threat comics proved to the youth of America in Sedcution of the Innocent. Fitting right in to the McCarthyism of the era, Wertham’s book led to a Congressional hearing on comic books. In an attempt to regulate and control his own product, Gaines banded with other publishers to form the Comics Code Authority. This pre-emptive strike backfired, however–the CCA decided that they needed to censor every comic that came out, and give it this stamp of approval (still seen on mainstream comics today!)–
If you’re interested in reading the full (and necessarily vague) code, check out Once Upon a Dime’s article here.
A disappointed Gaines quickly left the CCA but the damage was done. They ruled that comics couldn’t be published with words like “horror” or “weird” in the title, effectively blacklisting EC’s major titles.
Gaines continued to publish new comics like MD, and Psychoanalysis, but the CCA had poisoned the well. EC Comics went under, plagued by censorship battles and distribution problems. Gaines focused all of his efforts on MAD, turning it into a full-sized magazine in 1955. MAD Magazine has been in continuous publication for over 50 years–although today the magazine prints paid ads. Yeah. That sucks, doesn’t it? So MAD has succumbed to commercialism–no wonder, considering that it’s the commodity name for such a crappy TV show. Even so, I’ll always recall gleefully devouring ”Special Editions” of MAD, reprint digests chock full of references I didn’t get, thinking that I was gaining some forbidden knowledge. Maybe I was.