The Daily Heller: My Ode to MAD!

Posted inThe Daily Heller

Since the publication of my book Growing Up Underground: A Memoir of Counterculture New York, I’ve been gripped by an existential-self-reckoning-ultra-indulgent-anxiety-provoking-stress-triggering-minor-late-life-meaning-of-life-crisis. Who am I? What am I? Am I who?

One of the obsessive mind games I play is pondering why, after all these years of being in and around the business of commercial art, graphic design, illustration and related punditry, I entered the design biz in the first place. Was it an undefined passion to make creative things and ultimately earn accolades as a result? Or was there something more specific … more existentially complex?

If you’re interested, read on. If not, have a great day.

From around 5 to 7 years old I wanted to be a child actor for commercials, game shows, stage plays, sitcoms or whatever else would shine a spotlight on my life. Some kids in my social circle had similar ambitions (actually, their parents did) and a few, surprisingly, received bookings for minor and major parts here and there. After two years of attending dozens of open-call auditions (and dying my hair blond, which was a necessity for appearing on black-and-white TV in the ’50s) without even one callback, I was forced to accept the harsh truth that I was not one of the chosen.

So I pivoted. I decided that I was going to be a comics artist. Satiric humor, I believed, was to become my calling!

I learned to love topical satire from listening to my uncle (a history professor) Walter’s LPs of routines by Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Stan Freberg, Nichols and May, Bob and Ray. Brilliant all! He introduced me to work by cartoonists Jules Feiffer and Walt Kelly, my comics heroes. However, my favorite “textbook” on the practice of great satire was MAD magazine.

While digging through my memory closet, I recently found a lost cache of early MAD paperback anthologies from the late ’50s and early ’60s—most from editor/artist Harvey Kurtzman‘s great epoch, featuring the artists Will (the) Elder and Wally (the) Wood.

To buy them I’d collect the deposits from bottles and cans that people had thrown into the verdant vacant lots sprinkled around Long Beach, Long Island, where I summered as a latchkey kid. When I had scrounged up enough coins, I’d bike over to the Cozy Nook luncheonette to buy their latest MAD offerings off the paperback rack. The cheap newsprint pages are now ragged, torn, yellow and moldy, yet nonetheless for me they are priceless. They are my roots.

MAD is why I’m writing this article, why I entered this profession, why I found inner peace! I didn’t get into graphic design just to make typography (I didn’t even know what typography was in my 8s or 10s or even my 16s) or design handsome pages for books and magazines. My gut desire was to conceive clever ideas that would, through words and pictures, cause readers to laugh out loud. Hearing a full-throat, honest belly laugh, not just a pleasant polite chuckle, is the bestest feeling ever.

MAD magazine, especially its early years as a comic book under Kurtzman’s direction, produced a brain-to-belly synapse. As I reacquainted myself with a few brilliant witty pages I salvaged intact, I am reminded that I tried to submit my work but never got it into MAD, but nonetheless I entered this business because of MAD. My first commission as art director of The New York Times OpEd page was to Kurtzman to do an essay and drawing of Alfred E. Neuman’s family tree. It was a vicarious thrill because I wish I had the ability to do what the old gang at MAD did on the remarkable pages below.

MAD was glorious Madness! Sublime Madness! Pure Madness! MAD!

MAD predicts the future of retail …
MAD predicts the future of technology (minus the phone) …

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Posted inThe Daily Heller