A Wild Madhouse Riot of 1950s Comic Book Satire

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Okay, here’s the setup. Marilyn Monroe knocks Joe DiMaggio’s head off with a baseball bat. So they go to a Chinese laundry to get it put back on. But the proprietor can’t help them because—get ready—it’s a hand laundry! Okay, see, this place has human hands hanging off clotheslines, and, and…

Hmmm. Maybe you had to be there.

Hy Fleishman: art

“There” was the mid-1950s, when EC Comics’ Mad was still a hilarious—and groundbreaking—ten-cent comic book. And once it started to become popular, publishers rushed out their own satirical collections with titles like Whack, Bughouse, and Eh! A couple, Get Lost and EC’s own Panic, have been fully reprinted in book form. And now John Benson, who’s already produced books on horror and romance comics of the era, has assembled several dozen samples from all the ripoffs—uh, imitations—in The Sincerest Form of Parody, subtitled “the best 1950’s Mad inspired satirical comics.” Among the artists are Will Elder, Jack Davis, Jack Kirby, Steve Canyon‘s William Overgard, and Archie‘s Dan DeCarlo.

A Mad comic by Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood mocking other satirical comics publications

These stories ridicule all aspects of pop culture—films, books, plays, other comics—with varying degrees of wit and sophistication. Several lampoons of television—portrayed as insidiously evil—manage to hold up quite well.

You’ll also find plenty of sick, un-PC humor, from gross-out horror cartoons to simply gross ethnic caricatures. The cover of Nuts with the laundry joke manages to offend on both counts. And as you might expect from publications pandering to the pre-teen male market, women are frequently depicted as objects of raw lust. One cover expects its young readers to know the expression “built like a brick shithouse” to get the punchline.

Last week John and I discussed the latest issue of Squa Tront, his EC Comics fanzine. The following is our follow-up.

Dooley: How did you choose material for the book?

Benson: When Isaac Asimov edited his massive Before the Golden Age anthology of 1930s science fiction—an era considered primitive by most sci-fi readers today—he relied entirely on his memories of reading the stories when they first appeared, and that’s how he made his selections. Note that the s-f’s early primitive period is referred to as “before the golden age,” unlike comics’ early primitive period, which is called “the golden age.” Similarly, Jules Feiffer largely relied on his memories of the stories from his original reading when making selections for his seminal The Great Comic Book Heroes in 1965. Like the Asimov and Feiffer books, The Sincerest Form of Parody is partly an exercise in nostalgia, so in making my selections, I think it’s fair to give some consideration to my reaction to the material when I first saw it.

Since my arena in Parody is much smaller in scope than those other two projects, and I have all the Mad comics imitations, I did review them pretty closely before deciding what would go into the book. But to some extent I followed the lead of Asimov and Feiffer. For example, I knew which Panic stories I wanted to use without going back and rereading the entire run. And I knew I wanted Howard Nostrand’s cover of Flip #1 for the cover of the book, as well as his stories to be well represented.

Howard Nostrand, art

Howard Nostrand, art

Howard Nostrand, art

Howard Nostrand, art

Speaking of which, you’ve noted that Flip is “the best of the Mad imitations” and Nostrand’s illustration for the first issue is possibly “the best, most iconic cover of the ’50s.”

Beyond nostalgia and personal taste, I think an objective contemporary case can be made for considering the Nostrand material the best of this little genre, and I spent a bit of space in the book’s “Notes” section trying to make that case. Nostrand–and the presumed writer Nat Barnett–understood in a very precise way that air of mystery that the early Mads were infused with, that Harvey Kurtzman, Mad‘s editor, spoke of so tellingly in the quote I used in the book. And Nostrand was a hugely talented artist whose comics work is quite underrated.

Howard Nostrand, from "Four Color Fear," an anthology of 1950s horror comics

Covers of Benson's romance comics anthologies

What 1950s comics genre do you plan to resurrect next?

I’m not sure that I’ll do another, but I’ve talked with Fantagraphics about doing an anthology of romance comics from a completely different viewpoint than “Romance Without Tears.”

War comics is another genre possibility.

Dick Ayers: art

William Overgard: art

Hy Fleishman: art

Al Hartley: art