|March 29th, 2003
If you consider yourself a student of satire, a connoisseur of caricature, a patron of parody, and yet NOT find yourself interested in Mark Evanier's illuminating tome, "MAD Art", well then, your must be CRAZY!
(And if you find my cute little intro to be sort of EH, imagine how much cleverer I would've come off if I could've smoothly added "NATIONAL LAMPOON" to that litany of knutty knockoffs, but of course, we all know that way leads...FROM HERE TO INSANITY!!...)
If you've ever read MAD magazine--and truthfully, who amongst us hasn't?-- at one time or another you've undoubtedly found yourself wondering, "WHAT kind of nutty people draw this stuff, and WHERE the heck do they find them??" Along with the chicken versus the egg, perhaps one--or two--of mankind's most puzzling questions!!
Well, good news, bunkie! They're answered at last, and answered with authority, panache, and more than a generous dollop of yocks!! Mark Evanier is a highly knowledgeable individual (at least when it comes to comic art topics--I don't think I'd have him top a list on my speed dial when it came to matters of advanced thermonuclear physics--but hey, I could be wrong...) and possesses the gift of breezily imparting information in such a painless manner that it allows the reader to both laugh AND learn simultaneously!! And who knows--maybe if he DID take a shot at penning that physics text, we'd have more thermonuclear scientists in our midst and less cartoonists!?! But--that probably wouldn't be a GOOD thing, would it? Uh uh. The world needs MAD-- the world DOESN'T necessarily need any additional MAD scientists!! The so-called "Usual Gang of Idiots"--THIS is their story! And Mark tells this far-flung tale to the best of his authoritative ability, because, y'know, after a half century, there've sure been an awful LOT of idiots!?!
The approach decided upon is to write short pieces about all the magazine's major artistic contributors (with the entirely valid point that a similar survey of MAD writers begs to be documented being made several times for emphasis), divided into alphabetical groupings of contributors from era to era (though, rightfully, "Kurtzman" trumps "Davis"). First up are the comic book guys, followed by a section devoted to the initial new hires as the switch was made to the black and white magazine format. The half dozen or so fellas who somehow managed to sneak their way into the closed door confines of MAD during the sixties and early seventies are next to be spotlighted, with the transitional new blood from the eighties following. After that, it's the massive artistic infestation of recent years that's examined, with a catch-all chapter devoted to many--but not all--the cartoonists that've put in cameo appearances over MAD's entire run. Interspersed amongst this chronology of comedic cartoonists are more general chapters cleverly and clearly detailing the magazine's history, how artists are chosen to appear in MAD, how an article is conceived, how an issue of MAD magazine is ultimately assembled, and--in a piece I found particularly fascinating--how photographer Irving Schild and other lens clickers staged and captured the highly effective faux ads dreamt up by the writers--did I mention that the writers deserve their own book?-- that give this satirical enterprise even more of a power packed punch!!
As latter day artist--and current Art Director-- Sam Viviano so aptly puts it in answering the oft asked question, "When was MAD at it's best?" MAD was at it's best during whatever time period the gentle reader first picked it up. For me, that would've been late 1963, a full decade into it's run, though through the magic of various reprint collections and the pile of back issues I was able to scrounge up, I managed to acquaint myself with most of the highlights from the initial ten years. I was quite the devotee there for a while, though by the time the seventies rolled around, I was pretty much picking up the magazine on autopilot. When the NATIONAL LAMPOON arrived with it's, ahem, racier material, well, THIS then-teen-age boy quickly and unapologetically switched allegiances!! But I've since come to recognize the immense contribution MAD made to our culture, popular and otherwise, even if I've only sporadically purchased subsequent issues over the ensuing years. Ironically, while it was a creeping sameness brought to the material by a predictably restricted group of contributors that, in part, drove me away, it's those same individuals whose background stories most interested me in Evanier's expansive overview!?! Because, you know, MAD really WAS at it's best in '64 and '65--trust me...
With limited space Mark manages to capture the essence of each unique MADman--the inventiveness of Al Jaffe, the brilliant but tragically doomed career of Wally Wood, Mort Drucker's development into--aside from perhaps the late Al Hirschfield--the world's foremost caricaturist, the intensive labor Don Martin poured into efforts to effortlessly appear to be MAD's Maddest artist, the complicated procedures Antonio Prohias would go through to produce his classic "Spy vs. Spy" feature, the oft-told tales of the speed of an Aragones and the pranks of an Elder--they're all here, succinctly delivered in all their glory. Even some of my lesser favorites from that prime period--Bob Clarke, Jack Rickard, and Paul Coker, Jr. to name three-- are afforded glowing write-ups, inducing me to reassess some of my age-old opinions and reach the conclusion that, yes, these guys ARE good--funny, even!! However, no amount of fancy jabber's ever gonna convince me George Woodbridge was working for the right publication! Talented, clearly. Humorous? Not nearly. And in fairness to the long (long Long LONG) time MAD mainstay, he even admits to feeling a bit miscast in his interview with the book's author, though Mark politely begs to differ with him (hey Mark--don't argue! Even he knows the score!!)
And then there are the "new" guys--y'know, the fellas who came aboard sometime after Gerry Ford freely roamed the Oval Office?? I have very little emotional attachment to this mass of MADmen, admittedly, but some clearly stick out--gagster John Caldwell, family-runner up James Warhola, cartooning throwback Bill Wray, Drew Friedman, perhaps the universe's THIRD most unique caricaturist, and "Duck" Edwing, MAD's OTHER Don-- being amongst the most prominent in my mind. Perhaps due to my unfamiliarity with many of the folks being showcased in the latter portions of this all encompassing tome, or maybe because most don't have the mileage their precursors have, several of their background stories come across as a bit, well, perfunctory. Boy reads MAD, boy applies to MAD, boy gets turned down by MAD, boy works for MAD's competitors, boy applies to MAD again, boy is accepted finally by MAD, boy, is boy happy!--the end. (…And in at least a few cases, you could substitute "girl" into that little archetypical tale--but not many.) I wouldn't call this a flaw in the writing per se--Mark does the best with what's he's got, and let's face it--not everybody was created equally interesting! Though, frankly, while I must commend each included artisan on their obvious abilities, not all their talents are equally enticing. Personal taste definitely favors some of these "rookie" stylists' work over that of others. Which brings me back to the title of our item under review today, "MAD Art"--just what ABOUT the art, anyway?...
As a platform to spotlight the many fine artists found in MAD's back pages, I'm afraid it's a mixed bag. While some of the larger blow-ups of panel details work spectacularly--the Jack Davis boxing illustration being a prime example--and the ongoing Basil Wolverton chapter title art makes for a pleasantly consistent motif, too much of the intended-magazine sized pages are shrunk down to at least a third their proper size, losing their effectiveness because of it (not to mention their humor, as most bits are printed incomplete). The layout, simply put, is a bit of a hodge-podge. Admittedly, you get to sample a smorgasbord of styles, but just like dining at a buffet isn't always the best way to enjoy a meal, this isn't the optimum way to relish the art of MAD. Towards that end, I found myself motivated to pull out the series of fine "MAD About The Fifties", "MAD About The Sixties", "MAD About The Seventies" and "MAD About The Eighties" volumes to better appreciate all that I had just read about. Which was okay with me. I'm not above cross-referencing my entertainment sources!! So, okay, maybe "MAD Art's" not going to win any coveted design awards from the Society of Guys Who Dole Out Coveted Design Awards, but it'll suffice, believe you me. Because, despite the title, this is one book you're buying for the words more than you are the pictures. Go into it with that in mind and you won't be disappointed.
Quibbles? Oh, sure, I've got a few. In the big Wham-Bam-Thank-You-Kurtzman wrap-up, our author attempts to list virtually every person who put pen to paper for MAD, craftily leaving himself an out by appending " and dozens more" to his survey to fend off complaints of neglect, a ploy that won't keep ME from whining about the shocking omission of the great Russ Heath, the long-time comics artist who--as described in pretty much his very own words--traced over Harvey's detailed layout's for the MAD comics take on Jack Cole's stretchable sleuth, "Plastic Sam". Tell me it was the editors, Mark--you couldn't have forgotten THAT one, could you? And maybe we can blame those self-same editors for the skewed look at the career path of John Severin. After leaving the MAD color comic, he's said to have drawn humor stories for several of MAD's competitors. Curiously, while in the latter portion of the book, several younger cartoonists are said to have graduated from CRACKED (and the like) up into the lofty realm of MAD, but in this one case where the trajectory went in the OPPOSITE direction, no names were given and implications were such that one could easily believe that Severin was but a casual contributor to the suspiciously unnamed CRACKED, rather than the artistic backbone of that enterprise, racking up as impressive a string of assignments in his new found home as any first generation MADmagman ever did!! Or would MAD rather not talk too much about the one that got away, I wonder?
(And as for that plural attached to the "MAD competitors" reference, well, at first I couldn't figure out what OTHER publication besides CRACKED Mark may've been referring to--then suddenly it hit me--WHAT THE?! No, that wasn't my reaction, that was the title of a Marvel Comics parody mag that came out in the eighties that housed Big John's work on at least one occasion. I oughta know, too-- after all, I WROTE the story he illustrated!?! D'oh--a Homer Simpson moment!! Now that it's all come flooding back to me, I thought I'd share this glorious little moment in my career with you folks, so if you click here, you can first read the back story to the world's only Severin-Hembeck collaboration, a nifty Nick Fury parody! After that, you lucky, lucky people, avail yourselves of my initial--but oh-so-tight--layouts, and finally on to the pierce de brosnen, the story as proudly published!! It ain't MAD, but if I must say so myself--and yes, I must-- it ain't bad!!)
In conclusion, the answer is affirmative--you need "MAD Art" by Mark Evanier, Watson-Guptill Publications, $24.95 (Cheap!) Run down to your local bookstore and scarf up a copy, or better yet, click on over to Mark's POVOnline website and buy it through one of several of the larger online booksellers stationed there. If you do it that way, said booksellers will toss Mark a few shekels for each and every sale, and I think we'd all agree, the more money an author can amass from his own often thankless task, the better, right?
Mark Evanier's "MAD Art", despite a few small caveats--and I don't mean Dick--is a very satisfying dissection of its subject. Fine wordsmith that he is, though, I'm reasonably certain Mark isn't a bit flustered by what amounts to only a few minor quibbles. After all, "What? M.E. Worry?"...
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