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Last Laugh: ‘MAD’ Magazine Will Soon Disappear From Newsstands

The iconic satire publication plans to reprint archival material with new covers, but will stop publishing new issues

The superimposed face of Alfred E. Neuman at the 2017 Comic-Con International. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images)
smithsonian.com

After a 67-year run, MAD Magazine and its “usual gang of idiots” are bidding farewell.

According to CNN’s Rob McLean and Michelle Lou, the satirical publication, which regaled generations of readers and influenced leading comedic figures, will disappear from newsstands after the release of its August issue. The magazine will reprint old material with new covers, which will be available in comic stores and via subscription. But aside from end-of-year specials and other one-off features, MAD won’t be creating any new content.

In its heyday in the early ’70s, MAD had more than 2 million subscribers, but those numbers dwindled dramatically in recent decades. MAD relaunched as a bimonthly in 2018 with full-color issues that sought to reinvigorate the magazine while preserving its signature brand of whip-smart satire and gleeful doofiness. (The first of the new issues featured Alfred E. Neuman, MAD’s fictional mascot, with his middle finger shoved up his nose—a reference to a 1974 cover that shocked readers.) But that wasn’t enough to save the publication.

“We have influenced or entertained a great many people who are now grown and introduced it to their children,” MAD cartoonist Al Jaffee tells Michael Cavna of the Washington Post. “It’s mostly nostalgia now.”

When it debuted in 1952, MAD was a comic book send-up of other comic books. But fairly quickly, it became a “riotous journal that tackled the entirety of Cold War America in all its paranoid, conformist, consumerist glory,” Thomas Vinciguerra reflected for the Daily Beast. The magazine pointed out the hypocrisy of presidents, skewered uncritical patriotism and published iconic cartoons like Spy vs. Spy, in which two agents duke it out, seemingly with no higher purpose than ensuring the destruction of the other. Spy vs. Spy was created by Antonio Prohías, a Cuban expat who had been accused of working with the CIA after he published work that was critical of Fidel Castro.

Though silly, the magazine had a serious mission: to encourage readers to think carefully and skeptically. “The editorial mission statement has always been the same: ‘Everyone is lying to you, including magazines. Think for yourself. Question authority,’” longtime editor John Ficarra once said. In MAD’s early years, this was a radical, subversive notion.“[T]he profusion of advertising and Cold War propaganda infected everything in American culture,” Michael J. Socolow explains in the Conversation. “At a time when American television only relayed three networks and consolidation limited alternative media options, MAD’s message stood out.”

But the magazine struggled to keep its edge during the internet era, when satirical takes on our culture are everywhere and instantly available. One can scarcely log onto Twitter or Facebook without seeing a clip of John Oliver or the cast of Saturday Night Live attempt to skewer the latest in political absurdities. MAD helped lay the groundwork for these modern comedians, but it can no longer compete with them.

“Its smart satire and irreverent and self-deprecating humor spawned entire generations of humorists who brought those sensibilities to books, film, TV and eventually the Internet,” MAD artist Tom Richmond tells Cavna. “New generations then received their satirical influences from these new-media stars, not knowing where the source came from. Even up until the end, MAD was doing sharp satirical work, but ultimately audiences were elsewhere.”

A particularly telling sign of MAD’s fading star came in May, when President Trump mocked Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg by comparing him to Alfred E. Neuman. Buttigieg, who is 37, said he had to turn to Google to understand the insult.

“I guess it’s just a generational thing,” Buttigieg said. “I didn’t get the reference.”

News of MAD’s last hurrah has prompted an outpouring from those who grew up loving the magazine. “Weird Al” Yankovic, who became MAD’s first guest editor in 2015, wrote on Twitter that he was “profoundly sad” to learn that the magazine was winding down its operations.

“I can’t begin to describe the impact it had on me as a young kid–it’s pretty much the reason I turned out weird,” he added. “Goodbye to one of the all-time greatest American institutions.”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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