By Jeff Sensabaugh
This is a belated Mother’s Day tribute of sorts, involving MAD magazine. Not a comic book, and my story actually involves a compilation of the magazine not a single issue, but I hope you’ll indulge me.
I grew up in a family of readers. My father is the child of an English professor and studied philosophy in college, so he tends to the higher brow. He keeps track of Booker prize winners and has a fondness for Italo Calvino. My mom studied 17th century English Literature in college, but that was more of a phase. My mom mostly reads trash.
My grandma and grandpa moved around a lot. My mom claims something like 10 schools in 12 years. Rural homes are hard places to find friends, but most communities had small libraries. My mom grew up reading from one end of the shelf to the other. As an adult, she seems to keep about a book a day pace. It’s about a 50-50 blend of romance novels and mysteries. She spent 15 years of her life as a children’s librarian so she read plenty of children’s books as well. When I stopped by her house a few days ago, there was a big block of romance novels either on the way in or the way out.
In elementary school, I would come home during my mom’s reading time. She would chat as much as I wanted, but as soon as I was done she went back to her current book. I was responsible for making a snack if I wanted one, and that time was mine as long as I kept fairly quiet. I could watch TV, but she made sure that we went to the library once a week to keep stocked up with books. During the summers, when the library had reading list book prizes, I would read 4-5 books a week for weeks on end.
Somewhere in there, I found MAD magazine. In the 60s and 70s, MAD supplemented their magazine earnings by publishing digests of old material. A few would make their way into libraries, but thrift stores and flea markets were rife with them. Every parent wanted to purge their son’s collection as soon as he outgrew it. (I suppose that’s a bit sexist, but I have yet to meet a woman that read MAD regularly). I found one of these paperbacks, and thought it was pretty funny. The MAD brand was easy to spot, so I read a few more and enjoyed them. MAD’s writing was clever, if juvenile, and the art pretty good. And then the deluge…
My mom grew up poor but her family practiced a form of cheapskate generosity, even after they had worked their way up the economic ladder. If I wanted something, and it could be found for cheap, I could have it. If MAD would keep me reading, then MAD I would have. Her attitude was any book that gets a kid to read is a good book. On her romance novel expeditions to thrift shops, she would find old MAD magazines and digests. They were usually priced at a quarter, so it was a cheap way to prove her love. Somewhere in my parents’ house are dozens of these, waiting to be returned to the ecosphere of tween boys. Between the ages of 8 and 12, I consumed a lot of Don Martin and Dave Berg. I was a fast reader, so I could consume one of those paperbacks in less than an hour.
Most of the paperback were published to be a bit disposable. The jokes were sturdy and the art simple enough that they could survive being shrunk to a quarter-size. Really, Antonio Prohías Spy vs Spy could be printed on a bubblegum wrapper and would be just as effective. Somewhere in there, a mutant slipped in.
MAD for Keeps was not a chalky little digest. It was a hardcover, printed in color on nice paper. The art was the original size, and most of it was by artists I had never heard of. It was printed in 1958, and my internet searches suggest it was the second or third collection of material from the magazine, from an era that time had mostly washed away when I first started reading MAD. My eyes perked up as I read it.
There were a few movie parodies, but of movies I had never heard of. There were ad parodies, but they were parodies of campaigns that closed out when my parents were in high school. And there were articles that were mostly words, with just a few pictures! And articles about new innovations, like supermarkets, and what it would be like to go to space, pre-Sputnik. What was this?
Originally, MAD was a comic for adults. Or a comic that adults could read. The first writer for MAD, Harvey Kurtzman, had an amazing talent for writing for many different levels. It was his playground to experiment, and he was not afraid to try new formats or to make a joke or two that required esoteric knowledge. Strangely, his name is nowhere in the book. I suspect MAD for Keeps came out just after Kurtzman’s bitter departure from the magazine.
And the art! The book was really a showcase for three of the greatest comic artists of the Fifties: Jack Davis, Wally Wood, and Bill Elder. Fugitives from the comic book witch hunts of the early 1950s, they poured all of their talent into the remaining outlet for such work. There was no style Bill Elder couldn’t mimic, from simplistic funny animals to photorealistic ad campaigns. His panels are filled with puns and jokes and jokes upon jokes. Wally Wood’s women are crazy hourglasses with bullet shaped breasts that echo the bullet shaped rockets he loved to draw. George Lucas practically copied the inside of the Millenium Falcon from some of Wood’s panels.
My mother kept buying me MAD books. My mother is a reading glutton. It doesn’t really matter what you read as long as you like it and you keep reading. Like a candy bar, a MAD book provides a quick boost of pleasure to get you through a slow day. MAD for Keeps was like the first taste of quality chocolate – my taste would never be the same.
The mystery of the references, the details of the work, the quality of the work – all these made MAD for Keeps a book I kept returning to. I still looked at the little MAD books and the modern incarnation of the magazine, but less and less. MAD for Keeps was something that stayed stuck in my brain. Sometimes I’d just stare at the beauty of the work. Sometimes, I’d pore over a page, trying to find all the little jokes tucked into corners. Sometimes, out of nowhere I’d read something that would be the key to a joke written over a decade before I was born and I’d go back to the book to decipher a little more of the humor. My mother thought she was just fueling my reading, but she was planting the seeds of connoisseurship. That work from the 1950s is a touchstone of how good comic art can be.
I'm a father now, and I believe in my mother's philosophy that any book that gets a kid to read is a good book. If my son discovers MAD, then MAD he will get. But I'm going to steer him to MAD for Keeps as soon as I can and hope that it will inspire him the way it inspired me.