Rants and Raves

Opinion, commentary, reviews of books, movies, cultural trends, and raising kids in this day and age.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

American national character: MAD Magazine

"This theme is so prevalent, and so obvious, that even though you can see where I am going with it -- and hate the inevitable conclusion -- you aren't going to dispute the core fact. You have to sit there and accept one of the most galling things that a bunch of dedicated individualists can ever realize -- that you were trained to be individualists by the most relentless campaign of public indoctrination in history, suckling your love of rebellion and eccentricity from a society that -- evidently, at some level -- wants you to be that way!” [3] (The Matrix: Tomorrow Might Be Different, David Brin http://www.davidbrin.com/matrixarticle.html)

David Brin here points out something that an outside observer, the hypothetical "man from Mars", might consider both glaringly obvious and seriously weird.

Every society has rebels and cynics, but ours has institutionalized rebellion as normal. If you don't think so, try calling any American taken at random, a "conformist" and see how they react. I'm betting that the mildest response will be a vague discomfort, defensiveness and a feeling of having been insulted.

How do we do this? How do we socialize our children into the meme of Otherness/ tolerance/ suspicion of authority?

How many of you remember MAD magazine, before it was possessed by the Devil (a.k.a. AOL/ Time-Warner)? If you do, you know what I mean. If your memory is vague you might go to the Wikipedia entry on MAD. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MAD_magazine If your only knowledge of MAD is from the post-William M. Gaines era - you have my sympathy.

MAD was born from the death of EC horror comics, the sole survivor of a once-mighty empire of violence-porn William Gaines built on the religious comic book company he inherited from his father. Hounded by a congressional investigation, Gaines shut down the horror line and converted MAD (originally in comic format) into a magazine.

MAD specialized in even-handed satire of EVERYTHING. He assembled a wonderful team of artists and writers and let them run wild. He used to say, "They create the magazine, I create the atmosphere."

"The usual gang of idiots" were of all kinds of political persuasions. When I asked about them at the Journal of Madness http://www.collectmad.com/COLLECTIBLES/jomad.htm they told me that perhaps the only thing the original bunch had in common were that they were mostly WWII veterans who had in their youth, seen the world descend into madness.

Later they were joined by like-minded artists such as Antonio Prohias (creator of Spy vrs Spy), a prominent journalist in Cuba who fled to the US when Castro took over. He wandered into the MAD offices with samples one day, and never wandered out.

MAD has to rate as one of the most successful magazines of the 20th century. Consider that during Gaines' lifetime they never accepted advertising of any kind. They supported themselves solely on subscriptions, magazine stand sales and the very limited tie-ins that Gaines allowed.

The effect on us as kids is incalculable. We loved the puncturing of adult hypocrisy and the wordplay. To this day there are a huge number of tunes that evoke for many of us, not the composer's lyrics, but the MAD parody of them.*

MAD lampooned every sitting president without discrimination, virtually every top-rated movie and TV show, and every genre stereotype in both popular and highbrow culture. I believe they only got sued once, and eventually movie and TV stars didn't feel they had arrived until they'd been roasted in MAD. After which, the custom was to send them a picture of oneself with the MAD issue they appeared in for the letters column.

The satire was sharp and biting, but like Spielberg's Indiana Jones series (take-off on the pulp adventure genre), often a loving appreciation as well. You could enjoy the original story and love the parody too.

That's all gone now. Gaines and the original gang died or retired. AOL/ Time-Warner appointed an editor in the 90s who thought MAD should tap into urban hip-hop culture - and saw the circulation figures drop precipitously. It has never recovered, and now accepts advertising.

A few years ago I took this thesis to the American Studies Conference in Minsk, Belarus. I ran off numerous samples of covers and articles from my complete CD collected MAD (from the start to 1998). It was hard to explain out of the cultural context. (And interesting to note that foreign editions of MAD have done well in only a few other countries. The failures outnumber the successes.)

Anyhow, there were a few American academics there, including a distinguished poet/ professor and an Anthropologist teaching in Belarus for a year. When my presentation came up, they were in the audience and I thought, "Oh my God, these are real scholars. They're going to crucify me!"

Well what actually happened was, as I was passing around the samples, they were jumping up and down in their seats and going, "Tell them about Alfred E. Newman for President!"

* Since I am again living in Oklahoma, near our football stadium, I frequently have this going through my head on game days when the band is playing:

"Oh-h-h-h-h Oh-seven is the greatest spy there is today!
Though the Empire's gone, he keeps right on, so you'd better not get in his way!
Oh-h-h-h-h Oh-seven we adore his looks and manly build,
When the going's rough, he's got the stuff, and he never let's himself be killed!

We know in a fight he will win, 'cause he wins every fight he is in,
And that is why-y-y-y-y, when bullets start to fly-y-y-y-y
You'll hear us crying, you'll never die oh-oh-seven,
Oh oh-seven, our spy!"


  • At 7:57 PM, Blogger Doug_S said…

    Doug Again.

    IMHO, the media does not lead, it tells the masses exactly what they want to hear. The NYT has rather specific masses, but that is its subscription base.

    Academia might be different.

    Media reflects back what you think of yourself. Revolutionary, independent, whatever, they sell it all.

    As Ayn Rand had the daily newspapers try to lead the masses but recognize only to follow.

  • At 4:45 AM, Blogger Tamara said…

    This post brought back so many great memories of reading MAD Magazine. I feel badly that my kids won't be able to enjoy its side splitting, subversive humor.

  • At 5:34 AM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    Try getting the CD collection - but I'm afraid it's rather topical. If the kids aren't familiar with the then-current pop culture they won't have a referent.

  • At 10:06 AM, Blogger Plastic Yank said…

    I'm far too young to have experienced the original MAD mags the first time around, but I can see what you mean.

    I've come across several of the old books over the years and the difference between the mostly good-natured parody there and what passes for it in the magazine's current incarnation is just shocking.


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