Conversation between Judith Yaross Lee and John Bird, Part 3

The final part of the conversation between the two co-editors of Seeing MAD finishes this week! If you missed the first or second part of the conversation, they can be found here and here.

Judith: Yes, especially because we didn’t even have room for a substantive introduction to the issue once we included the book review editor’s wonderful coordinating section on recent comics scholarship. Our two research assistants had compiled a timeline and set of capsule biographies, and we didn’t have room for those sections, either. Yet we knew that the opportunistic collection of topics in the special issue meant that we would need to reach out even beyond those additional early proposals in order to provide something approaching comprehensive and coherent treatment. That was a challenge, but the new essays make a great addition, and we are so lucky to have worked with the University of Missouri Press, which understood the value of our expanded contents, including the timeline and bios at the back.

John: I know we are both pleased with the way the book turned out, with coverage of a variety of topics by scholars with expertise on humor, comics, history, rhetorical theory, and culture. We are so fortunate to have attracted such knowledgeable and talented writers. After the short appetizer by Peter Kaminsky, who was a managing editor of National Lampoon, reflecting on Mad’s influence, we have your introduction. What are you trying to do as you set up the book? Your expertise on the New Yorker and on Mad’s Jewish sensibility is an impressive way to think about the magazine, and the sense of history you provide is really valuable, especially for somebody like me who lost touch with Mad after I stopped reading it.

Judith:  I wanted to blend the history of Mad as a periodical–with all of the associated complications of editorial vision, publication economics, and contributors’ arrivals, departures, and creations—with Mad’s significance for American humor and its place in the American media ecosystem. I was attuned to Mad’s exploitation of its brand identity in reprint books and spin offs because my last book explored Mark Twain’s pioneering efforts to commodify his humor as the U.S. began shifting to a post-industrial economy of media and services after the Civil War. That context helped explain Mad’s declining relevance despite a 21st-century media environment in which humor and satire had grown more important than ever. But it was also clear to me that New York City was a central part of that environment as America’s center of publishing, the home of Mad’s editors, writers, and artists, and the home of that other major humor magazine, the one that gets all the attention for its cultural caché, The New Yorker.

John: Part I, “The Usual Gang,” is a mix of interviews and analyses that focus on important editors and contributors. What stands out for you in this section?

Judith: Focusing on individuals at the beginning of the book calls attention to the way in which a magazine is not just the sum of its contents, but really the product of the individuals who create and shape those contents–artists and writers, editors and publishers—in a particular time and place.

John: I’m really pleased that we could include three prime movers and former publisher of the magazine, in their own words. And the chapters by Tom Inge and Joseph Slade on Kurtzman and Wood establish the importance of the early years as a comic book. I have to confess I had never read “Superduperman!,” which they recognize as seminal in the emerging comic and satirical stance of Mad. As it turned out, the last chapter returns to “Superduperman!,” showing how it was also an important influence on more recent comics. This is just one example of the kinds of things I learned from our contributors; they fill in for me so much I missed, both early and late, and have allowed me to go back to the magazine, which has been a revelation and a great pleasure. Margaret Hambrick combines an Al Feldstein interview with analysis, and Ann Ciasullo examines Dave Berg’s feminist perspective, a very strong chapter on an unexpected theme.

John: Part II, “Features from Cover to Fold-In,” is a wide-ranging look at some of the most important recurring aspects of Mad. I love Alan Rankin’s pictorial history of Alfred E. Neuman.

Judith: I do, too!  But working with him on that chapter showed us all how much misinformation about Mad is in circulation and so calls for an authoritative account such as his. Even people who read the magazine far longer than we did will learn a lot from our contributors!

John: The focus on Alfred continues with Christopher Gilbert’s analysis of the “Mad 20” covers. Many of the chapters focus on the earlier history of Mad, so what Gilbert does turns attention to more recent issues.

Judith: Yes, he and Jeff St. Onge both show that Mad maintained an audience of pretty savvy younger readers well into the 21st century, as satire emerged as a political force in ways not seen since the 1960s.  Lampoons of Trump eclipsed the satires of the Bush and Obama administrations in both creativity and harshness—there’s so much irony and hypocrisy to feed humor—which makes Mad’s retreat into reprints a great cultural loss.

John: “Spy vs. Spy” is probably a favorite of most readers, and Michael Socolow’s chapter does a great job of placing Prohías’s recurring feature in the context of the Cold War, the first of several interior chapters that place Mad in its historical context.

Judith: Socolow ties the spies to Prohías’s earlier life and cartooning in Cuba, providing a personal counterpart to that more public satire of international stalemate.

John: The next four chapters bring satire and parody to the forefront, to my mind central to the magazine. Dennis Eddings is a Poe scholar, and his analysis of the way Mad used Poe in a variety of ways over the years is instructive as well as delightful.

Judith: Agreed. And Dennis does such a great job of showing how the artwork accompanying the parodies contributed to their humor, both in their characterizations of Poe and in their satires on the parodies’ new, sometimes topical, themes. That is one of the more lavishly illustrated chapters, and it emphasizes how even some of the most literary contents of Mad inspired some great comic art.

John: I’m really glad my “Sing Along with Alfred” finally made it into print! It was painful to exclude it from the special issue, but I am happy that we made that decision, because my revision of the original conference paper let me go into more depth about the court cases and provide fuller analysis of the songs. I hope people will sing along as they read the chapter.

Judith:  I can no longer even think of “Hello Dolly!” without hearing you singing “Hello Delly!”

John: I don’t know about you, but the movie and TV parodies were always two of my favorites. I loved the way Mad showed me the absurdity of this kind of popular culture, and Don Baird on film classics and Ethan Thompson on quality TV both make incisive overviews of these parodies. The genius of Mort Drucker really comes to the forefront in these chapters.

Judith: Agreed. As we were planning the book and deliberating over how to fill the holes in our imagined table of contents, I knew that we couldn’t add individual chapters on all the fabulous artists who worked on those media parodies–not only long-time contributors like Drucker, Tom Richmond, and Paul Coker, but also formative ones like Jack Davis and Bill Elder. But a lot of them get discussed anyway in those chapters on movie and television parodies, and the index points interested readers to discussions of their work.

John: The last chapter on features ends, suitably, with the fold-in, and Kerry Soper does a masterful job of analyzing Al Jaffee’s artistry and satiric stance. I always went to the fold-in first, hoping I could beat my brother Jimmy to it and be the first to fold it!

Judith: Soper is an artist as well as a humor scholar, and readers of his chapter benefit from the insider’s perspective he brings to Jaffee’s feature.

John: Part III, “Themes,” does such a good job of looking at Mad in a variety of historical and cultural contexts, showing the way the magazine was much more than just a display of sophomoric humor. (Although it was certainly that, thank goodness!)

Judith: The section leads with Nathan Abrams’ discussion of Mad’s Jewish sensibility.  He really digs into how both Mad’s Yiddishisms and the counterhegemonic identity positions both reflect the culture shared by the contributors whom he described in an earlier essay as Mad’s counterpart to the so-called New York Intellectuals.

Then we have chapters exploring the political contexts of three different sets of contents. I must say that I began this project ignorant of the comic book origins of Mad, so James Kimble’s chapter focusing entirely on those 24 comics issues edited (and mostly written) by Harvey Kurtzman was really eye-opening.

John: I knew about the comic book origins, but I had never seen much of it. I use an excuse that I wasn’t born until 1954. I am sure I had seen some early things, like “Starchie!,” in some of the reprint books, but I wasn’t aware of it being from the comic book era. As I have said, one of the pleasures of editing this book was learning so much about the entire span of Mad’s run.

Judith: James Bloom takes on Mad’s critique of the United Nations as a symbol of US international leadership. He focuses most of his attention on Frank Jacobs and Mort Drucker’s parody of West Side Story (the film version of the Leonard Bernstein musical), analyzing both the song lyrics and their use to advance a plot in which the rival gangs are the West and the Reds, but he also engages broader skepticism toward multilateralism in Mad’s pages.

John:  I intentionally did not deal with “East Side Story” in my analysis of song parodies, written before we had any of the other contributions, but I recall it as a seminal piece in the ’60s. I had a friend in grad school who loved this and used to sing some of the songs, so I really enjoyed this deeper dive into the brilliant piece.

Judith: As in “East Side Story,” Mad tends to mock contenders on both sides of a fight, but the chapter by historian Nicolas Labarre shows that the magazine definitely took sides against Richard Nixon, and not just during final years of his presidency.

John: Mad’s coverage of Nixon pretty much coincided with the period I was reading the magazine intently, so it was a pleasure to return to these pieces. Mad has skewered all presidents, but there was special venom for Tricky Dick, as Labarre shows.

Judith: Labarre is one of our European contributors, so his work shows Mad’s broad international reach to readers and scholars both.

John: Part IV, “Theories,” has only two chapters, but they again show the depth of Mad.

Judith: Yes, Jeff St. Onge’s chapter on what he calls engaged levity suggests a civic role for humor in Mad’s commitment to probing absurdity in political satires not only in its prime decades but also in recent years.

John: One reason Mad struck such a chord with me and with many others was the way it engaged the reader in politics and civic matters. Again, Mad was always funny, but it was humor in a jugular vein, as it advertised itself early on.

Judith: And Kathleen Mollick takes Bakhtin’s idea of speech genres to show how Mad’s parodies encoded an increasingly broad range of cultural materials as the magazine version displaced the comic book version.

John: Yes, Mollick does a good job of analyzing the change from comic book to magazine, which involved more than just a shift in publishing. Her focus on Bakhtin is enlightening, and it reminds me of the critical breadth the whole book exhibits. A run through the index shows the gamut of critics that our contributors engage.

John: Two final chapters round out the book in Part V, “Legacies.” I like the way the book ends by looking at Mad’s enduring influence.  Nicholas Sammond is an expert on underground comix, and his chapter is a bit confrontational, which is natural with a magazine that was always confrontational itself. Sammond’s knowledge of comix brings in some important marginalized voices, including women, gays, and Blacks.

Judith: I think that Sammond’s chapter wonderfully complicates the cultural history of Mad and alternative comix while also hailing Mad’s significance for the contemporary graphic storytellers and their fans who haven’t experienced it themselves.

John: Brian Cremins brings things full circle with his look at the way “Superduperman!” influenced an important graphic narrative by an international artist. Again, I learned so much about things I was not previously aware of. As I said, I think that is one of the strengths of the book.

Judith: Absolutely: Alan Moore was not on my reading list before I read Cremins’s piece. But I am also intrigued by how many of our authors have something to say about Kurtzman’s superhero parody and the way that Wally Wood’s art brought it to life.

John: But that’s not all! Part VI, “Resources,” is much more than boring end-of-the book stuff. I think many readers will find that the capsule biographies and the timeline by themselves worth the price of the book. Leah Szalai and Joe Otto really did an impressive job with these!

Judith: I was so disappointed that the special issue didn’t have room for these reference materials when Leah and Joe first developed them in the summer of 2014, when she was a doctoral student in the School of Communication Studies serving as the journal’s managing editor and he was an honors undergraduate working with me as an editorial apprentice and research assistant. I built on their very fine work after they both moved on to other endeavors and we expanded the contents.

John: To be fair, you did more than just build on their work: you did a lot of additional research to make the biographies and timeline comprehensive, current, and accurate. As I said, I know that readers will find these resources invaluable.

We haven’t said much about the 59 illustrations, the bulk of them from Mad. They were carefully chosen to illustrate the contributors’ analyses, and they add so much to the book, integral to a study of a magazine that was as important and groundbreaking for its artwork as for its writing.

Judith: I’m grateful that DC Comics/Warner Communications, which owns Mad’s copyrights (property of Mad’s original parent, EC Publications, Inc.), let us have so many images, as the visual equivalent of quotations, to support the ideas and analyses of our authors.

John: I know we are both very appreciative of University of Missouri Press for publishing our collection. At 540 pages of text (including the comprehensive index, 596 pages), it’s a real door-stopper of a book. The acquisitions editor at the time, Gary Kass, was a tireless advocate for the book and made some very helpful suggestions as we navigated the publication process.

Judith: And we could not have been more fortunate in our other partners at the Press, including our copyeditor Susan Curtis (a scholar in her own right), our eagle-eyed digital editor Drew Griffith, and the Press’s very patient director, David Rosenbaum.

John: The biggest thanks have to go to the contributors. It was a pleasure to edit their chapters, and they were very understanding as we worked our way to publication. We were very lucky to draw on such a diverse and knowledgeable group. And despite the overall academic and scholarly tone, their genuine enthusiasm and love for Mad shines through from start to finish. This was a labor of love for you and me, but also for all of our “usual gang.”

Judith: Agreed. I am so grateful to our authors for hanging in with us for so many years despite institutional pressures on faculty to publish their research as fast as possible. And their generosity about the revisions suggested by us, our editors, and our external reviewers has been truly exceptional.

John: I come away from our pulling this collection together with a much deeper knowledge of and appreciation of Mad. I have learned so much from the contributors, and I have really enjoyed going back to features I already knew, as well as the wealth of older and newer material that was unfamiliar to me. With the announcement this year that Mad would cease publishing new material, our book is quite timely. I am sad to see the Madness end, but our book provides a serious look at the magazine’s lasting influence on generations of readers, influence that lives on after its demise. I am so proud of our co-edited volume, and it has been a true pleasure to work with you on a book that is going to be important to a variety of readers.

Judith: I share your sense of pride, and I’m so grateful for our partnership on this project.  But it’s also great to reach the point when we can confidently say, “What, me worry?”

Judith Yaross Lee is Distinguished Professor Emerita of Communication Studies at Ohio University, Athens, Ohio. Her many publications on American humor and periodical cultureinterests that she should probably credit to her childhood passion for Mad—include Garrison Keillor: A Voice of America (1991), Defining “New Yorker” Humor (2000), and Twain’s Brand: Humor in Contemporary American Culture (2012), all published by the University Press of Mississippi, along with two other volumes and six dozen essays.

John Bird is Emeritus Professor of English at Winthrop University. He is the author of Mark Twain and Metaphor (University of Missouri Press, 2007), editor of Mark Twain in Context (Cambridge University Press, 2020), as well as a number of articles on Mark Twain and on American humor. He is a past president of the Mark Twain Circle of America and the American Humor Studies Association.

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