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12 Toys From The 1980s That Didn't Take Off

Many people of a certain age look back at the 1980s as the golden age of toys. But some action figures just didn't resonate—at least back then. Here are 12 rejected toys of the 80s that, in some cases, are now sought after by collectors.

1. Food Fighters (Mattel, 1988-89)

The backstory of the weird and oft-forgotten Food Fighters line of action figures plays out like every 80s toy franchise: The good guys (in this case, the "Kitchen Commandos”) fight the bad guys (“Refrigerator Rejects”) for control of… your refrigerator? The five members of each faction of the 80’s Food Fighters line—regardless of whether their affiliation was good or evil—are manifestations of the worst forms of junk food America has to offer: The good guys are Burgerdier General (a deluxe hamburger with ketchup), Lieutenant Legg (a fried chicken leg), Major Munch (a glazed chocolate doughnut), Private Pizza (a slice of pepperoni & mushroom pizza pie), and Sergeant Scoop (a two-scoop chocolate & vanilla ice cream cone). The bad guys are Mean Weener (a hot dog with mustard), Chip-the-Ripper (a chocolate chip cookie), Fat Frenchy (a sleeve packed with “crinkle cut” French fries), Short Stack (a stack of pancakes with syrup and butter), and Taco Terror (a hard-shell taco).

It makes sense that Mattel refused to construct the good guys as health-food characters, since children probably wouldn’t respond to those choices. But they didn’t react well to the existing product either. These fully poseable “squeaky-toy” action figures (which are filled with air) only lasted for one series of production.

On today’s secondary market, the Food Fighters have made a resounding comeback, with their peculiar vehicles leading the way: the Kitchen Commandos’ Combat Carton (an egg carton modified into an armored personnel carrier), the Fry Chopper (a frying pan that became a helicopter with spatula blades), and the Refrigerator Rejects’ BBQ Bomber (a barbecue grill that transformed into an armed assault vehicle). Even the figures command decent money—more so if they are still sealed in their original packaging.

2. Barnyard Commandos (Playmates, 1989)

The Barnyard Commandos line of “action figures”—non-poseable squeaky-toy pigs and sheep with military armaments on their backs—was produced by Playmates in 1988. These mutant anthropomorphized sheep and pigs were the result of a secret military experiment buried on their farm. From the packaging: "After eating some of the grain the Pigs and Sheep started acting kind of funny. Some started driving the tractors around like tanks, others started digging trenches. Soon after, an all-out war erupted between the Barnyard Commandos!”

The sentiment behind the two warring factions of Barnyard Commandos was defined perfectly by their acronyms: the R.A.M.S. (Rebel Army of Military Sheep) fought the P.O.R.K.S. (Platoon of Rebel Killer Swine); these foes fought against one another in military fashion. Each individual action figure package contained a “Secret Code Book” which taught the consumer how to speak a top secret language: Pig Latin.

The non-poseable nature of the action figures may have caused retail sales of the toys to suffer when children could choose from a myriad of more popular, more malleable options at their local toy store. Despite disastrous sales, the Barnyard Commando toy line continues to tickle the funny bone of many a modern toy collector—and they’re quite inexpensive on the secondary market. Urchasepay omesay Arnyardbay Ommandoscay odaytay!

3. Army Ants (Hasbro, 1987)

In 1987, Hasbro believed they had struck gold by modernizing the “green plastic army men” concept, and introduced their new Army Ants toy line to retail as a more intricate collectible toy—one with a backstory. "The Army Ants struggle to conquer the vast land that is your backyard," their packaging reads. "Two opposing armies engage in deadly combat to control important resources." But these figures were strange. Army Ants were odd little “peg warmers”: those action figures that—due to a lack of demand by consumers—languished on retail pegs, “warming” the shelves and pegs as children ignored them.

Regardless, Hasbro organized their Army Ants toys into two different warring factions of anthropomorphized insects: the Blue Army (commanded by General Mc-Anther) and the Orange Army (ordered by General Patant). These toys were solicited in five different retail sets on blister cards, each of these “squadrons” containing three or eight Army Ant members; each side had 20 soldiers.

For action figure collectors and devoted fans of rubber figurines (such as M.U.S.C.L.E., Monster in My Pocket, etc.), the forty total pieces of this toy line makes it fun and desirable to collect. However, because every Army Ant figure included a hard-to-find removable accessory unique to each figure, a removable soft abdomen, and a distinctive mold unique to each character, obtaining a complete Army Ants collection is quite challenging.

4. Sectaurs, Warriors of Symbion (Coleco, 1984-85)

A play on the word “insect,” the imaginary world of the Sectaurs is the planet of Symbion, where insects have grown to ludicrous proportions thanks to an experiment. Many Sectaur soldiers—humanoids who share characteristics with insect and arachnids—have telepathically bonded to their insect companions via a process called “binary-bonding” that benefits both creatures when engaging in combat.

Coleco only offered one series, which consisted of eight action figures and one playset. Regardless of price point, each action figure came with a host of weapons and accessories (such as bandoliers, belts, pistols, rifles, swords, and shields) and a unique insect companion with an action feature.

Coleco also sold higher-price point deluxe action figure sets. Each of these four larger sets included a humanoid Sectaurs figure accompanied by an oversized insect companion that was basically a hand-puppet. Kids would attach the humanoid figure to a saddle that rested on top of the insect companion. The child would insert a hand into the underside of one of these hand-puppet steeds, which fit like a glove; the kid's fingers would then function as the insect’s legs. Some sets even had insects with thin, twin, translucent (and awfully fragile), battery-powered wings that would flap when you flipped an “on/off” switch. These motorized wings, combined with the movement of the child’s hands as an insect’s legs and appendages, were a marvel of toy engineering.

Other than eight action figures, an immense and highly desirable Hyve action playset was also produced. With two “Hands-In” monsters, the Hyve, Forbidden Fortress is an oft-requested piece by collectors. The playset’s tremendous size and vast number of parts (many of which are quite delicate) suggests that any surviving samples of this toy from the 1980s will not usually be found intact or complete—adding to its rarity and the toy’s exorbitant cost on the collector’s market.

5. Rock Lords (Tonka, 1986-1987)

Tonka’s Rock Lords action figures captured the attention of children with a unique concept: instead of creating robots that transform into vehicles, why not have these detailed characters change into… colorful rocks? There were two warring factions of Rock Lords from three different series of toy releases: Good Rock Lords were Boulder (tungsten), Nuggit (gold), Granite (granite), Marbles (cristobalite), Crackpot (azurite), Pulver Eyes (Dolomite). The Bad Rock Lords were Magmar (Igneous), Tombstone (quartz), Sticks ‘N Stones (a two-headed Rock lord with two rock types—anthracite and magnetite), Stoneheart (slate), Brimstone (brimstone), Slimestone (silver), and the insidious Sabrestone and Spearhead (whose rock types are unknown).

Beyond the first two series of “Good versus Evil” GoBots Rock Lords action figures, Tonka also offered a set of furred companions known as “Narlies.” Along with these Narlies, Tonka produced a series of dinosaur companions to the Rock Lords—the Rockasaurs’ Terra Rock and Spike Stone. The (ahem) crown jewels of the toy line are the Rock Lords’ stunning Jewel Lords. Although only three of these toys were released—Solitaire, Flamestone, and Sunstone—these are highly prized: Even loose samples command high prices on the secondary market. The toy line was rounded out with a few other sub-collections such as the Shock Rocks, whose action feature was to… roll on the ground. Or shoot a rock. Or throw a rock.

6. Computer Warriors (Mattel, 1989)

“An accident in a top-secret government computer lets loose hordes of evil Virus troops on an unsuspecting world. ... Their goal: global domination through total control of the world's computers... even yours! To fight this menacing evil, the computer generates heroic micro soldiers—COMPUTER WARRIORS designed to recapture the marauding Virus troops and to make sure computers are used for the good of mankind!”

So goes the backstory of the 2-inch tall Computer Warriors. And what child wouldn’t want to play with an action figure playset that transforms from a soccer trophy to a “radar rover”? From a flashlight into a “flash craft”? From a Pepsi can into a “hyper hover jet”? Or from a PC board into an “aerial assault bomber”? Apparently, most children.

Although a complete collection of these toys is difficult to find on the secondary market due to the scarcity of the higher price-point pieces, it is easy to pick up a single sample of one of the more common figures: The heroic Debugg and Romm, or the evil members of Virus, Asynk and Megahert.

7. The Saga of Crystar, Crystal Warrior (1982)

Based on an 11-issue Marvel Comics title produced in 1983, The Saga of Crystar, Crystal Warrior yielded a series of odd-looking action figures produced by Remco—a company noted for producing low-quality yet charmingly cheap toys in the 1980s. The backstory of the action figure line reflected the narrative contained in the pages of the Marvel Comic series: Remco pitted the “Forces of Order”—which included the blue translucent "crystal" Crystar and his allies Warbow and Ogeode the wizard versus the “Forces of Chaos”: Solid red Moltar, red-robed Zardeth and the Magma Men, which were molded in red plastic as well. In total, Remco produced seven figures, four small playsets with figures, two large dragons with figures, two hard-to-find catapults, and one large, super-fragile Crystal Castle playset.

Although The Saga of Crystar line was initially successful, sales waned rather quickly, and as with most failed 80s toy lines, many extant samples feature price tag reductions that reflect a “deep discount” strategy. The more common figures from the line (Zardeth, Ogeode) nearly always show up in 80s collections. They’re certainly cool to look at, and lately there’s been a rise in interest on the secondary market.

8. Inhumanoids (Hasbro, 1986)

With the tagline “The Evil That Lies Within," Hasbro’s Inhumanoids franchise has a small base of loyal fans on the secondary market due to the strange malevolence evoked by the toys’ construction—most had glowing eyes that lit when exposed to sunlight—and an unusually sophisticated backstory, which was recounted in a 13-episode TV show.

A heroic group of government-funded geological scientists—the Earth Corps—encounters three horrifying, giant subterranean monsters dubbed the Inhumanoids who wreak havoc on the surface of Earth: Tendril, a brutish creature that can regenerate its limbs; D’Compose, a flesh-corrupting vampire with an exposed rib cage he uses to trap his enemies; and their leader, Metlar. Ruler of the blistering realm of Infernac, Metlar is the master of fire and commands an army of living statues. With the assistance of the kindly Mutores, another subterranean population of powerful beings, the Earth Corps scientists defeat the sinister Inhumanoids.

The great disappointment of the line was the action figure form of the four Earth Corps protagonists: each of the action figures possesses very limited poseability (five points-of-articulation), and looked a bit awkward when displayed. Although the figures’ possessed “Interchangeable Arm Implement[s]” that could “be used by any member of the Earth Corps team” (according to their package backs), and “Glow-in-the Light” helmets, these features did not make up for the lack of articulation collectors were accustomed to with Hasbro’s 3 ¾-inch G.I. Joe line.

This tertiary toy line only lasted one short year due to poor sales—yet the creepy vibe projected by the toy line and the accompanying animation may still haunt the dreams of many children of the 80s.

9. Super Naturals (Tonka, 1987)

Today, we take holography for granted—some form of hologram appears on nearly every driver’s license or government-issued piece of identification. But when holograms appeared on Tonka’s Super Naturals, kids were fascinated. In place of a three-dimensional molded face and chest piece, each Super Naturals’ action figure mold was flattened, with a holographic sticker affixed onto the plastic of the toy.

With a directive to “Release their hologram powers!” on the front of each toy package—where each character’s hologram “transformed” from one image to the next (on both the figure and the figure’s shield)—Super Naturals were only produced for a single series, yet there was a good deal of product manufactured. The most popular of all the Super Naturals characters were the six large, standard-sized action figures. Each came with one holographic shield accessory, a unique glow-in-the-dark weapon, and a short mini-comic explaining the Super Naturals’ back story. Every large-scale Super Naturals figure possessed a removable chest piece that functioned to hide a good deal of the toy’s “hook”—its two-phase hologram sticker—which would essentially function to make the figure’s holographic innards a surprise feature.

For consumers who wished to pick up a less expensive toy, Tonka created a series of smaller-scale figures. Packaged with removable cloaks, a single glow-in-the-dark sword, and a Super Naturals mini-comic, the eight Ghostlings were sold at a lower price point than the standard-sized figure.

For many years, the Super Naturals figures were relegated to discount bins in secondary shops. But within the last few years, they’ve begun to rise in both cost and estimation in collector’s hearts and minds.

10. Air Raiders (Hasbro, 1987)

In the late 1980s, the idea that somehow purified air would be such a commodity that an entire world would base its economy and social status on a “free” part of a planet’s atmosphere was a bit of a stretch. But this was the story behind Hasbro’s Air Raiders toy line. Although ingenious in its delivery—each Air Raiders vehicle possessed one or more “air-powered” features that kids could repeatedly activate to achieve a desired effect, such as firing missiles, racing vehicles, or opening panels—children simply didn’t respond to the gimmick.

Without a motion picture or syndicated cartoon to drive sales, Air Raiders languished on retail toy shelves. Many sealed pieces purchased today will evince this grim reality: They'll show the original prices slashed viciously.

Today, Air Raiders are desirable to many die-hard toy collectors. Some hard-to-find figures include the Man-O-War and the mail-away “Air Raider Survival Kit” featuring Emperor Aerozar and Baron Jolt; both command more than $500 sealed.

11. Chuck Norris & Karate Kommandos (Kenner, 1986)

In 1986, exploiting Chuck Norris’ burgeoning popularity with children, Ruby-Spears produced a truly awful five-episode animated mini-series recounting the adventures of U.S. government operative Chuck Norris (voiced by the actor himself) and his team of martial-arts experts as they fight the evil organization of ninjas known as VULTURE (the acronym’s origin is unknown) and their leader, Claw. The cartoon tried to capitalize on the ninja craze of the mid-eighties, but Chuck Norris and the Karate Kommandos is remembered more for its unintentional comedy.

Following 80s convention, in conjunction with the cartoon, Kenner Toys released a series of nine Karate Kommandos action figures: Chuck Norris (available in three different uniforms), Kimo (the resident samurai of the Kommandos), Reed Smith (Chuck’s apprentice), Ninja Serpent, Ninja Warrior, Super Ninja (Claw’s right-hand man), and Tabe (a champion sumo wrestler) and one vehicle (the Karate Corvette). There was no Claw figure released in the assortment of figures—perhaps Kenner had decided to offer him in Series Two, if a full season of the animated program was ordered. But that was not in the cards.

12. Police Academy (Kenner Toys, 1989-1990)

Although not a critical success, Police Academy was warmly embraced by the American public: the franchise grossed nearly $250 million. The characters featured in 1988’s 65-episode run of Police Academy: The Animated Series were based on the personalities in the films. Many of the major characters were then translated into plastic action figures by Kenner.

The cast of characters for Kenner’s Police Academy toy line included the officers’ charismatic leader, Sgt. Carey Mahoney; Sgt. Eugene Tackleberry, the bellicose weapons expert; antagonistic martinet, Captain Thaddeus Harris; the tight-lipped, near-superhuman Sgt. Moses Hightower; massive Officer Thomas “House” Conklin; former-antagonist-turned-police Officer Zed McGlunk; Zed’s partner, the meek, mild-mannered, bespectacled Officer Carl Sweetchuck, and of course, the miraculous sound effects and martial-arts prowess as rendered by Sgt. Larvell Jones.

Mark Bellomo is the author of Totally Tubular '80s Toys. He has 45,000 action figures (all of the pictures in this article were taken from his personal collection) and he's taken every single one of them out of their boxes.

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Image: London Stereoscopic Company, Getty Images. Background: iStock. Composite: Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss
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15 Intriguing Facts about George Eliot
Image: London Stereoscopic Company, Getty Images. Background: iStock. Composite: Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss
Image: London Stereoscopic Company, Getty Images. Background: iStock. Composite: Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss

Born in England in 1819, novelist and poet George Eliot is best remembered for writing classic books like Middlemarch and Silas Marner. Despite the time period she wrote in, the author—whose real name was Mary Anne (or Marian) Evans—was no stuffy Victorian. She had a famously scandalous love life and, among other linguistic accomplishments, is responsible for the term pop music. Here are 15 things you might not know about the beloved British writer.

1. SHE WAS BORN ON THE ESTATE WHERE HER FATHER WORKED.

Eliot was born on the grounds of Arbury Hall and Estate, a sprawling mansion in Warwickshire, England with hundreds of acres of surrounding gardens and farmland. Her father, Robert Evans, worked for the estate's owners, the Newdigate family, as a manager and agent. His job entailed collecting rents from tenant farmers and overseeing the property's coal mine.

2. HER RURAL UPBRINGING INSPIRED HER LATER NOVELS.

Arbury Hall
Arbury Hall
Elliott Brown, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Eliot was just an infant when her family moved from Arbury Hall to a home in a nearby town. But Arbury and the Warwickshire countryside left their mark on her. In Scenes of Clerical Life (1858), Eliot's collection of three short stories, she wrote about the area and drew inspiration from real places and people. And some of her stories mirrored reality pretty closely. For instance, she turned Arbury Hall into Cheverel Manor, and Sir Roger Newdigate, Arbury's owner, into Sir Christopher Cheverel.

3. SHE EDITED A JOURNAL FOR PROGRESSIVE THINKERS.

In the early 1850s, Eliot wrote for The Westminster Review, a London-based periodical founded by philosophers Jeremy Bentham and James Mill, contributing essays and reviews using the name Marian Evans. She soon became the de facto editor of the progressive journal, though her role was anonymous. Years later, other writers reviewed Eliot's own pseudonymous works in the journal she once edited.

4. SHE WORKED AS A TRANSLATOR.

Throughout her life, Eliot put her language skills to work translating foreign works into English. She translated books like David Friedrich Strauss's Das Leben Jesu (The Life of Jesus), a highly controversial German treatise that argued that Jesus Christ was a real person, but not divine. (Upon reading her translation, one English nobleman called it "the most pestilential book ever vomited out of the jaws of hell.") Eliot also translated The Essence of Christianity by German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach and the Latin Ethics by Benedict de Spinoza, incorporating facets of these philosophical and religious ideas into her own writing.

5. SHE WASN'T A FAN OF MOST WOMEN WRITERS OF HER DAY.

Eliot was by no means a misogynist, but she did have some harsh words for fellow women writers. In an anonymous essay titled "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists," Eliot lamented the frivolous characters and unrealistic plots that she argued were nearly ubiquitous features of novels written by women at the time. Published in The Westminster Review in 1856, Eliot's essay asserted that these books, full of cliches and improbable romantic endings, made educated women look foolish. She also criticized the writing style of other women of her time, saying they mistook "vagueness for depth, bombast for eloquence, and affectation for originality." However, she did allow that not every book written by a woman fell into this trap, praising writers like Currer Bell (Charlotte Brontë) and Elizabeth Gaskell.

6. SHE WAS NOT CONSIDERED CONVENTIONALLY ATTRACTIVE …

George Eliot, circa 1868.
George Eliot, circa 1868.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Eliot's appearance was a source of avid discussion during her lifetime, and her looks continue to fascinate readers today. Eliot herself joked about her ugliness in letters to friends, and the novelist Henry James once described her in a letter to his father as "magnificently ugly, deliciously hideous." He went on to say that the "horse-faced" writer had a "vast pendulous nose," a low forehead, and bad teeth, among other physical flaws.

7. … BUT MEN LOVED HER.

Despite her plain appearance, men were drawn to Eliot. In the same letter where he called her "deliciously hideous," James explained his counterintuitive attraction towards her like this: "Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes, steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end, as I ended, in falling in love with her."

After various dalliances and a marriage proposal that she turned down, she spent more than two decades with the philosopher and critic George Lewes. But Lewes was already married, and as a result, many in Eliot's social circle (including her brother) shunned her. Though Lewes couldn't obtain an official divorce from his estranged wife, he and Eliot lived together as partners until his death in 1878, and she referred to herself as Mrs. Marian Lewes.

8. HER PEN NAME PAID HOMAGE TO HER LOVER.

In 1856, both to avoid the sexism of the publishing industry and distance her literary work from her scandalous romantic situation, she adopted the pen name George Eliot, a male nom de plume that paid homage to Lewes. In addition to adopting his first name, some historians have also suggested that "Eliot" derives from "To L(ewes), I owe it."

9. SHE MARRIED A MAN TWO DECADES HER JUNIOR …

After Lewes's death, Eliot channeled her grief by editing his writing and spending time with her lawyer and accountant, John Cross. Although Eliot was 60 and Cross was just 40, the two friends fell in love and married at London's St. George's Church in the spring of 1880.

10. … BUT THEIR HONEYMOON TOOK A DARK TURN.

After their wedding, the pair traveled to Venice, Italy for their honeymoon. Although Cross wrote a letter to his sister indicating that he was having a delightful time, Eliot knew something was wrong. Her new husband was depressed, agitated, and losing weight. She called a doctor to their hotel room and was speaking with him when Cross jumped off the balcony into the Grand Canal.

Cross was rescued by a hotel worker and the personal gondolier the couple had hired to take them around the waterways. The newlyweds eventually continued on their trip, and they remained married until Eliot's death later that year. Historians continue to speculate about the reason for his jump, and whether it was a suicide attempt—Cross may have had a personal and family history of mental illness—or some kind of heat-induced delirium. The mysterious incident was recently turned into a novel.

11. SHE INVENTED THE TERM POP

You probably don't associate George Eliot with Lady Gaga, but the Oxford English Dictionary credits the Victorian novelist with coining the term pop to refer to popular music. In November 1862, Eliot wrote in a birthday letter to a friend, "We have been to a Monday Pop. this week to hear Beethoven's Septet, and an amazing thing of Bach's played by the amazing Joachim. But there is too much 'Pop.' for the thorough enjoyment of the chamber music they give."

12. … AND A NEW MEANING OF THE WORD BROWSER.

George Eliot statue in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, UK
George Eliot statue in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, UK

Diamond Geezer, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Eliot coined a number of other now-common terms in her writing. For instance, she was the first to use the word browser in the modern sense of someone who is casually looking around (like a browser in a bookstore). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in the 16th century, the word browser meant “a person who cuts the leaves and twigs of trees to use as food for animals in winter." Later, it came to mean an animal that searched for leaves and twigs to eat. Eliot's historical novel Romola marked the first recorded time the word was used to mean a person generally surveying something. In it, she describes several friends of Florentine politician Bartolomeo Scala as "amiable browsers in the Medicean park."

13. SHE WAS ALSO A POET.

Although Eliot was most famous for her novels, she also produced two volumes of poetry. Her first published piece of writing was a poem called "Knowing That Shortly I Must Put Off This Tabernacle." Published in The Christian Observer in 1840, the poem refers to the Bible and imagines a person who is about to die saying goodbye to Earth. In a later poem, "O May I Join the Choir Invisible," Eliot argues that improving the world during one's lifetime is the only way to achieve permanence.

14. VIRGINIA WOOLF ADMIRED HER WRITING.

Author Virginia Woolf praised Middlemarch's mature prose, referring to it as "the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people." And modern readers seem to agree. In 2015, a BBC poll of 82 book critics from around the world named Middlemarch the greatest British novel of all time. Several authors, including Julian Barnes and Martin Amis, have also listed the book as one of the greatest English novels ever written.

15. HER FORMER HOME IS NOW A STEAKHOUSE.

Griff House, where Eliot lived as an infant until her early twenties, still exists, but it's now home to a steakhouse and hotel. Called the Griff House Beefeater & Nuneaton Premier Travel Inn, the spot also features a pond, gardens, and a play area for kids.

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12 Things You Might Not Know About MAD Magazine
Mad Magazine
Mad Magazine

As fast as popular culture could erect wholesome depictions of American life in comics, television, or movies, MAD Magazine was there to tear them all down. A near-instant success for EC Comics upon its debut in 1952, the magazine has inspired generations of comedians for its pioneering satirical attitude and tasteful booger jokes. This month, DC Entertainment is relaunching an "all new" MAD, skewering pop culture on a bimonthly basis and in full color. To fill the gaps in your knowledge, take a look at these facts about the Usual Gang of Idiots.

1. NO ONE KNOWS WHO CAME UP WITH ALFRED E. NEUMAN.


Jamie, Flickr (L) // Boston Public Library, Flickr (R) // CC BY 2.0

MAD creator Harvey Kurtzman was in the offices of a Ballantine Books editor discussing reprints for the fledgling publication when he noticed a grinning, gap-toothed imbecile staring back at him from a bulletin board. The unnamed figure was ubiquitous in the early 20th century, appearing in everything from dentistry ads to depictions of diseases. A charmed Kurtzman adopted him as MAD’s mascot beginning in 1954. Neuman later become so recognizable that a letter was delivered from New Zealand to MAD’s New York offices without an address: The envelope simply had a drawing of Alfred.

2. THEY HAD TO APOLOGIZE ALMOST IMMEDIATELY.

MAD was conceived during a particularly sensitive time for the comics industry, with parents and watchdog groups concerned over content. (It didn't switch to a magazine format until issue #24.) Kurtzman usually knew where the line was, but when he was laid up with acute hepatitis in 1952, publisher William Gaines and others had to step in for him. Gaines thought it would be funny to offer a fictional biography of himself that detailed his father’s Communist leanings, his past as a dope dealer “near nursery schools,” and bouts of pyromania. When wholesalers were shocked at the content and threatened to boycott all of his titles, Gaines was forced to write a letter of apology.

3. THEY PREDICTED JOHN F. KENNEDY'S ELECTION IN 1960.

But it was a cheat. In the run-up to the 1960 Presidential election, MAD printed a cover that featured Neuman congratulating Kennedy on his victory with a caption that read, “We were with you all the way, Jack!” But the issue was shipped long before votes had been tabulated. The secret? It was a dual cover. Flip it over and Neuman is celebrating Richard Nixon’s appointment to office. Stores were told to display the “right” side of the magazine depending on the outcome.

4. ALFRED BRIEFLY HAD A GIRLFRIEND.


MAD Magazine

A character named Moxie Cowznofski was introduced in the late 1950s as a female companion for Alfred. She made only a handful of cover appearances, possibly due to the fact she looked alarmingly like her significant other.

5. THEY DIDN'T RUN ANY (REAL) ADS FOR 44 YEARS.

From the beginning, Gaines felt that printing actual advertisements next to the products they were lampooning would not only dilute their edge but seem more than a little hypocritical. After some back-and-forth, MAD cut ads starting in 1957. The decision was a costly one—most print publications survive on such revenue—but led to the magazine’s keeping a sharp knife against the throat of seductive advertising, including cigarettes. Faced with dwindling circulation in 2001, MAD finally relented and began taking ads to help pay for a switch to color printing.

6. "SPY VS. SPY" WAS CREATED BY A SUSPECTED SPY.

Cuban cartoonist Antonio Prohias was disenchanted with the regime under Fidel Castro when he began working on what would become “Spy vs. Spy.” Because Prohias’s other newspaper illustrations were critical of Castro, the Cuban government suspected him of working for the CIA. He wasn’t, but the perception had him worried harm might come to his co-workers. To get out of the situation, Prohias came to America in 1960. With his daughter helping translate, he stopped by MAD’s New York offices and submitted his work; his sneaky, triangle-headed spies became regulars.

7. THERE WAS ONE FOLD-IN THEY WOULDN'T RUN.

Artist Al Jaffee, now 94, has been with MAD almost from the beginning. He created the famous Fold-In—the back cover that reveals a new picture when doubled over—in 1964 after seeing the fold-outs in magazines like National Geographic, Playboy, and Life. Jaffee has rarely missed an issue since—but editors backtracked on one of Jaffee’s works that referenced a mass shooting in 2013. Citing poor taste, they destroyed over 600,000 copies.

8. THEIR MOVIE WAS A DISASTER.

With the exception of Fox’s successful sketch series, 1994’s MAD TV, attempts to translate the MAD brand into other media have been underwhelming: A 1974 animated special didn’t even make it on air. But a 1980 film venture, a military school spoof directed by Robert Downey, Sr. titled Mad Presents Up the Academy, was so awful William Gaines demanded to have their name taken off of it. (Renamed Up the Academy, the DVD release of the movie still features someone sporting an Alfred E. Neuman mask; MAD parodied it in a spoof titled “Throw Up the Academy.”)

9. THE APRIL 1974 COVER HAD PEOPLE FLIPPING.


MAD Magazine

MAD has never made a habit of good taste, but a depiction of a raised middle finger for one issue in the mid-’70s caused a huge stir. Many stores wouldn’t stock it for fear of offending customers, and the company ended up accepting an irregular number of returns. Gaines took to his typewriter to write a letter of apology. Again. The relaunched #1, out in April 2018, pays homage to this cover, though it's slightly more tasteful: Neuman is picking his nose with his middle finger.

10. THEY INVENTED A SPORT.

MAD writer Tom Koch was amused by the convoluted rules of sports and attempted to one-up them in 43-Man Squamish, a game he invented for the April 1965 issue. Koch and artist George Woodbridge (“MAD’s Athletic Council”) prepared a guide that was utterly incomprehensible—the field was to have five sides, positions included Deep Brooders and Dummies, “interfering with the Wicket Men” constituted a penalty—but it amused high school and college readers enough to try and mount their own games. (Short on players? Try 2-Man Squamish: “The rules are identical,” Koch wrote, “except the object of the game is to lose.”) For the less physically inclined, MAD also issued a board game in which the goal is to lose all of your money.

11. WEIRD AL WAS A GUEST EDITOR.

In what must be some kind of fulfilled prophecy, lyrical satirist “Weird” Al Yankovic was named as a guest editor—their first—for the magazine’s May 2015 issue. Yankovic told Entertainment Weekly that MAD had put him on “the dark, twisted path to becoming who I am today … I needed to pollute my mind with that kind of stuff.” In addition to his collaborations with the staff, Yankovic enlisted Patton Oswalt, Seth Green, and Chris Hardwick to contribute.

12. FRED ASTAIRE ONCE DANCED AS ALFRED E. NEUMAN.

In a scene so surreal even MAD’s irreverent editors would have had trouble dreaming it up, Fred Astaire decided to sport an Alfred E. Neuman mask for a dance number in his 1959 television special, Another Evening with Fred Astaire. No one seems to recall why exactly Astaire would do this—he may have just wanted to include a popular cultural reference—but it was no off-the-cuff decision. Astaire hired movie make-up veteran John Chambers (Planet of the Apes) to craft a credible mask of Neuman. The result is … well, kind of disturbing. But it’s a fitting addition to a long tradition of people going completely MAD.

Additional Sources:
Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created Mad and Revolutionized Humor in America.

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