A Brief History of Mad Magazine
Thanks to satire like The Simpsons and The Daily Show, it’s hard to imagine a time when irreverent humor wasn’t everywhere. But the 1950s were much different. Anti-establishment humor wasn’t part of the mainstream. Not until Mad magazine arrived to poke holes in everything from politics to movies to advertising. And even if you never picked up Mad, you probably know Alfred E. Neuman, its moronic mascot.
But who came up with Mad? What prompted a lawsuit over Alfred E.? And why did the FBI feel the need to keep a file on a silly humor magazine?
Today, comic books are the source material for movies that gross billions of dollars. But in the 1950s, adults generally perceived them as hot dumpster trash that would rot kids’ brains. Some people even took to burning them.
How did comics get such a bad rap? While characters like Superman and Batman were viewed with suspicion, adults were really fixated on crime and horror comics like the ones published by EC Comics. Founded by Maxwell Gaines in 1944 and later run by his son William Gaines, EC was the publisher behind grisly titles like Tales From the Crypt and The Vault of Horror. Beheadings and other gore made them a little bit like the slasher movies of their day.
But Gaines had one employee who thought comics could do better. His name was Harvey Kurtzman, and he was a very talented writer and artist who had finished military service and was looking to become a professional illustrator. After a series of odd jobs, Kurtzman landed at EC Comics, where his approach to popular war titles was more thoughtful than most of the stories being published at the time. With the Korean War raging and the experiences of his many fans in the military to draw from, Kurtzman told stories that examined the human price of war.
While Kurtzman examined serious topics, he wasn’t that serious a guy. He had spent years illustrating humor comics, including a stint working for Marvel mastermind Stan Lee. And as much as he loved his combat stories, EC Comics wasn’t exactly known for their deep pockets. Kurtzman wanted an opportunity to be funny, and to make more money doing it.
The historical record gets a little murky when it comes to who exactly came up with the idea for Mad. Kurtzman insisted a humor comic was his idea. William Gaines said it was his. The two never even agreed on who named it Mad. Kurtzman said he came up with it. Gaines said that he and other editors had referred to EC Comics as “EC’s mad mags” for their bombastic approach, and that Kurtzman had merely taken the phrase and shortened it.
What we do know is that Kurtzman wanted to do something new at the time—a comic book that made fun of other comic books. Each issue would have a series of stories poking fun at popular genres like horror, Westerns, and superhero titles, with Kurtzman using many of the same artists, including Jack Davis and Wallace Wood, that EC used for their conventional titles.
It was something different, and in the comics market of 1952, different was important. Roughly 3250 comics were published that year, with over 60 different titles hitting the newsstands every week. Kids—who made up most of the comic book readership—had lots of choices, and there was no telling whether a humor comic would succeed.
The first issue of Mad was actually titled Tales Calculated to Drive You Mad and retailed for 10 cents. Gaines printed 400,000 copies for its October/November 1952 launch and waited to get word from distributors and retailers on whether it was a hit. And—it wasn’t. It sold pretty poorly, actually. All of that competition had squeezed Mad out of the picture. Gaines was dismayed to see that issues two and three were also met with a lukewarm reception.
Kurtzman decided that if they were going to parody comics, they might as well set their sights on the biggest and most indestructible target possible: Superman.
A satire titled “Superduperman” ran in the fourth issue and was significant for two reasons. Mocking DC’s hero created strong word of mouth among readers, and it also led to DC—then known as National Comics Publications—sending a strongly worded legal letter demanding Mad stop mocking their most popular character. Did Mad comply? It did not. Did Mad get a lot of legal letters from that point forward? It did.
With momentum generated by “Superduperman,” the circulation of Mad soared to 750,000 copies per issue. More parodies followed, like “Starchie,” a take-off of Archie, which saw the Riverdale gang acting more like delinquents than innocent teenagers. Under Kurtzman’s watch, Mad was also leaning into more subversive humor. One issue had a cover printed to look like a classic composition book, which persuaded kids to try and get away with reading it in school.
The success of the comic came at a good time for EC, since they were about to face a very public scolding for pretty much everything else they published. In 1954, congressional hearings were held on the potential dangers of comic books, and William Gaines was called in to testify.
It didn't go well. Confronted with an EC cover featuring a decapitation, Gaines declared it appropriate for a horror comic, which is not what a bunch of very stern senators wanted to hear. Pretty soon, the comics industry was being forced to govern itself with the Comics Code Authority, a panel that monitored comics for good taste and made sure titles avoided controversial topics—like horror and gore, for example.
The Comics Code Authority could have been named the “Screw William Gaines Board” and the end result would have been about the same. Most of EC’s more sensational titles were dropped. Pretty soon, Mad was their standout title, but Kurtzman was already thinking about new endeavors. Faced with the prospect of losing a star employee, Gaines allowed Kurtzman to change the format of the comic to a magazine—which had the lucky (and, according to Gaines, unintended) consequence of rendering Mad beyond the scope of the Comics Code Authority. After all, it wasn’t the Magazine Code Authority. So, beginning with issue #24, cover date July 1955, Mad became a magazine. And soon, it would get a mascot.
What, Me Worry?
One of the biggest mysteries behind Mad actually started more than 50 years before the first issue was printed. That’s around the time an illustration of a gap-toothed imbecile began circulating in advertising material. He was even used in a political campaign against Franklin Roosevelt.
Around the time Gaines and EC were preparing to issue a series of Mad trade paperback collections, Kurtzman was in the offices of Ballantine Books when he saw this strange figure on a bulletin board with the caption, “Me worry?” Kurtzman stole the name Alfred Neuman from a radio show hosted by Henry Morgan, but it was originally just used as a sort of generic stand-in name around EC, not a label for any particular character. A story in Crime Illustrated, for instance, has a story attributed to Neuman. According to Kurtzman, it was only when fans began applying the name Alfred E. Neuman to the dimwitted character that Mad editors followed suit. Artist Norman Mingo perfected Neuman’s dull expression and illustrated many covers for Mad. Alfred E. Neuman became so popular that a reader in New Zealand once sent a letter to the publisher’s offices in New York with no address on it. Instead, the correspondent had drawn Neuman on the envelope. It made it to its destination.
Even though authorship of the character was never discovered, it wasn’t long before someone tried to claim Neuman as their own. A woman named Helen Pratt Stuff sued EC claiming that her late husband, Harry Spencer Stuff, had copyrighted the character back in 1914. As Mad geared up for the lawsuit, they began researching the history of the character and found widespread use of the face. What’s more, Harry Spencer Stuff was, in the words of the court, “most derelict in preventing others from infringing his copyright,” which didn’t help his widow’s argument. She lost the lawsuit on appeal. In fact, Neuman’s likeness may date back to 1894, when The Los Angeles Herald ran an announcement for a play called The New Boy. His depiction may have been inspired by an actor who appeared in the show.
How popular did Neuman get? In 1959, Fred Astaire starred in a variety television special titled Another Evening With Fred Astaire. In it, Astaire performs a dance routine that’s every bit as compelling as any other Fred Astaire routine—except he happens to be wearing an Alfred E. Neuman mask the entire time.
The Useful Gang of Idiots
Alfred E. Neuman might have been the most recognizable personality from Mad, but he wasn’t the only one. Over time, the magazine would introduce some popular recurring features in the magazine as well as writers and artists who developed followings of their own. While Mad referred to them as the Usual Gang of Idiots, they were some of the most talented visual storytellers in the business.
One of the most notable features was the Mad Fold-In. Created by Mad contributor Al Jaffee, who spent an astonishing 56 years making them, the Fold-In encouraged readers to reveal a hidden image by pressing two sides of the inside back cover together. Jaffee said he was inspired by the fold-outs common in magazines of the era, like those found in Playboy. Jaffee also created the popular “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions” column, which allowed readers to pick their choice of sarcastic retort. Jaffee contributed to Mad through 2020, when he retired at age 99.
Sergio Aragonés was best known for his work in the margins of the magazine. According to Aragonés, he arrived in New York from Mexico in the 1960s in the hopes of making it as a cartoonist. When he showed some samples to editors, they declared his work a good fit for Mad. Aragonés noticed there was plenty of empty space on the borders of each page and offered to start filling them with tiny, wordless illustrations. He essentially created a position for himself that lasted for decades.
Antonio Prohías, who created the secret agent spoof “Spy vs. Spy,” was actually a Cuban refugee who fled the country in 1960 and devised his famously inept spies while working in a clothing factory. He visited the Mad offices with both his drawings and his daughter, 14-year-old Marta, to help him translate.
Finally, if you enjoyed the numerous movie and television satires in Mad, you probably recognize the work of Mort Drucker. The artist is credited with pioneering the illustrated pop culture parody when he spoofed the Perry Mason television series in 1959. Even celebrities thought being drawn by Drucker was an honor. When Michael J. Fox was on The Tonight Show in 1985 at the height of his Back to the Future stardom, he told Johnny Carson he knew he had made it, “when Mort Drucker drew my head.” George Lucas loved Drucker’s Star Wars parody, “The Empire Strikes Out,” so much that he offered to buy the original artwork.
Drucker arrived at Mad in 1956, the same year the magazine had to say goodbye to perhaps its biggest influence—Harvey Kurtzman.
Despite having a significant influence on the direction and style of Mad, Harvey Kurtzman wasn’t at the helm very long. Kurtzman was big on quality control, and he felt the freelance budget Gaines allotted didn’t permit him to pay his talent what they deserved. At the same time, Kurtzman was being courted by Hugh Hefner, who had recently started his Playboy publishing empire, to come make a humor magazine for him. So, in 1956, Kurtzman parted ways with Gaines to start a magazine titled Trump. When that met with mixed reviews, Kurtzman tried again with a magazine titled Humbug. But recapturing that Mad magic was proving elusive. Despite Kurtzman’s best efforts, Mad stood alone in the humor department. And under the watch of new editor Al Feldstein, who would remain on board for 28 years, Mad was growing by leaps and bounds.
In 1960, the editorial staff seemed to predict the future when they printed a cover congratulating John F. Kennedy on his presidential victory even though the election was weeks away. How did they do it? Simple. The issue had two covers, with Kennedy on one side and candidate Richard Nixon on the other. Distributors were told to display whichever candidate won, making Mad look smart—for a minute, anyway.
In the 1960s, songwriter Irving Berlin and others went after Mad in court. Mad had printed a collection of joke lyrics to be sung to the tunes of popular songs, and the music industry felt this was copyright infringement. The United States Court of Appeals disagreed and sided with Mad, saying that parody and satire were deserving of substantial freedom both as entertainment and as a form of literary and social criticism.
That is a powerful proclamation, which Mad may or may not have been thinking about when they decided to print a middle finger on the cover of their April 1974 issue. Some stores refused to stock it, which prompted William Gaines to issue a letter of apology—one of the many Mad has been forced to issue over the years.
The first was addressed to newsstand dealers in 1953, when Gaines published his biography in the magazine describing himself as a Communist, pyromaniac, and dope dealer. Then, in 1957, Gaines invited the wrath of the Federal Bureau of Investigation when the magazine printed a game in which the reader could earn a draft-dodger card they were supposed to request from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. When three readers actually wrote to Hoover asking for their card, the FBI visited the Mad offices in New York. Gaines was conveniently not in, but art director John Putnam promised they would never make fun of Hoover again. Gaines then wrote a letter saying how very sorry he was.
And in June 1961, the FBI got upset when Mad offered advice on writing an extortion letter that several kids used as a template to demand money. The FBI wanted the Attorney General to investigate since they felt the magazine was urging people to violate federal laws.
They didn’t get their wish, but in 1967, Mad did get a visit from the U.S. Treasury Department after printing what was obviously a fake $3 bill. The problem was that some of the first change machines in the country couldn’t tell a legitimate bill from one bearing Alfred E. Neuman’s face; the machines were giving out change when people inserted the fake money into the slot. How that was the fault of Mad was never really explained, and they ultimately wound up not getting in trouble for the accidental counterfeiting.
By the early 1970s, Mad had a circulation of over 2 million readers and was increasingly seen as a vital voice in the counterculture movement. Alfred E. Neuman set his sights on everything from Vietnam to Watergate. Even Harvey Kurtzman returned briefly in 1985 to help spoof Rambo.
But by the end of the 20th century, pop culture and humor were changing rapidly. Kids who had grown up on Mad were now crafting their own comedy, and the winking satire once exclusive to the magazine could be seen in films like The Naked Gun, shows like Saturday Night Live, and even The Onion, which would eventually bridge the gap between print and online humor.
Faced with dwindling circulation, editors at Mad took some drastic steps. In 1994, they allowed Alfred E. Neuman to become a spokes-idiot for a Syquest computer memory device. By 2002, he was appearing in catalogs for Land’s End and a Got Milk? ad campaign. The magazine itself had also started accepting ads. Both of these steps were a big deal. William Gaines had stopped taking ads in 1957. Gaines, who passed away in 1992 shortly before Kurtzman, felt that Mad couldn’t parody consumerism if they were profiting from advertising. In 2001, ads helped pay for the magazine’s switch to color printing.
But by 2002, Mad was selling just 200,000 copies a month. Eventually, the magazine faced the same critical decision that a lot of print publications had to make. In 2019, DC Entertainment, which had long-ago acquired Mad, decided to stop publishing new issues. For now, the magazine mainly offers reprints of classic stories both in print and online, with some rarer new material sprinkled in.
Mad Magazine’s time as a rite of passage for teens may be over, but there’s no mistaking the impact it had on popular culture. Without Mad, we might never have gotten the Garbage Pail Kids or “Weird” Al Yankovic (who once guest-edited an issue, incidentally). Underneath the vacant gaze of Alfred E. Neuman were some absolutely amazing artists plying their craft in the same subversive way Harvey Kurtzman used throwaway war comics to get readers thinking about more important things. Mad let kids know that making sense was overrated. Making nonsense was sometimes better.
This story has been adapted from an episode of Throwback on YouTube.