Before The Daily Show, The Simpsons or even Saturday Night Live, Al Feldstein helped show America how to laugh at authority and giggle at popular culture.
Millions of young baby boomers looked forward to that day when the new issue of Mad magazine, which Feldstein ran for 28 years, arrived in the mail or on newsstands. Alone in their room, or huddled with friends, they looked for the latest of send-up of the president or of a television commercial. They savored the mystery of the fold-in, where a topical cartoon appeared with a question on top that was answered by collapsing the page and creating a new, and often, hilarious image.
Thanks in part to Feldstein, who died Tuesday at his home in Montana at age 88, comics were more than escapes into alternate worlds of superheroes and clean-cut children. They were a funhouse tour of current events and the latest crazes. Mad was breakthrough satire for the post-World War II era — the kind of magazine Holden Caulfield of The Catcher In the Rye might have read, or better, might have founded.
“Basically everyone who was young between 1955 and 1975 read Mad, and that’s where your sense of humor came from,” producer Bill Oakley of The Simpsons later explained.
Feldstein’s reign at Mad, which began in 1956, was historic and unplanned. Publisher William M. Gaines had started Mad as a comic book four years earlier and converted it to a magazine to avoid the restrictions of the then-Comics Code and to persuade founding editor Harvey Kurtzman to stay on. But Kurtzman soon departed anyway and Gaines picked Feldstein as his replacement. Some Kurtzman admirers insisted that he had the sharper edge, but Feldstein guided Mad to mass success.
One of Feldstein’s smartest moves was to build on a character used by Kurtzman. Feldstein turned the freckle-faced Alfred E. Neuman into an underground hero — a dimwitted everyman with a gap-toothed smile and the recurring stock phrase “What, Me Worry?” Neuman’s character was used to skewer any and all, from Santa Claus to Darth Vader, and more recently in editorial cartoonists’ parodies of President George W. Bush, notably a cover image The Nation that ran soon after Bush’s election in 2000 and was captioned “Worry.”
“The skeptical generation of kids it shaped in the 1950s is the same generation that, in the 1960s, opposed a war and didn’t feel bad when the United States lost for the first time and in the 1970s helped turn out an Administration and didn’t feel bad about that either,” Tony Hiss and Jeff Lewis wrote of Mad in The New York Times in 1977.
“It was magical, objective proof to kids that they weren’t alone, that … there were people who knew that there was something wrong, phony and funny about a world of bomb shelters, brinkmanship and toothpaste smiles. Mad‘s consciousness of itself, as trash, as comic book, as enemy of parents and teachers, even as money-making enterprise, thrilled kids. In 1955, such consciousness was possibly nowhere else to be found.”
Feldstein and Gaines assembled a team of artists and writers, including Dave Berg, Don Martin and Frank Jacobs, who turned out such enduring features as “Spy vs. Spy” and “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions.” Fans of the magazine ranged from the poet-musician Patti Smith and activist Tom Hayden to movie critic Roger Ebert, who said Mad helped inspire him to write about film.
“Mad‘s parodies made me aware of the machine inside the skin — of the way a movie might look original on the outside, while inside it was just recycling the same old dumb formulas. I did not read the magazine, I plundered it for clues to the universe,” Ebert once explained.
The Portable Mad, a compilation of magazine highlights edited by Feldstein in 1964, is a typical Mad sampling. Among its offerings: “Some Mad Devices for Safer Smoking” (including a “nasal exhaust fan” and “disposable lung-liner tips”); “The Mad Academy Awards for Parents” (one nominee does her “And THIS is the thanks I get!” routine); “The Lighter Side of Summer Romances;” and “Mad’s Teenage Idol Promoter of the Year” (which mocks Elvis Presley and the Beatles.)
Under Gaines and Feldstein, Mad’s sales flourished, topping 2 million in the early 1970s and not even bothering with paid advertisements until well after Feldstein had left. The magazine branched out into books, movies (the flop “Up the Academy”) and a board game, a parody of Monopoly.
But not everyone was amused.
During the Vietnam War, Mad once held a spoof contest inviting readers to submit their names to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover for an “Official Draft Dodger Card.” Feldstein said two bureau agents soon showed up at the magazine’s offices to demand an apology for “sullying” Hoover’s reputation. The magazine also attracted critics in Congress who questioned its morality, and a $25 million lawsuit in the early 1960s from music publishers who objected to the magazine’s parodies of Irving Berlin’s “Always” and other songs, a long legal process that was resolved in Mad‘s favor.
“We doubt that even so eminent a composer as plaintiff Irving Berlin should be permitted to claim a property interest in iambic pentameter,” Judge Irving Kaufman wrote at the time.
By Feldstein’s retirement, in 1984, Mad had succeeded so well in influencing the culture that it no longer shocked or surprised: Circulation had dropped to less than a third of its peak, although the magazine continues to be published in local editions around the world.
Feldstein moved west from the magazine’s New York headquarters, first to Wyoming and later Montana. From a horse and llama ranch north of Yellowstone National Park, he ran a guest house and pursued his “first love” — painting wildlife, nature scenes and fantasy art and entering local art contests. In 2003, he was elected into the Will Eisner Hall of Fame, named for the celebrated cartoonist.
Born in 1925, Feldstein grew up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. He was a gifted cartoonist who was winning prizes in grade school and, as a teenager, at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. He got his first job in comics around the same time, working at a shop run by Eisner and Jerry Iger. One of his earliest projects was drawing background foliage for Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, which starred a female version of Tarzan.
Feldstein served in the military at the end of World War II, painting murals and drawing cartoons for Army newspapers. After his discharge, he freelanced for various comics before landing at Entertainment Comics, whose titles included Tales From the Crypt, Weird Science and Mad. Much of Entertainment Comics was shut down in the 1950s in part because of government pressure, but Mad soon caught on as a stand-alone magazine, willing to take on both sides of the generation gap.
“We even used to rake the hippies over the coals,” Feldstein would recall. “They were protesting the Vietnam War, but we took aspects of their culture and had fun with it. Mad was wide open. Bill loved it, and he was a capitalist Republican. I loved it, and I was a liberal Democrat.”