Saying goodbye to Mad magazine
One day, when I was 8 years old, I stayed home sick from school and my father bought me a copy of Mad magazine. I'd been vaguely aware of Mad; my older brother left the occasional issue around, mixed in with copies of Bananas and Omni. But this one was mine, a gift, and I studied its cover image: a leering, grotesque boy in the role of Star Trek's Spock. I sat in my parents' study, the TV now shut off, and turned the newsprint pages, growing steadily elated at what I was seeing there: takedowns of Bruce Springsteen and wrestling, Ronald Reagan and Steven Spielberg. It was simultaneously smart and dumb, well-crafted and junky, its humor delivered with a smirk. I didn't know it then, but by the time I did the Fold-In on the magazine's final page, my life's course had been changed.
My father soon got me a subscription, which I maintained through college, over a decade later. As an illustration major with hazy career goals, I applied for, and somehow landed, a single internship: as an editorial lackey at Mad's Manhattan office. I did well, or poorly, enough in the role that I became a Mad writer for the next 12 years. In 2010, I began to draw cartoons for the publication, and two years later was hired as an editor. The bulk of my life — from second grade until last year, when Mad's owner, DC Comics, moved its offices to Burbank — has been in some way colored by Mad.
So I was more interested than most to learn of DC's decision, made public last week, to essentially shut the publication down: After two more issues from its California team, Mad will largely consist only of reprints, "shuffled off to the periodical equivalent of an old-folks home at the age of 67," in the words of The New York Times. The days of Mad taking potshots at the vapidity of our culture are officially done. I would've thought this reality might trouble me; after all, the thing I devoted much of my life to will soon vanish. But, to my surprise, I'm largely ambivalent.
By the time I began reading it, Mad was already in a period of publishing decline that's become yawn-inducingly familiar. Without resorting to statistics: In the '70s, everybody read Mad; today, nobody does. Like a calving glacier, it lost chunk after chunk of vitality as America decided there were faster, cheaper ways — first TV shows and movies, then websites and social media — to get irreverence and sarcasm. And though Mad could still be funny, the customer is always right. Once it lost its singularity — maybe when, as some believe, Saturday Night Live debuted in 1975 — no amount of jokes on paper could lure the public back. It would be inaccurate to say that myself and my fellow idiots, as Mad staffers were called, were fighting an uphill battle. The war had already ended; we were soldiers on an island who hadn't heard the news that we'd lost.
So as wonderful as it was to be a part of Mad — as much as I loved its people, its obscure rituals, and decades-old in-jokes — it was wearing to feel that what you did didn't matter to anyone. To be sure, this is a feeling shared by most of us who work; we can't all be LeBron James. But the difference was that Mad's glorious past was so easy to recall. Photos of Bill Gaines, its founding publisher, hung Mao-like in editors' offices; a glass display case housed the Mad-themed games and shirts and books that people once actually bought. We still put out a magazine, but it was unclear to what end. We all knew that the axe might fall at any time, that the money wasn't there, and that even if it was, DC's interest was comics, whose intellectual property could swiftly be transferred to interminable summer films. We knew there was no longer much reason for Mad magazine to exist. And now we've been proven right.
As I scrolled through the outpouring of encomiums that followed DC's decision, my first instinct was to ask: Where were you when Mad needed you? Did you care enough to buy the magazine? Though I can guess the answers, the questions are pointless and cynical. I know where they were: spending their free time elsewhere, having rightfully moved on from a thing they'd loved as kids. That there weren't enough children to replace them at the back of the line wasn't their concern. For 67 years, the magazine did its job, and more or less did it well. Its influence spread to The Simpsons, The Onion, and a host of other entities that will also someday end — and be given eulogies by people who have also outgrown them.
As for myself, my father passed away in 2011, two days before Christmas. The shop where he bought my first Mad, a corner store that sold newspapers and candy, was shuttered a year ago. The house where I spent that fateful sick day, and the rest of my childhood, has been sold and sold again. Aging has forced me to face the only truth there is: At some point, everything ends. Our most useful shield against this fact is to laugh along the way. And it doesn't really matter where the laughter is coming from.