Before The Onion
, before Jon
or Stephen Colbert,
before Saturday Night Live and its “Weekend Update,” there was MAD
The granddaddy of satirical comic
books is still out there, as is Tom
Richmond, an artist of Wisconsin extraction who’s drawn for MAD as
a freelancer for more than a decade. A while back someone who saw a copy of MAD described it as “The Daily Show on paper,” the cartoonist
recalls. “Not really,” he replied. “The Daily
Show is MAD on TV.”
At the ripe old age of 61, MAD still manages to maintain a niche in
a media universe that it arguably helped spawn. “It’s hard to overstate MAD’s effect on pop culture,” says
Richmond. Indeed, MAD’s long-term
influence on the cultural climate may be the comic’s biggest challenge.
“The world itself has become a lot
more cynical and self-satirizing,” he says. “MAD taught all the people making ads to make fun of their own
products. How do you write an ad parody when the ads themselves are parodies?
In a way, MAD’s voice has become
drowned out by so many of the voices around it.”
Yet the magazine survives and, he
argues, actually is in the midst of a renaissance.
A native of La Crosse who now lives and works in Minnesota, Richmond
was back in Wisconsin earlier this month as the featured presenter at the
Kenosha Festival of Cartooning’s 2013 “mini-fest.” The event
is organized by Anne Hambrock, whose
husband, John, pens the nationally
syndicated comic “The Brilliant Mind of Edison Lee.”
Richmond was born in 1966 and read MAD as a middle-school student – which
made him typical of the MAD audience.
Yet that was a matter of happenstance. “MAD
never tried to appeal to a certain demographic,” says Richmond, yet its core
readers wound up being people ages 10 to 15.
“MAD always had articles that went way over
their head” – social commentary, send-ups of popular culture, and poking fun at
whoever was in power in Washington. And that, he says, was part of the appeal
when he was a kid. “I was reading stuff adults were supposed to understand, but
MAD “always pushed the envelope,”
he adds, but it also drew the line. When National
Lampoon launched in 1970 – with an edgier style, uncensored language,
material that ranged from the bawdy to the surreal, and much more text-focused
content – “people would describe it as an adult MAD magazine.”
The Lampoon arguably made MAD
look tame, but the comic chose not to follow the upstart’s lead very far.
(Perhaps the closest was a cover in the early ‘70s dominated by a fist with an
upraised middle finger.) MAD editors,
says Richmond, “wanted to make people think more than shock them.”
When MAD first hired him as a freelancer 13 years ago, it was a singular
career achievement for Richmond, who once worked as a live caricaturist,
starting at the Great America theme park in Gurnee, Ill., when he was in
college. Comic art has always been his ambition. “I never wanted to do anything
Editors at the magazine write
uncredited material. But for the most part, says Richmond, “the ‘usual gang of
idiots’ has always been freelancers.”
has been through ups and downs. Its circulation peaked at more than 2 million
in 1974 but dwindled to the point that
the monthly converted to publishing just four times a year. Today it’s up to a
bi-monthly schedule and sells about 150,000 copies per issue, according to data collected by accounting
professor Mike Slaubaugh at
Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. But it’s all relative.
“outsells virtually every comic book out there,” Richmond says. In comics,
there was a time when circulation of less than a million copies constituted a
failure. “Now if you sell 100,000, you’re a raging success.”
The publication is adapting to new
technology, with an iPad edition as well as a website updated daily. That
allows for more topical humor. The print magazine still has to choose its
subjects carefully with an eye to subjects that will have some staying power.
Movie parodies – Richmond’s specialty
– are especially challenging. Back in the days when movie distributors opened
features on a rolling schedule that started in big cities and slowly worked
their way out to the suburbs and then rural screens, “movies used to stay
around for nearly six months,” Richmond says.
Even today’s biggest hits have a
much shorter run than that, and anticipated blockbusters frequently flop and
drop from sight in record time. So MAD
has begun turning more of its attention to TV shows, while scheduling movie
parodies around DVD release dates.
Despite such challenges, these are
better times for MAD, Richmond
believes. Books, like a 60-year
anniversary volume published last year have extended the brand, as has a
Network animated show, now topping 100 episodes. (The live comedy MAD TV show that was on the Fox network
from 1995 to 2008 had virtually no involvement with the magazine beyond a
licensing deal for the name, he notes.)
The newest challenge? DC Comics – MAD’s corporate parent – recently
announced plans to move editorial offices from The Big Apple to Burbank, Calif.
Richmond isn’t sure how that will ultimately affect the magazine’s
sensibilities. “All the editors are lifetime New Yorkers,” he notes. Will they
move? Will they be able to maintain at least a token office in the city? He’s
not sure, but hopes for the best.
“MAD’s not going to stop publishing,” he says. “It’s at a popularity
level it hasn’t seen in 15 years.”
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