The first issue of Mad hit the stands 60 years ago this week — or not. I’ll get back
to that shortly.
What does this have to do with the image above, cropped from a 15-year-old drawing
Comics fans of some knowledge will recognize DC’s Ambush Bug and Marvel’s Forbush Man, as well as the fact that the characters have been inserted into the cover of Mad #1. Just about no-one should recognize the hippie dude in the bowler. I’ll get back to that shortly, too.
Harvey Kurtzman, who had already established his exacting genius with the EC war series Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat, created Mad in 1952 for that company in agreement with publisher William Gaines. The legendary writer/artist/editor was, like many of the best cartoonists, a font of inspiration for whom those job descriptions blurred. Kurtzman’s collaborations with such fellow masters as Will Elder, Jack Davis, and Wally Wood played to those artists’ strengths yet also bore his imprint.
Mad #1 © 1952 EC Publications.
Mad was initially the size and shape of a traditional 10¢ American comic book and published in color, but with July 1955’s #24 it switched formats to its more familiar magazine dimensions. In doing so it jumped in price to 25¢ (as the covers would proclaim from #31 onward, no matter the price, “cheap”). Thus did Mad escape the oversight of the nascent Comics Code Authority, rebranding itself with a new signature logo and switching to black-&-white interiors until full color returned nearly a half-century later, in 2001, with the inclusion of outside advertising for the first time.
EC’s storied horror series couldn’t survive under the Code and the anti-comic-book polemics that led the industry to establish it. Within a year of Mad’s format change it was the only thing left in the EC line. Gaines sold EC Publications in 1961 to Kinney National Services, whose entertainment holdings would become Warner Communications, although he continued to oversee Mad with relative autonomy. After Gaines’ death, Mad became more integrated into the hierarchy of its sister company
DC Comics, likewise acquired by Kinney/Warner. The Mad website is now part of DC Entertainment’s online presence and Mad has long been distributed to comic-book retailers with DC titles.
Kurtzman departed EC shortly after the move to magazine format, with editor Al Feldstein assuming the helm and steering the publication to its greatest heights in terms of cultural saturation; every parody publication produced in Mad’s wake (including those launched by Kurtzman), as well as TV, stage, and film projects from Saturday Night Live to Monty Python to Kentucky Fried Movie, clearly owe Mad a debt. There’s a particular delight to those earliest issues of Mad, however, especially for readers electrified by the unique kind of storytelling that the comics medium affords.
The cover to Mad #1 — drawn by Kurtzman, with Marie Severin coloring — has been aped itself several times for a diverse array of comic-book series. As usual, The Grand Comics Database is the destination of issue links in the captions.
Mod #1 © 1981 Terry Beatty; Zippy the Pinhead inset © 1981 Bill Griffith. Batman:
Gotham Adventures #13 © 1999 DC Comics. Donald Duck Adventures #11 © 1991 The
Walt Disney Company. It’s Science with Dr. Radium #5 © 1987 Scott Saavedra.
Which brings us to that 15-year-old drawing.
I first shared a mock cover that I’d done for a fellow CAPA-Alpha member’s apazine back in April, in a blogpost that explained CAPA-Alpha and apazines in the bargain. A short time later I offered up another such drawing in another blogpost, co-starring a pair of my favorite comic-book characters, Ambush Bug and Forbush Man.
Ambush Bug, created in 1982 by Keith Giffen, was a Superman antagonist who progressed from villain to exasperating pest to self-aware, fourth-wall-breaking, continuity-flouting star of his own irregular miniseries and specials.
Forbush Man was the costumed would-be-superhero incarnation of Irving Forbush. Irving’s first mention by Stan Lee came in a 1955 issue of Snafu, one of several Mad imitators to appear from Marvel over the years; a fictional, nebbishy Marvel employee, he became Marvel’s unofficial mascot of sorts, not unlike Mad’s Alfred E. Neuman but with an important difference — Neuman’s face is famous, while Forbush’s was always obscured save for the big round eyes peeking out from under his cooking-pot “helmet” in the Forbush Man identity that debuted, at first capeless and seen only from behind, on the cover of Marvel’s Not Brand Echh #1 in 1967.
When DC and Marvel co-produced a series of mashups of their characters under the Amalgam imprint in 1996, my own doodlings naturally resulted in Forbush Bug sketches now reposing in a box somewhere.
Ambush Bug #3 © 1985 DC Comics. Not Brand Echh #5 © 1968 Marvel Comics.
That hippie dude in the bowler is known as the Little Snot and is the creation of
CAPA-Alpha member Sam Schraeger. Sam’s apazines frequently included misadventures of the misbegotten misanthrope and he roped me all too happily into collaborating more than once. I even talked a surprisingly reluctant Phil Foglio — the man behind What’s New with Phil & Dixie, Buck Godot, and Xxxenophile — into doing a Little Snot sketch for him. Among Sam’s favorite characters was Herbie Popnecker, the very offbeat hero introduced by Robert Hughes and Ogden Whitney in 1958, known to ask “You want I should bop you with this here lollipop?”
Exactly how this crossover came about I can’t recall, but in 1997 I drew the following homage to the cover of Mad #1 with a title inspired by Not Brand Echh and corner box based on that of Marvel’s short-lived Pop Art label. Herbie’s in that corner box. Ambush Bug and Forbush Man are, obviously, in place of the characters from the original cover cowering at the coming of whoever/whatever Melvin is. The Little Snot is grabbing his junk, flipping the bird, and exclaiming... something, something that I’m sure is typically vulgar. It’s possible that Sam wanted to hand-write different contents for that word balloon on every copy he printed; it’s also possible that he either didn’t know what he wanted Snot to be saying when I drew it up or that what he wanted Snot to say was so beyond the pale that I refused to letter it, although if that’s the case I’m pretty sure I’d have remembered what it was.
Just to wrap up, because I said I’d get back to it, let me add that while Mike’s Amazing World of Comics — the sole website that I know of to comprehensively offer even approximate on-sale dates for comic books — has Mad #1 released on October 1st, 1952, other websites date the issue to August. Not only would August be more consistent with the two-month gap between cover/indicia dates and true publication dates for most comic-book publishers for most of the history of the US comic-book industry, but an
E-mail exchange with the Amazing World’s very own Mike Voiles today confirmed that his EC dates aren’t sourced through house ads, distributor catalogs, and other trade publications like the on-sale dates for DC and, more recently, some other publishers for whom release dates can be sussed out. Unfortunately I’d already put off writing this piece until this week before attempting to verify October as the on-sale date for Mad #1 as well as its cover date (or half of it, since it reads Oct.-Nov. due to being launched bimonthly).
I’ll try to have that all straightened out by the time the issue and series turn 75 in 2027.
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