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Mad Art: a visual celebration of the art of Mad Magazine and the idiots who create it

by Mark Evanier

(Watson-Guptill, $24.95 (Cheap!), trade paperback, 304 pages; 2002.)

Mad Art is a snappy, attractive and somewhat misleading title for this nicely constructed trade paperback compiled by the publishers of Mad magazine, the seminal satire periodical that recently celebrated its fiftieth birthday. Misleading because cover scanthe book actually centres more around the "idiots" -- the artists who have helped establish Mad's legacy of zany, multilevel humour -- than it does the artwork itself. Over seventy thumbnail biographies are featured, with examples of the artists' work selected primarily for visual support.

However, the misleading title is not a bad thing. That's because there is no management team I know of that has more creatively or abundantly recycled its product over the years than the good folks at Mad (except, maybe, for their counterparts at LucasFilms or PBS, or the copyright holders of the songs of The Who). It has been with an eyeball jaundiced over the years by "Haven't I seen this all before?" that I've approached each compendium the Mad publishers have offered, including this one. And, while I don't claim to be an authority on the catalogue of over one hundred collections created from the upwards of 420 issues of Mad magazine that have hit the newsstands since 1952, I would doubt that much, if any, of the biographical data featured here has ever been printed before; at least, not in a single collection such as this. The artwork ... now that's a different story. But, as I said, while the implied promise of an abundance of artwork may be the lure of Mad Art, it's the bios that are its meat.

Sadly, the bios do become a bit tedious. Author Mark Evanier's profiles cover the legends (Will Eisner, Wallace Wood) and include every lunchpail guy (and a couple of garbage pail guys, too). And it is to Evanier's credit that he is able to sustain interest in the bios quite deep into the book when you consider how much in common it turns out these Mad artists all have. Even so, their stories begin, after a while, to run together like so much soupy tempera; it seems as though they all came from either New York (Harvey Kurtzman, Dave Berg, Bob Clarke) or a Spanish-speaking country (Antonio Prohias, Sergio Aragones, Angelo Torres). Some (George Woodbridge, Peter Paul Porges) went to school with an art director for the magazine or (Ray Alma) took a class from one. One (Irving Schild) regularly had lunch with a regular contributor. Two were related to celebrities (Drew Friedman, the son of playwright Bruce Jay Friedman, and James Warhola, the nephew of Andy Warhol). A few studied classical painters while in school. Quite a few studied comic book artists while on the street. Most of the New Breed (or should that be "Brood"?) read Mad as kids. And the vast majority were encouraged to submit work by somebody who knew somebody else who worked at the magazine. Come to think of it, the text is a 304-page manual on the "Mad Art" of networking. (But only if you were male -- except for Amanda Connor and Shary Flenniken, the artists profiled are all men, most having been members of the de facto "He-man Woman-haters' Club" that existed at Mad for more than forty years.)

Mad Art also serves as a reminder of how seamlessly the writing and illustration come together to create gags for the magazine; yet Evanier seems to staunchly avoid this truth in his text by separating the artwork from the writing -- breaking down the components -- at every turn. Only after perusing the selected illustrations ourselves do we notice that almost none of them are drawn without words either inside the frames or accompanying them. Even the rare wordless gags come from scripts. Sure, Don Martin or Antonio Prohias drew speechless cartoons (although, truth be told, the "glinks" and "splorps" Martin wrote into his gags could be called "words" of a sort), but Mad has employed very few writer/artists over the years.

And placing the artwork under the spotlight only serves to illustrate (oh man, I kill me!) how much the writing increases its effectiveness. The wonderful Return of the Jedi parody illustrated by master caricaturist Mort Drucker and wisely included in the book will have you straining to read the small print in the speech balloons written by gifted satirist Dick DeBartolo. And, as well done as the great Jack Rickard's movie caricatures were, they were drawn to match the speech balloons composed by unsung writer Frank Jacobs. The humorous expressions on the faces of Rickard's caricatures were made hysterical by the low-key hilarity of Jacobs's scripts. Like the lyrics and melody of a classic song, the greatness of the finished piece exceeds that of the individual contributions of its creators.

Mad came from the era of unique niche magazines that also gave us Playboy, Sports Illustrated and Famous Monsters of Filmland. Each has been in slow demise for quite some time (indeed, as I write this, Famous Monsters of Filmland is in stasis), and their back issues are highly collectable today. Surpassed in irreverence if not in quality by writing-based humour publications like National Lampoon and The Onion, Mad's nostalgic-satire soufflé of artwork and piece writing nonetheless keeps the publication off life support. It may no longer be the "cool" magazine it once was back in the 1950s and 1960s, but, as long as its publisher keeps on successfully marketing these compendia, it will continue to survive, if not flourish. And, like the misleading title of this latest collection, that's not a bad thing.

Review by Randy M Dannenfelser.

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