The world was my father and mother, big sister and little brother. The single-level ranch house on Carteret Court, and a few blocks beyond. A mile away, Fairwood School, a couple dozen white suburban kids, led by the teacher — in sixth grade Miss Benson, who lived with school secretary Miss Palmer, an arrangement we kids never thought twice about, but whose significance would strike me about 25 years later in one of those “Ohhh ...” moments.
Order reigned, and while life in all its messiness certainly roiled places far from Berea, Ohio — wars, protests, moon launches — even those were rational, understandable, delivered in sensible reports each morning in the Cleveland Plain Dealer and at 5:30 by Walter Cronkite on the “CBS Evening News.” The little black and white TV was perched next to the dining room table, and we’d all watch, my father mandating silence.
The first whisper of chaos, the bugle call that the cavalry was on its way to save me, was Mad magazine. The adult world wasn’t the temple of reason and dignity it pretended to be. It was a madhouse, a crazy anthill, seething with idiocy and hypocrisy. Not only could you laugh at it, you had to.
I remember the first issue of Mad magazine that found its way into my hands. The June 1970 parody of “Easy Rider.” I can see that cover as if it were on the newsstand at Rexall Drug. Mort Drucker’s caricature of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper — I didn’t know how spot-on it was because, of course, I hadn’t seen the movie — alongside, the magazine’s dimwit mascot, Alfred E. Newman, pedaling his bicycle.
Mad’s “usual gang of idiots” produced a magazine whose 67-year run on America’s newsstands ends next month. Mad will still sell magazines, but only containing recycled material, sold in comic stores.
Being sold on newsstands was key. The newsstand was our internet, you discovered much there. Mad seemed to predict the winner of the 1960 presidential election. “We were with you all the way, Jack!” the cover announced, congratulating Kennedy. Quite a feat until you flipped the magazine over, and realized the back cover congratulated Nixon. Venders had been instructed to position the winner face out.
Mad was launched in 1952 as a comic imprint of EC, known for “Tales from the Crypt.” In 1955 Mad became a black-and-white magazine, a counterbalance to Cold War paranoia, then wry mocker of 1960s pieties. In 1972, its circulation peaked at 2 million; by 2017 it was 140,000.
Why mourn Mad’s passing? Ridiculous, I know. I can see myself as one of the flailing suburban dads, in his dumb cardigan, gesticulating impotently in Dave Berg’s “The lighter side of... TECHNOLOGICAL CHANGE” shaking my fist over the end of something the kids, eyes locked on their phones, never knew was there in the first place.
Berg was one of a stable of brilliant artists. “Spy vs. Spy” was a wordless kabuki skewering the Cold War, with identical rat-faced agents, one in black, one white, locked in endless struggle.
And the magazine’s Da Vinci, Don Martin, whose potato-nosed slobs were the among the grungiest, smelliest characters ever drawn, stubble painting their cheeks, flies buzzing around their block heads.
Mad tried to hold on. In 2001, it accepted its first advertisements. Last year, it rebooted as a bimonthly.
Almost 50 years since that “Easy Rider” parody and America is still dealing with the same problems. The duo picks up Uncle Sam himself, who of course is not recognized by the hillbilly haters they encounter.
“Take a look at the old guy with the wild clothes, the long hair and the beard,” one snarls.
The final panel is a nightmare American mob, carrying a shotgun and a noose, featuring every knuckle-dragger from George Wallace to a klansman to a foaming Nazi in uniform brandishing a Luger. There is also a Black Panther with a rock, a reminder that Mad was an equal opportunity ridiculer. The Left got it as solidly as the Right, the freaks skewered along with the squares. Mad made us into skeptics who saw our own flaws as easily as the flaws of others, and laughed at both.
It would be years before I finally saw the actual movie “Easy Rider,” a loud, jarring jumble. I liked the Mad parody much better.