‘MAD’ men

Please forgive the headline’s allusion to the year’s hippest TV show, but our subjects this month demand it, springing as they do from the pages of America’s seminal satirical series, MAD Magazine. Both books (published by Fantagraphics) capture sides of artists that went unexposed under the auspices of Alfred E. Neuman, which makes them all the more appealing.

The oddest of the pair, The Wolverton Bible, is not a comic but an aesthetic annex to the career of Basil Wolverton, the man behind Powerhouse Pepper and scores of MAD grotesques. Even the man’s fans may be surprised to learn that up through the mid-’70s he had a side career — interpreting Bible stories in print for members of the Worldwide Church of God, whose leader was radio preacher Herbert Armstrong.

Wolverton Bible collects everything he did for the church, presenting illustrations in chronological Biblical order — from Adam springing up from earth á la Spider-Man’s nemesis the Sandman all the way through the Old Testament and then hopping to the fantasy-friendly Book of Revelation, where eyeless corpses run rampant and jet planes tumble helplessly from the sky.

Understandably, Wolverton’s sly humor remains in hiding through most of these pages, and his affinity for odd creatures manifests only occasionally, as in statues the Philistines built to honor false gods. Readers jonesing for the familiar, though, can skip to the back of the book, to a small collection of spot illustrations and often wordless gags commissioned for WCG publications that addressed life in the modern church.

The Wolverton Bible has an admittedly smallish target audience, but Humbug could be a comics blockbuster. A two-volume hardback collecting work unknown to all but the most die-hard MAD historians, it fills gaps in some cartoonists’ CVs and entertains like hell while doing it.

After leaving MAD in 1956, Harvey Kurtzman created a few short-lived publications. To paraphrase an editor’s note reprinted here, each one contained sharper satire than the last and was the result of harder work, but sold fewer copies. Humbug, which lasted a mere 11 issues, paired Kurtzman with former colleagues Will Elder, Jack Davis, and Al Jaffee, all of whom were joined by Arnold Roth, an inimitable cartoonist probably best known for his work in the New Yorker. The magazine was self-published, essentially letting the inmates run the asylum.

From its first issue, Humbug aimed at the mass-market magazines of its day, making room for MAD-ish parodies like “Doll-Baby” (a takeoff on Elia Kazan and Tennessee Williams’s Baby Doll) alongside all-text stories and goofy items like a two-page spread of baseball predictions. The cover to the tenth issue and an inside feature smartly jab at the strange tendency of fashion magazines to do photo shoots in completely inappropriate settings. Smart-assery segues into borderline Surrealism with faux ads like one for Sportingman shaving lotion, in which a sweater-clad babe sports one burly, hair-covered forearm, and another for a rock-and-roll-on deodorant that provokes inexplicable tears in its smiling spokesmodel.

Each issue is presented as it originally appeared — glossy front and back covers included — but bound up in a package offering appropriate interviews, introductions, and a table of contents that helpfully attributes artist/writer credits to stories and illustrations originally printed without them. (Editor Gary Groth, never afraid to scrutinize the minutiae of pop culture others deem disposable, even speculates on credits that the artists themselves couldn’t confirm.)

After Humbug failed, Kurtzman and Will Elder eventually hit gold again with the long-lived Playboy comic strip “Little Annie Fannie.” I’d never begrudge the men their success, but it’s hard to read through Humbug and not wish they’d had the chance to keep failing so wonderfully, evolving their parodies every year or two alongside the rising and falling magazine industry. How great would it have been, for instance, to have seen this crew take on the Lad Mag blight of the ’90s?

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