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Ed. Note: MAD Magazine marks its 50th anniversary this year—an amazing achievement for any magazine. But the bible of smartass adolescents has undergone several changes in recent years: First, a switch to better paper stock and color ink (not a tragedy in itself, but there was something about that pulp paper and the black & white graphics that gave MAD an underground feel); second, and more devastating, the inclusion of paid advertising. Original publisher/godfather William M. Gaines was proud of the fact that his satiric rag was beholden to no one, and even after being absorbed by the Time-Warner empire through a chain of acquisitions, he zealously defended MAD's ad-free format. Truly, that was a radical move in publishing, but it was worth the freedom to mock anything. Perhaps there was little choice in the decision to start selling ads; perhaps that was the price the editors had to pay to continue publishing. But MAD simply isn't the same: The magazine that so fervently skewered modern marketing for 50 years now must print the same hype-ridden ads as every other rag. Pity.This story was written before those changes occurred, but co-editor Nick Meglin discusses how the changing readership was affecting MAD. For even more MADness, read this extended Q&A with Meglin.

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To hell with Dick & Jane.

Sure, the cuddly twosome have seen a resurgence of interest lately, with museum exhibits and scholarly books detailing their influence on young minds over several generations. But how much meaning can you really extract from "See Dick Run." And do we all truly have those pithy messages imprinted on our cerebellums?

On the other hand, there's another publication celebrating an important milestone, one that also served as a primer for life's lessons. This particular periodical is still alive and well after 50 years. And there can be little doubt as to its influence on the lives of its readers; it has irreversibly warped the sensibilities of millions upon millions of minds, young and old.

The answer, of course, is MAD. Magazine, that is.

It has been the oracle of all knowledge for most males in the 12-14 age bracket, faithfully toted from class to class, shared among only the most trusted friends, studied and memorized. Upon its pages are emblazoned the secret dreams of every smartass adolescent: to make fun of everything. Movies, television shows, politicians, advertising, celebrities–all the authority figures of modern life are laid bare, hoisted on their own petards. If Dick & Jane indeed gave children the basics of courteous co-existence, then MAD presented the hard facts of adult life: beware of what people are trying to sell you. Cynical, maybe, but MAD's satirical message resonates throughout our adult lives.

As MAD marks its 50th anniversary, it's still as vital as ever–perhaps even more so as kids today are being constantly bombarded with media come-ons, even in their schools. But with its relatively recent inclusion of advertising, will MAD shirk its duty of lampooning corporate institutions? Worse, will its pages be left behind in a high-tech wave, with video games and computers stealing the allegiance of today's kids? Not if co-editor Nick Meglin and his usual gang of idiots can help it.

"The very fact that we've lasted over 40 years means that we're doing something right," says Meglin from his New York office. "And what we've done right is that we've never pandered, we've never condescended, we've never shot for a target audience. That's because we don't even know who they are."

Which, in the world of publishing, is absolutely mad. But, according to Meglin, the times are changing, and so too is MAD.


THE IDES OF MAD

In the beginning, there was William M. Gaines.

In the early '50s, he published what are considered to be the finest comics ever printed, including Tales From the Crypt, Two-Fisted Tales, Weird Science, and MAD. Gathering some of the greatest comic artists ever (Wally Wood, Harvey Kurtzman, and Jack Davis, among others), he gave them sophisticated (if sometimes lurid) tales to illustrate and allowed them a creative freedom that was unheard of in the comics industry. What resulted were comics that pushed the boundaries of the medium–and got the attention of none other than Senator Estes Kefauver and the Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency in 1954.

Comics–particularly those involving horror–were the scapegoats for juvenile delinquency at that time (soon to be replaced by rock 'n' roll, then by long hair, then by drugs, then by video games, then by…). Gaines testified at the subcommittee's hearings, bravely defending the value of his comics–and got his butt stomped. A "Comics Code Authority" was soon formed to allay the public outcry against comics. Rather than censor his creations, Gaines stopped publishing them. But what could he do now? How could he beat the Code? The answer was to turn the MAD comic book into MAD Magazine.

"Gaines epitomized what MAD was all about," says Meglin. "He was a man with a great deal of natural intelligence, business sense, and was able to be totally supportive. Whenever he was asked why he was such a success, he would always say, 'My only contribution is creating the ambiance, creating the context for these brilliant people I work with to do their jobs. I supply the room they work in."

While Gaines himself did become synonymous with the magazine–his portly, shaggy visage often appears on its pages, even after his death in 1992–the true visionaries behind MAD's humor were its editors. Founding editor Harvey Kurtzman created the tone of the publication, blazing new trails by daring to parody other comics ("Superduperman!" and "Starchie"), utilizing mainstream humorists like Ernie Kovacs, and throwing in photographs and fine art. In 1956, Kurtzman left MAD in a money dispute with Gaines, joining Hugh Hefner (eventually creating "Little Annie Fanny").

Editor Al Feldstein picked up the reigns, fully transforming MAD into a magazine and putting in place the basic format you see today: Spy vs. Spy, The Lighter Side of…, the Al Jaffee fold-in, etc. Feldstein brought MAD to new heights of popularity, establishing 13 foreign-language editions and raising circulation to a height of 2.5 million copies per issue. He retired in 1984.

Now, under the editorship of Meglin and John Ficarra, MAD hopes to adapt to new times and new readers.

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