Gary Varvel: Sad to see the end of Mad magazine

Keywords Forefront / Opinion

On July 3, I lost a childhood friend who was the greatest influence in my cartooning career. Mad magazine is dead at 67.

We first met in the magazine aisle of Danner’s five-and-dime store in Danville. It was June of 1969 and I was just 12 years old. The goofy, gap-toothed, freckled face of Alfred E. Neuman on the cover caught my eye. I picked it up and was hooked.

Mad became my art school. My instructors were Mort Drucker, Jack Davis, Al Jaffee, Don Martin, Paul Coker Jr. and Sergio Aragones.

I was thrilled to meet Aragones in 2012 at a National Cartoonists Convention in Boston. You might remember his pantomime cartoons (with no words) in the margins of the magazine.

Mad called their contributing artists and writers the “usual gang of idiots,” but in reality, they were comic masters. From them, I learned the arts of cartooning, parody and satire. Oh, and to never take myself too seriously.

Mad was the perfect tutor for political cartoonists, like me. It exposed the lunacy in politicians, TV, movies, sports, culture—well, just about anything and everything.

In the late ’90s, I attended an Association of American Editorial Cartoonists convention and I asked 10 cartoonists about what drew them to cartooning. Every cartoonist I talked with credited Mad.

Four decades later, Mad is still influencing my work. In fact, the first cartoon I drew for IBJ on April 8 was of Mayor Pete Buttigieg as Alfred E. Neuman on the cover of Mad magazine. I might have been the first cartoonist who saw the resemblance. But I wasn’t the only one. In May, President Trump nicknamed Buttigieg “Alfred E. Neuman.”

Mayor Pete responded, “So, I’ll be honest, I had to Google that. I guess it’s a generational thing. I didn’t get the reference.”

Then Mad tweeted, “Who’s Pete Buttigieg? Must be a generational thing.”

A perfect comeback. But in that moment, I had the stark realization that the magazine that had inspired a whole generation of cartoonists, like me, had faded into anonymity with a younger generation.

So what happened? Economics. Mad was unable to offset the costs of publishing and distribution even after cutting contributors’ pay nearly in half in 2010. So the owner, DC Comics, pulled the plug.

“Mad was much more a labor of love than it was for the paycheck,” said contributing cartoonist Tom Richmond.

I can understand that. Unfortunately, this continues to be a horrible year for cartoonists. Since I left my job in January, eight cartoonists have left their salaried positions and now the publication that influenced all of us is dead.

Mad had the same challenges as print journalism. Members of the internet generation want content fast and free. They’re not used to waiting for a parody of a movie that hit the theaters a month ago no matter how clever or beautiful the drawing is.

Memes take no time at all. Just slap a caption on a photo and watch it go viral. That is the world we live in and, although Mad influenced the satirical humor we’ve all grown accustomed to, it couldn’t financially compete online.

I still saw my old friend occasionally when I’d wander down the magazine aisle. And the last time I saw Alfred E. Neuman on the cover of Mad, I honestly thought he’d never looked better. That’s why it’s sad to see him go.•

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Varvel is a political cartoonist and illustrator who retired from The Indianapolis Star last year. Send comments to [email protected]


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