The letters column of the July ’61 number of Mad comics under the banner, “A Mad State of Affairs,” features a photograph of the daughter of the governor of North Carolina smilingly enthroned in bed with a batch of Mads. “Thought you might like to know,” writes the fan who’d sent in the item, “that Mad has even reached the Governor’s mansion.” Mad’s cup runneth over.
Other tributes come regularly from high school and college teachers and from college-bred mothers concerned with finding a synthetic antidote to the influence of pop culture on their children’s minds. Yet in its comic book format Mad is exactly like what it is supposed to be panning, and its drawing is even more crass than that of the ordinary “funnies.” The cartoon strip —in the rhythm of its potted “plotting,” in its simplistic reduction of materials to a one-dimensional, escalator-like descent to an anticipated “surprise”—shares the basic pattern of all kitsch. It is impossible to use this form without dependence on its stereotypes —stereotypes already fixed in the public imagination, like the Gaunt Thinlipped Hero (Dick Tracy or Gregory Peck), the Defeated Dad, or the Sweet Young Know-nothing. In assuming this form whole-hog, Mad must, in fact, adhere to its assumptions. Like the recent corrupt Hitchcock films, Mad is a “sophisticated” example of kitsch feeding on itself—even its show of frenzy is a pretense as, with a HooHa here and a Hoo-Ha there, it throws up such spoofs on pop as Prince Violent, Melvin of the Apes, Flesh Garden, Perry Masonmint, the Katherine Money Party, and Tennessee Williamsburg.
Good for a laugh now and then, if you know pop, Mad’s message is defensiveness and gamesmanship rather than resistance, criticism or wit. Thus, some gagging about pop violence will be followed by the “Mad Shakespeare Primer” to remind its readers that Hamlet, which contains “two knifings, three fatal duels,” etc., is “… a good play for children. It is much better than watching violent TV programs . . . because it is more violent than TV and comic books put together!” Rather than voicing resistance to the oppressiveness of official culture, Mad expresses a savage acquiescence to it. It invites its fans to wallow inside the whale, then come out one-up.