Columbus comics community mourns end of new MAD Magazine material

Eric Lagatta
MAD Magazine, the long-running satirical magazine represented by its red-headed mascot, Alfred E. Neuman, will be leaving newsstands after its August 2019 issue. [File photo]

Before Jeff Smith was old enough to read, he was a loyal fan of MAD Magazine.

Sometimes, his father would read it to him. More often, though, he was just captivated by the zany, mischievous cartoons.

“It was always something visually that delighted me as a kid,” said Smith, 59, a cartoonist who cited the satirical magazine as one of the influences on his own award-winning series of comic books and graphic novels, “Bone.”

“I remember looking at the drawings and couldn’t believe how good they were.”

Which made the news last week of the magazine’s upcoming demise all the more disheartening. MAD — recognizable for its gap-toothed, red-headed, freckled mascot Alfred E. Neuman — will be pulled from newsstands after the release of its August issue.

“I was very sad,” said Smith, a German Village resident and president of Cartoon Crossroads Columbus, a four-day gathering attracting thousands of comics fans. “MAD is such an important magazine.”

Across Columbus, Smith and others who make up the city’s established comics community lamented the loss of a pioneering publication whose influence can be seen across American satire publications such as “The Onion,” and television shows such as “The Simpsons” and “The Daily Show.”

“There’s a shadow over the comics industry,” said Caitlin McGurk, a curator at the Ohio State University’s Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, which hosted a 2018 exhibit dedicated to the magazine. It featured original artwork and was called “Artistically MAD: Seven Decades of Satire.”

“It’s sad to see it finally go,” she said.

Debuting in 1952, MAD Magazine began as a comic book written and illustrated almost entirely by Harvey Kurtzman. Published by Entertainment Comics, it converted to its magazine format three years later, becoming famous for parodies of films and TV shows, as well as recurring strips such as Spy vs. Spy.

Tom Spurgeon, editor of the comic-news website The Comics Reporter who lives in North Linden, noted two greats periods during MAD’s publishing history. The first, he said, was in the 1950s, when Kurtzman put sanitized comics such as Superman and Archie in his crosshairs.

The 1970s were another golden age, when the magazine’s newsstand sales and circulation figures put MAD at the forefront of a generation of pop-culture obsessives.

“More Gen-X kids saw movies like ‘The Godfather’ and ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ through MAD’s parodies than may have seen them in the theater,” Spurgeon said. “Taking it on the chin from MAD eventually became something of a badge of honor.”

Fans still will be able to purchase new, bimonthly issues at comic book stores and via subscriptions, but the magazine’s print content beginning in October will be culled from its classic vintage material. Year-end special editions still will feature new content, and its parent company, DC Entertainment, will continue to publish MAD books and other special collections.

Laurenn McCubbin, an associate professor who teaches in the comics and narrative practice program at Columbus College of Art & Design, said the magazine has published some of its most searing satire in recent years. She pointed to the Eisner Award-nominated “Ghastlygun Tinies” — a spoof of the Edward Gorey comic “Gashlycrumb Tinies” — that takes aim at school shootings in America.

“They’ve been doing a lot of really great satire recently,” McCubbin said. “It’s sad to see them not even getting a chance to see if they can build and sustain the audience for this kind of work.”

But Gib Bickel, manager at The Laughing Ogre comics in Clintonville, said his shop has not seen a huge demand for MAD in years. Only two or three copies of the latest issue grace its shelves and three customers — at most — pre-order it, he said.

For that reason, Bickel said he was dismayed but unsurprised by MAD’s recent announcement. The magazine’s circulation peaked at 2.8 million in 1973 but had seen those numbers plummet in recent years. He said the magazine hasn’t resonated with today’s youth in the way it did for his generation.

“When I was growing up it was really important, but I don’t see it having an impact on that same age group,” Bickel said.

The Laughing Ogre will still carry MAD issues with recirculated material and make it available for pre-order.

Central Ohioans also can find MAD material at the Billy Ireland. Though the MAD exhibit closed in October, visitors can still request to view the library’s collection in the reading room, McGurk said.

She praised the magazine as a “touchstone” in American pop culture.

“We’re so grateful to to have had decades and decades of incredible work that was put into MAD Magazine by cartoonists, writers and editors that came to shape American humor as we know it,” McGurk said.