My hometown didn’t have a movie theater, and although there was one only a half hour away, visits there were rare. Television opened doors to other worlds, with James Bond marathons on TBS or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoons in the afternoon, but the want brought on by commercials plagued me as I fidgeted in front of the set. There were toys I wanted and, worst of all, movies I might never get to see. “A theater near you” was a tease.
I learned to get there any way I could. I read the novelizations of Spaceballs and Adventures in Babysitting, and scrounged for change to buy Ghostbusters II trading cards, but the best alternative was Mad, the venerable humor magazine known for its ridiculous TV and movie spoofs. The best of these were illustrated by Mort Drucker, though at the time I assumed his name was a fake, like Alfred E. Neuman’s. His signature was great, with three slashes for the M and the E in his name, and his art was even better.
If they appeared on television or in movies over the last 50 years, there’s a good chance Mort Drucker drew them. Merely calling his work drawings, though, hardly seems sufficient. Caricature is closer, but it’s a loaded term, bringing to mind big nosed and big toothed tourists heads awkwardly plopped onto generic bodies for $10 a pop. Like the best caricaturists, Drucker captures part of the spirit of his subjects, a gleam in the eye or a telltale wrinkle of the eyebrow. He brings to life the films and movies he parodies by capturing the movement and personality of the actors.
Mort Drucker: Five Decades of His Finest Works is a great collection of the parodies and cover art Drucker’s done for Mad in his career, with subjects ranging from Bonanza to Harry Potter. Scattered throughout are words of praise from many of Drucker’s subjects, including a loving introduction from Michael J. Fox.
Some of the jokes show their age, particularly the political bits featuring the likes of Nikita Khrushchev and Spiro Agnew. The musical parodies featuring reworked song lyrics by Frank Jacobs are also tedious at best, but when words fail Drucker still holds the piece together.
Five decades is a long time to work at anything, and doing it well for that long is rare. The level of quality Drucker’s maintained throughout his career is astonishing. In an interview with the artist, former Mad editor Nick Meglin notes Drucker’s art training lacked experience with live models, and that his work was often derived from as little as one or two pieces of photo references. Sometimes he hadn’t even seen the movie he was to parody. This seems a small miracle to someone unable to draw little more than a smiley face, and it’s one Drucker performed again and again.
One of the earliest pieces in the book is a 1958 Bob and Ray bit featuring Bob Eliot as reporter Wally Ballew Ray Goulding as a contestant at the National Bannister Sliding Contests. Photographs of the legendary comedy duo appear on the first page of the story, providing photo reference for the reader. Even then Drucker’s likenesses are amazing, from the lines under Bob’s eyes to the hint of Ray’s mustache. They’re light touches, only a few lines, but they do a lot of work.
In later works, the introductory crowd scenes of the parodies are where Drucker’s best work is on display. Here, Drucker assembles the cast of a given TV show or film in a familiar setting. The characters introduce themselves by giving their parodied names and cracking one-liners about how terrible the show or movie is. March 1989’s Cheers parody “Beers” introduces us to Fresser Brain, Sham, Wooden, Clepphie, Numb, Reblecha, and Killa. Also on hand are W.C. Fields, a drunken pig in a fedora, and the then-ubiquitous Bartles and Jaymes wine cooler pitchmen.
The large canvas of the two-page spread lets Drucker’s work breathe, and though he fills every inch of the page with as much detail as possible, none of it is extraneous. These spreads are so good even a casual reader picking the magazine off the rack would have to stop and stare, to admire how perfectly Drucker captures Rhea Pearlman’s hair, or to find all the gags hidden in farthest corners of the page.
My town got a movie theater after I moved away. When I started going to the movies regularly, I replaced the works of Mort Drucker and his colleagues with the real thing. I’m positive this wasn’t a good idea. The stories Drucker drew were perversions of their source material, but always closer to the truth than any ad or television commercial.