[16 August 2013]
PopMatters Comics Editor
Maybe the most poignant part of MAD’s upcoming “Privacy Issue” (issue #523, released August 28), has nothing whatsoever to do with privacy. It’s not a question about the legitimacy of unmanned drones or the rights and wrongs of mass surveillance by the NSA of US citizens, but it’s a question of tardiness in public policy when it comes to an older, more inconvenient truth, that old Al Gore bugbear that is global warming. (“Climate change,” I must remind myself, it’s officially been re-titled “climate change” since the rise and fall of that movie.)
The two-page spread that comprises some 14 haiku-like verses focused on a public issue that as of yet remains unresolved, has become one of the centerpieces of MAD since the magazine barely escaped the great purges of the industry that arose in the wake of the Senate Hearings on Juvenile Delinquency all the way back in 1954. McCarthyist in their scope, the Hearings would see the birth of the Codes Code Authority, a self-regulating body by the comics industry (some would say self-censoring) that would maintain certain standards of decency in a comics industry that was beginning to be deemed by Senate as a public good.
The Hearings are almost a direct result of the use made by pressure groups of the work of psychologist Dr. Frederic Wertham, particularly his book Seduction of the Innocent. It is in this work that he offers an unsympathetic view of American audiences, suggesting them as luckless, gullible and ultimately unable to distinguish fact from fiction. As a humor magazine, MAD survived the purges, as did most superhero books of the day. But the more “lurid” crime and horror titles became easy targets of wider civil indignation.
But MAD after the Senate Hearings was a very different kind of MAD than the one before. It was still just entertainment, sure, it was still “the Usual Gang of Idiots” doing “humor in a jugular vein.” But something had changed. Maybe a subtle acknowledgement that the Senate had been correct, and that popular magazines were popular for good reason, and that it was at least possible to exercise a certain kind of influence. After the Senate Hearings, fiction no longer seemed to occupy that innocuous space of light entertainment read as a form of escapism. After the Senate Hearings, and long before Underground Comix, it seemed entirely possible that fiction could enjoy a new role in becoming a lens for interpreting issues affecting the public sphere. And it was in this way that the almost uncrossable chasm between private life and the public sphere had been breached. Think of it as a revolution that ushered in a new kind of understanding of what it meant to have a private life, and with it, a new kind of understanding of privacy.
Wertham and Seduction of the Innocent aside, as well whatever strange line in time leads from Senate Hearings on Juvenile Delinquency to armed drones, and the NSA gathering signals intelligence from the populace at large in much the same way Google or Facebook does. The real “privacy” issue here is the one that begins to manifest at the level of the personal. The real “privacy” here is not having had an opportunity to interview MAD Editor, John Ficarra, to have him regale in some of the inner workings, some of the behind-the-scenes for the making of this issue.
Over the past few years, PopMatters has been granted rare access to one of the most astute and enduring minds ever to have graced the business of satire. And by extension, we’ve been granted rare access to the inner workings behind almost every Issue, Special Edition and Spectacular that MAD has put out since. And by extension, I’ve come to understand that what Warren Buffet said on Charlie Rose in the wake of the financial meltdown, that the things that are good and true about America, remain the things that are good and true about America. On a personal note, one of those stalwart things has always been MAD. And it has been a secret joy to be able to have John Ficarra offer those insights, and for me to chronicle them here.
But not this time, unfortunately. Call it bad timing, call it an inundation when it comes to scheduling or call it a pathological fear of the number 23 (a fear drilled into me by a Great Duchess of a grandmother who understood just too little about the I Ching for it to be truly useful, and just enough to be in a perpetual grip of fear). Whatever the reason, we didn’t have our usual chat with John for this issue. And the real “privacy” issue here, is the privacy I currently enjoy, to afford myself the chance to read this issue of MAD alone. Just like when I was a kid, my view of these pages raw, unfiltered by my access to a secret history of inner workings.
But of course, even as I imagine myself reading MAD #523 for the first time, I cannot bring to imagine myself being truly alone. I’d be reading it on a train-ride. Perhaps into work, perhaps on one of the great train rides in New York or London or Paris. Perhaps something restive, like the ride from Nagoya to Osaka. I’d have my earbuds in. I’d be listening to the only kind of song that would be an adequate epilog to a high drama that ends in exhaustive stalemate. Perhaps Louis Armstrong’s “All the Time in the World,” perhaps Pearl Jam’s “Thumbing my Way.” Whichever it is, the track would be on loop. Should be on loop.
And even here, there’d be a secret betrayal. Because the song I ought to be listening to is Joan Osborne’s “One of Us,” from her beautiful Relish album. Because it’s really only Joan that can take me to the places I need to get to. Only Joan who, on that very track, struggled with the idea of the sublime rendered as the ordinary. Just as, in the wake of the Senate Hearings on Juvenile Delinquency, MAD itself wrestled with a new kind of role. In a backhanded kind of way, did the Senate Hearings nudge MAD into the very role that Wertham himself feared comics played in the lives of children—the role of seditious instigator? Before the Hearings, fiction really had a redacted social role, more than today, it was the coin for a kind of escapism. But after the Hearings? Is it at least conceivable that MAD and other comics publications could be able to see themselves weighing in on social issues as building in the personal spaces, the kind of critical awareness they’d want to see from readers in the public sphere.
But of course, getting to that higher level of thinking is predicated on being able to at least imagine myself listening to Joan Osborne. Which is something I can’t yet do. Call it a character failing or sorts, or a lack of literary courage.
Instead what I do do, is I remember that piece by Frank Jacobs again. “Has MAD ever been sued?”, indeed. And I remember the long, beautiful note on which he ends, like Jackie Robinson hitting it out of the park. It’s in the way Jacobs ends the piece.
“Judge Kaufman was not bowled over by the quality of the MAD lyrics, commenting that ‘our individual tastes may prefer a more subtle brand of humor.’ But subtle or not, MAD had won again.
“The music publishers fought on and the case eventually reached the highest tribunal, the United States Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case, thereby upholding the decision of the lower court.
“MAD had won. It was a landmark case, and lawyers Martin Scheiman and Jack Albert had good reason to feel proud. The right to publish parody lyrics or satirical lyrics or whatever one wished to call them had become the law of the land.”
It’s a sad and beautiful victory (sad in a kind of Steinbeckian way, for the long path needed to walk to get to a point which seems obvious, intuitive, from the get-go) and it really does deserve “All the Time in the World” as a soundtrack. Or maybe, “Thumbing my Way.” It’s also a piece of writing that makes me appreciate even more, John Ficarra’s comments (in an interview on an earlier issue) about Frank Jacobs, author of that piece and of MAD’s famous satirical take-offs of popular melodies and songs.
“Yeah,” there isn’t a pause from John, as much an elongation of the last sound in the “yeah.” It’s vocalized protraction that carries with it immense meaning, and it’s easy enough to tell that for John, memories are cascading. But these are memories that are too fleeting to be shared. “Frank had been wanting to do a piece for a while, and I want to say I called him up with this but I can’t remember how this came into…” John cuts his own train of thought and then picks up immediately again “Well I can’t remember if he approached me or if I approached him. But it certainly came out beautiful and Ward Sutton did a fabulous job of giving us a different look…” There’s another pause and another quick turnaround. “Yeah that’s something only MAD does these days, there’s no real marketplace for these great poem take-offs like there was years ago. Y’know where you’d see them in other places than just MAD. And Frank did most of them, if not all of them over the years. He’s probably the best of the century. I mean I don’t know anybody who has consistently done them. And not only gotten the meter right, but the scanning and the humor—he really brings it all to the table when he comes.”