[1 November 2013]
PopMatters Comics Editor
What was John Ficarra thinking?
Well he, and in fact the entire Editorial team at MAD, and in fact the entire Usual Gang of Idiots (two teams he always points to, to underline the fact that MAD isn’t a solo performance), had a very clear goal in mind. And it’s a goal he happily speaks about in the formal interview we had for Inside MAD, the thematic successor project to last year’s groundbreaking Totally MAD, the 60th anniversary book.
But it’s not a goal, or in fact an interview, we’ll be discussing here. That’s for next week’s rounding out of our look at Inside MAD. For this lead-in Iconographies, just a look at the philosophical project behind Inside MAD is enough. That the project can more or less be summed up in a Daily Show-esque parody of a CNN-style “good story/bad story?” take on comics. The question being, when was comics last good? When was it last bad?
Many point to the ‘90s, a time of great upheaval for the comics industry, as being both. In the pro’s column, you’ve got comics on the cusp of becoming a true mass-medium once again. While in the con’s column, the medium actually seems ground to dust under the boot-heel of a speculator’s market. The central question about comics in the ‘90s will always be, just how close to a genuine engagement with the medium did the commercial popularizing of comicbooks get? And one sophisticated argument that the comics industry of the ‘90s was able to make, was the argument for a marketable nostalgia. In the ‘90s, everything old, was new again. Collected editions of classic daily strips from the ‘30s and ‘40s and later became stock-in-trade for the industry. The past, became leveraged to create a buy-in for the present.
The sociocultural politics of the comics industry quickly became the sociocultural politics of the world with the advent of social media. For one, comics in the ‘90s, after decades of the industry debasing fans and fandom, saw a rise in the voices of fans. However, this rise did come at the cost of a kind of self-secession from the cultural mainstream. No longer could comics be picked up at newsstands, instead they seceded to the cultural boutique of the Local Comics Shop. And what would be the point of entering an LCS or even picking up a copy of, say X-Men, if you weren’t prepared to purchase all eight remaining chapters of the multi-book storyarc, or, perhaps more importantly, if you weren’t fully conversant with X-Lore from the ‘70s.
Stories, great stories really (like Spider-man’s Clone Saga), became emotionally vapid to anyone without a prolonged and sustained appreciation of continuity since the character’s inception. Thus comics in the ‘90s, marks the assertion of a nerdist outlook on popculture—that what’s important is sustained and detailed appreciation of the perpetual fiction over prolonged periods of time. Not very different from building a social network and only ever plugging into that one and no others.
Perhaps hoping to capitalize on the magic of last year’s Inside MAD, Editorial and the Usual Gang put together Inside MAD which allows the team and a cadre of celebrities to offer up their own favorite moments from the magazine’s 60-plus year publication history. On the surface of it, this looks no different from any other kind of nostalgia. This book could be exactly the kind nostalgia-driven marketing that a few years ago seemed to bundle classic Silver Age issues together with current issues of superhero books (perhaps in an attempt to convince readers of an illustrious legacy). And on the surface, no different from earlier this year when a Kickstarter campaign was launched to get fans of a popular noughties teen detective drama to pay for production costs up front, as well net profit on the back-end when purchasing a movie ticket.
Enlarge to view the L.A. Law parody cover of MAD #274.
But the difference with this book however, is that Inside MAD is a MAD book, so you already know that this nostalgia-driven experience will be less a presupposition and more an opening salvo against the Rise of Stupid in the world, an opening statement in a argument. And it is exactly that. Not only is the nostalgia clearly not meant to be your own, or meant to be marketable to you in any way, but the nostalgia is also in place because it’s a necessary in how we examine our beliefs around nostalgia and the free market’s role in creating an economy around it.
When reading the essays by Editorial, by celebrities and by the Usual Gang themselves, a very different kind of story emerges. specifically, this becomes a story about confronting nostalgia, and about redefining our relationship with the past to a degree where it can no longer be exploited.
As much as anything, a very clear narrative intent emerges over the course of some 170 of Inside MAD’s 250-plus pages. It is an intent perhaps best expressed by reading three key essays non-sequentially (this is MAD, remember). Start off with writer Butch D’Ambrosio’s appreciation of Frank Jacobs’ and James Warhola’s parody of “Casey at the Bat,” “Baseball at the Bat” on page 30. Then flip to page 198 to read how the cover to MAD #274 inspired L.A. Law lead Harry Hamlin to parody a MAD parody. And then turn back just a few pages to read Joe Raiola’s appreciation of Charlie Kadau’s and Bob Clarke’s parody of the Gary Larson’s hugely popular (hugely popular back in 1988) The Far Side.
Something magical emerges in reading these essays and retreading this now already familiar ground. Something magical, but also something inviolable. D’Ambrosio comments on the fine mastery required by Frank Jacobs to actually be an excellent poet, like The World’s Bravest Man who each night at the circus puts his head in the lion’s mouth needs to be genuinely brave rather than merely a good showman. “Rhythm? Rhyme? Meter? It’s a masterclass in poetry,” D’Ambrosio writes, “…I didn’t know anything about scansion… prosody… syllables… stanzas… speling (sic). But Jacobs does.”
Just as we come to grips with that sense of personal accomplishment it takes to be a great comic writer, the greater story explodes. Hamlin talks about how MAD became a benchmark for him throughout his life. How the magazine was probably instrumental in him becoming an actor, in him forming a bond with and fathering a son with his ex-wife (and ultimate Bond Girl) Ursula Andress and in his son getting into and succeeding at Princeton.
And just a few pages before that Raiola interleaves both narratives to tell how his personal relationship with artist Bob Clarke, one forged through years of collaborating on MAD projects, becomes a powerful lens for looking at the past. The success of Inside MAD lies in the fact that it isn’t a piece of nostalgia-driven marketing, not some hand sticking through a popcultural grave in the last seconds of the movie. Instead, Inside MAD reads like the Bonus Features on your favorite Blu-Ray—additional material that will only allow you to foster an even deeper appreciation of the movie you already love. But even that, doesn’t point out the true success, the true victor.
Because the true victor here is all of us. Not in some violent sense that We Must All Take A Stand Against Rampant Commercialism, but in the sense that the Stoic philosopher Seneca suggested that the worst fate that could befall any human being, is to no longer desire the things you possess. The past is our own, not something that can be rolled out and resold to us when the economy makes for lean times. And if there’s any victory for MAD here, it’s that Inside MAD honors the deep ethical complexity of our very necessary relation to our past.