“MAD #514” Tackles Paucity, not Impoverishment

This most recent issue of MAD Magazine, issue #514, appears on shelves at the same time as other mainstream DC issues that carry a banner tag for the “We Can Be Heroes” Horn of Africa relief drive. For a moment it’s jarring to pick up MAD from among what seems to be more sober reading, with a greater social awareness and social relevance.

But this is MAD, I can almost feel Gerard Butler screaming at me. And if we’ve learnt anything since the 50s, it’s that MAD has a way of surrounding you, of catching you up from behind. What at first seems a slap in the face, a cover which shows Mike & Molly stars Billy Gardell and Melissa McCarthy caricatured into a tableau vivant of Grant Wood’s American Gothic, proves to be anything but.

Like everything with MAD the humor emerges from the marginalia. The famous gothic window in the original Wood is covered up by signage advertising an all-you-can-eat buffet, Melissa McCarthy wears a longtime MAD-mascot Alfred E. Neuman brooch, and there’s almost no empty space between McCarthy and Gardell, Gardell brandishes an oversized piece of silverware, rather than the more familiar pitchfork.

At once, the Mark Fredrickson cover seems to pull us toward that familiar MAD-brand of scifi–science fiction because it is the familiar deployed in a unexpected way, a way that sheds an inconvenient light on what ought to be safe and relaxing. But open the cover, and the issue itself is so much richer than a derivative value-laden “gluttonous-Americans-versus-starving-Africans” theme. So much richer themed, and so much more accessible.

The centerpiece of this issue really is the “Big & Bulky” parody (the rip of Mike & Molly), but this is only the staging area for an entirely unexpected kind of MAD–a regular issue of MAD gathered almost entirely around a single theme. Unexpected, because over the last few decades we’ve come to anticipate a regular rhythm to MAD. Specials and Annuals (like “20 Dumbest”) deal with single themes, the regular issues however, they range as wide and as deep as anything. It’s the “everyday” issues that deal with the workaday overflow of crazy in our collective culture.

As a centerpiece, the Arnie Kogen-scripted, Tom Richmond-drawn “Bigg & Bulky” is refreshing, but for MAD not entirely surprising. The thrust of the humor here is not fat jokes. Through enough sidebar comments, Kogen seems to suggest that fat jokes are best left to the show itself. The real “target” in this parody (itself a shocking term since MAD’s “targets” are never personal, always conceptual), is a moment of cultural breakdown. “Take a look at this new app”, Mike says to Carl in one panel. “What does it do?”, Carl shoots back. “It doesn’t matter”, Mike replies “This is such an old-fashioned TV show, with weight jokes, mother-in-law jokes and cop jokes…we’re hoping just mentioning the word ‘app’ might bring in younger viewers”. For those who might not yet get it, the point is driven home in the magnificent final panel which plays out in the CBS boardroom.

The real “target” here isn’t the debacle around the comments made by Marie Claire-blogger, Maura Kelly in her bigoted “Should ‘Fatties’ Get a Room? (Even on TV?)” post. The real “target” is challenge offered in the wake of that, offered in the comments made by showrunner Mark Roberts who suggested that Kelly’s comments were neither about the show’s writing, nor its acting. “Bigg & Bulky” is aimed directly at the paucity of the show’s writing, and its acting. The parodic comments about the show’s failure to exploit Samuel’s Senegalese origin hits this kind of mark exactly.

The “target” here is not gluttony, but paucity. Scratch beneath the surface of every glutton fueled by instant gratification, and you’ll find someone driven by a genuine fear of the conditions currently playing out in the Horn of Africa. It’s this pervading fear, and the pervasive culture of intellectual paucity that fuels this fear, that is the real object MAD’s ire in this issue.

How do you prefer to read MAD? For me it’s a pickup-and-leaf-through strategy, and this strategy has really hurt me this time around. Whether deliberate or not, this themed issue of MAD really showcases a strong editorial sense in terms of the arrangement of the pieces. There’s a coherent, internal logic that guides you from “MAD’s Dreadfully Undercooked The Hunger Games Outtakes” through “The MAD Vault” on through “The Strip Club”. And my suspicion is that I’ve lost more than I’ve gained by just leafing through the issue to find something I like and read that.

The issue is so well laid out, that by the time you hit the Banana Republic catalog (sorry, “Banana Republican”, which shows erstwhile Presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann resplendent in a 50s-style taffeta cocktail dress and modest, ruby-red pumps as its first page), you’d already have been equipped with as many tools as you need to identify the theme.

And once you identify this theme of paucity which engages its own moment of cultural breakdown, you can see it everywhere in the book. In the “In Blog We Trust, Dept.’s: Planet TAD!!!!!”, in Christopher Baldwin’s masterful “It Only Hurts When I Laugh” panel-comics that appears in “The Strip Club”. It should be noted that Baldwin’s 9-panel unpacking of the derivative bigotry rampant in Polish jokes (substitute “weight jokes, mother-in-law jokes and cop jokes…”) is so meaningfully sublime, it deserves a review all of its own.

You’ll even find that theme of intellectual paucity in “MAD‘s Make Your Own Twilight Movie” storyboard, and “the Fundalini Pages’ ‘The Startling Similarities Between Harvard University and Clown College'”.

And of course, there’s an even bigger picture. A few hours, or maybe a few days after you close the book, you’ll think of the previous issue of MAD, “The 20 Dumbest of 2011: the Year we Ran Out of Money”, and you’ll notice an ongoing, evolving theme. Perhaps more strongly than libertarian political commentators, MAD reframed the 2011 US Downgrade as not a failure of government, but a failure of those governing. For an issue so strongly themed around paucity as #514 to follow on from “20 Dumbest 2011”, MAD certainly seems to have profound something to say. And watching them over the next few weeks and months, watching them work towards saying it (I’m assuming in “20 Dumbest of 2012”) will prove bracing.

RATING 7 / 10