The Usual Gang of Idiots Offer Up Their Souls in ‘Totally MAD’

To celebrate becoming a sexagenarian institution, the “usual gang of idiots” at MAD Magazine put together a coffee table book, perfect to use as a serving tray, or to hold coffee cups, beer cans, bottles of tequila. Think of it as a giant coaster. That you can open. With pictures in it.

Perhaps a better description would involve stealing a line from famed pundit, and one of many inheritors of the MAD mantle (not to be confused with the Mickey Mantle), Stephen Colbert: “A book is something we used to have before the internet. It’s sort of a blog for people with attention spans.”

Colbert also pens the introduction to Totally MAD, along with one of his Colbert Report writers, Eric Drysdale. In it, Colbert curmudgeonly reveals the origins of his love of MAD: “I saved my allowance up for it every week and bought it after church on Sunday at The Book Bag. I remember hiding the ‘Middle Finger’ issue from my parents.”

That infamous cover (from the April 1974 issue) appears on page 84 of this beautifully-produced collection. It’s part of a series of thumbnail-type images of cover images going from the magazine’s first issue (October, 1952) though to issue #515 (April, 2011). These cover images run across the bottom of most pages, with selected pages reproduced in full (and nearly-full) size above them.

Before you leap to your favourite retailer to purchase this book, it’s important to bear in mind what this is: Totally MAD is not exactly a “reader”. For example, 1953’s iconic “Superduperman” story is here, but only in part. We get the first two pages, but that’s all. For the full story, you would need to look in the MAD Archives, Volume 1, among other collections the publication has produced over the years. In fact, they also published a “Special Collector’s Edition” of the magazine this year, titled, The Best of the Worst, which features full selections from each decade of MAD’s existence.

Along with the MAD Archive editions, I would also recommend the various decade-spanning collections (such as, MAD About the Seventies), and various collections of Spy Vs Spy and Al Jaffee’s collection of fold-ins. For a history of the magazine, I would recommend Maria Reidelbach’s Completely MAD, and Jaffee’s memoir, Mad Life is excellent.

So, it isn’t exactly a reader, a best-of, or a history. Instead, Totally MAD offers a gorgeously-produced sampling of the publications high- and lowlights, along with several fascinating essays, answering questions like, “Who was Bill Gaines?”, “Who was Alfred E. Neuman?”, “Was MAD ever sued?” and the particularly useful, “How do you cure cancer?1

“I want the experience of reading this book to be like curling up in a big, old comfy chair,” writes the Editor, John Ficarra. “I want this book to transport you back to the time when you first discovered MAD.”

I first discovered MAD in the ’70s, and my most memorable image was an Al Jaffee illustration explaining how to perform a particular magic trick that presented the illusion of squeezing blood from a stone (spoiler: it involves hiding shards of broken glass in your palm).

“One of the first things that invariably happens when I meet a MAD reader is that they tell me their all-time favourite MAD article,” Ficara writes. “Usually they can quote large portions of it verbatim… and one more odd thing, it’s never, ever been the same article. Everybody’s favourite is different.”

Stephen Colbert offers his fave (a comic by Don Martin), calling it, “the first thing that really made me laugh.”

But at 60, this retrospective also offers us a chance to reflect on MAD’s place in the modern world. A good case can be made that one of its chief competitors from the late ’50s until its final print issue in 2007, Cracked Magazine, may be winning the battle today with its website, which seems to offer much more popular (i.e., frequently linked-to) content.

Has Sylvester P. Smythe finally defeated Alfred E. Neuman? How does one of the founding institutions in modern satire fit into the modern world alongside the Daily Show and Colbert Report? What’s the meaning of satire today?

What do I look like, a philosopher/cultural critic? I have no idea. Instead, let’s look at what my close, personal friend2, and noted philosopher/cultural critic, Slavoj Žižek has to say…

All right, he doesn’t appear to have written anything specifically about MAD, but it sure seems like something he would have an opinion on. In fact, he mentions it in his “masterwork on the Hegelian legacy”, Less Than Nothing:

“Decades ago, MAD magazine published a series of variations on the topic of how a subject can relate to a norm at four levels: in fashion, say, the poor don’t care how they dress; the lower middle classes try to follow the fashion but always lag behind; the upper middle classes dress in accordance with the latest fashion; those at the top, the trend‐setters, also don’t care how they dress since the way they dress is the fashion.”

So, Slavoj Žižek reads MAD. Why don’t you?

In addition to the big, beautiful (albeit somewhat limited) book, you get 12 big beautiful prints (well, letter-sized… big compared to a postcard, and “suitable for framing or wrapping fish”). For MAD fans, these are almost worth the price of the entire thing. Described as “the soul of MAD”, these cover paintings were chosen in the ’80s by the great William M. Gaines, together with Ficara and fellow editor Nick Meglin, who felt that they “best represented the magazine’s humour and heritage”.

Just in time for axe-mass and the gift-giving season, Totally MAD will make a great stocking stuffer, if your loved one has large feet. Otherwise, wrap it up and call it a surprise coaster.

1Despite this statement, such an essay does not in fact exist. I apologize for any pain and/or suffering the aforementioned statement may have caused.

2Slavoj Žižek is not my friend. Not yet.

RATING 8 / 10