Apocalypse Season: Exclusive Art, and John Ficarra on “MAD #524”

Before the interview closes John Ficarra will have me thinking about Wally Wood, easily the most tragic of MAD’s Founding Fathers, and a man I share no personal connection with, other than the infinite warmth his stories have provided me with over the years. The memory, more a sense-memory really, won’t be down to anything John specifically says. Quite the opposite. Conversations with John are like walking thru elaborate memory palaces, the memories housed within, only some of them my own. These memories are carnivals, but not the European kind that turn the fertile soil of the popular imagination, mixing the idea itself in with narratives of human-on-human horror. John’s memory palace, a place where his memories of things past seep gently into your own, is closer to the state fairs you attended in your childhood. Over time, a process of idealization kicks in, and they become a buffer against a world that grows increasingly complex. It’s no surprise then, that before the end, we begin speaking about Nick Meglin, once co-editor of MAD, along with John, and how a doodle of Nick’s became one of the most popular covers of MAD for all time. But we don’t start there.

It’s a systemic story, I’m reminded as we wend our way into talking about “Man of Veal”, the truly rip-roaringly astute Man of Steel parody that comprises one of the two centerpieces for MAD #524. John begins by addressing an issue of timing. “Yeah we could have gotten it in an earlier issue, but originally the DVD was going to come out a little bit earlier. So when I scheduled it, it was timed a little bit closer to the DVD release. Then the DVD was pushed back until later, 1 November now or something. But I’d already slotted it, and I’d already committed to things that I couldn’t bump for the following issue. So it’s sort of in this limbo. I prefer either a movie parody is out right as the movie is hot or when the DVD is coming out, so it’s sort of in the zeitgeist. So this is a little bit more in the valley than is to my liking, but it’s Superman, and y’know everybody loves Superman.”

“Including Optimus Prime,” I chirp. Along with the depictions of Russell Crowe in costumes from his earlier movies, the Transformers cameo adds a deeper level of commentary to the parody. It’s not just usual MAD commentary on the inherent structural flaws in the movie’s storytelling (as with Costner’s Tornado death-scene on page 15). With the appearance Optimus, and Crowe’s costume changes, writer Desmond Devlin seems to be placing the entirety of popculture in his sights. “We can’t talk about a single popculture product,” Devlin seems to be saying in a Noam Chomsky-Marshall McLuhan kind of way, “without talking about the entire system that’s built and continues to produce popculture.”

The mention of the cameo by another scifi blockbuster hero, drawn in by “Man of Veal” artist Tom Richmond, earns a chuckle from John who continues, “Visually I love in the piece, and I think this was Des’s idea, but the changing of Russell Crowe’s costume, and (by implication) his character, and everything from all his different movies was just a nice visual, and all-time MAD touch.”

But beyond the meta-level commentary on the structure of the societal mechanisms and the industry that produces popculture, John’s comments on the timing of the Superman blockbuster parody points to a higher vantage point, a grander perspective — that the social machinery we often think of as engulfing us in increasing complexity, is itself subject to increasing complexity.

In an earlier interview, John and I discussed the rapidly decreasing half-life of summer blockbusters. By the time we were eagerly anticipating Man of Steel earlier this year, to take one example, Iron Man Three already felt dated, like something vintage from yesteryear. Not in any sense that its message was no longer relevant, but more that it was no longer immediately apparent. Chris Nolan’s imperfect magnum opus, Inception seems to have suffered from exactly this kind of frailty. It failed in the marketplace of ideas, not so much because it didn’t have the unique high concept to tangle with prior magnum opera like Terminator or Alien, but more because it was constructed around a date popcultural model–the grand scale scifi epic. These days, we’re being inundated with the kind of popcultural products that come with a built-in expiry date, not that far into the future.

We talk a little about exactly that near the end of the interview. About how MAD over the last decade really, has come into its own as almost a new kind of publication. In the past, it was easy enough to be able to simply point out inherent inconsistencies. 2001: A Space Odyssey didn’t consider the waiting time for the PanAm flight to the Moon, Star Trek IV: the Voyage Home didn’t risk Shatner’s career, because he had the fall back of TJ Hooker. But over the course of the last decade, more or less coincident with John taking the reins solo as Editor, it’s become increasingly clear that the kind of humor that can be found in the popcultural products is no longer relevant in the way that it was. Because the popcultural products themselves, are no longer relevant in the way they once were. Instead, MAD has begun targeting the vast complex adaptive system that produces those popcultural products.

I ask John if the Usual Gang of Idiots spends much time on the broader vista, if there’s much time spent on focusing on societal mechanics behind the manufacture of Dumb in the planning of each individual issue. The answer is a flat “No,” and a warm chuckle, a sigh, and then a confession. “We don’t give that, that much thought. We’re comedy first-responders, y’know? And we’re trying to get out with as much funny and satirical stuff as possible, to as many people as possible on any given day. And I wish we had great grand plans that you outlined, but it’s going by to fast. And we’re really just scrambling to keep up with this world. And I think that’s probably true of anybody who does comedy–they talk about 24/7 news cycles, there’s 24/7 comedy cycles where people in their basement are my competitors now. They have photoshop and they are putting out often some good stuff. A lotta crap, but often some good stuff too. And… so, we’re really just tap-dancing very quickly.”

That’s the game. Comedy as a kind of rescue, from a grand scale danger we cannot yet perceive. And the odds of an outbreak and the consequences of this grand, as yet imperceptible danger are piling up. It’s hard to go thru October and not remember the tragedy of Sandy around this time last year. The shock was personal, then social. First we felt for our loved ones in danger, then it hit us that we’re nowhere near prepared for the kind of danger Sandy represents, and nowhere near prepared, in terms of infrastructure, to reassert the kind of life we’ve once had. The idea that Sandy or something much like it, can rob us not only of human life, but of human lifestyle.

An true to the edict that everything now seems to now enjoy an ever-shortening popcultural half-life, October seems to hit as Apocalypse Season. Even the idea of a grand and convincing apocalypse, the kind imagined by those Doomsday Preppers who anticipated a global meltdown coinciding with the end of the Mayan Calendar, seems particularly dated. After Sandy, after Miyagi and Fukushima, after everything, more and more it’s beginning to feel like every once in a while, maybe every year around October, we’d need to face a full season of apocalypses, plural. That from now on, there’ll be devastating events each one with the potential to wipe out human lifestyle and dial us back to the Third World, and then back to the Stone Age. Maybe every October from now on, we’ll live thru a slew of micro-apocalypses, or we won’t.

And if anything that tentative, intimidating idea of a season full of apocalypses, is exactly the perfect metaphor for MAD in the 21st century. We’re comedy first-responders. There’s something dangerous about increasing complexity, and comedy is what’s needed. The complications arising from Dumb can break out at any minute, and MAD will be on the scene, with lifesaving comedy.

It’s hard for me not to think of Wally Wood, and his personal apocalypse, and the kind things Will Eisner and Frank Miller said about him in there novel-length discussion on comics, and Wood’s on groundbreaking work on MAD. But those memories are personal, and I don’t share John’s facility at making personal memories universally meaningful.

So instead of sharing in (participating in really), the legacy of MAD, for the moment I refocus on this month’s issue. And that means focusing on the cover feature, Duck Dynasty.

“Y’know I’m going to tell you something,” and there’s a confessional tone to John’s voice. Not conspiratorial though, and not broken down by time, but almost transcendent. Like for the first time stepping into a 500 year old Renaissance church in the Eternal City, the magnum opus of a forgotten master, that the Papacy had had boarded up since the early seventeenth century. “We wanted to do a Duck Dynasty cover and I sent it out to Des(mond Devlin) and a coupla other guys. And I said, ‘Do you have anything on Duck Dynasty, we don’t have time for a full parody.’ Plus, I like to do things other than full parodies just to mix it up a little bit. And Des, the next morning, I sent that email out at three o’clock in the afternoon. And the next morning Des sent me a thing, and he said, ‘What about the prayer at the end?’ And he sent me a coupla lines from it, and I said, ‘Oh my God, this is great!’ And the next day he delivered that, and I didn’t change a word of it. It was just an Editor’s dream in that it came in fast, it came in perfect. And the minute we saw it we realized Tom Bunk had to do the artwork because he’ll just…” and there’s a slight pause.

By now, the routine with John, pauses are punctuation. Pauses sometimes mean John is lost in that quintessential wonder that makes him so effective a comedian, and a leader of comedians. And with John thinking about the sheer skill of a comic artist like Tom Bunk, it’s little wonder, why John would be caught in a moment of wonder. He picks up again, “Y’know, Tom goes and pushes something off a cliff, and then he runs down to the bottom, and then he continues to push it after that in his artwork. And that’s what he did with the Duck Dynasty piece, there’s just so much going on in there. It’s just a visual feast to go with Des’s great script.”

We segue into speaking about X Files at this point. Not simply because X Files is now celebrating its twenty-first anniversary (remember the fanfare, legitimate fanfare around E.T.’s twentieth anniversary? It seems increased popcultural complexity is denuding even the idea of legacy). But because the heart of X Files is really in the same place as the heart of Duck Dynasty. Beyond the aliens and the government cover-ups and the pure weirdness of whatever Truths were Out There, X Files was really about posing a question of America. The same question Greil Marcus wrestled with in his Mystery Train; “…at its best it is an impulse to wholeness, an attempt not to deny diversity, or to hide from it, but to discover what it is that diverse people can authentically share.” At the heart of every episode of X Files it Mulder and Scully in their full East Coast, New England pomp and circumstance, traveling to some corner of the Flyover States and engaging in trust-building to win over the locals and construct at least the possibility of unifying culture for the nation. E. Pluribus. Unum. Like it it says on the doors to the country. For its own part, Duck Dynasty is no less about finding ways of speaking to the broader cultural mainstream of the country, from a localized perspective than X Files was 21 years ago.

John makes the point, “(Duck Dynasty’s) amazing. And we talked about this in the office. Years ago when reality TV first started–we do a thing in ‘(the) Fundalini (Pages)’ sometimes called ‘the Kitchen Sink,’ where we’ll take a premise and we’ll do 40, 50 lines about it–when reality TV first started, we did ‘Reality TV Shows We will Soon See.’ And we could have easily put Duck Dynasty in that, about a rich family who got rich making duck calls. And we can’t write that premise anymore, because we cannot go past where reality TV has gone. So it often makes the job here a lot harder because society seems to be continuing to unravel at a very good clip and continue being stupid at a very good clip. So it’s very hard for us to go past what’s happening in real life.

“I don’t know what the demographics are on Duck Dynasty. I know that it’s popular in New York but I would bet that it’s a lot more popular down south. I would bet that it’s a bigger Red State show than a Blue State show. But it certainly gets big enough numbers that it’s clearly a national phenomenon. There’s a heart to this show. And you sorta like the people and they seem to be pretty nice people. And I think that’s what people are responding to. On the other hand, Jersey Shore was very popular too, so I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about.”

That fearlessness, and that willingness to undermine his own point always strikes me as a unique form of comedic courage in John. And it returns me to, or at least it will once I write up this interview, the idea being a comedy first-responder. If there’s a rolling danger of Sandy-like outbreaks in the zeitgeist, what these conversations with John are, are a kind of how-to on surviving Apocalypse Season. And all the elements, pieces like Duck Dynasty and the Sad Tale of Wallace Wood, and John’s knack of opening the doors to his memory palace and having us all walk thru and somehow making us feel like it’s our own…all of these elements are the succor we each exactly needed, and didn’t even realize. And the Alfred as King Kong cover. I almost forget.

John tells the story of it best when I ask if there’s anything I’m leaving out. “This is the second issue that we’re offering that King Kong print for a two-year sub(scription). And for some reason that really struck a chord, and we were overwhelmed after the first issue with people wanting that King Kong print. So that must be a very popular cover among MAD readers. Or maybe it’s King Kong, that really touched a nerve. More so than some of the other prints we offered. It was an idea…” John cuts himself short to reboot his telling of the story behind the image.

“Y’know (erstwhile MAD Editor) Bill Gaines was a huge King Kong fan. And (erstwhile MAD Co-Editor, following on after Gaines) Nick Meglin used to draw these little cartoons for Bill and leave them on his desk. And knowing that he liked Kong, one day Nick drew that, and left it on Bill’s desk and then went out to lunch. And when he came back, Bill says, ‘We gotta make this a cover!’ And that’s how that cover came to be.” And there’s a slight downturn in John’s voice. Does he miss those old days when complexity hadn’t dug in the way it has now? Who can say. Everything changes, even the way MAD pokes fun at the way in which everything changes. Imagine a man, his back to you, walking off dark street into a brightly-lit theater on his way to see the latest blockbuster. There’s a heroic sensibility to the kind of path John’s walking now, and the path he’s chosen to steer MAD along.