Gaines No Longer

For the better part of my childhood I liberally used Yiddish insults and similar phrases in everyday speech. You know, terms such as “schmuck,” “putz,” “schmendrick” and “chutzpah.”

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To this day I use the initials “FEH” when I log a video game high score.
Image credit: Ian Westcott

I grew up in the 2T and knew a grand total of zero Jews during my childhood. How the the hell did I pick this habit up?

Why, Mad magazine of course.

Today it’s a mere shadow of its former self, and that’s being generous. But in the 80s Mad was a brilliant review of satire, parody and social commentary. It has a lot to do with forming what became my adult sensibilities. For decades, Mad was run by a certain William M. “Bill” Gaines. Although notoriously eccentric, Gaines was also one of the foremost anti-censorship crusaders of the latter 20th Century.

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In other words, my kind of guy.
Image credit: Fred Seibert

Gaines’ father, Max, was a pioneer in the comic book industry, who among other things was responsible for introducing the first female superhero: Wonder Woman. Bill Gaines became head of EC Comics in 1947 when his father was killed in a boating accident.

Although the comic book industry in general – and EC Comics in particular – were targeted for “indecency” in the 1950s, Gaines maintained an uncompromising anti-censorship stance despite vilification by government authorities and massive financial losses. By 1955, Mad was EC’s only remaining publication, censorship having effectively snuffed out all of its other titles. Gaines re-classified the publication as a magazine to circumvent the then-new and notoriously stodgy Comics Code Authority, which de facto censored comic books in the United States until quite recently.

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Among other things, the CCA banned depictions of werewolves and vampires.

From that point on and well into the 80s, Mad was noted for its eclectic staff of writers and illustrators, collectively known as “the usual gang of idiots.” Gaines allowed his staff an artistic freedom unusual at the time, which in turn led to each regular contributor developing his own distinctive style. Perhaps the best-known of the “idiots” was Don Martin. He was definitely my favorite, anyway.

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Martin ranks among the true masters of onomatopoeia.
Image credit: Iburiedpaul

Unfortunately, Martin was extremely touchy about copyright issues, as in “worse than Prince about it.” This rubbed Gaines the wrong way, and the two acrimoniously parted company in 1987 after a long-simmering dispute. Even today – over a decade after his death – Martin’s work is conspicuously absent from Mad retrospectives.

Mad was never quite the same after Martin left, but it really started going downhill after Gaines died in 1992. Today the magazine is printed on glossy paper and features ads, both things Gaines strenuously resisted during his time at the helm. It doesn’t help that most of classic “usual gang of idiots” lineup has passed on as well, with only the timeless Al Jaffee and the extremely prolific Sergio Aragones still making regular contributions.

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Amazingly, the 92-year-old Jaffee still cartoons the iconic “Fold-In” every month.
Image credit: Luigi Novi

I came across a new issue of Mad at the library the other day. It’s just not as funny anymore. And I didn’t see a single Yiddish insult anywhere. How are kids in today’s Idaho going to appreciate the power of schmucks?

IMPORTANT PROGRAMMING NOTE: After months of speculation, I’ve decided to end Sunday SB posts. This will be the last one. Among other things I feel my writing has become quite stale recently. Besides, I could use a day off now and again. But fear not, SB will continue to post new content the other six days of the week. You’re welcome.

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