The Sincerest Form of Parody

Review by KC Carlson

As many of you know, MAD Magazine didn’t start out being the bane of American institutions like the government, entertainment, and just plain stupidity that it’s known and loved for being today — itself becoming quite the “stupid” institution, as well as often holding the role of a child’s right of passage into snark and realization that not everything is what it appears to be.

MAD was first conceived in 1952 as a four-color comic book by editor/writer/artist Harvey Kurtzman (you’ve probably seen his name on comic awards — and for good reason) and publisher William M. Gaines. Gaines was best known at that time for his fan-favorite line of EC Comics. Their horror, crime, and even sci-fi and military titles were coming under fire by crazed government officials, psychiatrists, and parents in the 1950s. After all of the other EC Comics titles had been canceled (forced out by the creation of the Comics Code Authority and then blackballed by most distributors), MAD was the sole surviving EC publication. And for it to survive, it was decided to turn it into the magazine (therefore bypassing CCA restrictions) that we know and love today.

MAD (the comic book) ran for 23 issues before the format change in 1955. Here’s a couple of things about MAD that you might not know.

MAD-Fact #1: All of the early issues lost money. When it began, MAD was literally the first of its type — the first regular satire/parody comic book. According to John Benson’s informative (and detailed) essay that wraps up this volume, no one knew how to rack MAD on the comic racks. There was nothing else like it to set it next to. And it came out in a boom year for comic books; a whopping 643 different comics were issued in 1952 (a record never topped until the modern era), so it was bound to be lost in the shuffle. The only promotion it ever got was house ads in the other EC Comics titles.

MAD-Fact #2: Despite this, MAD quickly became a huge hit, and by 1954, it had spawned more than a dozen imitators, with names like Panic (also published by EC), Whack, Eh!, Crazy, Wild, Riot, Get Lost!, Nuts!, Madhouse, Bughouse, Flip, and Unsane (my favorite). None of them lasted more than seven issues. Several were one-and-done!

These wonderfully “unsane” comics are the basis of this new 208-page full-color softcover book, The Sincerest Form of Parody: The Best 1950s MAD-Inspired Satirical Comics. It’s edited by comics historian John Benson (Romance Without Tears, original EC Library: Mad), with a highly educational and entertaining 26-page “Notes” section (actually a long, illustrated essay), and a short introduction by underground legend Jay Lynch (Bijou Funnies, Wacky Packages). The rest is filled with wonderful selections of these early parody comics, by some of the best in the industry at the time.

MAD was primarily known for the work of its “main” artists: Kurtzman, Jack Davis, Wally Wood, John Severin, and the king of “chicken fat” art, Will Elder. Elder created the term in reference to soup production, as it “enhances the flavor of the soup”. In practice, it’s the addition of lots of background elements to a comic book story — funny background characters and business, gags, graffiti, and “sub-jokes” (as Kurtzman once described them). Elder was a master of the technique, and it became a regular component of the comic book parody format, as frequently seen throughout this book and absolutely inspired by Elder.

Since this work was all produced in an era before widespread exclusive contracts, a couple of the classic EC artists are also represented in The Sincerest Form of Parody, including Elder and Davis, as well as many other giants of the era — Jack Kirby, Joe Simon, Bill Everett, Norman Maurer, Carl Hubble, Dick Ayers, Al Hartley, Jay Disbrow, Howard Nostrand, Bob Powell, and the team of Ross Andru and Mike Esposito. There’s even a page by Archie artist Dan DeCarlo (although he signed it “Jock Brown”).

All of the stories included here were scanned directly from the comics, for that “authentic” pulp look. Yet the book is printed on high-quality, off-white, thick paper (so no bleed-through). It’s another in a long line of high-quality Fantagraphics productions.

Over 30 stories parodying then-current movies (From Here to Eternity), TV shows (What’s My Line), comic strips (Rex Morgan, M.D.), novels (I, the Jury), and even commercial products (Reingold Beer!) are represented, as well as several simply goofy humor stories. It’s the kind of book best read slow — maybe only a couple of stories a night — to savior the insanity. Although I know that these stories are probably the cream of the crop, I’m already ready for a Volume 2.

The Sincerest Form of Parody: The Best 1950s MAD-Inspired Satirical Comics is a wonderful book collecting the best stories of the beginnings of a favorite comic book genre — and I can’t emphasize this enough — it’s put together by people who know what they’re doing. Plus, it’s designed to fit on your bookshelf right next to your MAD Archives volumes.

I can’t believe that you haven’t already picked this up! Are you unsane?!? (The publisher provided a review copy.)

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One Response to “The Sincerest Form of Parody”

  1. Good Comics Out March 28: Death Finally Comes » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    [...] already reviewed The Sincerest Form of Parody (Fantagraphics, $24.99), an historical collection of MAD-inspired parody [...]

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