New exhibit looks back as a relaunched 'Mad' hits newsstands

The first issue of the relaunched Mad Magazine is on the newsstands, with mascot Alfred E. Neuman showing his gap-toothed smile and picking his nose with an outstretched middle finger.

Mad #1 is a renumbering of a publication that began as comic book in 1952 and has employed some of the greatest artists to ever work in comics.

If you want to begin to understand what Mad is, and why it has lasted so long, the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum has a new exhibit: “Artistically Mad: Seven Decades of Satire,” with an opening reception starting Saturday, May 5, at 4 p.m.

“When I was a kid reading Mad, it was so subversive,” said Brian Walker, the exhibit's curator. “They were basically telling me that television, movies and particularly advertising and politicians — that we were being lied to, that you can't believe everything you hear.”

He grew up in a cartooning family, the son of “Beetle Bailey” creator Mort Walker, and has been producing exhibits about comics for decades. Brian Walker also works on newspaper strips as part of the creative team behind “Beetle Bailey” and “Hi and Lois.”

He was born in 1952, and came of age when Mad was still in its ascendancy, with kids discreetly passing it around like contraband. The magazine was about as risque and crass as it could get away with, with many jokes that went beyond the comprehension of the predominantly young male audience.

“Everybody goes through a period in their life when they discover Mad,” Walker said. And, readers developed a connection with the Mad artists of their era.

Or at least that once was the case. Walker recalled a recent flight during which he was chatting with his seatmate, a man in his 20s. Walker said he was working on an exhibit about Mad, and the response was, essentially, “What's Mad?”

It's not at all shocking that younger generations don't know the magazine. The monthly circulation has gone the way of many print publications, and the very idea of mass media has faded.

Whether you grew up with Mad, or never heard of it, the exhibit shows why the magazine has had an outsized effect on comics and the broader culture.

Mad had a roster of artists that could serve as its own hall of fame for cartooning. Some only worked there briefly, including greats such as Russ Heath and Basil Wolverton. But Mad also had a timeless quality because some artists went on for decades, such as Jack Davis, Mort Drucker, Will Elder, Al Jaffee, and a man who will be at the opening reception, Sergio Aragones.

Each of those artists will be represented at the Billy Ireland show, along with the granddaddy of Mad, and someone who helped shape the craft of comics as an art form, Harvey Kurtzman. He was the magazine's first editor and main writer, and the artist of most of the early covers.

Among the treasures in the show is a preliminary sketch by Kurtzman of what would become the cover of Mad #1, a piece that was loaned by a private collector.

Kurtzman, working for publisher William Gaines, was editor for Mad's first few years, beginning as a comic book and then switching to magazine size in 1955. It was a financial success for Gaines' company, EC Comics, at a time when its horror, war and sci-fi comics were getting canceled because of censorship and a shifting market.

Then Kurtzman abruptly left the magazine, and somehow things didn't fall apart. His successor, starting in 1956, was Al Feldstein, who would edit Mad for decades, including its commercial peak in the 1970s, when each issue was selling more than 2 million copies.

One of the striking things about the relaunched Mad is how many subtle nods it makes to its past. To start, the new logo uses sans serif lettering inspired by the initial logo from 1952. This replaces a logo that has been around, with only minor changes, for my whole life and then some.

The nose-picking middle finger on the cover is almost certainly a winking callback to an infamous 1974 cover in which Neuman was absent and the only art was a painting of a hand giving the finger.

In recent years, cartoonist Tom Richmond has become the magazine's leading artist on movie and television parodies, including a story in the current issue poking fun at “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” He also designed the exhibit poster for the Billy Ireland.

While most of his work for Mad is on interior stories, he also has done two covers, and seems to have a good handle on Mr. Neuman.

“He's an idiot, but he's not necessarily dumb,” Richmond said. “He kind of goes to the beat of a different drum, so there's a certain wisdom to Alfred.”

The relaunch of Mad follows some behind-the-scenes changes. The magazine's editorial offices moved from New York to Burbank, California, to be closer to their corporate parents at DC Entertainment. Also, a new editor is in charge: Bill Morrison, a comics artist and writer who was co-founder of Bongo Comics, a company that publishes stories based on “The Simpsons” and related characters.

Visitors to the Saturday reception can meet Morrison, along with Aragones, Walker and several of the collectors who are loaning their work.

Those collectors are the reason that much of this artwork survived, often scooped up for ridiculously low prices at a time when there was little appreciation of comics art.

“It's been a long, slow process of getting the word out about cartoon art and having people see it in museums,” Walker said.

But don't worry. There is little danger of Alfred E. Neuman getting civilized.