There were several moments in my life that violently shook me to the fact that I probably needed to grow up. That awful 1970s puberty video they made us watch in year 7, the day Whitcoulls Botany got rid of the volcano tunnel on the second floor – and the kicker that came to me at age 21; that MAD Magazine was to cease new publications. At once, I felt like Tom of 500 Days of Summer, flicking back through memories and wondering what the hell went wrong.
MAD Magazine was a breath of fresh air in what was to me, a rather stodgy and pretentious magazine market. Potty humour, Austin Powers-esque innuendo, pop culture lampoons and shameless political satire had stamped this magazine’s cheeky persona into pop culture history since 1952.
The magazine was read by the likes of Jimi Hendrix and generations of teenagers wanting to make sense of the world in a crass, transgressive, mischievous way. MAD was a mix of political cartoons, mock listicles, celebrity interviews and comics. From King Arthur to Donald Trump, no stone was left unturned. Alfred E Neuman, the magazine mascot with his red hair, gap-toothed smile, freckles and lopsided ears was the dark Tintin. This was journalism, baby! But not as we knew it!
My introduction to MAD was from my older brother who collected them for the Spy vs Spy comics and the distinct illustration style of the regular contributors. Grotesque and politically incorrect, I think the magazine had a role in making those who might not otherwise be political, able to question consumerist trends and political leaders. My brother’s MAD collection from the mid 2000s was a time capsule of the decadence, vacuous famous-for-being-famous celebrities, the dawn of reality television and foretold what can be the gatekeeping and condescending attitudes of niche communities and fandoms. The cherries on top of this pie were the lampoons of George W Bush and the kind of rabid incarnation of American imperialism re-emerging at the time.
Why are we going to war? Why is it inevitable that we would win? Must we accept leaders in our media, our politics when we are told to? All were questions raised by the magazine at this time and rightfully so. In other words, had this publication been made in another nation, it’s the type that would attract a ban, curfew and sedition charges. Which made it all the more appealing. MAD became a delicious tamizdat*, but to quote Avatar the Last Airbender, ‘when the world needed [it] the most, [it] vanished’.
Cracks in the façade started to show when a few months ago, MAD had undergone a rebrand. The sheriff style typeface in the covers had changed to a more modern comic style. Perhaps the sheriff of this media conglomerate world was retiring? Or had run out of energy to rein in the world. Social media had made independent comics accessible and mere commentary wasn’t cutting it anymore. To survive in an algorithm dominated social media, you either need money to be sponsored or have a sponsor or be able to truly shock and incite global reaction. Memes, Twitter screenshots and bombastic or overly sexual figures had filled the world of the cheeky or political.
MAD’s demise may seem like another grave in the magazine industry but like any grave, desecrated or forgotten, new demons come to the forefront.
Though the world of social media seems to have filled many a gap left by departed mags, one crucial role has not been replaced as it should be. This is the role of an independent, non-partisan source of political criticism. Our current exposure through this is through memes and sites as say, The Onion. These are fleeting. In the case of memes and news sources, algorithms and an inclination towards echochambers have prevented a humourous intermediary. As such, a political divide is encouraged and views can become more polarizing and frustrating.
The violent and angry masculine groups and personas that MAD have criticised are taking a page out of the magazine’s appeal. Humour and visual appeal have been tactics of the alt-right to attract sympathisers on the guise of being edgy and hilarious. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Unfortunately, honey with discriminatory frames seems to be the flavour of this political cycle. Information and relentless negative views have become the vinegar. It’s high time for optimism and humour in the media. For if we are too late, this dream of laughter may very well be exploited by dreams of violence.
Growing doesn’t necessarily mean moving on without nostalgic treasures or accepting the depressing realities of the media world. It also means having maturity to recognise the changing nature of the world and to not accept the stupidity of the world as inevitable. Ironically, it was the world’s most immature magazine that showed me that. And with hope, the many generations who grew up with MAD too.
*Banned and smuggled media in the time of the USSR.