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"CURB YOUR MORTAL!"
I came to MAD with issue #14: Aug. 54, with Mona Lisa on the cover, a copy of MAD pressed against her bodice. Immediately I was hooked; I was a MADdict. It appealed to my impish sense of humor primed by such cathode comics as Ernie Kovacs, Sid Caesar and Fred Allen then seized and enriched it. I felt like someone who had been humming a few bars of a beguiling, mysterious melody and found someone who had turned it into a symphony. I not only bought every new MAD as it hit my local newsstand, I ordered back issues from the E.C. offices at 225 Lafayette Street. I also sent for "The Complete E.C. Checklist," a mimeographed collation of story titles and artists for every E.C. comic. (Its author, Fred von Bernewitz, later had a bustling career as an editor of TV commercials, documentaries and low-budget films, including six early comedies by Robert Downey, Sr.)
By the time MAD "graduated" from comic book to magazine, I had my nearly complete stash. But I can't say I understood everything in those sacred texts. I realized that "Melvin" (as in the Tarzan parody "Melvin of the Apes!") was a funny name, because Jerry Lewis was often called it. On other MAD arcana, though, I was so ignorant I didn't even know I was ignorant. "Potrzebie," which I pronounced as "potters-by," is actually a Polish word ("po-TREBZ-yeh") meaning desired. The Corliss family was Yiddish-deprived, so "Ganefs!", the title of one early story, meant nothing to me. As for "furshlugginer," one of Kurtzman's mantras, I innocently pronounced it "FURSH-la-JINE-er" (to rhyme, more or less, with "smersh vagina"). I must have been 30 before I learned the word was Yiddish for wacky, and was pronounced, more or less, "fish-LOOG-in-ah."
This is kid-cult stuff the verbal equivalent of secret passwords, Masonic handshakes and Captain Midnight decoder badges. It just happens that my boyhood fad was a great and penetrating magazine. The silent film pioneer D.W. Griffith had said his mission was "to make you see." Kurtzman's mission was to teach kids to look: look closely, with wonder and skepticism, at the world around them; and look closely at MAD. The typical MAD panel was as dense as a Hieronymous Bosch dreamscape, magnificently cluttered, recklessly generous with jokes, as if Kurtzman thought he'd never run out of them. Because of him, we read everything more closely, with a jaundiced eye, searching for hidden idiocies, subtle contradictions. We passed Kurtzman's course. Mission accomplished.
The full MAD parody-panoply is on display in "Mickey Rodent!", the Kurtzman-Elder Disney demolition that is reprinted in the collection "Mad About the Fifties." Strolling in the foreground of the opening panel is Mickey himself, with a four-day stubble on his face and a snapped mouse trap on his snout; his left arm has a TV screen, smashed in the middle, with "Howdy Dooit" sunrays visible. (That's an inside joke: in a previous issue, parodying "Howdy Doody," Mickey was seen at the edge of the opening panel, grasping and shouting, "That's MY sunray from MY movies behind his head and I wannit back!") Around him a melodrama unfolds: Horace Horszneck is being dragged off to jail "for appearing without his white gloves." The animal chorus behind him clucks, moos and barks their annoyance with "Walt Dizzy's" rule about wearing white gloves at all times... "In this hot weather too!" "And it's so hard to buy those furshlugginer three-fingered kinds!"
At the edges of this frame and throughout the seven pages of "Mickey Rodent!" are snapshots of a world where mice evolved from men. We see a dog in a jacket holding a tiny crouching blond boy on a leash; more naked humans in a pet shops; a circus poster for "Fritz the Boy-faced Dog"; signs reading "Curb Your Mortal!" and "Beware of Human!"; a movie marquee showing the feature "3 Ducks in the Fountain"; more signs, one urging bloodhounds to "become a donor" (actually, "donner" spelling was never E.C.'s forte), another advising rabbits to take a correspondence course and "learn to subtract"; and a clothing store with a sale on cow slips, horse collars, turtle-neck sweaters, alligator shoes, cats pajamas, monkey suits and dogs pants.
The story worms its way into the Disney logic, then makes a shambles of it. Why does Darnold Duck (Donald) wear a sailor jacket but no pants? Why must Pluted Pup (Pluto) remain mute, when all the other animals speak? (For that matter, why does a mouse have a pet dog?) Then there's Mickey's girlfriend Minny Rodent a congeries of unsettling contradictions. As Darnold muses: "Somehow ... the idea of a mouse, with lipstick and eyelashes and a dress with high-heeled shoes; a mouse, ten times bigger than the biggest rat ... this idea has always made me sick!"
Art Spiegelman, creator of "Maus" and erstwhile contributor to The New Yorker, has called Kurtzman "the single most significant influence on a couple of generations of comics artists." No question that the underground comix artists of the 60s were suckled on, and took inspiration from, his rude and capacious world-view. Some of Kurtzman's own artists expanded into darker territory. In Wally Wood's lushly scabrous "Disneyland Memorial Orgy," a 1967 parody that ran in Realist magazine, Walt's creatures behaved exactly as barnyard and woodland denizens might. Beneath dollar-sign searchlights radiating from the Magic Kingdom's castle, Goofy had his way with Minnie, Dumbo the flying elephant dumped on Donald Duck, the Seven Dwarfs besmirched Snow White en masse, and Tinker Bell performed a striptease for Peter Pan and Jiminy Cricket. Mickey slouched off to one side, shooting heroin.
Those who had grown up with Kurtzman's MAD surely looked at this wonderfully obscene fresco and thought, "We were there at the beginning." In the beginning there was Harvey. And we, his children, simply by being his disciples and spreading the word, had became the first generation of kids to validate and popularize a comedy genius. I consider myself well, warped, of course, by reading MAD but mainly incredible enriched. Even if I never get a penny from my old MAD books.
And Mom, I forgive you.
COMING SOON: The Church of Harvey