What, Me Digital?

Alfred 'Electronic' Newman? It's stark, raving, totally 'Mad'

For a Summer issue in 1971, MADmagazine artist Al Jaffee wrote a prescient satire of some creepy new machines called computers. In a strip anticipating cybersex, a guy goes to a computer dating service only to wind up with the homely receptionist. In a bit of e-commerce soothsaying, hungry elves freeze outside Santa's workshop window while a computer inside automatically packages and ships gifts.

But the most telling strip, in light of the recently released Totally MAD, a CD-ROM collection of the magazine's 46-year archive, is the one about the Acme Processing Company. It begins as a group of Acme lackeys watch schleppers wheel in a monolithic computer. In the next frame, the group stands in an unemployment line. While waiting, a commotion calls their attention to the hallway. In the final frame, we see that a computer has now replaced the unemployment staff too; they join the others in line.

Don't worry, MAD isn't going out of business yet. But as its ambitious CD-ROM set hits shelves, it seems the digital age has not been entirely kind to the magazine's self-ordained "gang of idiots," who are losing readers— and electronic rights. Preserving its history on disc brings a certain cachet but also the bittersweet loss of innocence that comes with the motherboard's cold, immortal kiss. As coeditor Nick Meglin says, "technology has helped MAD and technology has killed it."

The help, Meglin hopes, will come from the publicity and success of Totally MAD. Given the popularity of progeny like South Park, the Farrelly Brothers, and Howard Stern, the CD-ROMs couldn't come at a better time. Fans, collectors, or anyone who wants a scintillating pop roast of the past four decades will find Totally MAD made to order. The seven discs (currently only for Windows) contain every page of every issue published from its birth in 1952 until the end of last year. That means all the acerbic movie satires ("Star Blecch," "Henna and Her Sickos"), the Spy vs. Spy's, the scatological slapstick of Don Martin's elephant-nosed simps.

One thing that emerges from the collection is that MAD has long been futzing with multimedia publishing. For decades, the magazine came with stapled-in black plastic floppy 45s— like the intestinal ditty "It's a Gas"— all of which are now on the CD-ROM. (One single, "It's a Super Spectacular Day," is actually more interactive as a 45, because it was specially designed to play one of seven different endings depending on where the needle hit the groove.) Al Jaffee was doing his own version of point-and-click with his ingenious Fold-Ins. These last-page installments required readers to bend a page in thirds in order to see a hidden double image that answered one of Jaffee's conundrums. On the disc, you drag your cursor from Flap B to Flap A to find that, for example, an Alaskan creature extinct in 1990 was the Exxon Cleanup Worker.

Despite the charms, the CD-ROM also tells the story of what can happen when pulp goes digital. Al Jaffee, as it turns out, wasn't in the fold, financially, for the CD-ROM. Neither were any of the other work-for-hire freelancers. Back in 1952, there was no such thing as electronic rights, the elusive clauses that compensate artists and writers when their work is used online or on disc.

Even if there had been, it's unlikely that William Gaines, MAD's madly eccentric and thrifty founder, would have relinquished them. According to most accounts, Gaines was never one to have ties, business or otherwise (a glass case in the office kept a shirt and necktie for emergencies). Gaines decreed early on that the magazine would keep all targets in range by forsaking ads. As a result, the magazine relied heavily on publishing sales to stay afloat. Gaines insisted on complete ownership of all the artists' and writers' material to help foot the bills. After 317 issues, in March 1993, MAD finally changed its editorial policy, allowing contributors from there on out to retain rights to their work.

"Gaines took the position that if he owned everything he just didn't have to negotiate with everybody," says Jaffee. "[Gaines] absolutely hated to negotiate. When you went into his office, he had an expression on his face that spelled out a hard and fast rule: take it or leave it." Jaffee took it because he liked the lifestyle and artistic freedom the gig afforded.

But Jaffee says that if he were young today, in light of the Net, he'd fight for his electronic rights. Such a cause, however, isn't being taken up by the new generation of MAD contributors. Comic artist Peter Kuper, who has been handling the Spy vs. Spy duties since 1997, says he's usually pretty dogged about ownership, but not when it comes to MAD because, well, it's MAD: a mentor, a legend, a childhood friend.

Kuper didn't know whether or not his work appears on the disc (it does), but said he'd like his share if it makes millions (it could). MAD is far from the only publication that stiffs its contributors when reprinting its material online (the Voiceis no exception). Organizations like the National Writers Union have been fighting for equal pay when a writer's or artist's work is reproduced electronically, most notably in a 1993 case brought by the NWU against The New York Times— a suit the Timeseventually won. But MAD is unique because it's among the first to sell its entire archives in digital form (an ongoing CD-ROM archive series from National Geographic, released in 1997, beat MAD to the punch). At $69.95 a pop, with 100,000 sets of Totally MAD shipped, there's potentially a considerable amount of cash at stake. MAD won't disclose its royalty rate, but coeditor Nick Meglin says that the project was meant to generate publicity rather than direct revenues.

Paid archival content, however, has yet to be a moneymaking enterprise, says Seamus McAteer, an analyst at Jupiter Communications, a technology research firm. The National Geographic series, however, has consistently ranked in the top five among PC reference titles, according to a company spokeswoman. As a result, most publications have opted to put their back issues online for no charge as an added value to readers. Ironically, it's this very growth of free content online that Meglin says is cutting most deeply into MAD's bottom line by wooing the young audience. In its heyday 30 years ago, MAD's circulation hit the 2 million mark; these days, it's lucky to reach 500,000 (not a shabby number, but, since the magazine still has no ad revenue, not necessarily a healthy one). And the work ritual of MAD's small group of artists is made for a monthly, not a dynamic Web site, according to Meglin.

Still, sagging sales and even dubious e-publishing machinations will never affect MAD's generations of fans. Case in point: my first publication came with a letter I wrote to MAD in September 1981. I was a 12-year-old MAD fanatic— books, Mylar-sealed magazines, Alfred E. Neuman birthday cakes. When I opened the mailbox one morning and saw my letter in issue No. 225, it was like getting inscribed in the book of life. Now I'm on the CD-ROM, which feels like cryogenics. And the truth is, even if I deserved to get paid (which I don't), I probably wouldn't care. Because it's MAD.

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