Cramming 600-plus issues onto one DVD, Absolutely ‘Mad’ charts more than half a century of irreverence. The bastard offspring of titillating horror comics and a congressional witch hunt, Mad Magazine started out in 1952 as a 10-cent comic book that parodied its four-color brethren: “Starchie” exposed the shivs beneath those Riverdale letterman sweaters, “Superduperman” deflated superheroes, and “Mickey Rodent” cheerfully abandoned “Darnold Duck” behind zoo bars. In 1954, Mad‘s sister titles, such as Tales From the Crypt, were going great guns when publisher William M. Gaines testified before a Senate committee investigating the alleged link between comic books and juvenile delinquency. Arguing that a woman’s decapitation would be in bad taste only if the killer were drawn “holding the head a little higher so that the neck could be seen dripping blood,” Gaines became a poster boy for depravity, and his comics empire soon collapsed. In desperation, he turned Mad into a larger-format, black-and-white magazine that quickly struck a profitable nerve in the nascent baby boom.
It’s astonishing to see the 1954 Army– McCarthy hearings transformed into “What’s My Shine?”—a game show featuring Roy Cohn’s puckered lips whispering lasciviously into Senator McCarthy’s ear. Later in the decade, Madison Avenue’s machinations are unmasked with “Spot That Plug!,” hipping kids to product placement in their favorite TV shows. By the late ’60s and ’70s, youths forbidden to see Hollywood’s edgy new adult fare could revel in Mort Drucker’s dead-on caricatures in “Midnight Wowboy” or “Five Easy Pages (and Two Hard Ones).” In 1982, Time magazine’s hoariest tradition was lampooned with “Pac-Man of the Year,” while the ’90s represent with “World Communism Close-Out Sale” in the “Attention K. Marx Shoppers Dept.”
More than 40 years of Al Jaffee’s colorful fold-ins (begun in 1964, as a twist on Playboy‘s foldouts) prove an insightful archive of American politics and cultural foibles, although the disk could use a much nimbler search engine to pinpoint individual contributors amid the masthead’s “Usual Gang of Idiots” (and higher resolution for Sergio Aragonés’s tiny “Drawn-Out Dramas” in the margins).
If today’s Mad has been overtaken by its children (imagine Saturday Night Live or South Park without it), the editors continue to nail the zeitgeist with such post-9/11 bits as “What Is a Terrorist?” Answer: “A terrorist wouldn’t think twice about poisoning our air and water supply—like many American industries.”