Rick Meyerowitz’s ‘Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead’—A Graphics Bonanza

From Hitler to the My Lai massacre, National Lampoon magazine found humor in unlikely places


“If Ted Kennedy drove a Volkswagen, he’d be President today.”

Your reaction to that headline, accompanied by a deadpan photo of a floating Beetle, says much about your age, politics, and sense of decorum. This 1973 parody of a Volkswagen ad that touted the Bug’s buoyancy is lovingly reproduced in Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, an oversize tribute to National Lampoon magazine’s elaborately art-directed satires.

The fact that Teddy’s political career wasn’t completely ruined after he caused a young staffer’s death by driving his car off a bridge, in 1969, speaks volumes about the Kennedy family’s influence. The ad parody, on the other hand, makes you proud—sort of—to be an American. Had one satirized Hitler in such a fashion, the next stop would be Dachau. (Though Volkswagen—born of the Führer’s promise of a “people’s car”—did sue National Lampoon for unauthorized use of the VW logo.)

Launched in 1970, the Lampoon was soon notorious for its shocking (some might say tasteless) imagery, such as Kelly Freas’s 1971 cover painting of Lieutenant William Calley aping Alfred E. Neuman over the line “What, My Lai?” That Vietnam massacre was revisited in a 1973 article featuring Ron Barrett’s startling photo collages, “Wide World of Meat.” Similar to feminist artist Martha Rosler’s Vietnam-era cut-and-paste images of upscale American homes haunted by victims of military atrocities, Barrett juxtaposed a slab of meat garnished with olives against the villagers’ mangled bodies and the caption “Meat Lai thrills a hungry nation.” Such take-no-prisoners satire made these savvy marriages of text and image more indelible than the political actions of the ’70s fine-art world, as when sculptor Robert Morris closed down his Whitney exhibition to protest the bombing of Cambodia.

In Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, illustrator Alan Rose recalls that the Lampoon‘s stories were “visually driven,” the graphics allowing less educated readers (as opposed to the magazine’s white, mostly male Ivy League editors) to enjoy spoofs of such ancient texts as “The Code of Hammurabi.” Artist Randall Enos illustrated that Babylonian law code with slapstick drawings of the king chopping various appendages from hapless slaves and oxen rutting with temple prostitutes.

Elsewhere in the volume, author Rick Meyerowitz notes that, like Goya, the cartoonist Charles Rodrigues often “left the viewer unsettled.” And laughing: In a typically scabrous panel from 1986, one beefy babushka grouses to an even frumpier companion, “The Soviet Union has to be the worst Goddamn place in the world to be a transvestite!”

Lampoon-style humor has been swallowed whole and regurgitated by comedic mainstays from Saturday Night Live to South Park, but the original magazine’s graphics still pack a punch. Mara McAfee’s Norman Rockwell–inspired painting of newlyweds brawling across the cover of 1979’s “Heterosexuality” issue should convince even the most hysterical straights that if gays want marriage, by God, they can have it.

Underground Gallery: London Transport Posters, 1920s–1940s

Eye-catching graphics sprouted beneath London’s streets shortly after the First World War—modernist posters informing Tube passengers about museum shows in Piccadilly Circus and ducks frolicking in Kew Gardens. Edward Johnston’s bold, 1918 Underground logo of a red circle bisected by a horizontal blue bar has since withstood numerous variations, notably the hollow outlines employed by László Moholy-Nagy, an artist well known for his ghostly photograms.

Graham Sutherland’s 1938 painting of a bucolic scene materializing in a gray office includes a newspaper clipping cajoling commuters to “Go into the country now. Do not wait for Easter. It may be snowing.” The poster’s claustrophobic tone and surrealistic rending of space would be ratcheted to intense heights a few years later in the paintings of Sutherland’s close colleague, Francis Bacon.

The Blitz spawned terrific design, as Londoners navigated a city blacked-out against Nazi bombers. James Fitton’s luminous 1941 “Wear or Carry Something White” envisions pedestrians shrouded by a plum-colored night. Another admonishment from that same year couldn’t be more British: “When coming up from a brightly-lit below-ground station pause and let your eyes grow used to the gloom.”

The Museum of Modern Art, 11 W 53rd St, 212-708-9400. Through February 28, 2011