Johnny Sampson
Johnny Sampson Credit: Kristan Lieb

Johnny Sampson does not draw superheroes, but he does have an origin. His origin story, self-published in a beautifully designed, humorous, autobiographical mini-comic, tells the tale of how he became a cartoonist—and came to paint the MAD magazine Fold-In.

In Tru-ly MAD-ly, the Chicago illustrator gets an assignment in 2013 from the editors of Pitchfork’s new magazine, The Pitchfork Review, to duplicate MAD‘s secret weapon: the Fold-In, an intricately designed transformer painting invented by MAD‘s scientist of cartooning, Al Jaffee. Our hero creates a joke in which handlebar-mustached cosplaying hipsters engage in anachronistic Victorian-era leisure. When the page is folded it reveals a hidden image of Jaffee himself, sitting on a toilet holding the most anachronistic leisure item of all: a print periodical!

Like most irreverent nerds, Sampson grew up worshipping MAD, so he sends a copy to Jaffee, along with a gushing fan letter. Months later he receives an envelope with familiar handwriting.

“Couldna done better myself,” Jaffee writes. “In fact, I think you should consider doing this more often. What I mean is, I’m in my nineties and Mad will need someone to continue the feature. If you are in any way interested I’ll introduce you to the editorial staff.”

Stunned, the illustrator writes back and the friendly legend keeps his promise. Visiting New York, he meets with MAD‘s art director, Sam Viviano, who assures him that the spry Jaffee is not near retirement, but he is invited to submit cartoons. He then journeys to Jaffee’s lair to meet his hero. Jaffee reveals his own origin, shares his secrets, and tells his new friend, “You and I are kindred spirits.” At that point the 40-year-old comics virgin, who up until then had devoted his talents to storyboards, gig posters, and illustrations, realizes his life has changed. He soon is doing gag panels for MAD, comics for Vice, and a recurring strip for The Stranger. He becomes Johnny Sampson . . . cartoonist!

Sampson was born in 1974 in Atlanta, Georgia, and in 1980 his family moved to Wildwood, Illinois, a north suburb near the Gurnee Mills mall, where he worked while in high school. He attended University of Illinois in Champaign, earning a BFA in painting. He returned to Chicago, intent on pursuing a fine arts career, but when a roommate studying film at Columbia asked him to create storyboards, Sampson found the process fit his skill set, and that creating art that was functional and appreciated was gratifying. In 2001 his then-girlfriend and he moved to California, where Johnny hustled storyboarding gigs through Craigslist.

Never making significant industry connections, Samson and his now-wife returned to Chicago in 2006, and he soon found storyboarding for advertising was a much better fit, in part because instead of “shooting boards,” advertisers need “pitch boards” to sell concepts to clients, thus Sampson’s clean-lined, retro-cartoon style was more valued. But mainly he liked the money. “The firm handled the Wrigley accounts,” he recalls, “so I was doing tons of storyboards for gum commercials and it was magical. I was also doing gig posters for bands who had no budget, but it’s fine ’cause I just got 1,200 bucks for drawing eight panels. But then, when the financial crisis hit, it all just disappeared.”

Sampson comes from a musical family—his dad played bluegrass and his older brother Dave is a professional guitarist, playing with Charles Earland and Lauryn Hill, and is currently a member of Chicago actor/musician/Masked Dancer host Craig Robinson’s band Nasty Delicious. Johnny played and recorded in 90s bands Lunkhead and Pistolero. He credits some of his art’s aesthetics to the DIY vibe of garage rock, early country, and rockabilly, and his artistic style draws heavily upon pop-culture imagery.

His relationship with music got him into the screen-printed gig poster scene. He started working with Steve Walters at Screwball Press, and in 2011 joined the studio space/gallery Rational Park. That year he also created a non-band poster that unlocked his potential as a cartoonist. “Chicago – A Love Story,” an illustrated laundry list of gripes about potholes, Cubs fans, and dibs, is a classic of Chicago underground comics, even if Sampson did not recognize it as a comic at the time.

For someone who is so good at cartooning and now makes mini-comics himself, it is amazing how remote Sampson’s relationship with comics and zines has been historically. As a punk teen he created humorous flyers for his band, but didn’t read or make zines. He recalls visiting spectacular comics shops in Los Angeles and just not being interested in the publications. But there has been one exception.

“As a youth,” he says, “I remember seeing my brother’s MAD magazines, seeing my first Fold-In, and just really reacting to the artwork, it had a real visceral impact on me. It was about women in the military . . . all these masculine soldiers, they’re sweating, soldiers being soldiers. Then when you fold it in, the shape of the helmets and the shoulders and stuff turned into a woman’s rear end and her legs, and I couldn’t articulate it at the time, but the contrast between the two scenes was really like . . . Whoa!”

That “whoa” is why meeting Jaffee was life changing. Sampson had been piecing together freelance work (including a few covers for the Reader several owners ago), but his focus on being a professional creator intensified. Starting in 2016 he began self-publishing, and his gag panels began appearing in MAD. The story Sampson told in Tru-ly MAD-ly was accurate, but Jaffee did not have the authority to assign his successor. Still, this unbelievable dream seemed possible, especially when MAD‘s editor, Bill Morrison, told him he was in line to take the position. “A line of one.”

Al Jaffee and Johnny Sampson
Al Jaffee and Johnny SampsonCredit: courtesy Johnny Sampson

Al Jaffee turns 100 next Sunday. He retired only last year, four years after Guinness World Records recognized his achieving the “longest career as a comics artist.” Young Jaffee relied on the funnies to get him through a complicated childhood (family drama led to a series of jarring migrations between his native America and Lithuania). Settling in New York, his comics obsession paid off when he tested into the inaugural 1936 class of the LaGuardia School of Music and Art, where he met future MAD creator Harvey Kurtzman and bonded with cartoonist Will Elder. In 1942 Jaffee went pro, writing and drawing funny animal comics for Stan Lee. Between 1944 and 1956 he created more than 500 stories featuring Patsy Walker, a redheaded teen a la Betty and Veronica. Though his kiddie comics were good, Jaffee’s gifts would not shine until he joined the pages of Kurtzman’s cultural colossus.

MAD‘s birth was the culmination of a series of triumphs and tragedies that defined the industry. Max Gaines invented comic books in 1933, and a decade later sold his stake in Superman‘s publisher. He founded EC (Educational Comics), publisher of Picture Stories From the Bible. In 1947 Gaines died in a boating accident and his son William took over, changed the “E” to “Entertaining,” and created spectacular horror, sci-fi, and war comics that combined gallows humor, O. Henry-style twists, and riveting artwork. Gaines and Al Feldstein scripted nearly all the tales of crypts, fear, and weird science, with the exception of Kurtzman’s war comics. A quixotic perfectionist, Kurtzman scripted each story, exactingly composed every panel, and laboriously researched weapons and uniforms. These processes made his work financially unrewarding, so Gaines offered him a humor title requiring less research.

Kurtzman created MAD, a comic book that satirized shows, movies, politicians (most scathingly Joseph McCarthy), and comics. It was an instant sensation thanks to Kurtzman’s Borscht Belt silliness/cynicism, Elder’s manic ten-jokes-per-square-inch art, and Wally Wood’s seductive draftsmanship. Kurtzman’s sprinklings of faux-Yiddish made the magazine seem naughty and low. While MAD‘s subsequent reputation as the Big Bang of subversive satire is an exaggeration (wasn’t every court jester irreverent?), its influence was monumental. Because it targeted adolescents, for a significant portion of the 20th century, MAD was many moldable minds’ first exposure to institutions being mocked. Those minds went on to make underground comics, National Lampoon, Saturday Night Live, The Onion, The Daily Show, and so much more.

The 50s being the 50s, congressional hearings were held to see if comics corrupted kids, and EC being EC (a company that once published a story in which a murdered baseball player’s teammates avenged him by playing a game with his murderer’s entrails as baselines), Gaines testified that ax decapitation could be tasteful. The industry imposed a code which put EC’s comics out to pasture, but Kurtzman converted MAD to a magazine outside of code restrictions, which flourished. After unsuccessfully demanding a controlling ownership share, Kurtzman left MAD.

Just before Kurtzman departed Jaffee entered the fold (the only artist to work for every editor). He did ad parodies and visual gags, specializing in convincingly-diagrammed absurdist gadgets. But his greatest innovation premiered in the June 1964 issue. His low budget riff on Playboy‘s centerfolds and National Geographic‘s fold-out maps was the Fold-In, origami alchemy in which a lush painted page, when folded in on itself at prescribed points, reveals a hidden visual punchline. 1968’s “What Source Of Explosive Energy Has The United States Developed” shows a nuclear blast decimating a city, which folds into a Black Power fist. 1975’s “Where Has The Most Shocking Rise In Crime Taken Place” shows a mugging in front of a storefront, but when folded the architecture transmogrifies into a corrupt police officer. The Fold-In became one of MAD‘s signatures (good luck finding unmangled back issues) and proved fairly inimitable, as its originality felt proprietary and its complexity was difficult to duplicate. It also contained spectacular art beyond clever design. Because the unfolded page often featured an array of small figures, densely arranged to disappear upon folding, comics scholar Kerry Stoper astutely compares these to fantastic Hieronymus Bosch panels.

Thanks to the work of Jaffee and his peers, MAD hit its highest paid circulation in 1974, averaging 2.4 million copies. The September 1973 issue, parodying The Poseidon Adventure (“Poopsidedown Adventure”) sold 2.8 million. Because of its schoolyard/contraband nature, the pass along rate was as high as ten million. According to Paul Levitz, who oversaw MAD following Gaines’s death in 1992, in the years surrounding its heyday MAD had the highest pay rate for comics/humor in the industry (by a factor of ten times, or greater), with the exception of Playboy, which offered comparable rates. This compensation translated into quality, as brilliant draftsmen like caricaturist Mort Drucker, hinged-foot cartoonist Don Martin, prolific pantomimist Sergio Aragonés, and Jaffee remained loyal contributors (all were freelancers, none owning the rights to their work, making reprints cost effective). As further motivation, contributors (self-owned in the masthead as “The Usual Gang of Idiots”) who reached annual page goals were invited on grand, debauched trips to foreign lands.

But this is not the MAD magazine that welcomed Sampson. Factors affecting all print publications led to a decrease in circulation and influence, and by the mid-90s, when the MAD-inspired Simpsons ruled the irreverence roost, circulation was around 300,000. When Johnny visited the New York office two decades later, he was one of the last creators entering its doors. While MAD maintained healthy subscription numbers for a 21st-century periodical, it was a demographic disaster. According to Bill Morrison, the Simpsons Comics veteran who was hired to help move MAD to Burbank in 2017 and bring in younger, more diverse creators, editors, and readers, “MAD was being bought and read by white male boys 11 to 16. Then there was a sharp cutoff when most boys discover girls. It picked up at about age 45 to 60, again with white males either having a nostalgic fondness or wanting to make sure they got every issue.” Some inroads were made with new readers during Morrison’s brief reign, but AT&T’s 2018 acquisition of WarnerMedia (Gaines sold the company in the early 60s, merging EC with Warner Brothers and DC Comics) led to a series of alarming cost-cutting measures, with more than one third of DC’s editorial positions eliminated by 2020. Morrison left in early 2019, and in June a MAD Facebook group leaked that the magazine would stop soliciting new material, fulfilling subscriptions by producing issues featuring primarily reprints (Jaffee, Aragonés, and, surprisingly, Sampson would provide a few pages of new material). In July, traditional and social media picked up the story and ran obituaries for the magazine that, while premature, were not greatly exaggerated. By the end of 2020 MAD‘s bare-bones editorial team featured only Suzy Hutchinson, ostensibly the art director but now heroically handling almost everything, and Bern Mendoza, the assistant art editor responsible for laying out the issues. According to the last published circulation statement, the Fall 2020 issue sold 82,881 copies.

“They’re a reprint machine now,” explains Judith Yaross Lee, who with John Bird edited Seeing MAD, a massive collection of scholarly MAD-themed essays. “Someone has decided there’s a better return on their investment to recycle old wine in new bottles.” The reprint issues have featured themes, and unfortunately some of the themes have been farewells. In the case of Aragonés, whose recent “MAD Look At . . .” features demonstrate he is still a vital cartoonist, this is due to budget cuts (though not promoted as his last issue, Aragonés drew himself dragging his possessions out of MAD‘s office with a sad, stunned expression). In the case of Jaffee it was a legitimate retirement, as the still mentally sharp humorist, as should be expected, had 99-year-old problems.

“Long ago, probably when Johnny was an infant, we had a conversation about if Al ever gives up the Fold-In, who would take it,” Viviano recalls. “I tended to be of the opinion that Al created it, had done every single one for over 50 years, when he retires it should be folded, but that’s not the MAD way. When Antonio Prohías retired they didn’t retire Spy vs. Spy. But to put it into Johnny’s hands . . . I don’t know that there’s anybody who would be more capable.”

Sampson officially took over in the October 2020 issue. He had previously done a social media Fold-In for Jaffee’s birthday, and an unofficial one earlier that year (featuring a tiny Al-endorsement). Taking over his mentor’s feature was not only a zine come true, it reflected Sampson’s unique place in the Usual Gang of Idiots. Although he only published three comics in the New York run of MAD, many consider that meaningful. “He was one of these few guys who actually made the transition from New York to Burbank,” recalls Doug Gilford, who runs the Mad Cover Site. “That’s important to me because there’s such a separation between the two editorial styles, and he bridged those quite well.” It also seems that alter kockers like Al and Sam (who co-nominated Sampson for the National Cartoonists Society) saw him as an old soul, a stand-up guy with a portfolio of solid, non-digital work—plus, his garage rock-style thick glasses and vintage coif make him look like a 1950s MAD artist.

Sampson's Fold-In art featured in <i>MAD</i> Vol. 2 #15
Sampson’s Fold-In art featured in MAD Vol. 2 #15Credit: Kristan Lieb
Fold-In art with final line art used for transferring to illustration board, <i>MAD</i> Vol. 2 #16
Fold-In art with final line art used for transferring to illustration board, MAD Vol. 2 #16Credit: Kristan Lieb

As this goes to press, Sampson was working on his own deadline for the new Fold-In. The first step is developing ideas, which he submits with thumbnail sketches to his editor. “What I love about working with Johnny,” Hutchinson says, “is that he is a great comic writer as well. The MAD editors would usually only need to give him the theme of the issue or a topic we’d like to cover, and he runs with it. This was really like the editorial process when we worked with Mr. Jaffee.” The theme of the next issue is “MAD Predicts the Future,” and in a glimmer of optimism, Sampson received guidance to lean away from predicting MAD‘s doom. After approval he folds a piece of paper to draw the final image, then unfolds to work backward on the full picture. He revises the design using a light table, then makes a color mock-up in Photoshop. The linework is printed out on 11″ x 17″ sheets, then transferred to a 17″ x 17″ artboard using carbon paper. He then executes the painting in gouache.

This will be Sampson’s fifth official Fold-In, and each has been a triumph, impressing even the most important critic: “His Fold-Ins are very attractive,” Jaffee commented via e-mail. “The imagery is very good. Any cartoon or illustration is going to reflect the personality of the cartoonist. Sampson has the opportunity to put his imprimatur on the Fold-In.” But despite the recognition from his peers, he receives little feedback. MAD has dropped their letters page and online presence, and because the Fold-In is only magical when actually folded, when Sampson posts on social media it earns light response. He is grateful to have steady work during a pandemic, and is well aware of the gig’s historical magnitude. But his pride is tempered by reality.

“You know, it feels real, but it also feels like I just got in at the tail end of it, again,” Sampson says. “When I was at the ad agencies it was like Mad Men, all these people running around, making commercials, it was like, go, go, go, and then it’s just like, gone. Even doing stuff with the Reader was like, this is great, I’m doing cover illustrations. Then things change and it’s gone. I get these achievements. Then it’s just these massive disappointments. This has been no different.”

“I think he would have been one of those members of the Usual Gang of Idiots who became part of the MAD DNA,” veteran MAD caricaturist Tom Richmond muses. “Johnny was headed that way when the wheels fell off, he really got shortchanged.”

With MAD no longer soliciting non-Sampson material, its idle creatives got, well, creative. Richmond and MAD writer Desmond Devlin successfully crowdfunded Claptrap, a hardcover collection of parodies of films MAD missed since their new material moratorium (“Star Worse – Plagiarizing Skywalker”). Cartoonist Andrew Goldfarb, who joined the idiot gang months before the well went dry, launched a MAD-style zine Freaky, publishing a half dozen former MAD contributors so far (Sampson’s in an upcoming issue). Freaky features a Fold-In inspired See-Thru. Michael Gerber, a humor magazine veteran who publishes MAD talent in his American Bystander, is developing a MAD-inspired magazine with Bill Morrison that will feature an army of ex-idiots, and could launch as early as fall 2021.

Upon learning of MAD‘s situation in 2019 Gerber assembled investors and contacted AT&T about buying MAD, but the offer was not entertained. If MAD is not for sale, there are several possible futures. AT&T could maintain ownership while letting another publisher create issues. AT&T could reinvest. They could maintain the current reprints plus Johnny model, and limp along. Or worse. While Hutchinson was not authorized to give answers about MAD‘s future, the fact is no one really knows. One prominent troll has revealed DC will end all print this summer, but he is the comics equivalent of QAnon. A more reality-based take is that the people involved in the comics industry are in a similar boat as those in hospitality, theaters, and music these days. They hope they have jobs next week, but who knows?

The current issue of MAD is the “Espionage Edition,” with a new cover by Peter Kuper, the political cartoonist who took over Spy vs. Spy in 1997. It also contains his three-page story that seems like a swan song for the spies, an epic that spans from pre-mammalian evolution to postnuclear holocaust. Other than those four pages the only new artwork is Sampson’s very funny Fold-In, comparing the spies to (spoiler alert) AI virtual assistant technology. (“His current Fold-In,” Jaffee wrote, “is beautifully rendered.”) Solicitations for the spring issue list no new artwork other than Sampson’s. There are a few optimistic signs. Hutchinson was excited to acquire new marginals (the tiny comics that appear in the margins) from Aragonés, tempering the pathos of his exit illustration, and Kuper’s final panel, while literally apocalyptic, left a sliver of hope for future entries. But if MAD does not reverse course, and if Sergio’s batch of pantomime magic is finite, Johnny Sampson may be the final MAD artist, the last idiot standing.

And if that, sadly, does turn out to be the case, perhaps he’s the best idiot for the job. “A lot of times when a magazine is in its final days, you can really see how the quality has gone down,” waxes Bill Morrison. “One thing you can definitely say for MAD is that, with Johnny’s work in it, the quality remained super high until the end.”   v