When I was 12 my mother overheard my side of a phone call. “Hello, Marco?” I asked, somewhat surreptitiously. “How much for number 9? Has number 17 come in yet? Two bucks? What about number 5?” Mystified and not a little afraid, my mother asked me later what I was doing.

As a matter of fact Marco was the proprietor of Memory Shop, a used-magazine and memorabilia store in lower Manhattan, and I was trying to purchase the first 23 issues of Mad. Two years earlier, in 1958, another kid in my neighborhood (then Queens) had shown me his copy of “The Mad Primer.” Like other kids in the 50s, I’d learned to read from the insipid “Run, Spot, Run” first-grade text, which presented a smiling, happy white-bread family totally unlike mine–my mother worked while my father stayed at home, supposedly but not actually working on his novel, until mother threw him out when I was eight. So it was genuinely liberating to see a parody that pointed out not only the phoniness of those primers but of all “wholesome” images of America. Instead of Dick and Jane, Mad gave us Irving and Sadie. Their dog was Schlep, and their grandpa, Farmer Brown, wasn’t “really a farmer,” Irving tells us. “He runs a hot car ring.” Their playmate, Bobby Smith, dressed in hoodlum attire and sold “reefers to the other children at school,” while daddy wrote “company checks to pay off his bookie.”

Needless to say, at ten I became a regular reader. Soon I noticed paperback Mad anthologies in the same corner stores where I bought my Mad magazines, and naturally I bought those too. But they were different. The stories in them were comic-book style, though in black and white rather than color, and appeared to be mostly parodies of mainstream comics. The drawings were incredibly cluttered, hard to get through because–as I would learn later–of their reduced size and lack of color. Nonetheless I started finding stories I really loved, things that went way beyond the magazine in incisiveness. Soon I figured it out: Mad had begun its existence as a comic book in 1952, continuing for 23 issues before becoming a larger-format (and almost all black-and-white) magazine in 1955. Now I had to see the originals of what appeared in the anthologies. And so, acting on a tip from my friend Tim Hunter (who shared my predilection for drawing cartoons of our teachers), I paid my first visit to Memory Shop.

I still remember opening my first Mad comic to its first story, “Frank N. Stein,” its drawings full of details and background gags. The opening panel shows a figure trudging up to a castle on a dark and stormy night, while in the foreground a man takes a shower in a makeshift stall attached to a telephone or power pole, his naked rear showing, and in the background pitchfork lightning stabs a cooked chicken. Cats and dogs and buckets fall with the rain. Tex Avery literalized metaphors in his 1951 animated cartoon Symphony in Slang, but only the early Mads would literalize two metaphors in one panel. Even more definitive was the design of the panels, with their profusion of details and seemingly bursting figures and objects. As in Hollywood animation, characters easily survive piercings by pikes and spears, but such images in Mad are emblematic of the whole: a glorious, lively, subliminally erotic collision of shapes.

A magical world opened up for me, bitingly irreverent and filled with surprising–for the straitlaced 50s–hints of sexuality. Mad’s luscious women would make the men bug-eyed, as in Hollywood cartoons of the period, but there were also occasional excursions into male nudity–a general puncturing of the bland facade of 50s mass culture, which sought to deny our animal natures. I’ll never forget the shock of seeing a suddenly nude Wedgie in the hilarious “Starchie”–a parody of the long-running comic Archie–who loses his clothes as a result of being frisked by Starchie and Bottleneck. Here the nudity is just one of several reminders in the strip that teenage pranks can be not only cruel and humiliating but criminal.

The Mad comics, as well as the first five issues of the magazine, were edited by Harvey Kurtzman for EC (short for “Entertaining Comics”), published by William Gaines. Kurtzman–arguably one of the few true geniuses the comics have known–didn’t actually draw most of Mad, though he did many of the comic-book covers. But he wrote the stories and drew roughs of the panels, which were then executed by various artists, the best and most consistent of them being Bill Elder, Wallace Wood, and Jack Davis. The Mad comics weren’t only read by kids; the Mad letters column confirms the recollections of Chicago comic artist Jay Lynch, who bought them as a boy, that high school and college-age kids were their primary audience. Among those who acknowledge Kurtzman’s influence are R. Crumb; Peter Bagge, creator of the superbly acidic Hate! comics; and Chicagoans Lynch and Terry Laban, creator of Cud comics. Movie director Terry Gilliam worked with Kurtzman on his last magazine. Indeed, many of the underground comics that began in the late 60s owed much to Kurtzman, as does the work of second-generation figures like Bagge and Laban. The full effect of Kurtzman’s Mad on contemporary humor, film, and television is likely much larger than we realize.

Now, after being often out of print over the years, Mad comics are available in two forms: magazine-size collections and a seven-disc CD-ROM set (Windows only) recently issued by Broderbund, which contains all 376 issues of Mad, both the comic book and magazine, from 1952 to 1998. Seen today, Mad comics are striking partly for Kurtzman’s playful approach to illusionistic representation. In one of many one-page Kurtzman-drawn strips titled “Hey Look!” (reprinted in Mad from earlier publications), a chef demonstrates his proficiency at flipping eggs; his last trick (“The egg stays still…And I flip over”) leads to the final image, which is mostly white because the cook “flipped the panel over.” Hollywood cartoons would sometimes play similarly with the edges of the frame or announce that a piece of dust had got stuck in the projector or show the silhouette of an audience member on the image. But it would be wrong, I think, to see such devices as “modernist,” as the critic J. Hoberman has called them: they lack the profound self-questioning of Cezanne’s use of paint as paint, for example. But what Kurtzman’s inventions lack on an intellectual level they make up for in pure play.

Kurtzman’s whimsy is nowhere more brilliant than in his covers. The first ten were based on one of the stories inside, but there was a change with number 11. Here the design aped the cover of Life magazine, at the time a mega-seller, and the “cover girl”–captioned “Beautiful Girl of the Month / Reads ‘Mad'”–was the most grotesque caricature of a woman I’d ever seen, with bulging eyes, canine nose, spaghetti hair, and gigantic mouth, teeth, and tongue. A photograph of a New York cityscape in the background was the kind of extra touch typical of Kurtzman’s work, reminding us that Life was a picture magazine but also giving the bizarre woman a bizarrely realistic context.

After that no two covers were alike. Number 12 imitated the format of a “high-class intellectual” journal for “people ashamed to read this comic-book in subways.” Number 13 placed a tiny drawing, which it called “the smallest…in the world,” against a field of orange so large by comparison that it makes me think of color-field painting. In number 14 the Mona Lisa holds Mad, number 19 was a racing form, and number 20 a composition book, “designed to sneak into class.” A special favorite of mine was number 17, which offered the head, arms, and legs of a woman in high heels. In place of her torso were 145 numbered dots, the implication being that if you connected the dots you’d see a naked lady. Doing so, however, produced the words “Can’t draw very well can you.”

Each issue of the Mad comics had four stories, and even Kurtzman admitted that their quality was uneven; he worked under tremendous pressure for low pay and often had to use gimmicks to fill the book. A few stories fall flat; some are only pretty good. But at his best Kurtzman delivers a series of gags that leave the reader laughing too hard to see the serious point until later. Some jokes, taken on their own, are childish, but they’re multiplied to such a degree that, as in slapstick, the rhythm of the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Often exaggeration makes a basically silly gag work. The opening panel of “Flesh Garden” shows a multilimbed monster about to consume Dr. Zark: a knife and fork are in two of its hands, a big dinner plate is underneath the doctor, its hideous tongue almost reaches him, its mouth smiles in anticipation–and ketchup, salt, and pepper are on the table. Wallace Wood’s morbidly violent depiction is teamed with a profusion of other details: as with the cats and dogs and buckets, it’s Kurtzman’s brilliant use of excess that makes the dumb gag work. As a Kurtzman parody proceeds, the gags constantly shift in form and content–surprise heightens the humor. At first Flesh Garden can’t be bothered to rescue Zark; then he decides to, but only because he has “a little pain on the edge of my left shoulder” that he wants the doc to look at. Dr. Zark replies, “No free consultations! I got regular office hours.”

By the end of a Kurtzman parody everyone in it has been shown to act out of cynical self-interest. Indeed, Flesh, Zark, and Flesh’s girlfriend appear to escape the alien planet they’re on by bribing some guards, after which Flesh says, “I’m telling you, that good ol’ U.S. dollar is sound anywhere!” Such undermining shifts in perspective make two larger points: they enhance the sense of absurdity that pervades Kurtzman’s best work, and they act as more directed exposés of self-serving human behavior. While Mad’s initial target was other comic books, it soon took on cultural heroes from the movies and television. The marshal in “Hah Noon” hopes to flee before Killer Diller Miller arrives but is persuaded to stay by a number of arguments: a reminder of his salary; the appearance of Ramona, the other woman in his life; and finally the gun-wielding Miller, who forbids him to leave town after fooling the marshal by coming in on the “low noon train.” If most of American culture of the 50s was self-aggrandizing and triumphalist, Mad sought to expose hypocrisy and so-called heroes.

After leaving Mad, Kurtzman told the Comics Journal in a 1981 interview, he asked himself what he’d been trying to do and concluded that he wanted “to tell the truth about things.” A World War II veteran, he spoke of the phony heroics of comics about the Korean War and how he tried to counteract them with his own Korean War stories in other comic books created for EC. He mentions, too, the shock of learning the truth about General Custer, who merely hoped to parlay an Indian battle into a presidential candidacy.

Three main themes are threaded through Kurtzman’s truth telling. In addition to exposing self-serving amorality, he also showed how comics and the fantasies they spawn violate everyday physical constraints. When Clark Bent charges into a phone booth to change into Superduperman, it’s occupied. Not only that but Clark, having apparently already started to change, runs out clad only in his underpants while the buxom young woman in the booth is screaming, adding a distinct sexual edge to the proceedings–and alluding to the sexual implications of the Superman character. The underpants are the last garment Bent throws out of his next phone booth onto a huge pile of clothes, suggesting an unseen nudity. But while we’re reflecting on this, Kurtzman takes the gag in another direction, showing a long line of people waiting to use the phone.

“Superduperman” also foregrounds Kurtzman’s third truth-telling theme, which is that in the end all the ideas of self-improvement that pop culture feeds us are fantasies, especially if our hope is to impress others. This idea is clearest in Clark’s courting of Lois. After he hides in an office trash can so that he can offer her a pearl necklace purchased with his life savings, she slaps him aside and leaves her footprints on him as she exits, saying, “Creep!” Conforming to the male-adolescent fantasy Superman was designed to feed, Clark then changes into Superduperman and expects Lois to “give your bottom dollar for me to sniff your perfume”–but she shoves him aside and treads on him once again: “Yer still a creep!”

Kurtzman is usually best at his most savage. During “Katchandhammer Kids,” as the Kapitan’s punishments of Hans and Feetz grow increasingly severe–he finally ties them to a railroad track and whips their bare backs–his friend the Inspektor suggests he bring them to a psychologist instead: “Du hast geheard vas Sigmund Freud hort Gespoken…” On the last page, the now old Kapitan admits to the Inspektor that he might have been right–we see the adult boys as hardened criminals, counting money from a holdup while their moll mixes drinks. “Bat Boy and Rubin” may have been the first of many Batman commentaries to hint at a homoerotic subtext. The two are unable to solve a series of murders, but finally we learn that each person has been killed the same way–there are “two tiny holes in the vein of the victim’s big toe.” The murderer can only be Bat Boy himself: he confesses that he’s a “vampire batboy” as he goes to work on Rubin’s toe. “Howdy Dooit,” like Mad’s other television parodies, was done in round-cornered panels in black and white, joking on the colorless flatness of early TV. But here the kiddie audience (which includes a suave little boy getting a girl’s phone number) has to be kept in line by a hairy-armed goon with a whip. The strip also includes a superb early parody–the year was 1954–of kid-targeted ads: Howdy advises audience members whose moms won’t buy them Phud cereal to scream, fall down on the floor, and finally “hold your breath and make your face turn blue.”

In 1955 Mad became a magazine, in a larger format and black and white. After five issues Kurtzman left and was replaced by Al Feldstein, who’d previously produced a sometimes amusing Mad imitation, Panic. Kurtzman’s spirit remained alive in vicious parodies such as “The Mad Primer,” but gradually a far more mainstream humor crept in–pointless jokes that would have been at home in the Sunday funnies. Kurtzman’s satires, used to expose illusions and hypocrisy, gave way to Mad Lite. Some have argued that in the age of Beavis and Butt-head Mad is almost beside the point–pop culture now parodies itself. And it’s true that the Mad comics play on the easy acceptance of cultural givens. Even when dealing in the sexist cliches of the 50s–for example, that the world is populated by beautiful babes and men whose main goal is to pinch them–Kurtzman exaggerates them to a point that stops far short of feminism but at least foregrounds the stereotypes.

Kurtzman went on to produce a terrific glossy color humor magazine for Hugh Hefner, Trump, that lasted all of two issues. Then he edited the humor magazine Humbug, which he owned with other contributors. Even smaller than comic-book size and printed on very bad paper, it was a financial failure, though its satires were often wonderful. His last magazine, Help!–a mix of great and not so great humor–was in the middle of its run when I came on the scene in the early 60s. Two friends and I interviewed Kurtzman (though we never published our talk), and I discovered some obscure fanzines put out–mostly on ditto machines–by other teenagers who loved Mad. Some of the editors of those zines–Joe Pilati, Phil Roberts–are unknown today, but another was Art Spiegelman.

When I went to interview Mad’s Al Feldstein for Roberts’s Jack High, another Mad employee who sat in, Nick Miglin (coeditor today), asked me if Jack High was “one of those fanzines that treated Harvey Kurtzman as a god.” I was surprised that the Mad editors were so well-informed about these obscure zines, and even more surprised to discover that Feldstein and Miglin knew of the scathing critique of the current Mad I’d published as a letter to the editor of one fanzine–in fact they’d kindly copied it for me onto a large blackboard. Feldstein almost pleaded with me not to judge him, saying that he was just doing a job and that he did serious paintings in his spare time. I came away mystified as to why he should care so much about a 14-year-old’s opinions. Maybe, I thought, he knew that I was right–that Kurtzman’s Mad had an intensity, an authenticity, a soul that slowly drained out of the mag after he left. Even Mad’s increased success could be taken as a sign that mediocrity trumps genius, at least in mass culture–or that an established institution is stronger than any individual, however brilliant, within it.

My great cause in those days was figuring out why Kurtzman had left–why the world had soured even before I knew it. Neither he nor the Mad people would talk about it then; it’s now widely accepted that he’d asked publisher Gaines for an ownership stake, and left when it was denied. He reportedly remained bitter that he never reaped the financial rewards of Mad’s success. After Help! failed, he and Elder, who’d remained with him through all of his ventures, went to work for Hefner again, this time producing the strip “Little Annie Fanny” for Playboy. For the first time Kurtzman got a decent paycheck, and the gig lasted for two decades. But after the first year or two I found the strip almost impossible to read. In an admiring obituary for Kurtzman in the Comics Journal of October 1991, R. Fiore argues that Annie’s supposed incorruptibility was a betrayal of everything Kurtzman stood for. I think he was right.

But Kurtzman’s legacy lives on in current generations of comics artists. I’m only surprised that his work isn’t more widely read now. Jay Lynch remembers that the Mad comics “aroused” him as a boy, also recalling “the anxiety that is in every panel. Characters get overwrought, their eyes cross, and everything’s exaggerated.” Terry Laban remembers especially liking Elder’s stuff, “the way they were able to put all these little jokes into every panel. As I got older I realized how difficult it was to do and keep the panel easy to read. I couldn’t do that today.” Peter Bagge remembers that “as with all things that wind up having a profound effect on me, I was a bit disturbed by it at first. I love Elder’s art now, but I would still describe it as creepy. But the pacing and timing and everything about Mad is so dead-on. Perhaps because of the low expectations for comics, they were able to come up with this insane masterpiece.”

Mad comics have been reprinted in various forms over the years but have been out of print far more often. The current magazine-size volumes, issued by EC, group the comics (and, soon, the early magazines) in threes at a reasonable $3.99 per volume. The reproductions are OK, if very different from the more textured originals, and are about as lustrous as the 1986 bound-volume reprints. Broderbund’s CD-ROM set includes all the issues through 1998 for a mere $60. But like most such computer-based products, it has many minuses as well as pluses. It’s great being able to search for stories–if you can remember the exact titles. And it’s great to be able to see enlarged views of favorite panels and to copy, paste, and print images from Mad on your own letters or E-mails. The CD-ROM also has some amusing extra features, such as brief sound and video clips and occasionally helpful comments on various issues of the magazine. If you click on a “Panic” button–for use “when your parents/kids/boss come into the room”–Mad temporarily vanishes and such edifying items as a pie chart of “Most Common Ailments in the Republic of Cupinluck” come up instead. The cute help messages (“Nice going, clod! You have selected an item that is not on the current CD”) are alternately amusing and irritating–but at least they’re in the Mad spirit.

I had trouble getting the same pleasure out of the CD-ROM, however, as I do out of the reprints; I suspect we’ll have to see 24-inch high-resolution flat-panel displays become common before a project like this really works. Some details of the larger drawings are lost on my 17-inch screen, and if I zoom in I lose the composition of the whole. Other glitches include the zoom-in and -out functions, which operate only in increments; you can’t precisely size an image to the window. Since the images are scanned from the original comics, one might expect to compare the different color qualities–but the CD-ROM images when viewed enlarged have unintended patterns characteristic of digital compression. The “advance” and “back” functions sometimes follow the panels well, but unusual sizes or texts confuse them.

Worst of all, I couldn’t find any real information about Kurtzman, though the current paperback reprints present the EC version of his involvement in Mad in short texts. The short video-clip history of Mad on the CD-ROM doesn’t mention him, and clicking on the “More Garbage Like This” button in a Kurtzman story produces only a short list including his name, while clicking on his name often leads to items that have little to do with him–such as the letters column. His role in Mad’s founding–in Kurtzman’s version, if not EC’s, the whole thing was his idea, he proposed it to Gaines, he chose the title–has been erased from this history.

Still, one hopes that the new availability of the early Mads in two forms will finally allow Kurtzman his due. The disjunctions he points out between truth and illusion, between romantic fabrications and the realities of the everyday world, have long been recognized. But where numerous poets and philosophers have focused on metaphysics, Kurtzman has stubbornly remained in the physical world.

His nearly sublime “Mickey Rodent” begins with Mickey walking down the street with several mousetraps snapped shut on various body parts; soon Goony points out to Darnold Duck that he has once again left home without his pants. Taking Disney’s anthropomorphization literally, Kurtzman has Darnold almost puking at the sight of Minnie Mouse (“the idea of a mouse…ten times bigger than the biggest rat…with lipstick and eyelashes…”). And in multiple background gags that ought to appeal to eco-freaks today, Kurtzman assumes that if animals were people they’d treat people like animals: an animal-driven car stops for a mother with her children following like ducklings across the street; a large fish holds up a human he’s caught with his fishing rod for his wife to photograph. But the greatest moments come at the end, when the drawings grow darker and Mickey succeeds at locking Darnold in the zoo (“For years I’ve watched you pushing your way into my act!…you and…them three little noodnik ducks!”). The final panel shows Darnold alongside realistically drawn ducks while the zoo curator pronounces him “some sort of mutation freak.”

Fully as biting, and even more radically innovative in its form, is “Bringing Back Father,” a parody of a long-running newspaper strip called Bringing Up Father. The original centered on a nouveau-riche couple, Maggie and Jiggs: her social pretensions were constantly frustrated by the low-class Jiggs, who kept trying to sneak out of the house to go back to the old neighborhood and eat corned beef and cabbage with the boys–typically she responded by throwing a plate at him or coming after him with a rolling pin. Kurtzman’s strip begins in Elder’s brightest cartoony style, but just as Jiggie seems to have sneaked out successfully he gives up, knowing that Maggs will inevitably catch him and, in the last panel, throw a huge load of dishes at his head.

The next page is drawn by a different artist, B. Krigstein, in gruesome crime-comics film noir style. Jiggie’s face is grotesquely bruised and bloodied, and he explains that none of this is funny, that “a flying dish can break open the scalp and cause serious bleeding.” And so the parody proceeds, through two more sets of facing pages, cartoony violence followed by real blood until a new twist allows Jiggie to get revenge on Maggs.

The strip makes a further point, a distinctly modern one: in a cruel and absurd world, laughter is our only succor. We all have the same human frailties–it’s impossible to remain pure. Mickey Mouse, perhaps the biggest cartoon star of all time, in Kurtzman’s vision is jealous of the attention Donald Duck gets. Men are idiots–pretty women always turn their heads, whether in “Dragged Net” or “Shermlock Shomes.” But the women have their own agendas. And if we’re all equally tainted, then where does meaning reside? Lighting a lamp might be the ideal response to darkness, but when all the lamps are soiled, laughter will lighten the way well enough.