Yesterday contributors to MAD Magazine officially got the news that, after 67 years of continuous publication that began with Harvey Kurtzman‘s brilliant comic book and eventually evolved into the magazine that forever changed the world of satire and humor, MAD will stop publishing new content after issue #10 in October. The magazine will continue with all reprint material under new cover art but will only be sold via the direct market and current subscriptions. News stand distribution will cease and obligations to current subscribers will be fulfilled with these reprint issues. It’s my understanding that new or extended subscriptions will no longer be available, and once current subscriptions expire that also will be at an end. DC will continue to publish books and special collections under the MAD brand. Of course we all knew this was coming. Last week DC laid off one art director and three of the four remaining editors. Not too many magazines can keep publishing without any staff.
I could go on and on about the end of an era and a true American original, about how MAD had an incalculable influence on satire, comedy in general, and the humor of the entire planet, how its pages regularly featured some of the greatest cartoonists who ever lived like Kurtzman, Jack Davis, Mort Drucker, Wally Wood, Will Elder, Al Jaffee, Sergio Aragones, Don Martin, Paul Coker… too many to list really. I could go on and on but all that is meaningless with respect to today. None of that history can be taken away, and none of it is a reason for the next issue to come out. In the end in this day and age, the only reason anything is allowed to exist comes down to money. If something is profitable, it continues. If it is not, it ends.
MAD is ending for the same reason anything ends… it’s all about the Benjamins.
The signs have been on the wall for a long time now. They really started with Bill Gaines‘ passing in 1992. Gaines sold the magazine to the Kinney Corporation in the early 60’s, but as part of the deal he was given total autonomy to publish the magazine as he saw fit. In other word’s the corporate overlords had to keep their hands off. Eventually Kinney absorbed DC Comics and then Warner Bros, but that original Gaines deal was still valid even with MAD being now a part of the Time-Warner behemoth. Once Bill died however, the slow but unstoppable taking over by the suits began. In the mid-90s the MADison Avenue offices were closed and the staff moved into the DC comics headquarters… the first overt sign of cost cutting. Editors Nick Meglin and John Ficarra were still allowed to keep MAD “MAD“, but the continued slide of circulation started the pressure mounting to increase revenues. There was a time in the 90’s when some DC brass were mulling over rebranding MAD as some kind of teenage-orientated pop culture hip-hop publication but cooler heads prevailed and they settled for a visual “revamp” which included the italicized logo. Sales continued to decline. In 2001 MADswitched to a color format with issue #403, and started taking advertising, all of course in an effort to increase sales and revenues. In 2004, longtime editor and unsung hero of MAD‘s “voice” Nick Meglin “retired”, cutting DC’s staff costs further. I’d say I’m glad Nick did not live to see this day, but nothing could ever happen in this universe to make me happy Nick has passed.
It was in early 2009 that the writing was really on the wall. As of issue #500, MAD went from monthly publication to quarterly. Clearly DC was now looking at MAD‘s bottom line with an executioner’s eye. That only lasted for about a year, when MAD increased to bi-monthly in 2010. However one thing that many people do not know is that MAD‘s page rate for contributors was cut nearly in half at that same time. I’m sure certain longtime contributors kept their old rate, but the rest of us saw a drastic drop in pay for the same amount of work.
In 2013 DC packed up its New York offices and moved the whole operation to Burbank to the Warner Bros complex (so you see it wasn’t just MAD that WB was looking to cut expenses with). In typical MAD fashion none of the MAD staff, all life-long New Yorkers, were willing to move. So, DC was faced with either cancelling the title, moving it anyway with no one to run it, or keep MAD in NYC. To their credit they did the latter, and for 4 years MAD kept on publishing in slowly shrinking new office space.
In 2017 DC finally pulled the trigger on a move out to Burbank for MAD. The new West Coast MAD made it 10 issues.
Despite all the signs, I actually had a lot of optimism that the new MAD had a chance. First, their choice of hiring Bill Morrison as Executive Editor/VP was inspired. Bill was a guy who knew humor, who had a deep affinity and knowledge of what made MAD “MAD”, was very smart, saavy, and plugged in to the greater world of comedy, and was a terrific artist in his own right. He put together a young and hip staff of editors and really took MAD into the 21st century, especially with social media.
Then they fired him in January of this year. We all knew it was over then… just a matter of time for the rest of it to catch up.
What’s sad is that MAD was actually having a mini-creative renaissance under Bill. Their cover for issue #4 won a Rondo Hatton award for horror genre art. The feature ‘The Ghasilygun Tinies” in that same issue, written by Matt Cohen and drawn by Marc Palm, received a major amount of national attention and is nominated for an Eisner Award. The magazine itself is nominated for an Eisner for best Humor Publication this year. Several high profile comedians contributed articles for the magazine. But critical success is meaningless. The bottom line is all that matters. Ironically circulation has increased but obviously not to the point that the numbers worked.
Then they fired Bill. Did I already say that? It bears repeating.
Some people are speculating that maybe DC will sell MAD to another company that would keep it going. That is not going to happen. One of the few bad things about working for MAD is that over its entire existence, with just a very few exceptions, every piece of writing and art published in the magazine was done as “work for hire”, meaning E.C. Comics ( and thus DC/Warner) owns the copyrights to that work. That’s 67 years of content by some of the greatest comics artists ever, and some of the most influential pieces of published humor ever printed. That’s an extremely valuable catalog for reprints, collections, etc. that costs the owners of that content nothing. No way DC sells that. At best they could possibly license out the MAD brand for another publisher to publish some version of the magazine, but if a printed version was financially viable none of this would be happening.
Despite what some people will say, MAD was not suffering from poor content. Not everything the Burbank crew threw at the wall stuck, but MAD still had a lot of sharp content and was virtually the last place for such visual comic humor to be seen in a single publication. MAD was still MAD, especially when it was still in NYC, but apparently not enough people were buying it to offset the increasing costs of publishing/distributing. Thus, it’s ending. DC has almost 70 years of cost-free content to milk, why would they need to spend money on producing new stuff?
It’s been a real privilege for me to have been a small part of what was hands-down THE greatest comics/cartoon publication in history. I was lucky to have gotten started with MAD back in 2000, when Nick and John were still in charge and MAD was arguably still the Gaines era MAD. I saw my work published alongside some of my cartooning heroes like Mort, Al, Sergio, Paul, Angelo Torres, Sam Viviano, and many others, and I got to work with writers like Dick DeBartolo, Arnie Kogen, Desmond Devlin and other incredibly funny and talented people. More than that, I was able to call these people both colleagues and friends.
So. What’s next for me? I did the art for two parodies in issue number nine, plus I did the cover (kind of a special circumstance, which is a long story I’ll share when the issue comes out). I’ve got at least one feature to draw for issue ten, possibly two. Then it’s on to new adventures in the world of cartooning and comics. On the bright side, no matter what I work on next I can virtually guarantee the ratio of time and effort spent vs. the amount of actual pay for the job will be better balanced. MAD was much more a labor of love than it was for the paycheck.
I will say… it’s hard to be one of the ones that has to turn out the lights.
Thanks for the many years of laughs, MAD. RIP.