Tales Calculated to Drive You Mad (Harvey Kurtzman) - Educational Comics -1952

William M. (Bill) Gaines inherited his father's comic book company (EC) in 1947.  The new publisher was not happy with the educational and religious themes of the company's products.  He quickly transformed EC into a major producer of horror comics with titles such as Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror.  EC also published war comics edited by Harvey Kurtzman.

In 1952, Kurtzman presented an idea to Gaines for a comic that would be a satire of other comics.  Known as the "first satire comic," EC's Mad also proved to adept at parodies of periodicals, movies, popular culture and itself.  The first issue of Mad featured a parody cover of a house haunted by "Melvin!"  The first story ("Hoohah!"), illustrated by the legendary Jack Davis and written by Kurtzman, was actually a parody of EC horror comics.  The joke of the parody is that, in an old, dark house on a stormy night, nothing happens.

Artist Davis began the tradition of bonus humor (non sequitur, chicken fat, etc.) on page three of Mad #1 where the terrified Galusha can be seen holding with both hands the border between comic strip panels.  This would be the first of many times when Mad would parody the comic style by breaking out of the panels.

Other parodies in Mad #1 target science fiction ("Blobs!" drawn by Wally Wood), crime stories ("Ganefs!" drawn by Will Elder) and westerns ("Varmint!" drawn by John Severin).  All were written and edited by Kurtzman.

Mad #2 parodied popular culture with the Tarzan-parody "Melvin!."  The ape-man, with a bandage on his foot, is first seen sitting in a tree grooming an ape that is reading The Crypt of Terror.  Melvin swings through trees, battles natives and communicates with animals.  Jane cooks hominy grits and wields a machine gun.  Melvin's jungle is populated with skunks, pigs, dragons, dodos, St. Bernard dogs and whales.  Even the ants know when Tarzan is in trouble.

Today, Mad is known for its classic parodies of movies and television shows.  However, before its first movie parody appeared, Mad parodied the radio show Dragnet with Kurtzman's "Dragged Net!" (Mad #3).  Kurtzman parodied the show from his childhood memories of his family sitting around the radio.  The Kurtzman parody includes the detective small talk ("How's your Mom, Ed?").  Artist Elder provided the "chicken fat" jokes that filled every panel with parodies of anything he could imagine.  The combined genius of Kurtzman and Elder is a humor form that rivals any that has ever existed.  Sergeants Joe Friday and Ed Saturday get their man (after playing tic-tac-toe on his back) but end up in the booby hatch wearing Napolean hats and cutting out paper dolls.  Tic-tac-toe, Napolean, paper dolls, black bombs, eight balls, false teeth and Elder-style chicken-fat were jokes that would run through Mad for decades.

With the classic Superman comic book parody by Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood, sales of Mad #4 established the EC title in the comic market.  Comic characters have served as easy targets for Mad artists.  In "Superduperman!" Clark Bent empties the spittoons and Lois Pain collects pearl necklaces.  Although Clark's alter-ego, Superduperman eventually defeats Captain Marbles, Lois can still tell that he is a creep.

Editor/writer Kurtzman continued to find ripe parody subjects in subsequent issues: movies (Mad #6), magazine covers (Mad#11), 3-D comics (Mad #12), television shows (Mad #14), newspapers (Mad #16), racing forms (Mad #19), comic book advertising (Mad #21) and Ripley's Believe It or Not (Mad #23). 

"Ping Pong!" written by Kurtzman and drawn by Will Elder, was the first of hundreds of movie parodies by the Mad staff.  The ability of the print medium to parody a movie is limited, but Hollywood would soon begin to produce its own parodies.

Kurtzman wrote only two stories for Mad #9 ("Little Orphan Melvin!" and "Hah! Noon!").  He was beginning to change the format of Mad just as this very successful comic was becoming a monthly publication with an in-house, bi-monthly companion (and competitor): Panic.  Although the Mad readers really enjoyed the original format, they would soon have many surprises and treats as the restless Kurtzman stayed several steps ahead of the competition.

Mad readers must have been totally surprised by the Life magazine cover (with background photograph shot from Mad's Madison Avenue office window) of number eleven.  Kurtzman was willing to take the risk that Mad fans would would still be able to find their favorite comic on the newsstand.  The Basil Wolverton drawing taught them to expect the unexpected from Mad.  The competition was left in the dust.

Kurtzman continued to challenge the competitors with his second magazine parody cover and with a first-ever 3-D comic parody in Mad #12.  Wally Wood's parody drawing for "3-Dimensions!" represent the most innovative portion of the issue.  The story starts with two pages of red-and-blue 3-D humor then switches to black-and-white sequences wherein the characters break through a page, fall through several panels and knock everything off a page, leaving the last page blank.  In 1954, Mad readers never  knew what they were going to get.

Mad #14 contained Mad's first parody of black-and-white television ("The Countynental"): "... a t.v. program for ladies ..." complete with the lines on the screen.

Kurtzman used his brilliant newspaper parody to satirize his (and publisher Gaines's) problems with the Comic Book Code in Mad #16.  The cover shows three cartoonists being arrested and a publisher selling banned comic books on the street corner.  Mad's legal battles are well-documented in the Mad World of William Gaines (Frank Jacobs) and Completely Mad (Maria Reidelbach).  The newspaper article was the first to depart from the comic book format.  Mad was already starting to look like a magazine.

By issue number seventeen, Mad was a comic book in size only.  It would take Kurtzman six more issues to convince publisher Gaines that Mad had evolved to a higher form.  The story format (Mad #1-10) was completely gone.  The first article ("Bringing Back Father!") looked at the comic strip as viewed by the parody cartoonist (Elder) and the serious cartoonist (Bernard Krigstein) who uncovered a seriously dysfunctional family.  The second article was a comination parody of the Army-McCarthy hearings as a game show.

The fourth article in Mad #17 ("Cut Your Own Throat Dept.") presented a how-to lesson for those who would copy the Mad style.  Mad again proved that nothing was sacred as a humor subject by doing a parody of its own style.  However, Kurtzman knew that competitors (including Panic) could only parody Mad's "old style."  The real Mad was now a moving target that had discovered a whole universe of parody, satire and lampoon subjects.

The classic feature of Mad #21 is the six pages of comic book advertising parodies which included the cover.  Get out your magnifying glass and read every word.  The cover also features the first appearance of the idiot kid who was to become the symbol of Mad magazine as "Alfred E. Neuman."

With plans for graduation to the magazine form, it would be understandable if the last issue of thr Mad comic was not up to par.  Such was not the case.  Mad #23 was an excellent platform for the transition from comic to magazine.  Wally Wood and Jack Davis were in fine form, but Will Elder was absent.  This would be the only EC satire comic (Mad or Panic) without an Elder drawing.  He was probably busy drawing some of the 18 pages of his that would appear in the first page of the 64-page Mad magazine.

Kurtzman brought back Mad names "Melvin" and "Galusha" that appeared in Mad #1.  He also introduced the "Believe It or Don't" parody, drawn by Wood, which would become the source of numerous Ernie Kovacs jokes in future Mads.  Wally Wood proved that Elder was not the only Mad artist who could do a newspaper comic parody ("Gopo Gossum!"). [JAM archive]