The appearance of Mad comics in the early 1950s and its imaginative satirical drawing style captivated me and my teenage friends. We had never seen anything like it before.
Though there were many varied styles, what stood out most were the caricatures of public figures — political, criminal and movie stars. For example, then-President Eisenhower’s jaw, in reality not severe, was drawn sharp and firm. Likewise, mild-mannered Gary Cooper was illustrated with his teeth outrageously gritted. We were enormously impressed by the creativity of these combinations.
Now on view at the Cartoon Art Museum is the unusually rich exhibition “What, Me Worry? 60 Years of Mad,” which traces the publication’s history from comic book to magazine and paperback books. The show includes original drawings, sketches in gouache and ink on board, and covers and interior pages.
Among early works are 1950s-era covers by editor Harvey Kurtzman and cartoons by John Severin and Will Elder, including the hilarious “Shadow,” in which a foxy woman enters a bar crammed with stereotyped gangster faces; something is happening everywhere on the page.
In 1955, when Mad’s format changed from comics to a magazine, new editor Al Feldstein recruited artists whose work became staples: Al Jaffee’s fold-ins, Sergio Aragonés’ “A Mad Look At,” Dave Berg’s “The Lighter Side of,” Don Martin’s silly drawings and Antonio Prohias’ “Spy vs. Spy” all are featured in the exhibit.
The magazine’s trademark parodies of TV, film and pop culture are represented, too: A Superman satire shows the Man of Steel as a middle aged, bald, fat-bellied guy struggling to fly. Also on view are the snappy illustrated spoofs: “How-Are-Ya Five-O,” “The Badmouth Bears,” “In Livid Color,” “Smellen” and “Harry Plodder and it’s Dreadful What Follows.”
Mascot Alfred E. Neuman, one of the world’s most famous faces, appears in various incarnations — as Batman, Frankenstein and wearing an afro in a sendup of “Welcome Back, Kotter.”
A bit of explanatory text complements the art work, with commentary on how publisher William Gaines and the magazine’s contributors had a big influence on 20th century comedy greats, from Lenny Bruce to creators of Monty Python, “Saturday Night Live” and “The Simpsons.”
What, Me Worry? 60 Years of Mad
- Where: Cartoon Art Museum, 655 Mission St. S.F.
- When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; closes Sept. 16
- Admission: $7 general, $5 seniors and students, $3 children 6 to 12, free for ages 5 and under
- Contact: (415) 227-8666, www.cartoonart.org