Sunday, July 29, 2012

Number 1200: That crazy little mixed-up mag

Crazy was an attempt from Atlas Comics to lure some of the readers who were buying Mad into parting with their dimes. Any Mad loyalist would immediately see the attempt fell short. But even if it sounds as if I'm dismissing it, I actually like this comic with its frenetic energy and lunacy popping out of every panel. I like the sexy pin-up art of  Al Hartley, who later went on to Archie and then to Spire Christian Comics; I like Bill Everett's funny Frankenstein, and Joe Maneely's artwork is, as always, superb. Ed Winiarski was a comic book journeyman, and Davy Berg later became a Mad-man. What Crazy didn't have was Mad creator/writer/editor Harvey Kurtzman, and it makes all the difference. There was Mad and then there was everyone else. It didn't make the imitators bad comic books, and Crazy is entertaining in its own crazy way, but in my opinion no Mad imitator ever reached the heights to which Kurtzman had taken Mad. (See more in my review of John Benson's The Sincerest Form of Parody, below the scans.)

Here's Crazy #1 (1953):

John Benson’s book, The Sincerest Form of Parody, is an excellent example of an overview (with examples) of a less-than-excellent subject. To wit (ho-ho), it is a book about all of them furshlugginer imitations of Mad comics that popped up in the wake of Mad’s success.

Benson, whom I admire as a comics historian,* obviously researched his subject matter. It appears that he read all of the Mad imitators of that period. The book reproduces a couple of dozen stories, some better than others, but none up to the high standards set by Harvey Kurtzman and Mad.

There just weren’t any other talents like Kurtzman out there at the time. There were writers who could write funny, and artists who could draw funny, but they couldn’t write and draw Kurtzman-funny. Even if the artists were technically good, they just didn’t come up to the level set by Kurtzman’s inspired cadre of cartoonists, artists like Elder, Wood, and Davis. At the time, they were the holy trinity of humor.

In my opinion, the best Mad imitations are what you see above you, the Mad-like comics from Atlas, and Harvey Comics’ short-lived Flip, with the sharp Davis-like drawing by Howard Nostrand.  EC Comics’ own in-house imitation, Panic, had some gems like Wood’s “African Scream,” shown in Pappy’s #871 or Elder’s “The Lady Or the Tiger,” the latter reproduced in Benson’s book. But same publisher or not, Panic was still a Mad imitator.

If Kurtzman worried at all about posterity, his name or his stories being remembered, he need not have been concerned. Kurtzman is one of the comic book geniuses, and they were rare, so we remember him. Reprints over the years have kept the twenty-three issues of Mad comics available to fans in various print formats, even two digital versions. The imitations just don’t get that kind of treatment, so The Sincerest Form of Parody makes some of the better imitators (“better” being subjective) available for the first time since their original publication almost sixty years ago.

I recommend The Sincerest Form of Parody with a qualification. The stories can be more bizarre than laugh-out-loud funny, and oftentimes (which happens with Mad, also) the satirical references are obscured by the half dozen decades between their first appearance and this book. Production is top notch, and the reproduction from the original four-color comic books is excellent.

It’s available from or your favorite bookseller. If your local comic shop has it or will order it for you, that’s even better.

The Sincerest Form of Parody by John Benson with introduction by Jay Lynch. Fantagraphics Book, 2011, trade paperback, 192 pages, 7 ¼” x 10”. $24.99 suggested retail.

*Benson also wrote Romance Without Tears, and Confessions, Romances, Secrets and Temptations, about the love comics of St. John publishing and writer Dana Dutch.


Keir said...

What about Mad's own imitation- 'Panic'?
Great piece- really shows how much effort and skill went into such ephemera in those days...

Pappy said...

There are two Panic stories in Benson's book, "The Lady Or the Tiger," drawn by Will Elder, and "My Gun Is the Jury," drawn by Jack Davis.

Gumba G Gadwa said...

I recommend The Sincerest Form of Parody, too, just for an interesting look at how much Mad changed the landscape of the day.

Like imitating EC's horror, I thought Atlas did the best job of imitating Mad, next to Flip which you're right, was pretty good. You can see Atlas still relying on the horror with the cover.

I have to say I loved Panic, though. I never thought of it as an imitation. I think the artist weren't doing an imitation, as they were basically the same artists. Al and others were doing their own type of beats with the gags, as a lot of these other imitators just seemed to be ape-ing Kurtzman.

And the Christmas story is just a classic, not only for it's content but for the silly moral "panic" it caused.

rnigma said...

Of course, Marvel would revive the "Crazy" title as a B&W magazine in the '70s and an even more blatant Mad ripoff.

Kip W [Muffaroo] said...

I was a little disappointed that Benson didn't go to the worst of the worst. One of the comics (the issue I saw was coverless, and I didn't happen to notice if the title was shown inside) did a "Little Sheba" parody called "Come Back Little Heba," where the artist apparently had no photo references or confidence in his ability to draw the stars, and he drew balloons in front of their faces, or he drew objects in front, or he turned them away or cropped them.

I like to think they don't get any worse than that!

But a whole book of Nostrand would have also been a joy to read.

Kirk said...

Both the Mad Frankenstein parody and this one was titled "Frank N. Stein" I wonder if that was just a coincidence. I suppose it's possible for two people to come up with the same pun.

Did Stan Lee write these stories?

Pappy said...

Kirk, I think "Frank N. Stein" is kind of a natural, because the syllables in Frankenstein work out to sound like a name.

Ger Apeldoorn said once in these comments that it's the general consensus amongst those who know such things that Stan Lee usually signed what he wrote.

Pappy said...

Kip, "Come Back Little Heba" is from Nuts#2. Benson shows a story called "Come Back Bathsheba," drawn by Nostrand from Harvey Comics. I haven't seen the former, but in Nostrand's satire Burt Lancaster is caricatured.

rnigma said...

Don't forget, Dick Briefer's early Frankenstein stories were signed "Frank N. Stein."

Tom Smith said...

Too much attention has been given to the early '50's Mad competitor humor comics. Most of them are truly terrible. The artwork can be quite nice, but the writing is beyond juvenile and ruins the stories. There is very little wit to be found, if any. I find the Atlas titles to be among the poorest written.

The black and white humor magazine competitors which started up right after Mad became a magazine in 1955 were much better written, more interesting and worthy of analysis than the early comic books (although some of the '50's titles are pretty poor too), however they are rarely afforded any attention by historians. Magazines such as This Magazine is Crazy, Lunatickle, Snafu,'60's Sick magazine, Cracked and others need to be re-discovered and better appreciated.