A MAD Cover Story

April 11th, 2016 | Posted in MAD Magazine


I was asked by some readers to share the process of creating the cover art for MAD #539, so although there is really not that much to it, here you go:

I was thrilled to get a call from MAD art director Sam Viviano asking me if I was willing to do the cover art for the next issue. Actually it was more like him asking if I could possibly fit it into my schedule, since he was well aware I was in the middle of doing the art on MAD‘s parody of “The Force Awakes”, which was nine pages and the longest parody in the magazine since I did the spoof of “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” in 2002 (also nine pages). I panicked there for a minute until he described the concept, a send-up of the “adult coloring book” craze. Fortunately that was not going to be a complicated and time consuming image to create, so I had no trouble squeezing it in.

The concept was pretty straight forward. It was to create one of those adult coloring book images with the crazy, dense patterns complete with Alfred coloring himself (badly) as well as the MAD logo and possibly other elements like the teaser copy. The Lovely Anna loves those coloring books, and has a stack of different ones along with about 200 different markers and coloring tools, so I had quite a lot of references laying about to see what kind of look was typical or representative of these books.

The editors send me a very comprehensive layout that pretty much had Alfred’s pose and placement figured out, so I had an easy job of it. After looking over some of Anna’s books that included realistic figures, I sent in this first sketch:

COLORING BOOK cover comp 1

Although that look with the lines defining shadow areas is very typical with realistic figures, it was decided they wanted a simpler look so Alfred would stick out more from the background. I just did a sampling of the pattern so they could see what I had in mind. I also added more MAD icons than their initial comp had, like the Zeppelin and the six fingered hand.

The second sketch:

COLORING BOOK cover comp 2

This one went over well, with just a little tweaking.

These days all MAD covers get “animated” for the digital version of the magazine, so I had to do everything in separate layers for that purpose. Initially I did the pattern a little too dense so I redid it with breathing room. I only did 1/4 of the page as a pattern but the edges are very organic and closed off, allowing them to easily overlap and create a full page pattern that could be manipulated as needed.


The editors were not sure if they wanted the pattern to stop just above the logo so the teaser copy they would add would not be on top of the pattern, so I left it open up there but they could easily place more of the pattern at the top if they wished.

Each separate MAD “Icon” element had a border around it so it could be moved about if needed to accommodate any graphics or type the editors needed to add:

White Spy

zeppelinpoiuytHand and BombFlipArthur

Alfred himself needed a much thicker exterior line and bolder interior lines to help separate him from the background:


I also added spaces for the UPC info, the “ind” and the copyright symbol in the logo by incorporating them into the pattern for the completed black and white version:


I considered using actual crayons to do the color part, but after a little experimenting decided it was going to be too tricky to scan the color elements in and get them on their own layer (which was required for the digital version). So I found a couple of tutorials online on how to create a wax crayon effect in PhotoShop, did a little experimenting with that and ended up with a fairly convincing look:

MAD 539 cover final

That’s it. The MAD editors are very particular about covers so I think this process went remarkably smoothly. It is a pretty simple image so the execution of it went fast. It is a real privilege to have done a cover for MAD!


  1. Paul Rose. says:

    Love this page of art and the story of it’s embryo draft to final completion….gonna have to get this issue so l can doubly enjoy what went into it.

  2. Jack Myhervold says:

    It really is interesting to find out how those different elements come together. I had been wondering if the crayon look was real or digital, and now I know. I think the digital version probably has the most fresh and fun look, compared to what I recall of real crayon strokes. As good as the first Alfred is, the editor’s instincts were on track with the simpler look. Nice collaboration with their thoughts, and your idea’s like the additional icons like the zeppelin etc. It all totally works!. I love the Mad covers, and I am happy to see some variety, and fresh ways of presenting those fun, lively, and humorous cover images!.

  3. Thomas Marsh says:

    Thanks for this Tom! I enjoyed seeing your process, particularly the “obligatory” aspects that are usually not considered by most, such as the UPC code. I also liked the slice of personality from the editors involved and their critiques on the sketches. I work mostly traditional so the digital process will be helpful in my crossing over that bridge.


Sketch o'the Week- Natalia Dyer! @strangerthingstv #strangerthings #nataliadyer @mad.magazine

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