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A Cracked Story

I walked into my local comic shop yesterday and what did I find? I mean besides comics featuring women with impossibly big breasts and men with impossibly big thighs… a brand new issue of Cracked Magazine. I knew it was coming, they’d been threatening to publish it for about a year since it was bought by a group of investors. The first issue was supposed to be out in January. This is August, but what the heck! Here’s a news article about it’s return. I’ll get to my thoughts on the new issue in a minute. First I thought I’d tell the story of my brief and stormy professional relationship with Cracked.

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Cover of the “New” Cracked

Back in 1999 I did a parody of the horrific Matthew Broderick “Godzilla” movie as a sample to show new MAD art director Sam Viviano, who was to be a guest at a National Caricaturist Network mini-con in New Britain, CT. Sam was unimpressed, and it would be more than a year later before I would finally get a shot in MAD. In the meantime there was a call on-line via some caricaturist mailing lists for cartoonist submissions for long-time MAD clone Cracked Magazine. Cracked had been purchased by tabloid giant American Media as part of a larger deal, and was saved from the scrapheap by American Media and Weekly World News editor Dick Kulpa. Dick was looking for cartoonists to contribute to the “new” Cracked. I sent the same Godzilla parody to him, which he promptly agreed to publish. As it turned out, Dick wasn’t just looking for new cartoonists, but for new cartoonists willing to work for a fraction of the old page rates! Needless to say the old guard, including cartooning legend John Severin and longtime contributors like Wally Brogan were too professional to work for so little, so they left the magazine. Dick replaced them with unproven, young and often rough talent and began his remake of Cracked. After my “Godzilla” piece, I did three other parodies including “The Sopranos” which I wrote with contributions from a friend of mine, “X-Men” and “Gladiator” written by Barry Dutter. The “Gladiator” parody was by far the best of the work. Here’s a few images from it:

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Click for a larger image
  
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I had a little trouble getting paid in a timely manner, but at this point contributors were being paid eventually. Shortly after the “Gladiator” parody was published I was given a shot in MAD. Dick was very upset about my leaving Cracked for MAD, but let’s be real… not doing so would have been the same as a minor league Triple-A shortstop refusing a call up to the majors. That was no decision at all. In fact, when I was told if I wanted to work for MAD I would have to stop contributing to Cracked, I told them no problem, I no longer drew for Cracked. They asked me when that had happened, and I answered “three seconds ago”.

Dick’s heart was in the right place, and he really believed he could make Cracked succeed. You could not deny he had passion… unfortunately what he did not have was any idea of how to run a humor magazine. He tried to apply formulas that may have worked well in the tabloid world, but ended up making Cracked hard to read and devoid of any focus or identity. It was filled with content that ranged from the somewhat professional to the downright bad, and sales that were already not very good plummeted. In fairness to Dick, I have heard of lots of outside problems that did not help, including distributor issues, anthrax attacks (yes, American Media was the Florida publisher where two employees contracted anthrax in Oct. 2001) and other business disasters.  American Media, having agreed to keep Cracked going only because they had been told by Dick that the magazine would see an increase in circulation under his guidance, pulled the plug. Cracked was defunct briefly, until Dick managed somehow to actually buy the magazine from American Media himself. I have no idea what kind of financial arrangement he made to get that deal done, but he was now the owner of Cracked.

Dick really thought he could turn this thing around. He had he best of intentions. However, in addition to the same problems the magazine had before, now there was no parent company with bottomless pockets to pay contributors, so he had to rely on the cash flow from the distributors to finance the next issue. Bad idea. Distributors are notorious for late payments and cash flow problems. Having to wait for a distributor to pay for one issue’s sales before you can pay the contributors of the next issue is an impossible business model. Needless to say, Cracked quickly had cash problems, and contributors went unpaid. I had some friends who were in this boat, and it wasn’t a good situation. That led to the few decent pro artists they had jumping ship, and Cracked degenerated into little more than a fanzine, filled by art and writing from people who only cared about seeing their work in print because they basically did it for free. Not that all of that was garbage, but a vast majority of it was, and any chance the magazine had was gone. There was one point where more than 6 months went by between issues of this “monthly” magazine, as problems with distribution, payments to printers and who knows what else wreaked havoc. Eventually Cracked just plain stopped publishing, and it looked like it had slipped into oblivion. I don’t pretend to know all the details, but the end result is undeniable. Despite some differences I had with Dick over his running of the magazine, I never wanted him to fail or for Cracked to stop publishing. The world is plenty big enough for more than one humor magazine. It was too bad that Cracked eventually went silent.

Now it seems they are back. I picked up the new issue and I have to give the new creators credit… Cracked is no longer a MAD copycat, which was a stigma Cracked has had (and deserved) since it’s inception. The new format bears no resemblance to MAD or the old Cracked. This is a totally different animal. I don’t know exactly what it is, but it’s different. It seems to be part Onion, part Maxim and part Entertainment Weekly. There are only a few cartoons in it, and they seem out of place. The magazine takes pot shots at obvious targets like Tom Cruise which seem a lot more mean spirited than they do funny… it doesn’t take any skill to smash something with a sledgehammer. I’ve always found that humor based on using words like “douchebag”, “F*#king” and other crude language to be lazy comedy. The humor presented here is less clever than the Daily Show (even though it boasts some writers from that show), but in the same sort of observation and blunt skewering of todays’ world style… except focused on pop-culture/entertainment rather than current events like the Onion and the Daily Show. I found the new magazine to be tough to read, with a schizophrenic layout and graphics overload. It seems to me like a magazine not entirely sure where it’s going or what it’s saying, so it’s sort of shouting a lot of things all at the same time. I am sure, if allowed to, it will settle into a rhythm and find a more focused voice over time.

Again, I have to give props to the new team for having the guts to go in a totally new direction, and to give up the MAD copycat format. Still, it’s confusing to me exactly why they would bother to buy the rights to Cracked at all if they intended to create a radically different magazine. I find it hard to believe that the “Cracked” name and brand is worth anything in terms of recognition or newsstand presence. Then again, I am sure it did not cost the investors much to buy the rights from Kulpa, and there is some value in the catalogue of art and content from the long existence of the magazine. I am assuming that, by buying the rights to the magazine itself, they also now own the rights to all previous content which they can reprint at will. Cracked followed the MAD template (although I think certain agreements with artists like Don Martin were different) and all content for the magazine was done as work-for-hire (GASP!). That means they own the copyrights to all the content from Cracked’s forty plus year’s of publishing. Perhaps they will take advantage of that in the form of archive books or collections… if there is any real market for that. Regardless, they for some reason thought having the Cracked name and logo on this entirely different magazine would be better than calling it “Betty” and putting it out there. On the other hand, I bought an issue and am writing about it here, whereas I likely would not have if it had been called “Betty the Magazine” and had no cartooning or illustration in it to interest me, so maybe their evil plan is working!

Monty Sarhan, Cracked’s Editor-in-Chief, says in his opening column that the world needs a voice to poke holes in the cult of personality and celebrity, and that Cracked is that voice. He goes on to note that in today’s world Americans prefer to get their news “from Jon Stewart” rather than the networks, that TIME and NEWSWEEK now feature joke sections, that humor is a “necessary layer making information more palatable” and that comedians are often “respected political commentators”. That world, he says, needs a magazine like Cracked on the stands. It seems to me he is arguing why the world does NOT need such a magazine, when the same kind of humor and satire is prevalent everywhere and no longer the unique domain of a few publications. Time will tell if the new Cracked is on to something… or on something. I wish them luck and hope it’s the former.

4 Responses to “A Cracked Story”

  1. Matt. says:

    Good read. I remember picking one of these issues up years ago and dismissing it as a cheap cabon copy of MAD. So, is ‘Cracked’ what gave you enough exposure to work for MAD, or..?

  2. Tom says:

    Yes, I do have to give some credit to my work in Cracked for finally getting into MAD. They gave me the opportunity to develop my art and storytelling in a MAD format in print, and that was a big help. I got the feeling that some of the folks at Cracked thought I got my chance in MAD because I was IN Cracked, and MAD wanted to steal me, but that is ridiculous. First off, I wasn’t that good. Secondly, MAD didn’t give me a parody to do for almost 7 months after I did my first job for them. Third, Sam Viviano and Nick Meglin made it plain to me it was my progression in skill and ability that interested them, and I could have demonstrated that without being published in Cracked. I got no art direction and learned nothing working for Cracked that I did not impose and teach myself. I sent my work to MAD after I did each job for Cracked, they didn’t see it in the magazine unless they went out and got it each month, and I gaurantee that did not happen. They could have cared less what Cracked was doing. I appreciated my time with Cracked, but was never sorry it was over.

  3. Todd Jackson says:

    Hey Tom, I think I can put a little light on the situation about why they went with Cracked – distribution. Even with the spotty distribution Cracked had, it was a name that distributors were used to hearing for over 40 years. It’s incredibly difficult for an independent magazine to get any placement on a wide range of newsstands. A new name will find it very hard to coax a cash-hoarding distributor or a struggling newsstand to give up space for it. If you can buy a name that they are used to shelving, you’re more likely to get placement. The value of Cracked isn’t so much in any of the older work but in the history of being a name that a distributor and a newsseller might recognize.

    You make a very interesting point about how the pervasiveness of humor creates an argument against humor magazines. Certainly that was the case with SPY after a while, which found all of its innovations co-opted by the rest of media. However, I think the one advantage humor magazines could have is that there’s places that the rest of the mainstream media cannot go. The only question is – do such places exist?

  4. Tom says:

    Thanks for the thoughts, Todd. I can see the logic there and it makes sense. After all, even with the radical new format it’s still a ‘humor’ magazine and in the same basic genre… it’s not like they bought “Ladie’s Home Journal” and turned it into a sports magazine.

    As to your second point, the portability and convenience of paper publications has always seemed to me to be their saving grace in a multi-media world. After all, you still can’t fold up your computer and read the sports section on the train into work or in the lunchroom. Laptops are still too unwieldy and wifi isn’t everywhere… but how long will that last? Someday newspapers and magazines will be delivered wirelessly on a nationwide wifi network that acts as our cell phone, internet and TV source. People will have a PC tablet that is 9×12 and 1/4 inch thick, making it portable and still large enough to be legible and easy to read. That will be the death knell for printed publications.

    Thanks again for your comments. Well thought out.

 

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