There’s been a lot of discussion over “teh interweb” the last few days about DC Comic’s announcement that MAD will be switching to a quarterly as of issue #500 in April. I’ve read a lot of lamenting about “the good old days” and some expected responses about how it’s what MAD deserves because its “content has gone downhill” in the last 5, 10, 15, 20 years…. blah, blah, blah. Some people are determined to blame the content of MAD for the current state of the magazine.
Anybody who honestly thinks the problems MAD has had with its circulation and readership is a result of its content does not:
- Actually read the magazine
- Know anything about the current state of the magazine/periodical business
Those who write on message boards and in response forums that MAD has “lost its edge” and “isn’t what it used to be” remind me of MAD scribe Desmond Devlin‘s “The Untold History of MAD” article from MAD #400, which recounted the following part of MAD‘s historical timeline:
Also in 1952: The second issue of MAD goes on sale December 9th, 1952. On December 11, the first-ever letter complaining that MAD “just isn’t as funny and original as it used to be” arrives.
That’s funny because back in the 70’s MAD got letters from people saying it had gone downhill since the 60’s, and those in the 80’s said the magazine wasn’t as sharp as it was in the 70’s… etc. MAD art director Sam Viviano nails it when he says that MAD was “at its best when you first started reading it.” I really get a kick out of people who register for the MAD message boards and post once to complain how terrible the magazine is, but in the process of doing so admit they haven’t really read it in decades and just picked it up on the news stand that day and were appalled to find it wasn’t exactly as they remembered it. I find most of the people I engage in a discussion of the quality of the art and writing content in MAD today are basing their opinions not on having actually read any number of recent issues, but simply by dismissing it from quick glances or hearsay from others who also probably haven’t read any recent issues.
Dismissing the current content of the magazine as poor and blaming it for MAD‘s struggles is just plain wrong.
Admittedly I might be a little biased, but I think the content in MAD has been on an upswing for the last several years. Particularly on the political side, MAD has been producing some of it’s sharpest content in a long time lately. They have some exceptional artists and writers still working for them, in particular Hermann Mejia, who if you don’t think deserves to be included in the same class as greats like Jack Davis and Mort Drucker then you don’t know what you are talking about. The fore mentioned Desmond Devlin is consistently funny and poignant in his skewering of pop culture and current events. John Caldwell‘s contributions are always funny and enjoyable. Features like “The Fundalini Pages” and “The Strip Club” are positive and entertaining new content that are a departure from the traditional model. Writers like Jeff Kruse, Barry Liebmann and several others have been doing some funny political work lately. The movie and TV parodies have unfortunately become smaller parts of the content recently, but still accurately point out the absurdities and shortcomings of their subjects as penned by Devlin, Dick DeBartolo, Arnie Kogen and others. Sergio Aragonés is as good as they get. There is plenty of good writing and art in MAD today. Is it all great? No, hardly. There are features that fall flat and MAD struggles to find a balance between the Farely brothers excuse for humor that kids seem to find appealing and something more intelligent. However nostalgia aside there were plenty of duds in the classic MAD days that appeared between the brilliance… it isn’t that much different today.
MAD‘s real problem is one they cannot avoid… they are a magazine. Name me a single magazine, outside tabloid trash peddlers, that isn’t struggling badly right now. I suppose that’s all about content also, right? TV Guide used to sell over 20 million copies a WEEK, and now they sell about 3 million copies… I suppose the quality of their TV schedules has badly declined. Playboy used to sell over 7 million copies an issue and today they are at 3 million copies…. of course we all know the quality of naked women has decreased dramatically since the 70’s. Newspapers are in serious trouble right now, and I guess we can blame that on the poor quality of news reporting and writing in the papers, yes? Look at reading materials that target the younger generation… comic books titles are considered wildly successful best sellers today at levels that would have seen them canceled as dismal failures in the 70’s. The magazine industry, its ad revenue business model and its inefficient distribution system has eroded substantially under the weight of other sources of media consumption and in the last 10 years dramatically from largely free internet content and the exponentially growing number of households with computers and internet access. This is especially true with the younger generation, who have been weaned on getting their media and entertainment through a web browser. MAD‘s circulation started declining around the time cable TV exploded in households and video arcades started popping up on every street corner. Since then things like constantly advancing gaming consoles, increasing TV content choices and ultimately “teh interweb” had directly competed for the attention and entertainment dollars of the younger generation.
I’m not saying that none of the problems with circulation are internal. MAD has been trying different tactics and directions in an effort to appeal to a new generation of readers, and some of it has met with bad results. You can bet the farm that a lot of the decisions to replace cartoon and illustration based content with in-house pages like photo outtakes, text driven and photoshopped articles and features like “spot the difference”, etc are a result of trying to accommodate cost cutting demands from upstairs. Corporate cost cutting efforts also cut a great portion of their staff quietly over the last few years, leaving them with a smaller staff that has been seriously overworked. In their efforts to cut costs and to compete with the internet, these cost cutting ventures have been eroding the very content that separates MAD from all that free internet stuff… the cartooning and writing that you don’t find online very often. However I will again point out that what’s mostly causing the struggles of MAD and any magazine on the stands these days has nothing to do with the content. MAD saw its biggest drop in circulation from 1974 to 1984, when the content was still being created by the legendary talents that made MAD great. Even if the 2009 MAD was given carte blanche to create as its editorial department saw fit, would it make that big of a difference in today’s marketplace? I’d argue that a MAD today with all its past geniuses at the height of their powers creating every page in the magazine would be in the same boat today’s MAD is.
So what’s next? In my opinion MAD will need to find a combination web/print model if it wants to adapt to the 21st century, which is exactly what all magazines that want to survive will need to do. There is ongoing discussion about how to accomplish this at MAD. I think it likely some of the more timely content will start appearing on the web in some form, and the quarterly will hopefully be more richly illustrated and written, to take advantage of the longer production time and the few advantages print has over electronic media. MAD is a valuable property and brand, and it won’t go away entirely for that very reason. It faces the same challenges as all magazines today do, which has less to do with what’s between their covers than it does with the health of the marketplace it is trying to survive in.
MAD is one of the few places that cartooning and illustration of its kind appears, and if it ceases publication entirely the world will be a poorer place.
Tags: MAD Magazine