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Sunday Monday Mailbag

Q: Before you worked for MAD, was it your goal to work for MAD? And at this point, did you really believe you would work for MAD? How did you get your first gig with them?

A: Working for MAD was a relatively late goal of mine, although once I became focused on it I went all out. Here’s the short version of the story:

Like many American boys I had a time when I was really “into” MAD Magazine. This was between 5th and 7th grades, so I would have been 10-12 years old. My friend had a subscription, so when his copy arrived I would bike over to his place and we’d pour over the new issue, look back at old issues, and then draw cartoons and our own stories in the MAD vein. Wacky Packages were also big with us, and we’d do our own parodies of products and stuff we saw in our parent’s cabinets and about the house. Fun stuff, but then I moved away with my family and didn’t see another copy of MAD for about 6 years. So, no. I did not grow up dreaming of working for MAD… in fact I didn’t even think about working for them at the time we did all those drawings. I was just having fun drawing.

When I was 18 I got a job doing caricatures at a theme park near Chicago called Six Flags Great America. I moved down there and lived in a town home with five other artists and near another apartment with four more of the crew. Many of these guys had copies of MAD stuffed into their backpacks and bags, and I got another look at the magazine I had loved as a kid. Having now had a year of art school under my belt, some actual experience in doing caricature, and having decided humorous illustration was something I wanted to pursue, I was stunned at the brilliance of the artwork in MAD. I did not remember the art being so incredible—I just thought it was really funny as a kid. As an adult, I realized now how amazing it was. That’s about the time I thought working for MAD would be pretty cool. I had no illusions about doing it anytime soon, as I knew my work as a LOOOOOONG way from being good enough to be in the magazine. Maybe someday. This was 1985.

Years later I started doing comic book work for NOW Comics out of Chicago, and attended my first San Diego Comic-Con as a professional in (I think) 1992. MAD’s Nick Meglin was there, looking at portfolios. In those days, even the SDCC was small enough that you could stand in line to get your portfolio looked at by the bigger companies, unlike today where you either have to win a lottery or know someone. Anyway I showed Nick my work and he basically dismissed it without much encouragement. I didn’t really think I had a chance, but that was sort of discouraging so I didn’t bother to send any work to MAD for a long time. In the meantime I moved on from comics to start doing magazine illustration, advertising and the like. After that I mostly forgot about MAD, and didn’t pick up a copy of the magazine again for years.

Sometime in the late 90′s, after years of hearing people tell me “you should work for MAD Magazine”, I started thinking about giving it a try again and began to pick up recent issues. This time I noticed something different—a few new names were appearing under artist credits in the magazine along side the usual Usual Gang of Idiots. That got me thinking that maybe there were some doors that might be peeking open at MAD that had previously been locked tight. By this time I was keeping steady with decent paying, if not nationally distributed, freelance work, and the quality of my work had progressed. I thought it might be time to send some work into MAD, although I was still not convinced I had the chops for it quite yet. In 1998, I had the opportunity to correspond with the great Mort Drucker thanks to the efforts of my wife, The Lovely Anna. Mort likewise encouraged me to approach MAD with my work. In 1999 I attended my first National Cartoonists Society Reuben Weekend, and got the opportunity to show my work to Nick Meglin again, this time with the help of DC/MAD book editor Charlie Kochman. Nick of course didn’t remember me from seven years earlier at Comic-Con, and he once again dismissed my work, but this time with a lot more interest in where it might go in the near future. Charlie was very supportive. He pointed to specific pieces of mine that he said was very close to the kind of work MAD responded to, and strongly encouraged me to keep sending in new pieces for review. It was about that time when I began to think I could really make this happen.

That same year I became president of the National Caricaturist Network (now the International Society of Caricature Artists), and I planned a mini-con for the organization around the opening of an exhibition of the work of Al Hirschfeld in New Britain, Ct. I invited long time MAD artist (and newly instated art director) Sam Viviano to be our guest speaker. There I showed him my latest work, this time including a sample parody I had done specially for the review. Once again I was told I was not good enough for the magazine, but by this time I really did have my sights set on breaking into MAD. I believed if I worked hard enough at improving my skills, I could do it.

To make a long story less long (and this is the short version, remember), after a brief stint at Cracked Magazine I finally got the nod from MAD, and my first appearance in the magazine was in October of 2000, issue #399, although that wasn’t technically the first “job” I had from them. It took perseverance, hard work, a lot of luck, and belief that I could do it. Also, their standards had plunged greatly, and I worked (work) cheap.

Thanks to Danesh Mohiuddin for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!

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3 Responses to “Sunday Monday Mailbag”

  1. Hi Tom,
    Thanks so much for the response. That’s so great that you dedicate so much time to write back to relatively anonymous fans such as myself :) Your story is extremely inspirational, but I do have to disagree with you one particular point… and this was your last point! I think that if you had applied in the sixties or seventies you would have still gotten in with your talent, skill and perseverance!
    As you might have guessed, I’m aiming to work for Mad as well one day, and your story gives me lots of encouragement. Thanks for making such a positive impact on my entire psyche and giving me a boost for the new year! Hopefully one day when we meet it will be as two fellow Mad artists!
    Best of the luck for the new year..
    Cheers,
    Danesh

  2. Leo Kelly says:

    Tom–Thanks for the post. What sort of things did you do to improve?

    • Tom says:

      No secrets there. I did a lot of work, examined and was objective about my shortcomings, and addressed them with the next round of drawings.

 

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