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Sunday Mailbag: Who is Alfred E. Neuman?

Sunday, September 25th, 2011

Q: Since I was a kid, I always wondered about Alfred E. Newman. He is one freaky looking guy, with one eye higher than the other. And that creepy smile…  He’s an icon, yet also genetics-gone-awry. Who created him, and when?  I’ve always been curious about Mad’s Cover Boy.

A: Ahhhh… who created Alfred E. Neumen? That’s a question that has no certain answer, but a lot of interesting history.

An ad for dentistry, circa 1910

alfred.jpg

Pictures like the ones above have been cropping up since MAD first adopted the image of the smiling, idiotic boy who would eventually be known as Alfred E. Neuman. The true origins of MAD‘s ‘mascot’, will probably never be known for certain. Images of the smiling, gap toothed boy have been a part of American pictorial history since at least the early 1900′s, and some evidence points to his appearance in the later 1800′s. His image, in various depictions and by various artists, has been seen in advertisements for “painless dentistry” (often with the the phrase “It Didn’t Hurt a Bit”) and medicines, political postcards belittling Roosevelt’s run for a third term in 1941, logos for cafes and soda bottles, Broadway playbills, and assorted other places. All were obviously depictions of the same kid although done by different artists… freckles, goofy grin with the missing tooth, big ears, wide head and messy red/brown hair. His catch phrase “Me- worry?” (MAD would later add the “What…”) began to appear with his image as early as 1914. Alfred’s true origins remain a mystery.

Legend has it that in 1954, MAD editor Harvey Kurtzman, while in the office of Ballantine Books editor Bernard Shir-Cliff, spotted a postcard with a picture of the “Me- Worry” kid on the bulletin board. He had seen and was intrigued by the various versions of the image he’d come across over the years. He was convinced that the boy depicted on the postcard in Shir-Cliff’s office was the original, or one of the earliest incarnations. Shir-Cliff gave Kurtzman the postcard, and Kurtzman used the image several times in the early MAD comic books.

The boy’s first appearance was not in the comic but on the cover of the MAD Reader, the first MAD reprint anthology. He first appeared in a regular issue of MAD on the cover of issue #21, which was a fake mail order catalog form, and the boy’s image was a small part of one of the fake ads. When MAD became a magazine, the boy’s face appeared in the center of a decorative border that was used in early issues, complete with his “What, Me Worry?” catch phrase. He also began to appear in cameos in various inside articles. Readers noticed, and letters began to arrive asking about the “What, Me Worry” kid. Obviously Kurtzman’s fascination with the gap-toothed simpleton’s mug was contagious. In issue #27, a full page picture of the kid was published in black and white on the inside back cover, and higher quality prints were made available for 15 cents… no word on whether they sold well or not.

So far the grinning boy had no official name. He’d been referred to as the “What, Me Worry?” kid, Melvin Coznowski and Mel Haney, but not Alfred E. Neuman. According to Kurtzman, that name was used in MAD and other E.C. comics as a gag name for various jokes unrelated to the kid’s image… it was taken from the Henry Morgan radio show, which used it as a bit character’s name. Morgan got it in turn from a hollywood musical director named Alfred Newman. Kurtzman credits readers for putting the unrelated but mentioned name to the face. He was officially referred to as “Alfred E. Neuman” in MAD #29, in a one page ad parody.

Al Feldstein took over for Kurtzman as editor as of issue #29. Feldstein and Nick Meglin, a young associate editor, recognized in Alfred the kind of mascot potential that was seen in images like the Playboy Bunny. Feldstein advertised for an illustrator to do a definitive, color illustration of Alfred E. Neuman for a cover. He found advertising illustrator and painter Norman Mingo. Mingo’s rendition of Alfred appeared on issue #30, and Alfred has appeared on nearly every cover of MAD ever since. He quickly became the face of MAD, representing MAD‘s unique brand of irreverent humor and satire. Alfred has since become a bona-fide giant part of the American zeitgeist, referred to in all manner of media and pop-culture.

alfredmingo.jpg
Mingo’s classic original Alfred from issue #30

Unfortunately, MAD‘s runaway popularity made it and Alfred a target for lawsuits. MAD was sued several times by the late fifties by people claiming copyright infringement, saying they owned the rights to one of all those depictions of Alfred prior to MAD‘s adoption of him. In the mid sixties, one of those cases made it all the way to the Supreme court. Helen Pratt Stuff sued MAD for the use of the boy’s image, claiming her late husband had created and copyrighted the image in 1914 as part of a postcard not seen in print since 1920. Stuff had renewed the copyright in 1941, and she had successfully sued several other people who she claimed infringed on the work. MAD was able to prove in Federal Appellate Court that Stuff had both failed to protect the copyright by not contesting every known use of the image, and that the image had been in use by others prior to the filing of the copyright in 1914. All previous copyrights were invalidated by the courts. The Supreme Court upheld the ruling. Alfred remained the face of MAD.

Personally I can attest to the particular attention that is paid to Alfred to this day by the MAD editors and creative team. I was told early on that any depictions of Alfred should be based solidly on the Mingo original. Artists are not allowed to do 3/4′s or profiles of Alfred… we can only draw the front or back of his head directly. I was told not to try and ‘caricature’ Alfred or place my own stamp on his features. Very few artists have earned the right to do their own versions of Alfred… Sergio, Jack Davis, Mort Drucker, Paul Coker Jr., Sam Viviano and John Caldwell are the only ones that come to mind to me. Alfred is also never to have a word balloon or have words coming from his mouth (although the editors have broken this rule themselves many times in the magazine’s table of contents, where they have an Alfred “quote” feature). His expression can be changed in certain circumstances, but that is rare and needs editorial approval. What Alfred is doing and how he’s doing it is also very thoroughly discussed and directed. The folks at MAD are very protective of Alfred and want to make sure he doesn’t do anything out of character. Because of their careful protection of the character, Alfred remains Alfred today.

I’ve added Alfred now and again into some of my parodies as a background character. You don’t see that too often anymore except by Sergio. I should do it more often…

alfredhead.jpg
Alfred by me, done as an icon for this site

If you are interested in a lot more detail about Alfred’s origins and his history in MAD, I would recommend the book Completely MAD by Maria Reidelbach. It contains an entire chapter on Alfred, and includes details of some of his appearances outside MAD, his history in the magazine and lots of the early images I mentioned here. In fact, it’s a good book for the history of MAD in general. You can also check out this wikipedia entry.

Thanks to Connie Nobbe 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!

Can You “CD” Alfred Face?

Thursday, May 14th, 2009

Alfred Head CDS

Neil Cuadra is getting more press for his latest CD effort than Axl Rose got for “Chinese Democracy”… but then again that’s not saying much.

Cuadra is a huge MAD fan from Los Angelses, CA who fulfilled “a dream” by getting a letter published in MAD‘s “Letters and Tomatoes Dept.” by sending in his portrait of Alfred E. Neuman created by nothing but AOL junk mail CDs. Inspired by a MAD parody chastising AOL for all the junk diskettes they used to send out (since changed to CDs), Cuadra collected the shiny junk disks from AOL and other companies for over ten years until he had enough to create his portrait, which is 400 square feet. You can read about Neil’s MAD artistic endeavor on the Associated Press website. The AP story has been picked up on a number of websites and print media.

MAD published Cuadra’s letter and picture of his creation in issue #500, followed by a typical snarky remark by “Ed”:

“You just blew our mind. You used junk mail from AOL to create a piece of art that became junk mail to US! The circle is now complete! We look forward to your rendition of Spy Vs. Spy made entirely of Valpack coupons!”

Alfred Art Show & How to Draw Alfred!

Thursday, January 3rd, 2008

Alfred E. Neuman is one of the most recognized pop culture icons in the world. Go figure, but it’s true. MAD didn’t invent him, he’s actually been around since the 1800′s, appearing in ads for children’s dentistry and other products. Maria Reidelbach‘s book “Completely MAD: A History of the Comic Book and Magazine” has a whole chapter on the origin of Alfred, but the bottom line is that nobody really knows for certain when the grinning gap-toothed idiot really first appeared in pop culture.

As the story goes, original MAD editor Harvey Kurtzman had seen images of the “What- Me Worry? kid” from old ads here and there and was always intrigued by it. One day he was in a book editor’s office when he saw the grinning kid on an old postcard tacked on his wall. Thinking it was the original image, he was given it by his colleague and the kid first appeared associated with MAD on the cover of “The MAD Reader“, the first reprint anthology. He then made the magazine as part of an illustrated clip art fake mail order piece in MAD #21. Later he was incorporated into the illustrated border of MAD’s covers. In issue #27 they reproduced the kid on the inside back cover with posters available for fifteen cents (cheap!)… he also was added to the dense crowd scene on the cover of that issue as done by Jack Davis. New(er) editor Al Feldstein and associate editor Nick Meglin by then had recognized that this kid, up until then referred to as either Melvin Coznowski, Mel Haney or the What, Me Worry? kid, was resonating with readers. Feldstein decided to commission an artist to do an original and definitive version of the kid and annoint him MAD mascot. They found longtime advertising illustrator Norman Mingo through a New York Times ad to do the painting, and they dubbed him “Alfred E. Neuman” on the cover of MAD #30. The rest is history.

This month there will be a special exhibit of Alfred E. Neuman art, which will include early Alfred images as well as lot’s of MAD artwork, at the Eastern Michigan University Art Gallery in Ypsilanti, Michigan. The show is from the collection of John Hett. Here’s the news blurb from their myspace site:

January 8 to February 7, 2008 - Alfred, We Hardly Knew Thee (MAD Comic Exhibition)
Ford Gallery
Reception: TBD

An instantly recognizable popular icon, Alfred E. Newman was born in the nineteenth century and was used extensively before debuting as the symbol of MAD magazine in 1954. This exhibition, drawn from the collection of John Hett, will illuminate the history of this character. Before being appropriated by MAD, Alfred’s face and slogan, “What Me Worry,” were familiar to American and British audiences as seen in advertising as well as in social commentary on immigrants and working class minorities. The show will consist of early images of Alfred as well as images from the MAD years.

“Alfred, We Hardly Knew You” Lecture
Wednesday, Jan. 23, Time TBD
Speaking: John Hett and Al Feldstein
107 Ford Hall

John Hett, collector and editor and publisher of the Journal of Madness, will speak on the history of Alfred E. Newman and the creation of his collection. Al Feldstein, editor of Mad magazine for over thirty years, will discuss the selection and use of this character in MAD.

John is a well respected MAD collector and expert, and hearing Al Feldstein speak would be a real treat.

Alfred is still of course a big part of MAD. He is also something the MAD staff keep close tabs on. When I first started with MAD, I was told in no uncertain terms not to try and do “my interpretation” of Alfred. I am to do the Mingo original if I incorporate Alfred into anything. No profiles, no three quarters, no changing of expressions. Even minute changes in Alfred’s expression or look, or any situation Alfred may be placed in, needs to be approved by the staff. Alfred has a true identity and they do not want to see him “out of character”. Only certain long time MAD artists are allowed to have their own versions of Alfred, and they include Sergio Aragones, Al Jaffee, Mort Drucker, Paul Coker and maybe a few others.

A year or so ago I was a judge in an illustration “contest” exercise through the National Caricaturist Network where participants had to create a MAD cover illustration of “Rocky 6″. A lot of the participants were kind of glossing over Alfred, so I put together the following mini-lesson on drawing Alfred for them. I though it might be of interest:

Originally posted on the NCN forum, November 06:

MAD instructs all it’s artists to copy the Norman Mingo Alfred exactly. Rendering and such is up to some interpretation, expression can be altered to accommodate a gag IF IT”S IMPORTANT, but that requires full editorial approval. Usually the grin and the eye contact with the viewer is not to be changed. Hair, clothes, accessories, etc. are all able to be changed for gag purposes.

However the basic proportions need to be accurate. People seem to be missing this. I’ve seen drawing of Alfred with small cranial mass, big jaws, tiny eyes, huge foreheads… lots of departures from the accurate proportions. If you want to create something that could be a real MAD cover, you have to respect Alfred’s visual look just like Payne, Parada, Fredrickson or any of the recent MAD covers artists are required to do.


Mingo’s original Alfred from MAD #30

To draw Alfred, the best thing to do is just trace or project the basic proportions from the mingo original (at least until you’ve drawn him enough to be able to do it in your sleep). Here they are and the placement of them:

Notice that while he has a straight vertical centerline, his horizontals are tilted lower on the right. The corners of his eyes and mouth are in a line with his neck on the left side (his right), but not on the left. His eyes are famously crooked, with the right lower than the left. the tops of each ear line up with the outside corner of each eye, making them skewed as well. Do not depart from these proportions, or your Alfred will be “off”.

Here’s an “MAD approved” drawing of Alfred:

Take a close look at your drawing of Alfred and study the proportions. Really look. Are they accurate? They have to be. Trace the whole thing if you must. It’s important that Alfred is “on model”.

Here’s another Alfred I did as an icon for this site:

 

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