Q: How do I break into MAD?
A: If you want to break into MAD, the easiest way is with a grappling hook, 50 feet of rope, a glass cutter and suction cups. You can bribe your way in on Wednesdays with home baked cookies offered to Dick DeBartolo.
Seriously, getting into MAD is notoriously hard to do, but it isn’t quite the impenetrable fortress it was in the 70’s and 80’s. Back then MAD had their legendary freelancers in their prime, and there was frankly very little work they had in the magazine that one of their established and well known “Usual Gang of Idiots” was not available to do. It was ‘a closed shop’ as was quoted among hopeful freelancers. Today is a little bit different.
MAD‘s long time artists are slowing down, going into retirement, semi-retirement or just plain have less interest in tight deadlines and overwhelming amounts of work. Who can blame them? Their terrific work has defined the magazine for 60 years! Now that the magazine is in color, the dynamic has changed somewhat and artists who work in color have more of a shot at getting their chance than those who work in black and white only. The magazine is also striving to establish a more modern look and identity in the 21st century, and is more open to newer styles and different aesthetics than the traditional MAD look. These changes have opened the doors a little to new artist’s work. Given all that, MAD is still a tough nut to crack. In order to ‘break in’, you need three things firmly in place: have work that they like a lot, demonstrate professionalism and be in the right place at the right time.
Do work they like– This first point may be the hardest. MAD‘s idea of work they like isn’t necessarily the same as just “great work.” There are lots of artists that are terrific and that the editors and art staff are impressed by, but they feel their work just doesn’t fit the magazine. Many caricaturists fit this mold. I know of several who’s caricature work is exemplary, but who suffer from “caricaturist disease.” That’s a syndrome where a caricature artist thinks the world stops at the neck. They are so focused on the face they ignore the rest of the universe. MAD looks for artists who create their own world as seen through their own eyes, meaning the chairs, cars and toilets they draw have as much personality as their caricatures. MAD also looks for artists who can ‘sell a gag’ as I have mentioned before, meaning their artwork makes a written joke funnier and easier to understand. They also look for uniqueness. They don’t want Mort Drucker or Jack Davis clones. Finally, they are always looking for the “MAD feel”, which doesn’t seem to have a quantifiable definition.
Demonstrate Professionalism– This seems like an oxymoron as MAD is famous for self-deprecation and bucking the rules, but don’t let that facade fool you. These guys know their business and expect their freelancers to hit deadlines, do professional work and take art and editorial direction like a pro. The easiest way to demonstrate this is by having a body of work already established… in comics, magazine illustration, advertising, etc. It’s very, VERY hard to do work for MAD without having established credentials as a cartoonist or illustrator. MAD has been at the top of it’s genre for 50 plus years, and they don’t need to act as a proving ground for young, inexperienced talent. Unfortunately the MAD knock-offs that DID act as such a proving ground are basically all gone now. Having a portfolio with published work is basically a must.
Be in the right place at the right time- This means just get lucky. In order to get work from MAD they first must have a job available to give you. Here’s how the distribution of freelance work happens at MAD (as I understand it): First, the editorial and art staff meet with the features and articles that need art for upcoming issues. They start out with the “A” list of freelancers, or those who’s work is in almost every issue. They assign jobs to them as they see the individual artist’s style fits the piece, taking into account the artist’s availability, etc. Once all the “A’ listers are busy with something, they move on to the “B” list, or those who’s work is in the magazine consistently a few times a year. If there is any work left over at this point, they move on to the ‘best of the rest’, meaning those artists who have done some work in the past but aren’t really regulars. If anything is still left over, they will start considering new artists. As you might imagine, many months might go by without ever reaching that point.
There are two features in MAD that allow for new artists to get a ‘tryout’ without MAD having to commit a deadline or multiple pages to: “The Fundalini Pages” and “The Strip Club”. The “Fundalini Pages” is a three page collection of short gags, features and jokes that often need a spot illustration, and I’ve seen numerous new artists crop up there. The “Strip Club” is a multi-page feature containing comic strips that have edgy and quirky subjects and feels to them, and many new artists have appeared in that. Getting work in these sections is a little more likely and can lead to bigger assignments.
There is no secret address or password that will get your work in front of “the right person”. Not even home baked cookies will make any difference. Trust me when I say that anyone who sends work into MAD will get the proper attention paid to it, usually by Sam Viviano himself. Send artwork to “MAD Magazine, Sam Viviano- Art Director, 1700 Broadway, New York, NY 10019”. Writers can submit via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Do not e-mail any artwork, always mail it. Here is a link to their submission guidelines for more info. My advice is only send them strong, publishable type work, and leave the cool sketches you ripped out of your sketchbook at home. They aren’t interested in your ‘potential’, they just want to see work they could envision reproduced in the magazine.
Finally, be patient. Continue to send submissions in periodically. That way you have the best shot of having your work happen to be on Sam’s desk the day they are looking for someone to do a Fundalini spot. Never send the same thing twice, always make it new work they haven’t seen yet. Don’t get discouraged… after all, if I can get into MAD anybody can!
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