The other day I received the following e-mail from Mike Powers, a gentlemen I worked with on the Twin’s “Piranhas” shirt. Mike sent the following image to me and said in part:
“I came across this old sign/photo that was my grandfathers, and since you’re a MAD artist, I thought you might find it interesting. I don’t know the origins of the photo, though I should say that it isn’t the original (simply a very old copy, probably from the 40s/50s era). It’s my assumption that this was the image used to create the original depiction of the Mad icon by Norman Mingo, but in all of my online searches, I haven’t found a single image that’s exactly like the photo I have. I thought that you might like seeing this.”
Pictures like this one 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.
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. 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…
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.
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