Sunday Mailbag- MAD Owns What?

June 14th, 2015 | Posted in Mailbag

Sunday Mailbag!

Q: In regards to recurring characters like Spy vs Spy, Melvin and Jenkins, and Monroe etc does MAD own the rights to those characters (I’m assuming they DO own Spy vs Spy) or does the original artist/ writer still own them?

A: I am not the best person to ask that question of, since I have nothing to do with the inner working of the magazine or its relationship with freelancers. That said, as far as I know EVERYTHING that is published in MAD Magazine is done as “work for hire”, which means that MAD owns it once they pay you for doing it. That means not just the copyrights to the actual art and writing for individual articles, it also means the concepts and, yes, the recurring characters if any. I do not know of any specific example of any exceptions to this, and in order for a creator to retain ownership of what they create for MAD, they would need a special agreement that is different from the standard one.

This arrangement is not very creator friendly. In fact it’s been a bone of contention more than once with some artists and writers. The most famous one was Don Martin, who left MAD and eventually went to work for Cracked in part because he was unhappy that MAD owned everything he ever did for them. That was not the only reason, mind you, but it was a big part of it. Arnold Roth, who was a contemporary of Harvey Kurtzman and who in fact worked with Kurtzman on Trump and his other post-MAD publications, refused to work for MAD because of the work-for-hire arrangement.

There have been a few examples of MAD taking a recurring feature created by one artist/writer and having another work on the same feature. In some cases, like Spy vs. Spy, that only happened after the original creator (Antonio Prohias in this case) passed away. In some cases, like with “Monroe” or “Celebrity Death Betting Odds”, they found a new creative team for various reasons. “Melvin and Jenkins” is still done only by Kevin Pope (I believe). Al Jaffee still does the Fold-In and will outlive us all, and Sergio Aragonés still does the marginals and “A MAD Look At…”.

Before anyone get’s all indignant about the work-for-hire thing, MAD does not expect everyone to work under that agreement…they just ask them to.  Artists and writers are free to choose not to work for MAD if they don’t like the arrangement. No one puts a gun to their head. It is what it is. Outside of the copyright agreement, MAD respects the talents and rights of their creators very highly. One example of that is the fact that they refuse to hire a copycat artist to continue something like “Spy vs. Spy” if the original creator is out of the picture. Peter Kuper became the new SvS writer/artist after Prohias passed away, and he brought a very different style to the feature. Likewise, when Tom Fowler took over the art on “Monroe”, it was very different from what Bill Wray was doing. Other features they just didn’t continue like “The Lighter Side of…” after Dave Berg‘s passing.

I know I rail against the bad arrangement that is work-for-hire a lot, but I don’t mind it at all with regard to MAD. First, working with MAD has opened a lot of other doors for me with other work. Second, I do not work on my own properties but do mostly movie and TV spoofs that aren’t my own characters or concepts, so in that respect it’s like working on Bugs Bunny artwork for Warner Bros… I don’t own it in the first place. If I ever come up with a brilliant idea for a recurring feature or comic, will I hesitate to bring it to MAD? I guess I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it (if ever).

Thanks to Clive 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!


  1. Doug says:

    Tom, loving the new website.
    Not sure if I missed something, but in the case of Spy vs. Spy, before Peter Kuper got the permanent spot, MAD did hire copycat artists in the wonderful form of mainly Bob Clarke, but also George Woodbridge and a lot of Dave Manak. And the writing was done mainly by Duck Edwing, but also by Dave Manak, John Schneider, Michael Gallagher, Russ Cooper, and Jonathan Bresman.
    As Peter Kuper was getting his footing early on, he was assisted in a couple installments by writers Michael Gallagher and Duck Edwing.
    Of the eight MAD Spy vs. Spy paperback books of original material published between 1965 and 1993, the last two were “ghosted” by Clarke and Edwing.

    • Tom Richmond says:

      Yes, and I knew about that. However my understanding was that was just a temporary measure to keep SvS in the magazine while they figured out how to handle it going forward.

  2. Doug says:

    I’m not sure why I’m in the mood to nitpick this to death…
    Respectfully, “temporary” took around a decade, from ’87 to ’97, for MAD to figure out Kuper was their guy.
    I guess my thought is that MAD liked things just as they were for that decade; mimicking Prohias’ style was more than fine for them. Kuper took it and ran with it in a visual style all his own at the time that MAD went through a whole redesign with #356 to the so-called edgier, modern, slant-logo MAD we know and love today. I’ll shut up now.

    • Tom Richmond says:

      Well, I guess I stand corrected. The guys at MAD are unscrupulous thieves that lived off the talents of Prohias long after his death like ghouls. I’ll be sending in my resignation notice tomorrow.


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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