Monday MADness: Stranger Things Cover Story!

October 30th, 2017 | Posted in MAD Magazine

In late July I got a call from MAD art director Sam Viviano asking me if I was interested in doing the cover of issue #548, which would be a “Stranger Things” theme. I was in the middle of doing the art on Desmond Devlin‘s 7 page parody of “Stranger Things” at the time, so this was a no-brainer for me.

Actually, ANY cover assignment for MAD is always a no-brainer. Covers jobs are rare as there are only six covers a year, and the brilliant Mark Fredrickson deservedly gets 99.9% of them. I had only ever done one other cover for the main magazine, and that was a special kind of project that Mark’s trademark super-realistic style was not suited for. This was different, because it was what I’d consider a “real” cover of MAD in the classic sense… a painted image rooted in a sense of realism but with the MAD touch. I still don’t know why I got the gig rather than Mark, he probably had the flu or something, but I was not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. I was thrilled to get a cover assignment, and was going to do my best to knock it out of the park.

MAD covers are very highly thought out and stringently edited and art directed by the staff, much more so than interior stuff. The editors and art staff hold multiple meetings brainstorming cover concepts and then discuss and plan the covers to the smallest detail. They scrutinize every point of the process so there are often multiple pencil sketches and adjustments all along they way, sometimes even including changes to the final art. I was prepared for a lot of work to get this right.

The concept was pretty simple… a standard “Alfred substitution gag” featuring Alfred as “Eleven” with the main cast surrounding him, looking suitable aghast. That was literally the entire description I got, along with a rough doodle by Sam showing the placement of the characters with respect to the logo and copy. Things got interesting when we discussed the look of the final art. They very specifically asked me NOT to do anything that looked too much like Fredrickson’s realistic style. They wanted a look that was pure me, and not my attempt at a realistic painting. I suggested my “colored line” style, which is something I do for other clients who don’t want too cartoony a feel but also don’t want a fully painted look. With this technique, I still ink the image like I would for my interior MAD art, but then I color the lines rather than leave them black and do a more blended, tighter painting. This gives the image a softer, more painterly look but still retains a certain cartoonishness that sets it apart from a true painted illustration.

On to the roughs… and here’s where I misunderstood Sam’s art direction a bit. I was under the perception that they wanted an Eleven that was more Millie Bobby Brown than Alfred E. Neumen, sort of like what Fredrickson did on the cover of MAD #546. There he morphed the features of Jared Kushner and AEN to create a sort of blend of the two. Thinking that, this was my original rough:

I attempted to use Millie’s caricatured features with some of Alfred’s classic odd-ball proportions to get a morphed look. The MAD guys immediately nixed that idea. The wanted it to be more Alfred and less Mllie. Also my Winona Ryder sucked, and they wanted me to lose the blood coming out of Eleven’s nose as it was too close to the tooth gap and looked weird. So:

I went more Alfred here but kept Millie’s longer face shape. After some back and forth the guys at MAD decided they just wanted the classic Alfred with Eleven’s haircut. Frankly I thought that was best also:

I just dropped in a penciled Alfred I already had saved and worked the hair in. This got approved. Note: still no blood from the nose.  I was told they did not want that, which I thought was a shame since that was a trademark of the character. Anyway, I then inked things up:

That left things ready to paint. The background was up to me, and I thought it would be cool to put them in the “Upside Down”, since it was a cool image and I would be able to pull it off without doing a lot of detail in the background that would fight with the foreground for attention. The Upside Down is a spooky place with an organic, dreamlike quality… very blue and misty with an unfocused feel and big dust motes or particles floating about. I thought the blue-ish colors and blurry quality would really make the foreground figures pop. I got to painting things up.

Two things really bothered me though… no nosebleed, and Alfred was just standing there doing his “What, Me Worry” pose. Often with the “Alfred substitution” covers he is just being one of the characters and the others are reacting like they are appalled or nauseated just because it’s Alfred. That’s fine, a classic in fact, but I was sorry we couldn’t have had him doing something that turned some part of the show over on its head… both as an additional gag and to give the reaction of the others some punch. I thought about pitching some gag with Alfred making something levitating in front of him, some other breakfast food rather than Eggos maybe, or having him putting something gross on the Eggo rather than syrup like ketchup or something, but I couldn’t come up with a good idea of what it could be so I didn’t bother.

Then, as I was painting away, I came up with a really simple gag that both added that extra MAD touch AND included the nosebleed (sort of). So I sent them two versions of the cover. Version one:

And version two:

I thought the addition of the snot coming out of the nose rather than blood was not only classic MAD taking some staple of the subject being spoofed and making it ridiculous, but it also really changed your perception of the reaction of the rest of the gang. The Lovely Anna and I had a bet as to whether the MAD staff would go for the booger gag. I bet they would not. Knowing how particular they are with covers, I thought a last minute gag added in was never going to fly, even one as simple as this. However, Anna won the bet (as usual) and they went for it. Always classy, those MAD guys.

Anyway, it was a fun job and I was especially thrilled to get to do a “real” MAD cover with the NYC MAD staff before the west coast staff took over.


  1. Kyle Webster says:

    Congratulations, Tom, and what a great illustration for the cover!

  2. Bernd Ertl says:

    Great cover, Tom, interesting read, too!

  3. Fun story! Thanks for sharing Tom!

  4. Nasan says:

    This is an awesome cover!

  5. Connie says:

    I love it! Love the snot coming out instead of blood. Perfect touch.

  6. alex carter says:

    This issue looks great. I’ll totally have to stand at the magazine stand in Target and read it for free!


I’m in LA doing back to back Caricature workshops. Here’s the class illustration of workshop no. 1. Visit for all the details and to see where others are scheduled in 2018!

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