The MAD staff is just putting the finishing touches on issue #550, which goes to press next week. It will be the last issue of MAD produced in New York City, where MAD has been produced for over 65 years. Last night there was a “wrap” party of sorts for the staff and major contributors at the Society of Illustrators. I flew in from my vacation in Orlando to say goodbye (professionally anyway) to some people who have been a very important part of my life for over 17 years. I turned in my last assignment with the NYC staff on Sunday.
Let me preface the following by saying this is not a eulogy for MAD Magazine. The publication is moving out west to Burbank to join the rest of DC Comics, and issue #551 is already in production with a new staff under Executive Editor Bill Morrison. I’m already working on my first assignment with Bill and his team, and I’m looking forward to seeing where MAD goes as the 21st century nears it’s third decade.
All that said, this is the end of an era. I don’t believe anyone on the new MAD staff ever even met, let alone worked with, original MAD publisher Bill Gaines. A connection to the deep roots of something that was a major part of American pop culture is ending. This is a true changing of the guard.
I pride myself in being a professional, capable of detaching myself from the emotional ties that any creative work inevitably is complicated by, but I have to say I have been struggling with this. I cannot really put into words what working with these folks has meant to me. It would be hard to count the ways it’s affected my life and career:
It’s safe to say it was the fulfillment of a childhood dream. I spend many hours with my 4th and 5th grade buddies pouring over copies of the magazine and drawing our own TV parodies and Don Martin style one page gag cartoons. I distinctly remember when I got my first job in art drawing caricatures at Six Flags Great America in the summer of 1985, walking into the living room of a town house I was sharing with 4 other artists and seeing a stack of MAD Magazines someone had brought along. I paged through them remembering how much I enjoyed them as an 11 year old kid, and then was floored by the artwork that the 11 year old me did not recognize as genius but the 18 year old me now saw with an artist’s eye. That was the moment my desire to work for MAD was rekindled. It took 15 more years to realize that dream.
It was a career definer. When I joined the National Cartoonists Society in 1998 I was a fledgling freelancer with a few credits under my belt, but nothing anyone would have been much impressed by. The great Mort Drucker sponsored me for membership, and encouraged me to send my work to MAD and keep sending it. I followed his advice and after many reviews of my work I was given a shot by the very people I spent the evening with last night. Sam Viviano, Nick Meglin and John Ficarra in particular gave me support and encouragement ,and staffers like Ryan Flanders, Patty Dwyer, Charlie Kadau, Joe Raiola, Dave Croatto and Jacob Lambert (among others) were a true pleasure to work with. To say that was a turning point in my career is an understatement of epic proportions. MAD opened doors for me with other clients that went far beyond the assignments I did for MAD. I would never have won the National Cartoonists Society’s Reuben award without MAD, nor likely been president of the NCS. The work I did for The Marlin Company for 15 years, for Jeff Dunham, for Bobby Monihan and Saturday Night Live… so many of the jobs I consider the best I’ve ever done or had came directly from my being an artist for MAD Magazine. None of it would have happened had Sam, Nick and John not taken a chance on a guy that they somehow saw might have some potential down the road. I’ve spent the last 17 years trying to earn the trust they showed in me.
It’s been an education. Another understatement of epic proportions is to say I’ve learned a few things while working with MAD. In particular, Sam Viviano has been a lot more than just an art director over the years. He’s been a coach, a teacher, and a mentor. His support, critiques, and direction has elevated my work in so many ways… not just the individual pieces but showing me how to open my eyes and apply his insights to everything I do. Back when I first started doing the TV and movie parodies for the magazine I really felt my inking was a terrible weak point in my work. I called Sam and offered to pay him to conduct a private workshop in inking with me. He gave up a whole weekend and taught me things about inking and coloring I still use today every time I pick up a pen or brush. I pity the artists who, when an art directors ask for changes in the work they submit, curse and bitch about how these idiot A.D.’s are ruining their art. While I sometimes go to bat for certain things I do for a given job, the direction Sam, John and the staff give me almost always makes the work better, and me better as well. And when I do make an argument for something I’ve done that I really feel strongly makes the piece better, they listen and give it real consideration. They might not always let me get away with whatever it is, but they never dismissed me. They made me feel like I was part of a team.
They are family. Maybe they never took me to Tahiti, or France, or Africa, or even Yonkers, but MAD still has that sense of family that was legendary in the Bill Gaines era. It’s been a true pleasure to know and work with them. While you can say “let’s stay in touch”, the constant communication of those you work with is never replaced with the same frequency and urgency when a working relationship ends. I hope we really can stay in touch. These are amazing people. I’m proud to be able to call them friends.
Last night we presented John with a “MAD Book”. This was a tradition started on the MAD trips, where the travelers did cartoons or wrote things for Bill Gaines that they put together into a book. Since the trips ended these became something they would put together and give to someone who was retiring or just as a thank you for a lifetime of working with MAD. I did the above piece as part of John’s MAD book. Sam, Charlie, Joe and Ryan deserve MAD books as well, but I think this is something you only give to one person per event.
Thanks for the laughs, guys. It’s been a real privlege.
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