Monday, June 25, 2007

Archives Project: STL #33

Title: HOO HAH!
Description: A look at 5 artists of MAD, before the magazine.
Publication Date: 21 February 2004

Promising start to this, but the artist entries are too hurried. The links will no doubt continue to rot, but I'll leave them in.

Everybody knows Mad Magazine for its cartoon parodies of pop culture. Fewer know that it started as a comic book in 1952, as an extension of (and ultimate successor of) the best comics publisher of the 1950's, the embattled EC comics. EC's grisly horror, crime, and war comics attracted the attention of a Congressional Subcommitte on Juvenile Deliquency, and were a major concern of the crackpot work, Seduction of the Innocents. Comics aren't nearly popular enough to attract all this hullaballoo now, but compare it to diatribes against computer games: under this analogy, EC was the Grand Theft Auto of its time.

Yet it success was not only based on sensationalism, but on a stable of extraordinary artists. EC publisher William Gaines was able to attract topnotch talent by not only paying high rates, but by granting a refreshing amount of creative license. EC might be seen as a rare blending of art and commerce, though admittedly in a heavily commercial venue. You can read more about EC comics elsewhere*, but today I want to say a few words about the five artists who appeared in the first six issues of Mad, collected in DC Comics's handsome Mad Archives.

I haven't really figured out how to talk about comics, or any kind of pictorial art for that matter, so I'll try to find lots of links. I'll dispense right away with discussing the verbal content of the stories, which are occasionally amusing but for the most part have satiric targets that have been hit to often or have faded into obscurity. Unlike the surviving magazines of this type, including the current Mad, the comics parodies are actually parodies of comics stories, including SuperDuper Man vs. Captain Marbles and a whole host of EC's 'straight' titles. There are some funny verbal motifs (like the moxy of calling virtually everyone "Melvin" for a stretch--a funny name, yes, but no Alfred E. Newman) but the real delight of Mad has always been the visual overcrowding--tiny lampoons on display in the background.

The five artists I'll look at are Jack Davis, Bill Elder, Wally Wood, John Severin, and Harvey Kurtzman, who didn't draw any of the stories but wrote them and did the covers. As I said, I'll be brief: maybe say a few words on the style of each, a short assessment, and one or more links.

Wallace Wood has a large cult, but is my least favorite of these five. In comparison to the others, his drawing is underdone. You can see this especially in his facial expressions. For some reason, the colors in his stories tend to be garish, though that's not his responsibility (labor division in comics tends to be strict, pencilling, inking, and coloring are usually done by different people. Colors in this volume are attributed to Marie Severin, and in most stories and vibrant and sometimes evocative). Here's a later story.

John Severin is the straight man of this bunch, relying on conventional figurative techniques. Quite unlike Wood, color is used to great effect in his stories, especially the blue shading in his cowboy story. I guess it helps if your sister is the colorist. Can you even tell if this one is from Mad or Two-Fisted Tales?

As I mentioned, Harvey Kurtzman only drew covers for these issues. He was busy enough running the company, writing stories and drawing his acclaimed, painstakingly research "Hey Look" gags. Kurtzman, like Will Eisner, was one of the artistic giants of the commercial days of comics. Eisner is all over Cavalier and Clay, but Kurtzman is his equal in stature.

Jack Davis uses a really tense, knotted line, always heavily inked (I'm guessing that these guys inked themselves). The suggest some psychic anxiety, a touch of the darker side of "madness." Here's a tribute to Davis.

Finally, my favorite Mad artist, Bill Elder,whose early speciality was crime parodies. His work is probably the most heavily loaded, and his small, gnarled figures clearly foreshadow R. Crumb's. If anything's worth seeking out in the book, it's Elder's "Ganeffs!" and "Mole!".

*As a final note, I'll add that the "facts" in this piece are all out of my head, recalled from perhaps questionable sources. Despite the veneration of EC, there hasn't been a good academic study. (There are hardly any good academic studies of comics at all, but that's a gripe for another time). You could find Roger Sabin's Comics, Comix, and Graphic Novels, which is one of the good ones and must cover EC.