A week or so ago, my younger daughter had a dentist appointment, and as pathetic as this may sound, I am terrified of medical facilities---even when they are dental and not medical. So, because I often look to literature to help me overcome stressful situations, I grabbed a book off the shelf that I thought might help me through my anxious time sitting in a waiting room (and be small enough to stuff in my pocket at a moment’s notice.) The book I grabbed, Mad Stew, served its purposes brilliantly, and although I didn’t have time to finish the book while I was sitting in the waiting room, I threw the book in my car and read a few pages here and there over the course of the last week or so---and finally finished it this morning! (Aren’t you glad I add these personal touches to my reviews? Now you feel like you know me just a little bit better!)
[This is a photograph that I took of the actual book that I read. The image is included for review purposes only!]
Nick Meglin and various artists – Mad Stew (1978)
What this book ISN’T: Based just on the cover of the book, which you might find laying in an alley or in a box labeled “free” at a garage sale, one might assume that this is a collection of cartoons and satirical articles that were originally published in Mad Magazine, which were being reprinted in this little book as a way to make a quick buck and a quarter (the cover price---IF the book managed to sell at least one copy.) However, this assumption would be incorrect! This isn’t a reprint collection at all…
What this book IS: This is an original outing of all new (for 1978) material, written by Nick Meglin, an author (and, at the time this book came out, an associate editor at Mad,) and illustrated by some of the greatest artists and cartoonists to ever lampoon an entire culture: Sergio Aragones, Don Martin, Jack Davis, Angelo Torres, Al Jaffee, Antonio Prohias, and several others. I read Mad Magazine when I was a kid (back in the 1970s and ‘80s) whenever I could get my hands on a copy, and some of these folks, to this day, are STILL my heroes. (Aragones, Prohias, Jack Davis---these guys are absolute legends!) There is also a short, clever introduction by Frank Jacobs, another well-known Mad contributor.
For those unfamiliar with Mad (it’s hard to believe that this is even possible, but just in case,) it was a hugely popular, satire magazine (which is STILL being published, although I haven’t picked up an issue in probably more that 15 years,) which originally started in the 1950s as a comic book, produced by the same folks who gave us classic horror titles (like Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror,) AND who were dragged into a bunch of senate hearings because a few idiots thought comic books were going to make the people who read them (only KIDS, according to the powers-that-be) into psychopaths, murderers, and cannibals. (This actually happened…) Comics were quickly censored, and Mad switched to a magazine format (as magazines weren’t bound by the same restrictions that comics were---if you want to know more about this weird period in comic book history, look for the documentary Comic Book Confidential, which actually interviews several of the E.C. artists, writers, and even the publisher, William Gaines, who all talk about the experiences they went through.)
Anyway, by the 1970s, when I started finding copies of Mad in alleys and in the backseats of my babysitters’ cars, the crew who are featured in this book were in full force. A typical issue of Mad would make fun of a new movie or a television show or a celebrity or a commercial product, and the jokes were always---well, let’s not say “hilarious…” Let’s say they were great GROANERS. The humor was always “slightly sideways,” in my opinion, meaning it wasn’t the kind of thing that made you laugh out loud, but you definitely chuckled, probably shared the joke with your friends, but if your mom found it, she wouldn’t think it was funny at all. It was always a bit---juvenile…maybe?
The ART, however, was brilliant. The caricatures of famous people always looked so good that you could instantly tell who they were supposed to be. (That’s saying something, if you ask me.) The features were typically exaggerated, but they were also PERFECT for the context. In THIS book, you get Howard Coldspell (a dead on, Howard Cosell) illustrated by Jack Davis (an absolute master---going all the way back to the E.C. horror days!!!) And you get a Peanuts parody, drawn by Jack Rickard, that is so close to Charles Schulz’s Charlie Brown it’s amazing, (and the Richard Nixon at the end of the comic is also perfect---Nixon drawn in Charles Schulz style! Wonderful…) Sergio Aragones draws a couple of strips, usually with few or no words in them, which are so full of detail that you can stare at them for ten minutes and not be able to take in all the nuances. (I’m dying to find a collection of his barbarian warrior comic, Groo, the Wanderer! If I ever do, I’ll review it, for sure!) Without exaggerating a bit, this book is PACKED with excellent artists drawing some great groaners, gags, and jokes.
The tone is very late-70s, (which may not seem that weird considering it came out in the late 70s,) meaning the characters are dressed in period outfits, the slang and “lifestyles” are all very dated, and the political correctness (particularly with regards to racial stereotypes) can get especially cringe-worthy, and although you do have to remember that times were different then, it’s still jarring and unpleasant to see people using racist tropes for comedic purposes. It’s not PERVASIVE throughout the book (as it is in the James Bond novel I reviewed,) but it’s there and, if you are sensitive to these types of concerns, this might not be the book for you. There is also some very minor “adult” material, but no nudity or particularly foul language. The book goes more for the innuendo than straight up shock.
Some of the writing is pretty clever (I feel like I’ve maybe insulted Mr. Meglin’s abilities,) particularly with the political satires, like the “Professional Spotter’s Guide For Spotting Professionals,” and the running joke, spread throughout the book, concerning horoscope signs. Overall, though, I think many people might find the humor a bit inaccessible. It’s a quick read, good for a chuckle, and an excellent collection for folks who want to see some FIRST CLASS cartoonists in action, but it might be more for the (I hate to say it) older folks, who remember when Howard Cosell and Richard Nixon and Charles Schulz were still alive and kicking. Hopefully, I’m wrong, and there’s still a place in this world for a good GROANER joke… If so, let me know in the comments! I still found it amusing---but I don’t know how much of my enjoyment was straight nostalgia. (If I can find a decent psychic who can tell me what I’m REALLY laughing at, I’ll let you know…) Later!
---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Holy Fool)
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