Put the blame on MAD, boys!
by Gene Phillips
Not long ago I read a letter by an older fan (whom I believe is your basic "lived through the Silver Age" codger, as I am myself) who expressed his disquiet with some of the newest manifestations of modern adult-erated renditions of once-innocent kid's heroes. One of the particular manifestations he cited was a scene from some retooled version of the Fantastic Four, which had to do with a new improved (and apparently immortal) version of the Sub-Mariner who was, not to put too fine a point on it, giving tongue to a teenaged Susan Storm. (I've not read the offending comic myself.)
I'm not debating my fellow codger's right to be disquieted by this sort of "shock tactics" in modern comic books. I'm sure that we can all multiply this
particular example by dozens upon dozens of others, in which once-pristine
superheroes show us their "dark side." For myself, this narrative approach to
superheroes is something that can be done well or done badly as the case may
be, but I'm not concerned here with aesthetics as much as etiology. To wit--
where did the emphasis on "shocking tales of the superheroes" come from?
Image Comics, debuting in the early 90s, is a frequently cited culprit as far as upping the grossout factor. Image, in turn, was preceded by the so-called "grim and gritty" trend of the 80s, and much of that, in its turn,
took fire from the success of Chris Claremont's Manichean take on THE X-MEN, with particular reference to the popularity of Wolverine. But of course, one can go back to comics' Golden Age origins to find them inflaming critics like Wertham against the medium, even if the tales he found so offensive now strike modern eyes as being rather par-for-the-course. But as I look back over the muddled history of comic books, one publication in particular seems to lead the way in disseminating vile, disgusting tales of superheroes (and related popular characters) gone horribly wrong
In case you can't guess from the above title, I'm talking about MAD MAGAZINE-- particularly MAD in its 50's heyday, mostly under the aegis of Harvey Kurtzman. It was Kurtzman's belief (as expressed in a COMICS JOURNAL interview I don't have to hand) that he had done a great thing when he turned superheroes upside down, portraying them as perverted clods instead of nature's noblemen.
Was the MAD satires of pop characters great? Sure, taken on their own terms as satiric comedy. But if Kurtzman hoped that his satires would somehow make audiences scorn the popular characters he satirized, his success at societal reform was less than outstanding. Most people who liked superheroes or daredevil pilots or little-girl adventurers with their dogs continued liking them. Not infrequently, they liked MAD as well: they just didn't take seriously the gospel according to Kurtzman.
The most tangible effect of Kurtzman's work may actually be seen in his helping to up the ante of the "shock value" elements that could be portrayed in comics. He was certainly not alone in this, but because his MAD work has been so celebrated and frequently-reprinted (far more than his more cerebral war-stories and the like) I think that what really happened was that, over time,
later generations of creators incorporated Kurtzman "shock elements" into what
were, in theory, "straight" stories of romance and adventure.
This is more of a gut feeling than a proveable theory, but ask yourself this questions:
How much of a leap is it, from...
**Little Orphan Annie doffing her schoolgirl look in a MAD satire, becoming a va-va-voom babe, with her adopted father Warbucks becoming her "sugar daddy"**
**The Sub-Mariner slipping tongue to the Invisible Girl?**
Something to think on...