It ain't Thomas Paine's "Common Sense," and it may not carry the weight of the Federalist papers, but let's give Mad magazine its due.
With its caustic wit and biting satire skewering the conventions of "the American way of life," Mad--established in 1952--helped pave the way for the cultural revolution of the '60s and '70s, according to cartoon historian Mark C. Cohen.
"It taught people to question authority," the 55-year-old Santa Rosa resident said during a recent telephone interview.
"People of my generation first became interested in national and international issues by reading Mad magazine," he added. "I don't think anything has had a greater influence on popular culture."
Indeed, its influence is strongly felt today in such satire-rich TV programs as "The Simpsons," "South Park" and "Saturday Night Live."
Cohen, a cartoonists' agent who represents some of the best known strips in the business--including Peanuts and Family Circus, and artists at Playboy and Penthouse magazines--has collected comic book art since 1956.
Today his collection exceeds more than 6,000 original works, some 600 of which are Mad art spanning nearly 50 years.
More than 130 of his favorite pieces are included in "Humor in a Jugular Vein: The Art, Artists and Artifacts of Mad Magazine," which opens Saturday at the Fullerton Museum Center.
"It's a sickness," joked Cohen, who also is the show's curator. "I was a fan from the very first issue, [even though] I had to sneak it into the house," which was in Stockton, Calif.
As did many kids at the time, Cohen was forced to hide his favorite reading materials from his parents, who took a dim view of comic books, especially ones from Mad publisher William Gaines.
"There was a national paranoia at the time toward comic books because a psychiatrist named Frederic Wertham had written a book [in 1953] called 'Seduction of the Innocent,' which blamed juvenile violence on comics," Cohen said.
Gaines--who had raised eyebrows with "Tales From the Crypt" (which inspired the TV series of the same name), "Weird Science" (which didn't) and other lurid titles he published under the flag of New York-based EC Comics--was singled out by a federal commission headed by Sen. Estes Kefauver (D-Tenn.)looking for links between comic books and juvenile delinquency.
"Because of the Kefauver commission, Gaines couldn't get distribution for his comic books," Cohen said.
"So in 1954 he changed Mad from a dime comic to a 25-cent magazine. And since they called it a magazine instead of a comic book, then it was OK . . . just another example of your tax dollars at risk," Cohen added ruefully.
Mad was conceived by EC editor Harvey Kurtzman, who envisioned a comic book that would lampoon other comics of the day. The first issue was published in the summer of '52. Kurtzman left EC a few years later; Gaines published the magazine until his death in 1992, after which it was taken over by current publisher Paul Levitz and editor-in-chief Jeanette Kahn of DC Comics.
"It absolutely took the country by storm," said Frank Jacobs, a longtime Mad writer and author of the biography "The Mad Mad World of William M. Gaines."
"People went bonkers for 'Super Duper Boy,' 'Bat Boy & Rubin' and 'Little Orphan Melvin', " said Jacobs, who has written hundreds of song parodies for Mad.
The consumer-based culture of the 1950s proved to be such fertile ground for laughs that Mad soon found a niche in poking fun at the advertising industry.
Before long, Mad artists were aiming their pens at everything from politics to popular culture, holding up a mirror to catch a loopy reflection of the opinions, fears and values of the baby-boom generation and their parents.
"During the student unrest of the '60s and '70s, some people wanted to blame us, but we were just writing about what was happening," said David Berg, who, along with Mad veterans Al Jaffee and Sergio Aragones, is a regular contributor to the magazine.
"We reflected things, but we really didn't cause them," Berg said by phone from his home in Marina del Rey.
Still, the magazine's continuing influence on popular culture is hard to deny. Its impact is felt not only in such wisecracking television shows as "Married . . . With Children" and "Beavis and Butt-head" but also in the ongoing spate of parody feature-length films, from "Airplane" to the "Naked Gun" series.
"The people who direct these shows grew up with Mad," Jacobs said. "There's never been a magazine that has so consistently put movies and TV shows in caricature form with such continuity and funny consistency. It set the tone.
"Before Mad came along, the satirical and outrageous were hard to come by," Jacobs said. "Mad introduced those elements to the younger generation."
It was a winning formula. Mad's circulation climbed to 2 million at its peak in the mid-'60s.
The numbers have fallen off, but the magazine nevertheless has remained popular, sparking a mid-'60s Broadway revue, a movie ("Up the Academy" in 1980) and the 3-year-old Fox series "Mad TV," not to mention such magazine imitators as Cracked and Crazy.
The magazine has been going strong for nearly 50 years relying solely on revenue from subscriptions and single-copy sales. It has never accepted advertising, and merchandising was negligible, which is why the few Mad collectibles are so valuable.
"Gaines believed that if you advertised a product you wouldn't be able to lampoon it," Jacobs said. "And he just wasn't willing to compromise the integrity of the magazine."
Gaines also wasn't one to shy away from controversy.
"Mad was one of the few publications that had the guts to go up against Sen. Joseph McCarthy," Cohen said.
In 1954, full-page notices appeared in Mad and all other EC comics and magazines saying, "Are you a red dupe? The group most anxious to destroy comics are the Communists."
Said Cohen: "By actively attacking [McCarthy] and his anti-communist witch hunt, [the publishers], of course, were accused of being Commies themselves."
Mad's 1963 dispute with the Music Publisher's Assn. and songwriters Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers led to a Supreme Court decision protecting satire and parody as an important form of social and literary criticism.
Little has changed over the years.
The current issue of Mad (a monthly that now costs $2.50 per issue) savages trendy cigar smokers with a parody magazine cover of Cigar Aficionado renamed Cigar Addictionado, with a picture of Joe Camel using a stogie to burn a copy of the federal tobacco agreement with the headline, "Goodbye Cigarettes, Hello Cigars!"
Vintage sendups will abound at the show, which will include original drawings and paintings from Mad's early comic book days to 1995, along with rare examples of Mad memorabilia.
A gallery of self-portraits by Jaffee, Berg, Aragones, Don Martin and other Mad cartoonists will give fans a chance to see how their favorite artists see themselves.
Among artifacts are an original LP recording of "The Mad Show," a Broadway revue from the 1960s, Mad pens given as subscription premiums and a one-of-a-kind windup toy of Alfred E. Neuman that predates his debut in Mad.
Vintage art pieces will include the original April Fools cover, from 1957 by artist C.C. Beale--a portrait of Alfred E. Neuman composed from the faces of many of the era's top celebrities, including eyes that are caricatures of Jackie Gleason and Ed Sullivan and hair that's actually a sketch of boxer Floyd Patterson's face.
Fans also will get a chance to see the first Mad fold-in, which, according to Cohen, was created in 1964 as an answer to the Playboy centerfold, and has been featured on the inside back cover of every issue since.
In the Al Jaffee painting, images of Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher can be folded together to form a picture of Taylor kissing Richard Burton--Taylor had recently left Fisher for Burton.
Another vintage piece is Norman Mingo's fifth anniversary cover, which features 95 trademark icons, such as Aunt Jemima and Betty Crocker, along with Arthur Godfrey and other celebrities of the day, at a birthday party for Alfred E. Neuman.
"One of the great things about [this] show," Cohen said, "is that it gives visitors an opportunity to see the creative work that goes into a cover."
"There are several examples where you see a cover from the initial drawings to the painted rough draft, to the final printed cover. Some actually have the editors' comments written on the page."
Vintage issues of Mad go for big bucks, says Jim Tierney, owner of Halley's Comics in Costa Mesa.
A pristine copy of a Mad No. 1 can sell for as much as $8,000; a No. 21--the debut issue for Mad mascot Alfred E. Neuman--can fetch $400 or more.
"Without a doubt it's the most consistently funny thing in print. I order about 10 of every Mad that they print, and I always sell out," Tierney said.
The exhibition in Fullerton, which continues through Aug. 23, is presented by Exhibit Touring Services, a program of the College of Letters, Arts and Social Science at Eastern Washington University in Cheney, Wash. At Saturday's opening, which starts at 2 p.m., Cohen will give a gallery talk and answer questions.
"Right now I have three different [cartoon-related] shows going, so you can see there is more to my life than just Mad," he said.
Cohen plans to donate his entire cartoon art collection to Ohio State University, where the National Cartoonist Society and the Assn. of American Editorial Cartoonists maintain a research institute and museum space.
"You start collecting this stuff, and you wake up one morning and realize what an incredible collection you have.
"And you see that your [family] can't manage it, and you don't want to leave it to your son to sell off to buy a car," said Cohen, adding that he has one adult son. "So we decided on Ohio State, because of its permanence, and they're willing to take the entire collection."
"Humor in a Jugular Vein: The Art, Artists and Artifacts of Mad Magazine" opens Saturday at the Fullerton Museum Center, 301 N. Pomona Ave. Hours: noon-4 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday, 6-8 p.m. on Thursdays. $3; $2 for students and free for children under 12. Admission is $1 for all visitors on Thursday evenings. Through Aug. 23. (714) 738-6545.