It was a mad, mad world


I can’t say that I have a lot of happy childhood memories — at least where school is concerned. Imagine going to public school every day for 12 years and in Sisyphean fashion every day was a replay of the movie Footloose – at least the parts where the intolerant townsfolk are affronted by anything that challenges their well-ensconced provincialism.

With rare (and still appreciated exception) the teachers instigated more than they protected. The children, particularly those from the “right” social class and church, were the most cruel.

In this cauldron of myopic judgment, I had to take refuge where I could. As I’ve said before, more often than not, that refuge came in the pages of books. My books ran the gamut. I recall a lot of Steinbeck and science fiction. I also recall loving (and still do) encyclopedic picture books — birds, cars, airplanes, ships, foreign countries. As I type this, I now recognize a pattern in the entries: exodus.

My Pop traveled a lot when I was young. He brought me tons of books that I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to get at Woolworths or the sadly defunct Pickwick Bookstore — Susan and Sandra, I miss you and your homey little store.

These imported books included the likes of Asterix the Gaul comics, a European series about a tribe of Gaul warriors who were fortified to super strength by magic potions. The books were full of funny pun character names: Getafix the druid; Cacofonix the bard; Geriatrix the village elder; and Arteriosclerosus and Gastroenteritus, the Roman legionnaires.

I also loved a bit of domestic silliness: Mad Magazine. I am called to remember Mad this week because long-time editor, Al Feldstein, who guided the publication for three decades, passed away this week at age 88.

Mad Magazine provided me with an assurance that somewhere out there other people existed who might understand me. They might just relate to my absurdist and often jaundiced worldview.

In a 1985 speech, Feldstein told an audience that part of Mad’s mission was to call out society’s hypocrisy: “When Mad came about, it was the reaffirmation of those feelings in print. We were saying, ‘Kids, Madison Avenue is lying to you. Your parents are lying to you. The president is lying to you.”

I had a suspicion the list might be a tad longer.

I also had a particular affection for the work of Mad writer and cartoonist, Don Martin. Martin’s well-developed library of onomatopoetic vocalizations taught me that sometimes you just have to make up a word to get your point across.

His turns on famous masterwork portraits (the Mona Lisa and the Blue Boy come to mind) were just goofy enough to be brilliant. Decades later his poster featuring caricatures of pop music stars is still one of the funniest bits of comic art I know. This poster hung on the back of my bedroom door for years.

Yes, there were pretenders to the throne such as Cracked, but they all lacked the certain je ne sais quoi found only in Mad. In fact I would argue that the only equal in absurdist satire was the National Lampoon. The Lampoon was Mad’s slightly older, more troublesome big brother. Once in a while it would contain nudity and/or profanity, but this salacious content was less about sexual titillation than it was fighting one social vulgarity with another.

These books and magazines were much more than entertainment. They were reassurance that I wasn’t alone. They even suggested that my tormenters might be wrong and morally flawed — ironic since most of them were good church-going folks.

I know I am lucky because I found a way out. I also worry because I know there’s a small, freckled kid out there right now who’d give his eye teeth for two seconds of respite from the ugly self-righteous mass. I hope he figures out that Mad is still in circulation.

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Matthew Pate is a former law enforcement executive who holds a doctorate in criminal justice from the University of Albany and who has advised police agencies around the country. He writes from Pine Bluff. Contact him at pate.matthew@gmail.com.