Growing up, my younger brother and I shared a newspaper route. We delivered newspapers in the afternoon after school finished. Our route bordered the street where we lived, so the job suited our not-very-busy schedules.
Every second Saturday, we walked to a depot a few blocks away to turn in the money we had collected from customers. At the same time, we received a portion of the cash – our income for two weeks of steady delivery. When you are 12 years old, job opportunities are limited. The money we earned meant that we could indulge in a few frills, and MAD magazine was at the top of our list.
Whenever we could, one or both of us bought the latest edition. We spent hours thumbing through its pages, absorbing the nuances of its witty commentary and off-beat drawings. We didn’t catch on to everything, but there was enough there to send us into fits of laughter. For us, it was a bonding experience, but I doubt my parents understood our fascination with the quirky and sometimes questionable material.
Looking back, I can see how MAD shaped the reader and writer I became. MAD taught me that no topic is off-limits. MAD’s writers and illustrators questioned authority, skewered sacred cows, and deflated puffy egos. They did this with sarcasm, parody, and carefully delivered barbs. For a 12-year-old, this was sophisticated material and I’m sure that my reading comprehension skipped ahead because of my exposure to MAD’s pages.
Spy vs Spy quickly became one of my favourite features. In Spy vs Spy, two agents – one dressed in white, the other in black – engaged in war-like activities against each. Using bombs and booby traps, one tried to outsmart the other. In one issue, the white agent won. In the next, it was the black agent’s turn. I read the strip for its laughs, but hidden below the surface was a clever commentary on the cold war conditions of the time.
Reading MAD influenced me is several other ways. I became fascinated with cartooning. I purchased pens, ink, and how-to-books, spent hours doodling, and even built a light-box like the one animators use to trace images. I also became enamored with the sarcastic approach of MAD. As an adolescent in search of a voice, I tried my hand at dealing sarcasm, often unsuccessfully. Apparently, neither friends nor foes appreciated put-downs and smart-ass comments as much as I enjoyed delivering them.
According to Wikipedia, as of January 2017, MAD had published 544 regular issues as well as many special editions. I don’t know how many readers and future writers the magazine has influenced since its debut in 1952, but count me as one.
For another post in this Raising Readers series, check out How Superman Taught Me Story Structure