Aug 29, 2016

Mad Magazine: Cynicism, Guilt, and Homophobia

When I was a kid in the 1960s, we were expected to never question teachers, parents, the church, or the government.  Their answers were always right, their decisions always fair. To suggest the tiniest fallibility meant grounding, detention, or hellfire.

We were expected to never question the fact that America was the best of all possible worlds, an Arcadia threatened only by the evil empire of Communism and the long-haired hippie freaks.  To point out a problem invited swift retribution.

Satire was rare; a parody of big business in an Uncle Scrooge comic, a snarky sketch on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, an occasional novelty song like "They're Coming to Take Me Away."  And Mad Magazine, bought by an older kid and passed around surreptitiously, like pornography.

Mad began as a comic book, but was changed to a magazine in 1955 to avoid the strictures of the Comics Code Authority.  It cost twice as much as a comic book, and at Schneider's Drug Store, it was placed among the adult magazines like Argosy and Esquire.  

I didn't dare buy a copy, and the passed-around copies I read at friends' houses always made me feel guilty.: There was no way you could justify them as uplifting, insightful, or beautiful.  They were pure trash.

That was part of the fun.

The art was grotesque and unpleasant, though occasionally you saw nudity or muscle).  In Issue #202 (October 1978), you even got to see bare butts, as Alfred E. Neumann is stared at for tanning the "wrong" body part (top photo).  In Issue #207 (June 1979), he displays a muscular physique in a toga to parody Animal House (yes, I still read it in college.)

The writing was crude, scabrous, and cynical, with a clear message: everyone is a hypocrite; self-serving greed lies behind every pious platitude.  Revolutionary for a grade schooler in the 1970s.

But there was one platitude that no one at Mad ever thought to critique: the universality of heterosexual desire.  Every boy liked girls, every girl liked boys, same-sex desire did not exist, gay people were ridiculous.  I never actually read about gay people, but according to the blog Street Laughter, they appeared 5 or 6  times during the years I read the magazine.

September 1971: "To a Gay Liberationist," illustrated by effeminate guys carrying signs that say "Gay Power," "Freedom for Fags," and "Pansy Yokum is a Misnomer.":

 "You shout that you're victimized by bigoted attacks; forgive us if we're more concerned with Indians and Blacks!"

July 1973: A swishy basketball player grabs his teammate's butt (notice the limp wrist and the frilly underwear peeking out from his shorts).  The straight guy seems to be saying "WTF?" as the caption reads "You know you've really got a problem..."

April 1974: A fold-in feature in which couples at a maternity ward turn into limp-wristed gays to "solve the overpopulation problem."

You get the idea.

Maybe it's a good thing that I missed those issues.

See also: R. Crumb's Underground Comix