I’m doing a little dancing on the grave here, but it’s for a larger purpose. I’ve been telling you that a comic book crash is coming and what the industry as a whole needs to be doing to stop it. Mad going belly up, as I said it would five years ago…is a fine example that, while I am a bit gregarious for entertainment purposes…I’m also very shrewd and insightful. I didn’t last this long and get this far only on charm.
Anyone can view the wreckage and say “this is what went wrong”. I in this instance told everyone what was going to go wrong before it left the runway. I mentioned most of this in some interviews and a podcast or two about the time I left the Magazine.
flashback several years ago, I’m doing work for Mad and becoming mortally confused as to what the general direction and voice of the magazine is. What type content are they trying to put out, exactly? So, I have a meeting (the meeting was in a public place, so I’m not talking out of school or revealing any super secret stuff here…this is all things they were comfortable saying out loud in public) with the editor in chief, art director, and another editor for about an hour. The results were…mortifying. In answer to my question, the editor in chief…of the nations premier humor magazine…an American Icon with 60 plus years of brand recognition says to me “funny stuff…y’know..like you think it’s going to be one thing, but then it turns out to be something else.” He then produced a mock up of yet another collection of old Mad work and shows me a ( I sh*t you not ) a gag about Lyndon B Johnson.
long pause to let that response sink in.
Did I mention I was mortified? The editor in chief didn’t know, or bother to learn, or know how to use the most basic language of comedic story telling structure that a first year stand up comedian would know. I expected a response as least like “more juxtaposition gags” or “basic redirection is good since we have a lot of young readers” or hell if he used the word “satire” it would have been a step up from “y’know…funny”. “you know, funny” is a fine response from an average citizen who knows what they like and that’s that. That’s not an appropriate response from a guy who’s job is to choose and direct the content for a internationally published humor magazine. If you are on a football team and the head coach doesn’t know what “zoned coverage” means…you’re not going to win much.
The root of the problem, if we want to start there…was that the people who ended up in charge had no idea what they were doing on a professional level, nor the ambition to learn, nor any idea of what they actually wanted to do with the magazine.
But let’s get more specific. I mentioned to them that we are in a brave new world, an instant world. A magazine that is published once every two months, is not going to be able to survive trying to publish time sensitive material. Any news story or even movie that they would see fit to make fun of, would be OLD news and long forgotten by the time the magazine is actually on the newsstands. Not to mention that it would have been made fun of in several thousand other places by then…by cable shows and late night talk shows and podcasts and memes and webcomics. All those entities would have stomped that mudhole dry a full month and a half before the first copy of that issue of Mad hit a news stand.
It’s as simple as that. Mad, and I said this, is best served by putting out the funniest material they have on hand every month and to hell with trying to be timely. Make people laugh…that’s all you had to do. Mad had no competition in this sense- it was the only humor magazine anyone could name. It was in a class by itself. It owned the market, it just needed to be filled with solid funny content. Mad had plenty of characters and concepts of it’s very own that had fans and could gain more regardless of timing. Spy vs Spy for example.
Another bleeding wound was their lack of promoting their new talent and new concepts. This is an idea they never sniffed at in the entire seven years I was there. The place was run like a Mad magazine fan club not a publication that should be fighting for relevance and for every new reader it can get from the millenials and gen z. The focus was always on yesteryear, to the point that several pages of each magazine had reprinted gags from the “golden age”. That is frustrating for current talent, a waste of several pages for long time fans, a waste of several pages for potential new young readers, wards off any new talent that might want to get on board and is not good optics. I also mentioned this, and to be fair this might have seemed self serving, but the fact is that getting growth and convincing people that the magazine is as relevant as it every was requires this. When the majority of your promotion and even several pages in each issue are dedicated to cartoonists that are DEAD, from old age…you ain’t gonna come across as hip and relevant
The third bleeding wound that lead to it’s death was the moronically stubborn insistence on having Alfred E Newman on every cover. Tradition and “mascot” be damned…no one under 40 knows who the f*ck Alfred is, nor cares…you are forfeiting every single cover, because to a passerby it’s just a goofey drawing of some kid…when it COULD have been some really funny scene that grabs their attention. Let me ask you something, when is the last time you saw Ronald McDonald on a commercial? or and ad? it’s been years…putting the mascot to the side for the sake of the bigger picture can and has been done. I mentioned this as well.
I mentioned all of this, in a professional non competitive way during that cordial hour long meeting. Upon leaving the meeting I, a comic book publisher of over ten years at that point, regretted that this fellow was in charge of Mad as I wouldn’t let him run a newsletter for a stand up comedy club in Nebraska…and I thanked the stars in the sky that my career wasn’t actually in his hands. I have my own book and it’s doing everything this guy is not able to grasp.
Sometime later, when it became apparent that nothing I said stuck and that sending them material was becoming a waste of my efforts, I told them I was leaving Mad. There was an email exchange between me and the editor in chief for some reason ( why he felt the need to respond to my resignation with anything more than a “okay we’ll remove your ftp folder”, I don’t know. Perhaps it was a bad day). In that exchange I pointed all these things out again ( in a far less cordial manner) and made sure they understood that Mad is headed for doom if they do not learn to adapt.
Sometime later one of the editors asked me to come back on board, I turned that offer down and said for the third time that they needed to adapt. They need to make “funny” job no.1 above all else, and to stop trying to put out time sensitive material.
Fast forward to a couple of years ago…those guys all got fired ( well it was a long strange way of explaining it by the powers that be, but …they had jobs…and then they didn’t. Call it what you like) and Mad was “rebooting”. They put Bill Morrison in charge and I thought that was a good choice. But then….for reasons I am not privy to. They doubled down on everything that was sinking it in the first place. Their promos about the “reboot” all featured a cover with Alfred E Neuman. Why…what…don’t…sigh. And all the buzz they put out was one joke after another about whatever the current news on Trump was. So…they were still surrendering the cover to a mascot that no one under 40 knows of, still trying to publish time sensitive material in a bi-monthly magazine AND…as the cherry on the titanic sunday, they were focusing on Trump.
As a branding tactic it was an object lesson on what not to do. See…the magazine had no competition on the newsstands, as a comedy/cartoon magazine. Tthey pissed that away to be one of a thousand magazines talking about Tump. People who like Trump ain’t gonna buy it and people who don’t like Trump ain’t gonna buy it. They ain’t gonna spend 6.00 on a magazine making fun of Trump when they can get that for free online in webcomics, memes, blogs, and if that’s not enough they can’t swing a dead cat without hitting someone telling a Trump joke. It boggles the mind that this was the direction they took Mad in….
It could be that it was a “f*ck it, it’s worth a shot…sales can’t get much worse” type decision, because the sad fact is that by then it didn’t matter anyway. The “reboot” got very little buzz because no one really gave a damn one way or the other because Mad hadn’t given them a reason to for many years.
And that’s that. Stick a fork in them. No one can say I didn’t try to get them to see this coming a steer away from it. I’ve been at this business awhile, I have good instincts, I study everything I can get my hands on, I pay attention to the culture as a whole, I pay attention the the tides and the weather. And if I see you getting ready to sail and say “you really shouldn’t sail in that direction” it’s because if you do, no one will ever hear from you again.
***UPDATE…JUST GOT THIS IMAGE OF THE LATEST COVER….
…let’s all focus first on that this cover, while very clever and well drawn, is a snowboading gag…IT’S JULY. Now let’s focus on this…
…in this fine issue they are going to be focusing on Game of Thrones ( ended 2 months ago ) and Captain Marvel ( came out 3 months ago). Wanna read about two things that came and went in the spring? then this is the magazine for you…7.00 please. SMH. and this has been Mad’s M.O. going back at least as far as when they cut back to publishing 6 times a year ( 6 years ago, maybe more)
END OF UPDATE***
Which brings us back to the upcoming/looming comic book crash. Assume that once again I’m correct. Here is what needs to be done and fast- it’s simple really, focus on the content, stupid. Every issue should be the best content you can put out. If you are a publisher , go out and find the talent that is still hungry and ambitious and trying new things. If you are talent use and learn the advantages and tools of comic book story telling to put out stories that blow people minds in ways you couldn’t in some other medium. If you are a reviewer, explain what about the content is good…specifically. This is a medium with specific story telling tools…talk about how they were used correctly. If you are a store, direct people to the best books ( content wise) that are on the shelves. You can get 5.00 once for the hot new thing or 5.00 every month by getting them hooked on a really well done series.
And for the love of F8ck…start moving the focus away from super heroes them being a hot fad is what is going to cause the crash. The day is soon coming when ONCE AGAIN once people reach adolescence they will view super heroes as goofy kid stuff. Remember those days? They are coming back. Only this time the super hero Genre might go down for the count. Don’t believe me? That’s fine. People didn’t believe that Mad Magazine would ever come to an end either.
Anyways…in remembrance of the once great Mad magazine …here is one of my favorite pages that I did for it.
When Douglas is not complaining, he and his work can be found here
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