NATION: Al Feldstein, editor of Mad magazine

By BY HILLEL ITALY. The Associated Press

BY HILLEL ITALY. The Associated Press

Before “The Daily Show”, “The Simpsons” or even “Saturday Night Live”, Al Feldstein helped show America how to laugh at authority and laugh at popular culture.

Millions of young baby boomers were eagerly awaiting that day when the new issue of Mad magazine, which Feldstein helmed for 28 years, arrived in the mail or on newsstands. Alone in their rooms, or crammed with friends, they were looking for the president’s latest show or a television commercial. They savored the mystery of the fold, where a topical cartoon appeared with a question at the top that was answered by shrinking the page and creating a new, often hilarious, image.

Thanks in part to Feldstein, who died Tuesday at his Montana home at the age of 88, the comics were more than escapes into alternate worlds of superheroes and stripped-down children. It was a fun tour of current events and the latest crazes. Mad was groundbreaking satire for the post-World War II era – the kind of magazine Holden Caulfield of “The Catcher In the Rye” might have read, or better, might have founded.

“Basically, everyone who was young between 1955 and 1975 read Mad, and that’s where your sense of humor comes from,” producer Bill Oakley of “The Simpsons” later explained.

Feldstein’s reign at Mad, which began in 1956, was historic and unforeseen. Publisher William M. Gaines had started Mad as a comic book four years earlier and converted it into a magazine to avoid the comic book code restrictions of the time and to persuade founding publisher Harvey Kurtzman to to stay. But Kurtzman quickly left anyway and Gaines chose Feldstein as his replacement. Some Kurtzman admirers insisted he had the clearest edge, but Feldstein guided Mad to mass success.

One of Feldstein’s smartest moves was to lean on a character used by Kurtzman. Feldstein transformed the freckled-faced Alfred E. Neuman into an underground hero—a dumb man with a sawtooth smile and the recurring phrase “What, Me Worry?” Neuman’s character has been used to confuse everyone from Santa Claus to Darth Vader, and more recently in editorial cartoon parodies of President George W. Bush, including a The Nation cover image that took place shortly after. Bush’s election in 2000 and was captioned “Concern.”

“The skeptical generation of children she shaped in the 1950s is the same generation that in the 1960s opposed a war and didn’t feel bad when the United States lost to the first time and in the 1970s helped form an administration and didn’t feel bad either,” Tony Hiss and Jeff Lewis wrote of Mad in The New York Times in 1977.

The magazine’s fans ranged from poet-musician Patti Smith and activist Tom Hayden to film critic Roger Ebert, who said Mad inspired him to write about film.

“Mad’s parodies made me aware of the machine inside the skin – how original a movie can look on the outside, while on the inside it was just recycling same old stupid formulas. I didn’t read the magazine, I looted it for clues about the universe,” Ebert once explained.

Born in 1925, Feldstein grew up in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn. He was a gifted cartoonist, winning prizes in grade school and as a teenager at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. He got his first job in comics around the same time, working in a store run by Will Eisner and Jerry Iger. One of his first projects was to draw background foliage for “Sheena, Queen of the Jungle”, which featured a female version of Tarzan.

ART/GRAPHICS: AP / Mad magazine editor Jerry Mosey- Al Feldstein, center, sits with art director John Putnam, left, and a freelancer named Jack in 1972.

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