By Matthew Hendley
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"What? Me matriculate?"
Or so Mad magazine mascot Alfred E. Neuman might ask when he--along with a hundred other objets d'art from the 40-year-old humor magazine--takes center stage at a monthlong public hanging at Arizona State University beginning Tuesday (September 8).
Titled "Humor in a Jugular Vein: The Art, Artists and Artifacts of Mad Magazine," the retrospective was assembled by collector Mark J. Cohen. A fan of the magazine since its inception, the 49-year-old Cohen now claims to own the world's largest private collection of Mad drawings and paintings. "To study the history of Mad is to study the history of popular culture in this country over the past 40 years," says Cohen, talking by telephone from Santa Rosa, California, where he is a realtor. "Without Mad, you wouldn't see Saturday Night Live, comic strips such as Doonesbury, and many of the comedians we see today. It was a radical publication, no question."
Of course, this legion of loonies-come-lately has considerably dulled Mad's once-Ginsu-sharp satirical edge. And, like an aging class clown resting on his whoopee cushion, Mad now seems content to thumb its nose at the world while everyone else is offering up one-finger salutes.
"The magazine's humor used to be on a much more adult, much more intellectual level," concedes Cohen. "Today, Mad is geared toward the adolescent teenage boy." If anyone doubts it, simply compare Cohen's prized 1957 fifth anniversary cover, a wraparound by artist Norman Mingo that depicts 95 Madison Avenue icons partying at Alfred E. Neuman's birthday bash, with a recent cover depicting George Bush vomiting on himself.
"That one was kind of rugged," admits Cohen, whose own taste runs toward the vibrantly wacky covers of the Fifties and Sixties. One of the more unusual covers of this period--and perhaps the most famous in Cohen's collection--is the surrealistic Alfred E. Neuman portrait painted by C.C. Beale in 1958. Only upon close inspection is it apparent that the components of Neuman's face and head actually are miniature likenesses of Lucille Ball, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lewis, Arthur Godfrey and other pop-culture figures of the era. Showcasing paintings and drawings by Mad stalwarts like Don Martin, Jack Davis, Mort Drucker, Kelly Freas, Wally Wood, Antonio Prohias, Sergio Aragones and Dave Berg, Cohen's exhibition is a panorama of original pieces documenting the magazine's most memorable features. Representing artwork from the Fifties through the Eighties, the exhibit includes covers, TV parodies (including spoofs of 77 Sunset Strip and Candid Camera), and panels from such popular features such as "Spy vs. Spy," "The Lighter Side," plus the "fold-in," a Mad staple since 1964. Also included in Cohen's show is an extensive collection of self-caricatures by Mad's "usual gang of idiots," as well as an assortment of books, records, skateboards and other Madmorabilia.
Cohen declines to put a dollar figure on his collection. But unlike a long-standing, if obsolete, motto of the magazine of which he's so enamored ("Our price, 25 cents, cheap"), Cohen's hobby has been far from inexpensive.
A spokesman for Russ Cochran's EC Crypt (the West Plains, Missouri, cartoon-art auction house that handles auctions of Mad artwork) reports that the minimum bid on a piece of cover art is $1,000. Older ones (particularly Neuman covers painted by Kelley Freas or Norman Mingo) routinely bring bids of $3,000 to $5,000. The most valuable cover to date? The comic-book-style painting that graced the front of Issue #1, a $17,000 collectible rumored to be owned by top bidder Steven Spielberg.
"I don't think anybody should buy any kind of art for investment purposes," says Cohen. "You buy it out of love. At the Mad auction, I started bidding because these were things I remembered from when I was a youngster."
Evidently plenty of others share Cohen's fond memories of Mad. Previously seen at San Francisco's Museum of Cartoon Art, the University of Louisiana, Ohio State University and California's Sonoma County Museum, the Mad show has reportedly broken attendance records wherever it's been on display.
Yet oddly, the student volunteers on ASU's Memorial Union Activity Board turned down the Mad art show when Mark Cohen initially offered it to the university several years ago.
"The students I had then turned up their noses and said, 'This is not art,'" reports adviser Rosalyn Munk.
Not that the kids' reaction particularly surprised her. "After the students have been through the early core classes they need to take in art history, everything is art with a capital A," says Munk. "This group varies a great deal from year to year; each season has a flavor of its own. And this year, when Mark Cohen offered us the show, the group said, 'Of course we want to do this. We'd be crazy not to.'"
Well, maybe not crazy. Maybe just a little Mad.
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