A sleazy, rambling post by Maynard about the degradation of American culture; which nevertheless clings to a lifeline of humor
Okay, today I’m posting sleaze. This isn’t the same as trash, or at least that’s my opinion. But I’m somewhere in the borderland between PG-13 and R. If this concerns you, then read no further.
Remember when one of Obama’s lackeys said she got her philosophy from Mother Theresa and Chairman Mao? Well, I got the foundation of my philosophy from Mad Magazine and Bugs Bunny. I’ll speak more about Mad in a moment. But here’s what I learned from Bugs. First, men’s minds are warped by women with curves. Second, women with curves cleverly use their wiles to manipulate men. Third, the foregoing, which is the stuff of tragedy, can become fodder for comedy. So maybe we can laugh instead of getting angry and punching people.
Nowadays, of course, our culture is enlightened, so we deny any natural orientation of the sexes. Instead we teach an oxymoronic combination of androgyny and sluttiness. And when boys act like boys, we feed them Ritalin™.
I fully acknowledge that, to some extent, civilization requires we suppress some of our natural inclinations. But sometimes I suspect we’re suppressing what we should indulge, and vice versa. I’d argue we were in better shape when we took our cues from Bugs instead of Mao.
A while back, Drudge linked to this thoughtful editorial by Camille Paglia lamenting the modern deconstruction of sexual mystery. These days we treat sex as a commodity, which devalues it. Without mystery, there is no allure. As an old-time sleazemaster once noted — a lesson that has been lost on modern filthmongers — you sell the sizzle, not the steak. But I digress. Returning to the issue of programmed sexual ambivalence (which is, I admit, another digression), I have a question about Bugs Bunny. In framing the question, I wouldn’t want to imply that Bugs was anything other than good, clean fun. But yet…well, what was Bugs’ sex, anyway? You’ll remember Bugs slipping on a dress for the purpose of misdirecting silly old gun-toting Elmer Fudd. Does that make Bugs a chick or a habitual cross-dresser? No, of course not; that wouldn’t have been funny if Bugs were a girl. But then again, would it be funny if a real man put on a dress? So what was Bugs, and why were the straight-laced audiences of the mid-20th century permitted to laugh at him (or her)?
Upon reflection, I think I see Bugs as maybe an 11-year-old boy. He was aware of sex roles, but not really a sexual creature in any serious way, and not capable of sexual sin. Vaguely knowing what lies in store for him when he grows up (Elmer Fudd is an adult, representing the ossified adult mindset), and capable of having some fun with it.
Am I going anywhere with this, or am I merely sullying the reputation of a grand old tradition? I assure you I would rather die than replace the venerable with the venereal! Moving along…
In other words, Bugs represented the innocence that, in a healthy society, should be attached to youth. Bugs wasn’t ignorant, nor did he promote an agenda; he simply saw the world as it was. He enjoyed the clarity that comes with simplicity, although both clarity and simplicity must inevitably recede as he grows up and steps into a wider world. But let us hope that innocence is never entirely lost. Because life is no fun when we become totally saturated with cynicism.
Then there was Mad. This was introduced in 1952, which was before my time. But the old material was regularly reissued, and reading it was a high point of my mis-spent youth. Reprints are still coming out; here’s a large color reproduction of the first six issues: The Mad Archives, Vol. 1. I should also mention that the full Mad archives have been released on DVD-ROM (see here), although it seems to me reading the computer screen just isn’t the same and turning paper pages. (I haven’t bought a Kindle™, and I’m not planning to.)
In my mind, the vital soul of Mad appeared in the illustrations of Will Elder, who worked closely with editor Harvey Kurtzman. Elder’s comics were intricately drawn, and contained gags within gags within gags. Every time I look at a frame of his work, I’ll find another nuanced bit of humor I hadn’t noticed before. An example from Wiki:
By all accounts, Elder’s humor was compulsive. Al Jaffee described a portrait Elder once painted of his son: “It was a beautiful painting. It was all in very somber blues and black tones, very dark and brooding. After he finished it, he couldn’t resist putting two little red dots on the kid’s neck, as if a vampire had been there. He was always driven by the notion that something should be funny.”
This is all by way of introduction to a long-suppressed Elder/Kurtzman collaboration that is as sublime as any artwork I’ve ever seen. (Which doesn’t say much, because my bad taste is legendary. But it’s the only taste I’ve got.) This piece is framed as a parody of the Archie comics. Archie, you may recall, was also good, clean fun. But, unlike Bugs Bunny, Archie was so good and clean that it could never be particularly funny. I used to read Archie only when desperate. It was therefore inevitable that the humorists that parodied all elements of the culture would eventually give Archie his due. Since Archie had no sense of humor, this led to conflict. As described in this article…
During Will Elder’s run on the ill-fated Help! Magazine — one of three such publications upon which Elder collaborated with Mad founder Harvey Kurtzman following the latter’s exodus from the magazine that made him famous — a story starring Kurtzman and Elder’s naïve leading man Goodman Beaver attracted the ire of Archie Comics for taking their signature characters and grafting Hugh Hefner’s “Playboy Philosophy” onto them. That story was “Goodman Goes Playboy,” and it resulted in waves of lawyers raining upon the strip’s creators, ultimately leading to Kurtzman and Elder handing the copyright to the story over to Archie and signing an agreement promising never to reproduce it again.
But the tale has a belated happy ending.
Some 40 years or so later, Gary Groth or someone close to him discovered that Archie had forgotten to renew the copyright to the strip, and that it had fallen into the public domain. Armed with a copy of Myron Fass’ underground zine Potrzebie Illustrated, which contained a copy of the strip, we reproduced it in The Comics Journal #262…
A word about “Potrzebie”. It has a Wikipedia entry. Someone somewhere described it this way:
Potrzebie is the Polish word for “necessity.” It first appeared in Mad in a parody of a comic book story that EC Comics had run earlier. Kurtzman “reworked” it largely by cutting and pasting text from various foreign newspapers. The large “Potrzebie” was uttered by itself, and for some reason became Mad’s plaything for a long time afterward. It really is a funny word. If you’re a purist, you can pronounce it pot-ZHEB-yeh. Personally, I like looking at the word and remembering how it befuddled me as a kid, and make no conscious effort to remember its proper pronunciation.
This explains the name of the fanzine that rediscovered the Archie Parody. When you see the word “potrzebie”, you know you’re dealing with a connoisseur.
If you are somehow still reading this and found any of the foregoing of interest, your reward is a link to the full, original suppressed comic strip. Here it is, in .PDF format: “Goodman Goes Playboy”. Read it carefully, and you’ll find dead-on parody of America that is both hilarious and disturbing. Elder and Kurtzman nail us, and amuse us, and warn us. Isn’t that what clowns are for?