Thursday, August 19, 2010

MAD... And Just Plain SAD

I grew up with MAD Magazine during its glory days of the 1970's, so it remains very much a part of what influenced me early on in my artistic yearnings. In fact, I credit MAD Magazine specifically as being the determining factor in my choosing to pursue a career as a print cartoonist over that of an animator after I finished school and had to make a decision on my career path. I still have every issue from about 1971 on up until sometime in the late 80's when I felt it was starting to decline a bit. I would occasionally pick it up in the years since (though not now), as many of my favourite cartoonists were still contributing their talent to it, including the following "Usual Gang of Idiots":

Here's a cover by Mort Drucker. It wasn't too often that Mort illustrated the covers, so it was a real treat whenever he did one, adding some watercolour to his distinctive pen and ink linework. Mostly, Mort drew in the interior pages illustrating the MAD movie satire, presenting a caricatured comic book version of a new movie release. Mort has a huge following even today, and I'm glad to see the very talented Tom Richmond carrying on the movie satires tradition since Mort has gone into semi-retirement.

This is a page from Jack Davis, my personal favourite of all the MAD cartoonists. Back in the 70's Jack Davis's art was everywhere: MAD, Time and TV Guide covers, magazine ads for various companies, even record album jackets. The guy was incredibly prolific and his art just sparkled with fun, personality, and great humour.

Paul Coker, Jr. had a delightful style, and I used to borrow all sorts of tricks from his great pen and ink textures and use them in my own work back then. In addition to MAD, Paul was a popular cartoonist in the greeting cards market, as well as being the main designer that Rankin-Bass employed to create the art stylings of their stop-motion animated puppet holiday TV specials. (And also the hand-drawn Frosty The Snowman!)

All my friends were really into the wacky cartoons of Don Martin back in those days. A pure cartoonist with a distinctive style, Don Martin also had a flair for creating descriptive words that expressed the appropriate sound effect for everything that happened in his strips. Tragically, we lost Don a few years ago.

Antonio Prohias was a Cuban who somehow got out and made his way to America, where he rose to fame creating Spy vs. Spy, a satirical commentary on the absurdity of the longtime Cold War still going on at that time. To be honest, I often found his artwork to be a bit visually busy, and usually it took me more than one read to follow what was going on. (This is one of his clearer examples, which is why I scanned it in to show here.) However, I loved his great thick and thin ink line and bold graphic approach.

Which now brings me to my main reason for posting this stuff today. I just recently saw this promo clip posted on Cartoon Brew, which shows various animated snippets from a new MAD cartoon series coming up on The Cartoon Network:

To be blunt, I am very disheartened by what I see here. While I understand the sad reality of less and less money being put into creating anything for TV these days, especially animated, I don't think everything can be blamed solely on those diminished show budgets. Yes, it's typical of the "symbol" based animation that's employed on pretty much every show these days, with Flash, ToonBoom or similar software. And, yes, I'll admit that I am biased against this highly limited, "cutout" style and make no apologies for that. Yet, I have seen a number of shows that use these programs but still have a very professional graphic design style despite the symbol limitations.

Unfortunately, I can't be that generous in my assessment of what I see in these clips that I have to assume are quite representative of the look of the series itself. Animation aside, everything I see here is just poorly drawn. The characters look like they're drawn at the high school level, with awkward form and hastily traced outline; the layouts show poor composition and naive perspective (as opposed to deliberately skewed perspective like what Maurice Noble used to skillfully do.) It's rank amateurism that cannot be blamed completely on the lack of production dollars. And before I get bombarded with howls of protest from those who animated on the show under tight deadlines, may I point out that the newspaper doodle of imaginary critters in my last post was sketched in no more than 15 to 20 minutes tops over lunch. Yes, if kept simple, decent cartoons can be drawn in a short amount of time. Considering the repeated use of "symbol" animated pieces, there's really no excuse for not taking a bit of time to draw relatively simple cartoons like Spy vs. Spy and Don Martin and get them right from the get go.

In contrast, just take a look at this Spy vs. Spy segment that was animated for the MAD TV series that started in the mid 90's:

Frankly, I'm highly impressed with that series of short animated bits, as they were pretty full animation considering it was for TV. They're expertly drawn with a strong graphic look, retaining the comic's distinctive thick to thin linework. The background layouts are simple but dynamically staged, and the entire production reads clearly with visual appeal. In short, it looks like the work of skilled cartoonists, who, back then were still allowed to actually draw! How much we've lost even since then, going cheaper and cheaper, and having become way too dependent on the computer to do so much of what was done far better by the hand of an artist.


Steven M. said...

I'm hopeful for the new show, but I agree, it could of been drawn better.

That Spy vs. Spy short was beautifully done.

Anonymous said...

You've got to admit one thing, Pete. That new MAD show sure looks a heck of a lot better than a lot of the other animated shows that I see that are making it on TV nowadays. At least it looks a bit different from that cliched, overdone "flat" style that's all over TV animation now or whatever status quo is really. I just hate how they're trying to fool kids into believing that MAD magazine is a brand new product or something coming exclusively on their channel, which might I say, is riddled with that crude, primitive high school level thinking on their part. Seems like all the idiot ten year olds in the world have taken over entertainment, especially in animation, reality TV, films, and even the news for crying out loud! There are even people and even teachers I know from high school who still act childish and completely rude. I can't stand such immaturity and crudeness in anything, and it astounds me how common it is in our culture now and how people are willing to put up with it. Whatever happened to the idea of sophistication and class anyway?

I apologize for the rant, but you really had me thinking and I got really angry over this. I think if we ever want better cartoons, then I think that the next generation of young cartoonists, like myself and ilk, should really be studying hard right now so we won't end up drawing like amateurs tomorrow and that we can make something worthwhile that people are going to talk about in the future, or at least that's the goal I had in mind.

Kris said...

I agree that it looks terribly drawn.

Pete Emslie said...

"You've got to admit one thing, Pete. That new MAD show sure looks a heck of a lot better than a lot of the other animated shows that I see that are making it on TV nowadays."

Different, but not better, Roberto. We live in an age of mediocrity, I'm afraid.

Tom R said...

The budget for this show is a major factor here, Pete... but there is a school of thought in animation right now that the crude and low-production look has a certain charm that is desired.

There will be more elaborate and better drawn animations in the show than what you see here. Sergio has done some stuff and I have done work for several segments, none of which is being shown here. Our work is being transferred to Flash, so how it translates I have no idea, but I have high hopes.

Ricardo Cantoral said...

Pete, check out Mad TV's Don Martin shorts !

Don Martin-Frog

Bill Field said...

But Pete, Mad Magazine, itself is not what it once was either. There isn't the overall MAD look and feel, I think it went by way of the dinosaur when they allowed color and advertisements within it's covers.

Stephen Worth said...

I consider Mad magazine to be one of the most important venues for cartooning in the entire history of cartooning. Beyond that, I think it's responsible for establishing much of the modern sensibility of humor (along with Monty Python and Saturday Night Live). The fact that artists and executives could feel justified in doing a medicre version of it distresses me. It shows a complete lack of respect for what Mad magazine is. If I was a network exec and the show came back looking like this, I'd eat it and shelve the whole mess rather than to air it and embarrass everyone involved. But I guess some folks have no shame.

kurtwil said...

Agreed, sadly, that the new MAD animation's pretty much what 2D animation (save a handful of exceptions from Disney and others) has turned into - mediocrity.

TOON BOOM, though, is a tool. It and other software can diminish drudgery and help create excellent animation, provided the artist understands __how__ to use it, and when the personal touch is needed.
Good examples of grander use of computer software are PRINCESS AND THE FROG, CINDERELLA III, and of course, just about all of the PIXAR film output (PIXAR only stumbles a bit when recycling animation techniques from one character to the next).

When I did computer assisted 2D animation tests for Disney DVD titles, a Disney artist was looking over my shoulder, and we made sure the computer was helping, not hurting, the animation being created.

Ricardo Cantoral said...

Bill: Your right, it really isn't. However they have super talented artists under their employ like Tom Minton and Tom bunk. Also some of the parodies are pretty sharp.

Daniel said...

I've seen a lot of Spy vs Spy as I used to watch Mad in the 90s, but I don't remember Spy vs Spy making that much of an impression on. Watching it again, it was very well executed. I love the hand gestures poses they both have as they scheme towards the end.

Brubaker said...

I dunno. The Spy vs. Spy bit looks okay (but I'm a sucker for scribbly-looking animation). Agree that others don't look as good, especially the Don Martin part.

I prefer the mid-70s MAD special, although some people don't like it. Mark Kausler especially, who animated the Spy vs. Spy segment and wanted to forget that the special existed in the first place

Fun fact: The Spy vs. Spy segments from MAD TV was done by Klasky-Csupo. Yes, the studio that did "Rugrats".

Ricardo Cantoral said...

I just watched a clip. Meh, Just another cheap CN show.

zmerrill said...

That MAD show looks like I could've drawn that in 8th grade, good grief!

Andrew Murray said...

I think I have 1 issue of MAD.

as a product of the 80s/90s MAD never had an impact on me...But I did like those SpyvsSpy shorts from the 90s show.

How is it relevant to its audience? what is their audience?
MAD never kept with the times. I think I will pass

Patrick McMicheal said...

Mad was also a major influence for me. I see Jack Davis' cheerleaders look very much like YOUR own style!

Pete Emslie said...

Andrew - I don't think that MAD is really to blame for not being able to remain relevant to the changing times. Back in the 60' and 70's when MAD was in its heyday, there was very much a shared pop culture that cut across generational lines. We only had a dozen or so TV channels, and families all sat together to watch the same shows, like All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Carol Burnett Show, etc. MAD appealed to readers of all ages and neither did it shy away from political commentary, thereby making even we young teens of the time more politically aware.

Today we have hundreds of TV channels, many supposedly geared towards unique niche markets and demographics, yet really all showing much the same dreck as each other. Movies are created with specific demographics in mind too, mostly aimed at the teen crowd. And popular music has deteriorated into a pop/rock crapfest, alienating anyone of my age who grew up appreciating singers like Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Bobby Darin, etc. and finding nothing on pop radio these days to like.

In short, the audiences today are too fragmented, to the point where none of us can really relate to each other anymore, having no more shared popular culture. MAD is just as much a victim of this fragmentation as are all of us of a certain age who remember when entertainment and society in general was so much better than it is today. Under these circumstances, MAD can't hope to be "relevant" to as large an audience as it had back in its prime.

zmerrill said...

Mr. Emslie, I would strongly agree with your statement. I bought a new issue of MAD, and it was horrible! Jokes were awful, drawings were mediocre at best, not a good buy. And we have become too segmented, it's like one culture further subdivided into too many to count.

Andrew Murray said...


I agree with your points, we are all now demographics and revenue. I simply meant that MAD didnt jump on that wagon to keep with the changing times and possibly find its own niche, instead it has dwindled away and has now become bland but still recognizable through its icon status.

Not even its attempt with this new show has the slightest power to draw my attention to it.

Thad said...

We only had a dozen or so TV channels, and families all sat together to watch the same shows, like All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Carol Burnett Show, etc.

Wait a minute... Carol maybe, but since when were All in the Family and M*A*S*H considered family-friendly shows? Maybe for families with all the kids over 11, but when reruns of either of these came on when my sister and I were tots, we were scooted out.

Allari Ruiz said...

Yeah i stopped reading MAD a few years ago for the same reasons, even in the 90s one got the feel that they only hired the best of the best in cartooning and that one had to be an extraordinary artist to make it in MAD.
I quit the mag pretty much since The Strip Club and it´s ilk appeared.

Ricardo Cantoral said...

The Strip Club is definetly one of the worst additions to the magazine yet. I also can't stand the snapshots of movies with photoshopped captions.

Raff said...

Pete said: Back in the 60' and 70's, there was very much a shared pop culture that cut across generational lines. The audiences today are too fragmented, to the point where none of us can really relate to each other anymore, having no more shared popular culture.

Roberto said: [Today] there are even people and even teachers I know from high school who still act astounds me how common it is in our culture now. Whatever happened to the idea of sophistication and class anyway?

Anybody else see the connection between the two?

I wasn't there, but in the earlier decades it must have been safer to grow up and mature; you could do so without getting punished: Ex-communicated from cutting-edge pop culture, bombarded with drug and insurance commercials and bad 80s ballads, and subjected to job prejudice.

If that's what growing up entails, should it surprise anyone to go on the TTC and find 30-year-olds who act like 12-year-olds?

Martin Juneau said...

In the mid-90's when the cult local magazine Croc ended, Safarir take over the place to entertain adults and teenagers. Now i can't read Safarir anymore because of the shitload contained from those last years. I seen most of the today's issues bad caricatures drawings, unappealing comics and boring one-note jokes who goes nowhere. The society degrade more and more to mediocrity and crapfest. Like MAD, Safarir was already a good magazine to become today a mediocrity piece from the last years.

The Mush said...

Nice post about MAD. But I have a book called "MAD ART" that focuses on the artists and evidently, Prohias never used a brush. He'd do every line thin, then drawing two lines to get a thick one, then fill it in. A hard way, but more controlling.