Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Kent State and Comics, a look back. Part 4


Continuing my look at how the Kent State era played out in comics and cartoons.

Finally picked up a nice copy of this issue of Mad #139, from December 1970. It’s pretty remarkable. Mad wasn’t known for daring political statements, but this cover is positively incendiary. Mad was fat and profitable in 1970, with a circulation approaching 2M a month, making it the most successful cartoon magazine ever. Warner Bros. Inc acquired Mad (and DC Comics) in 1969, and along with the film studio, formed the largest entertainment corporation in the world, so Mad was hardly the scruffy counter-culture publication it had once been. As insanely successful and profitable as it was, however, a formulaic lethargy had definitely settled in. This issue shakes things up a bit.

Publisher Bill Gaines had editorial autonomy, and he waded into the hot-button topic of the year here, unruly student radicals.  Older Middle America wanted them all rounded up and shot. Literally. That was a common refrain after Kent State, one that Nixon gleefully exploited. This issue must've make the corner-office squares at WB awfully queasy, I’m sure. Good for Gaines and his editors.

The cover— and WHAT a cover!— is drawn by the brilliant Jack Davis, a superstar illustrator by this time, a guy who drew more Time magazine and TV Guide covers than any other artist ever. Davis, of course, was one of the original stable of Mad artists assembled by the visionary Harvey Kurtzman back in the EC Comics days.

What made this cover so subversive is you really have to take your time and study it to pick up on everything in the background. At first glance, it's just another benign Alfred E. Neuman cover, but then the radical mob behind him comes into focus, and you realize Holy Crap this was quite a risky image!

Look at the signs. “Pigs off Campus” and “Escape to Canada,” and "1-2-3-4, we don't want your fucking war!", the chant that so unsettled older middle America (with the "fucking" blocked out, of course, but it's still there and would be apparent to anyone in 1970). There are signs referencing draft resistance and "Free Bobby," meaning Bobby Seale, who had been given a 4-year sentence on contempt by Judge Julius Hoffman during the Chicago 7 Trial!

Not to mention the cop bludgeoned to the ground and out cold. I'll call "bullshit" on this one, because it's the opposite of reality. Police had been pummeling student protestors for years, without restraint or accountability.

Edgy stuff for a kids mag! But the way Davis renders the scene, it all blends together and obviously slipped right by conservative news dealers. Brilliant!

It's also a cover that's uncharacteristically edgy for Mad in 1970, as they had mostly abandoned the (mild) political satire that was once its staple in favor of silly kid gags and endless pop-culture spoofs. National Lampoon had just debuted in April 1970 and was quickly finding its legs. It was elbowing Mad aside by this time.

Published in December 1970, this issue of Mad wraps up the “Year that Trembled,” one of the worst years we've ever suffered. It hit the stands just seven months after Kent State and Jackson State, and the massive Student Strike that resulted in campus uprisings, and brutal government crackdowns, from coast to coast. The summer brought the infamous Hard Hat Riot in New York and the Weathermen bombing campaign that sent the Feds into a frenzy and dominated headlines. It truly felt like the nation was teetering on the edge of mass revolt.

But when classes started again in Fall 1970, the air had gone out of the student antiwar movement. Nixon gloated about the “salutary effect” of Kent State. That’s true, combined with the cutbacks in the military draft and the total meltdown of SDS at the hands of the Weathermen. The Antiwar Movement moved off the campuses and into the streets.

So Mad is a bit late to the game here, following the culture rather than out front, but we can chalk some of that up to production deadlines. Hard for a magazine like this to keep pace with breaking news. This magazine was being written and drawn starting in September 1970, probably, just four months after the Kent State Massacre and in anticipation of campuses exploding again in the Fall. But the much-feared mass uprisings didn't occur. 

There are more goodies inside on the same theme. The great Don Martin weighs in on the Hard Hat Riot! Again this is the opposite of what happened– the hard hats demolished antiwar protestors and sent dozens to the hospital.

The biggest WTF in this issue is Dave Berg's "The Lighter Side of the Revolutionary Movement." Un-friggin-believable. Presumably, Berg was still working on the "Lighter Side of the Fred Hampton Assassination."

It's four pages of the signature Berg lazy gags. Yeah, Mad is really getting "down with the kids" here.

Overall, Mad #139 is a fascinating artifact.