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Alan and The Mad Reader

Legendary comicbook writer Alan Moore has often cited Mad magazine's "Superduperman" story as an influence on his work such as Marvelman and Watchmen. More specifically, in George Khoury's "Kimota! The Miracleman Companion", he says that as a young boy, "... I picked up one of the Ballantine reprints of Harvey Kurtzman's Mad which has actually got the "Superduperman" story in it ...". This would almost certainly have been "The Mad Reader", a paperback collection of early Mad material first published in 1954.

I've had a copy of this book since I was a kid (I was born in '67) and I recently re-read it. As interesting as it is to try to spot the elements of "Superduperman" that influenced Moore, there are a few other things in the book that he seems to have picked up on.

I should point out that this book was my favourite of the several Mad books that I collected as a kid, and being a fan of DC Comics, the Superduperman story was the high point. As an adult I bought a second copy in better condition, long before I discovered the Moore connection. (I also bought copies of Robert Mayer's "Super-Folks" and Michael Parry's "Superheroes" before I knew Moore was influenced by them. Just sayin'...)

The chief importance of the Superduperman story to Moore seems to have been the basic idea of a totally fresh way of looking at Superman, a character whose stories at that time were extremely formulaic. Apart from this, one small point worth noticing is the way in which the emblem of the hero's chest keeps changing - just like that of Dourdevil in Moore's Daredevil parody "Grit" (The Daredevils #8, 1983). And the way in which the hero deals with his mighty nemesis by casting him in a steel block reminds me of the cement trap the Snow Queen devised for the immortal Night Raven (The Daredevils #9, 1983). There are other connections, but these have probably been explored elsewhere.

Moore's overall style of humour, especially in his early works, bears similarities to the early Mad style, but as he has pointed out himself, "the original E C Mad comic, undeniably brilliant in it's own right, has doomed us to a situation where any new humour magazine that appears ... features a pale imitation of Mad's stock in trade genre parodies" ("Stan Lee - Blinded By The Hype Part 2" in The Daredevils #4, 1983).

As you may have already guessed, I have recently re-read a lot of Moore's early work, and I've noticed several little things that he seems to have appropriated from this book. (I hasten to point out that I'm talking about homage and influence, not plagiarism!) Mad writer Harvey Kurtzman had a fondness for using obscure words as non sequiturs, such as 'potrzebie' ( and 'veeblefetzer' ( Both appear several time in "The Mad Reader". Moore used 'potrzebie' in "Chronocops" (2000AD #310, 1983) and 'veeblefetzer' in three 2000AD stories including "The Wages Of Sin!" in 2000AD #257, 1982. Similarly, the phrase "How's your mom, Ed?" crops up occasionally in Kurtzman's "Dragnet" parody and elsewhere in "The Mad Reader", and Moore used it in episodes of "Who Killed Rock N' Roll" and "The Stars My Degradation" in Sounds magazine.

The early Mad artists, particularly Will Elder, had a tendency to cram in a lot of sight jokes and other visual detail into their panels, and Moore did this when he began drawing his own strips, and sometimes asks his artists to do the same for his scripts. Elder called this extraneous material "chicken fat", which explains the appearance of that phrase on page 60 of "The Mad Reader". I was particularly pleased to spot this, and to find out its significance (see, as Moore's frequent use of it in his early strips in Sounds and also in "The Astounding Adventures of St. Pancras Panda" (Back-Street Bugle #14, 1978) had puzzled me.

More importantly, I think, there's Roger Price's introduction to "The Mad Reader". My first copy of the book was missing the front cover and the first few pages, so I didn't get to read this in its entirety until I bought my second copy. It's a nice little piece that makes a few good, serious points about Mad magazine, and it's spiced up with some splashes of Price's own humour. (For example, his use of the word "phenobarbitol" in the quotation below adds a touch of absurd humour without detracting from the serious point the rest of the sentence makes.) This seems a similar approach to the style which Moore often adopts when he writes introductions and other short non-fiction prose pieces. Though paying tribute to Harvey Kurtzman and the creators of the comics, Price doesn't consider it inappropriate to playfully insult them at the same time. He says, for example, that Kurtzman "has a physique that is just barely noticeable." To me, this recalls Moore's occasional digs at "Pedro Henry" in Sounds and particularly his remark about Kevin O'Neill who "manages to cram so much talent, imagination and ability into such a small and basically puny body. (Sorry, Kev, but it had to be said.)" (Fanzine Reviews, "The Daredevils" #1, 1983).

Finally, and perhaps most crucially, Price writes that Mad is "a natural product of selective evolution. And a necessary evolvement because it brings true creativity and dignity to a new medium of communication - the Comic Book. Many Wrong Thinkers look upon the Comic Book as a substitute for Good Reading - whatever that is. Not so. The Comic Book offers a format to the writer-artist that is unique and will eventually take its place as a legitimate art form with the novel, television, films, and phenobarbitol. True, there are effects you can get in a novel that you can't get in a Comic Book. But there are points that can only be made in a Comic Book. For instance, the DRAGGED NET piece in this volume couldn't possibly be done as a dramatic sketch with actors. Neither could it be told in prose. It is an example of pure MAD."

Surely it was very unusual for anyone to talk about comics in such terms in 1954, especially when discussing a humour book. "True creativity and dignity"? In funnybooks? And "there are points that can only be made in a Comic Book" - how often has Moore made this point? I'm sure this book had a much deeper and more far-reaching effect on his work than even he realises.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 28th, 2013 12:41 pm (UTC)
Excellent stuff. I should go dig out my own copy of The Mad Reader, now.
Jun. 6th, 2013 12:02 am (UTC)
Here's a pertinent quote from Moore's interview in The Comics Journal #116, July 1987:

Dave and I are both EC fans of long standing, and when we were putting together the look of Watchmen I was saying to Dave, "Let's make it dark. Let's use some of that Wally Wood black to give the thing a weight and solidity." The insane amount of detail that Dave is putting into these panels is bordering upon the Wally Wood/Bill Elder crammed-panel details that you got in Mad. It's the same sort of approach, just getting that density to the material so that you can read it over and over and over again - which I think is certainly true of the best ECs. So that's something we're trying to recapture.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )



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