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Why Mort Drucker mattered

If Andy Warhol was a great artist, so was Mort Drucker, the MAD Magazine cartoonist who died last month at the age of 91.

Like Warhol, Drucker was a prolific draftsman with an unmistakable line (as thin and brisk as Warhol’s was fat and blotted). His great themes were the gleaming Warholian trinity of Hollywood, Madison Avenue and the White House. The two artists were born within a few months of each other and got famous around the same time, working in a distinctly midcentury, mass-market American style of humor that was at once chilly and affectionate, bordering on but never quite the same as caricature. Both had a strangely innocent tendency of taking their victims at their word, even while mocking them, and both wound up designing advertisements not so different from the ones they’d made their reputations pulling apart.

There, the similarities pretty much end. Warhol was never a first-rate draftsman, knew it all too well, and abandoned drawing after the age of thirty. Drucker, not to put too fine a point on it, could actually draw. Long after the obits and appreciations cease, cartoonists will go on celebrating the unlikely drama of his gray wash chiaroscuros; or his shrewd cross-hatching; or the way he turned tiny panels into vast, vertiginous caverns; or his knack for drawing hands, so that a whole body’s worth of personality might be compressed into a knobby wrist or the curve of an index finger. Once his editors at MAD recognized his talent, he had steady work for the next half-century.

It may have been too steady. Between the 1960s and the 2000s, nearly every issue of MAD contained at least one movie parody, more than half of which Drucker drew. Whatever he created was required to fit the magazine’s formula, which barely changed between Eisenhower and Obama: strained, punning titles (“Midnight Wowboy,” “Hah! Noon,” “Drek-ula,” “Buttman & Rubbin’”); introductory splash pages where the characters introduced themselves; boilerplate layouts consisting of small, uniform panels and square, printed speech bubbles; non-sequitur endings, usually a jab at the filmmakers’ pride, lust, sloth or avarice. Most MAD readers — and there were millions of them in the magazine’s heyday in the early 70s — knew nothing about the tyranny of micromanaging and general squareness that produced their bimonthly dose of anarchy. A comparable irony held for Drucker, for here was a counterculture hero who worked the same job for 55 years and staying married to the same woman for 70.

Saturday Night Feeble

Master Draftsman: Cartoonists celebrate the unlikely drama of Drucker’s gray wash chiaroscuros; his shrewd cross-hatching; the way he turned tiny panels into vast, vertiginous caverns. Image by Courtesy of DC Entertainment

Last summer, when MAD announced it would stop printing new material, surprisingly few publications bothered to comment, maybe because they were too busy trying to stay afloat themselves. By any numerical measure, MAD peaked at least forty years ago, and most of the crucial entertainers who once read it (Matt Groening, Robert Crumb, Terry Gilliam, David Letterman, most of the early SNL cast) have passed retirement age, the bulk of their canonical work necessarily behind them. The real death knell for the magazine, in the minds of many, wasn’t the announcement that it was all but shutting down but rather the President’s suggestion, two months prior, that Pete Buttigieg looked like Alfred E. Neuman. (Buttigieg: “I’ll be honest, I had to Google that.”)

Of the few long articles on MAD’s demise, most argued that the magazine was a victim of its own colossal success or struck a “you can’t make this shit up” tone, as if the ascendance of Donald J. Trump, Justin Bieber and assorted postoperative Kardashians had made satire, MAD’s or otherwise, obsolete. What tended to get lost in these eulogies was any sense for the craft and thoroughness that went into a Golden-Age issue of the magazine — qualities that seem well worth celebrating in an era when august publications lay off their copyeditors and fact-checkers while padding their online output with listicles. Instead, MAD seems to be largely remembered as a goofy, once-influential lark that just sort of happened twice a month — much as the now online-only Playboy is remembered as a fun, once-innovative porno and not the entity that published Kerouac, Atwood, Bellow and Garcia Marquez.

To get a sense for how rigorous MAD really was, you have only to look at Drucker’s movie parodies and remember that he produced most of them on tight deadlines, without the benefit of movie press kits or advance screenings, while also designing ads, picture books and movie posters. Writers went through multiple drafts of their scripts before the words were typeset across the top half of the panels, quite often leaving Drucker no more than a few days to complete the teensy task of drawing all the accompanying pictures.

Many of these pictures I can see in my mind’s eye without really trying. I never had a subscription to MAD, but between the ages of about nine and sixteen I wore out a stack of heavy, softbound omnibuses — “MAD About the Fifties,” “MAD About the Sixties” and so on through the nineties — that, taken together, probably had a deeper influence on me than certain members of my nuclear family. When I think about those books now, I don’t find myself rattling off punchlines. The most memorable bits, many (most?) of them courtesy of Drucker, were usually squeezed into the corners of the panel or tossed in the gutter, waiting for impressionable kids to fish them out. There’s Marlon Brando as Vito muttering about how he coulda been a contender while Rocky fights Apollo Creed; there’s the muddle of cars and cops Chief Bromden finds waiting for him after he breaks free; there’s the Death Star with its shadowy crater like a big googly-eye; there’s Fred Flintstone jostling with the apes to see the monolith.

The first thing I noticed about Drucker’s work when I revisited it for this article was its density. A finished Drucker cartoon is a dark, byzantine thing, full of little monsters and twisty architecture that mocks the crisp whiteness of the speech bubbles above them. You get the sense that Drucker has pushed things as far as they’ll go, that nothing further could be added without making the whole image incoherent. It’s a kind of “chicken fat,” the term invented by the early MAD cartoonist Will Elder to describe the little details that add comic flavor to the cartoon without advancing the storyline. Here seems as good a place as any to note, without really advancing my argument in any way, that Drucker — like Elder (born Eisenberg), Al (born Abraham) Jaffee, Harvey Kurtzman, William Gaines (born Ginzburg), and more or less every other notable figure from MAD magazine’s first decade — was a New York Jew who grew up on his mom’s schmaltzy soup, and that the chicken fat aesthetic, apparent in everything from Monty Python to “Airplane!” to “The Simpsons” to “South Park,” must rank among the proudest achievements of the Jewish comic sensibility. All this from a magazine that most people never thought of as Jewish, though gentile fans must have wondered if words like furshlugginer, potrzebie, and veeblefetzer were pure nonsense or perhaps something else.

Cuckoo's Nest parody

Connoisseur of Schmaltz: Drucker’s drawings were filled with “chicken fat,” a term used to describe the little details that add comic flavor to the cartoon without advancing the storyline. Image by Courtesy of DC Entertainment

Words were never Drucker’s department, and studying his cartoons without them yields some surprising results. Often they are not — how should I put this? — all that funny. The bulk of MAD movie parodies’ comedy lies in the snark and cynicism of the scripts; by themselves, the pictures engross and impress much more than they slay. Drucker never did any serious damage to the movie stars he drew, and most of the time he seems more interested in nailing Dianne Wiest’s squint or Jack Nicholson’s stubble than in raking their owners over the coals. These are parodies so mild you sometimes forget what they’re supposed to parody, which explains how Drucker could be responsible for the MAD Magazine spoof of “American Graffiti” and the design of the actual movie poster. His drawings of Frank Sinatra and Cary Grant for “My Fair Ad-Man” (sample lyrics: “An ad that’s bad will end spoofed in MAD”; “And so I’ll ‘yes-yes-yes’ all night”; “Oh, wouldn’t it be Kerouac”) are detailed to the point of obsessiveness — were Sinatra’s grin or Grant’s arched eyebrows ever so charming onscreen as they are here?

All this helps to explain why Drucker’s work for MAD was never as dense-seeming as his peers’ — the edges of the panel were always packed with chicken fat, but at the center usually stood a pretty faithful rendering of a movie star, like the calm eye of a hurricane. This also helps explain the complex feeling his cartoons always gave me as an adolescent. I hadn’t seen most of the movies he parodied — I must have read Drucker’s “The Oddfather” at least a year or two before my parents let me watch the real thing — and sometimes I had only the dimmest idea what they were about, so that I was learning about them even as I sniggered at them (a common-enough experience for MAD readers, I would guess, unless there were a lot of fifteen-year-olds watching “A Clockwork Orange” in 1971). But this was the great delight of a good MAD movie parody: you got the eureka of finding out what all the fuss was about, on top of the pleasure of realizing why it wasn’t worth fussing over. I got to have my cake and eat it, be “with it” and “over it,” and Drucker’s careful, reverent work, more than anything else, made this possible.

“Reverent” is a funny word to apply to a cartoonist who worked for a famously irreverent magazine, but if anything it’s an understatement. A successful parody requires a lot of attention, and in order to draw the members of the Corleone family (to return to “The Oddfather” for a moment), Drucker studied them as carefully as Francis Ford Coppola had. For the splash page, he gave everyone the same squint — everyone except Michael, the white sheep of the family. For the rest of the parody, he draws them from every conceivable angle — from high above; from below eye-level, making them look heroic and larger-than-life; in closeup, for moments of psychological intensity; from behind and head-on and the side. For the final flourish, he makes Al Pacino morph into Marlon Brando in four panels. This is Drucker showing off a little, but it’s also a sign of how attentively he’d watched “The Godfather” — how he’d studied the actors tics and facial postures until he could transition from one to the other like Liberace transitioning mid-medley.

Drucker worshipped American movies. His cartoons taught me to worship even as they taught me to laugh at the cheese and corn of the adult world. As Hollywood movies got thinner, so did his parodies — their downward trajectory between the 70s and the 2000s is slight but still apparent. This had something to do with changes in the business: films played in theaters for shorter and shorter stretches before being released for VCR or DVD, leaving Drucker with less time to convert them into chicken fat-filled cartoons. But the bigger problem was the increasing disposability of Hollywood product. In 1975, “Barry Lyndon” was widely dismissed as a pretentious bore-fest, but it was directed by Stanley Kubrick, starred Ryan O’Neal, got lots of people talking, and ended up one of the twenty highest-grossing films of the year. The last parody Drucker ever drew was of “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian” in the fall of 2008. His wit hadn’t gone anywhere, but there wasn’t much point in wittily poking fun at a movie nobody gave a shit about, including the people who’d seen it. Read Drucker’s “Borey Lyndon” and then read “The Chronic-Ills of Yawnia” and you’ll have a pretty clear sense for why MAD went extinct.

Mad Magazine, October 1982

Mash-Up Artist: A Drucker cover for a 1982 issue of Mad. Image by Courtesy of DC Entertainment

Drucker retired a few years too soon to spoof “The Avengers,” but I wonder what he would have done with the material. Worshipful parodist or not, Drucker versus Marvel has the touch of the Manichean. It’s a version of the modern myth of the diligent, competent professional forced to take on a rich, remorseless machine — Nader versus GM, Fischer versus the Soviet school, Leys versus Tel Quel, Sanders versus the DNC.

Though it never happened, the very idea that Drucker could have drawn a parody of a Stan Lee movie — that two men with the same ostensible job could have ended up in such different places — is a bizarre reminder that cartoons are both the singlemost pretentious art form of the early 21st century and one of the least. Most of the people who enjoy them are children, and most of the people who make them are content with this reality, knowing there’s nothing intrinsically less inventive about art that children can enjoy. But others feel the need to overcompensate, and so you get fanboys insisting that Marvel movies are “modern-day Westerns” or “American mythology” and Art Spiegelman hiding his mediocre visual intelligence behind whatever Very Important Subject Matter he can get his hands on.

Nothing like this ever happened to Drucker, thank god. Unlike Twain and Rockwell, he never convinced himself he was a national treasure whose solemn duty was to write about Joan of Arc or paint Dick Nixon’s portrait. Instead of producing a culminating work of any kind, he went on doing the same thing, better than anyone, for the better part of a century. We shouldn’t romanticize the stresses of working for a bimonthly magazine, but if nothing else they kept him sharp and pushed him to invent ingenious solutions to formal constraints, which is what cartoonists should always be doing.

Was he really a great artist? My own opinion should be clear by now, but what’s more interesting than the question of whether he was or wasn’t is the fact that he didn’t care. He couldn’t be bothered with such petty labels. There were too many faces left to draw.


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