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The congressional hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee are in progress. Senator Joe McCarthy from Wisconsin straightens his papers and looks up, licking his lips at the prospect of the next witness: a slight, boyish figure crossing the room. As he settles into the chair behind the microphone we recognise the tousled hair, prominent ears and freckles, and that lop-sided grin. “Alfred E Neuman,” the Senator barks, “are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?”
All eyes turn to the witness, and, slowly, he grins, exposing a gap between his two front teeth.
But for the fact that Alfred existed only on paper, in the pages of Mad magazine, this scene could have happened. For, according to newly released files, the fearsome director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J Edgar Hoover, was watching Alfred. He was not alone: much of Middle America believed the lad was a Communist, local watch committees thought him a menace, and law enforcement agencies were on his case. For 20 years from the mid-Fifties, Mad’s cartoonists and spoof writers sent up everything from politics and television to church and big business. It was the must-read for bolshie baby-boomers, the magazine your parents and teachers did not want you to read; and, at its height in the early Seventies, it sold 2.8m copies.
It is only now, however, that we are able to present – courtesy of documents publicised under the US Freedom of Information Acts – the full story of Mad Meets the FBI.
The bureau’s documents on the magazine cover the years 1957-1971, and consist of 36 separate files. How many hours in the working lives of trench-coated investigators these yellowing documents represent we cannot say – but we do know, because the files tell us, the hilarious upshot of Hoover’s sledgehammer being applied to the Mad nuts.
Take the Case of the Draft Dodgers, or, as it is known to FBI librarians, Bufiles 62-106572-X3 to X9. In 1957 Mad published a test of military unsuitability which recommended that high-scorers write off for a Draft Dodger’s Card. The address given was J Edgar Hoover c/o Washington, and, sure enough, a number of fun-loving readers duly wrote in. Soon memos were flying around the FBI including one, which, while accepting that Mad was not actually guilty of sedition, let slip that files were kept on its publisher, and asked federal agents in New York to visit the Mad offices and “advise them of our displeasure and insist that there be no repetition of such misuse of the Director’s name”. Two FBI heavies duly turned up and “advised” a startled art editor whose eccentric publisher William M Gaines, who then wrote a letter of apology to Hoover, not forgetting to wish him a Happy New 1958.
Then there was the Case of Hoover’s Tonic. Editor Al Feldstein and his merry men had concocted a spoof ad for a pick-me-up whose copyline ran: “Try J Edgar Hoover Tonic. Special agents go to work in seconds, cleaning out your system and getting rid of all those harmful foreign elements … and you’ll be pleased with what it does to your red cells!”.
The G-Men duly rose to the bait. One M A Jones wrote to his fellow agent Mr DeLoach about “an allegedly humorous advertisement” in “this magazine which at one time presented the horror of a war to readers”. It ended with an instruction to contact Mad “once again … and firmly and severely admonish them concerning our displeasure at the tasteless misuse of the Director’s name”.
Not long after this, another FBI file was started. The trigger was a feature entitled “Mad’s Modernised Elementary School Textbooks” which included a specimen letter for would-be blackmailers. It read in part: “Dear Friend, I am fine. How are you? Put $25,000 in small unmarked bills in a paper sack and leave it behind the B & O freight shed or you will never see your kid again! Your friend, Desperate.” Inevitably, two lads in Seattle just had to try it out. So seriously did the FBI regard this attempt to coach the nation’s youth in the ways of blackmail that they involved the office of Robert Kennedy, then attorney general. Once again agents trooped down to the Mad offices to put the frighteners on those responsible. “The whole stupid, unreal situation demanded a stupid, unreal response,” recalled Feldstein. “And I gave it to them.”
The FBI’s suspicions of Mad were fed by a steady drip of letters from Middle America, which make up most of the files. “I feel that this magazine is a diabolical form of Red Propaganda used to infiltrate the minds of our Teenagers to destroy the American way of life,” wrote Greater Knoxville Youth for Christ. “This magazine constantly rebukes George Washington and Abraham Lincoln,” wrote another who detected the influence of Moscow in the editorial office. “Satire is one thing; but to disrespect our American heritage and our way of life … is startling to see. The leaders of our country are made to look like fools. In the October issue, you are ridiculed!”
Thin-lipped busybodies in the ‘burbs were not the only ticks on Mad’s fur. Members of the Cincinnati Committee on the Evaluation of Comic Books deemed the magazine “objectionable” after it failed no fewer than eight of their tests for wholesomeness. Even Irving Berlin had a go, suing the magazine after it had used one of his songs for a skit on hypochondria. He lost – as did the general who so vehemently insisted the magazine was Communist propaganda that he was sued by “the usual gang of idiots”, as the staff styled themselves. Little did the paranoids know that the “subversives” who ran Mad included several Second World War veterans, and Antonio Prohias, inventor of the classic cartoon strip Spy vs Spy so who had fled his native Cuba after upsetting the Castro regime.
Perhaps the strangest of Mad’s encounters was after it published a cartoon of a three-dollar bill bearing Alfred’s grinning face. Some enterprising readers cut out the notes and used them, despite their having text on the back, in the rather primitive change machines of the time. Enter, at Mad’s offices a few days later, two agents of the US Treasury, who not only confiscated the original artwork, but also, lest readers wreck the entire economy dime by dime, demanded the original printing plates. They left clutching the address of the printer.
The last entry in the files is a complaint from 1971, about Mad’s use of the US flag, by the American Federation of Police, which tried to halt distribution. But, with anti-Vietnam war protests in full swing, the FBI had bigger fish to fry. Hoover was fading (he died a year later), and civil-liberties legislation had begun to cramp the bureau’s style. It has since considerably cleaned up its act.
Mad has changed, too. It now carries advertisements, is owned by the media giant Time-Warner, and sales are well down from the peak. Alfred E Neuman has also undergone a transformation. His face has been used to promote such products as Lands’ End clothing, breakfast drinks and Lucky jeans, and he has even had cosmetic dentistry to appear in an ad for the molar-enhancing properties of milk. (A condom bearing his features was, however, vetoed.)
He presides now over a magazine that is a little sexier, a touch more scatological, and less threatening than it seemed to Hoover’s men. But who’s to say, given the US’s current illiberal mood, that Alfred E Neuman and his ilk won’t be brought in for questioning again one day?