I Remember It MADly — Part One of Two

In 1992, when I was 12, my mom took me on a trip from our home in Santa Cruz to Manhattan. She had grown up in New York City, and I had been there a few times before. Our family had mostly moved West, so for the first time we were just coming for an adventure. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted out of a trip to New York, as a lifelong beach and mountain California kid. Two things stuck out in my mind as we touched down at JFK: 1) that Spider-Man “lived” here, and 2) MAD Magazine was created here. At twelve I plainly understood that Spider-Man wasn’t actually swinging through the urban canyons, though I definitely imagined it as I walked the streets. But I knew for sure that in some wacky office on MADison Avenue there existed the Usual Gang of Idiots, churning out the kooky comics and parodies that I lived for.

I looked at the address in the inside front cover of the MAD my mom had bought me in the airport for the flight out. When we had a free afternoon she generously ventured out to find the fabled office with me. We entered the building and located MAD on the lobby’s directory panel. Into the elevator. We got out expecting to find a true madhouse, air full of paper airplanes, snakes jumping out of cans of beans, rubber chickens smacking faces, the works. Instead there was a modest door with a frosted window in it that read MAD MAGAZINE. I guess we go in there?

We walked in and scanned the office for more groups like us. We thought we’d be met with other mother and son combos, or at least any kind of fans. Instead there was just a reception desk and a couple of empty chairs. A lady behind the desk looked up at us, confused.

“Yes?”

“Um, we’d like to sign up for the next tour?”

“Tour? What tour?”

“Um, tour of the office?”

“We don’t have that.”

“Well, okay. What do you do when people come up here wanting to see how the magazine is made?”

“I don’t know. Nobody’s ever come up here before.”

Stepping back. My mom was born in 1950 in Brooklyn. Her mother was the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Poland, who spoke Yiddish for the first few years of her life. My grandfather was born in The Bronx, also to Jewish immigrants. Shortly after marrying my grandmother, he went back to Europe for the first time to fight the Nazis. He was on the beach at Normandy. I have a Nazi helmet with a hole in it that he removed from a dead German’s head on the battlefield. When he came back he settled in with my grandmother, eventually moving to Long Island, having three kids (my mom being the oldest), and founding a design firm in Manhattan, in the Chrysler Building. I have a photo of him at his drafting table, a pipe in his mouth and a coffee mug in his hand.

Basically, my mom was Sally Draper.

By 1992 my grandfather had remarried, my grandmother had died of leukemia. My mom was taking me back to the city where she grew up, and my interest in MAD Magazine seemed like a natural direction for my young creativity. An extension of the legacy my grandpa had created. His design firm, Graber Concepts, was gone, but his endless inventiveness could not be crushed.

Back in the MAD offices, the receptionist had gone to find someone to figure out what to do with this 41 year old woman and her 12 year old son. MAD’s legendary publisher Bill Gaines had just died. Another editor came out to talk to us. He offered to show us around the office. He seemed amused and confused by our unexpected presence. He showed us Gaines’ office. Gaines had been gone only a month or so, and everything was still untouched. A giant King Kong peered into his window. All kinds of wacky items adorned his workspace. As we were led around the office I was introduced to whomever was around that day. In the hallway we passed a lanky, punky-looking guy.

“This is Rick Tulka…”

“You’re Rick Tulka!!”

As soon as I said it I was embarrassed. Tulka was a relatively new artist, but I knew and liked his work. I had spent hours trying to copy the varied styles of every artist MAD employed. Sam Viviano’s wide jaws, Mort Drucker’s droopy eyes and broken noses, Al Jaffee’s swirly curls, the almost inhuman shapes and proportions of Don Martin, Paul Coker’s effortless thick-and-thin lines, the knuckles, knees & elbows of Jack Davis, the soft fades of Rick Tulka’s shading. Seeing one of these guys in person, it was the greatest moment of my life.

I spent the next couple hours there, as the writers and editors did a kind of one-person focus group on me, grilling me about what I liked, why I liked it. They signed some posters and magazines for me, gave me some other freebies, and sent us back down into the Manhattan streets.

Five years later Bart Simpson would be the second person, as far as I know, to stroll into their offices looking for a tour.

To Be Concluded In PART TWO — 19 Years Later I Reunited With Rick Tulka

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