If you’re traveling to New York City without pre-planning one or two places you want to visit, well, you’re just not trying.
In my case, when I was 19 and paying for a coast-to-coast trip for the first time, I made a plan to hit two of the main dream factories of my youth. Now, perhaps if I were a more literate sort of person, these places might have been fabled book-publishing houses (e.g. Simon and Schuster, Random House), or homes/venues of famed authors (say, Washington Irving, Edith Wharton, J.D. Salinger, whoever) or even prestigious magazines/periodicals (Time, The Wall Street Journal, the New Yorker).
Nope. I wanted to visit Marvel and Mad. And I did. Leading to the following two quick stories.
You may have heard of Marvel Comics, considering they have the two highest-grossing films (worldwide) of 2014 (Captain America and X-Men). But let’s make something clear: this trip was during the first Bush administration, and Marvel wasn’t MARVEL then. They had experienced unusual growth in the late 70s and early 80s, leading them to saturate comic shelves with titles like The Defenders, Adam Warlock, and Hell-Cat. By the late 80s, “premium” comics (like a Wolverine limited series, or DC’s The Dark Knight) were all anyone wanted to buy, and Marvel had to pull the plug on about half the titles they’d been half-heartedly churning out. Forays into TV/film? You want to talk about TV Spidey, TV Hulk, or the early Punisher/Captain America/Fantastic Four movies? Yeah, Marvel doesn’t either. My point is that they weren’t exactly running the world then; they weren’t even running their building.
As for Mad, that was the satire magazine for certain juvenile sensibilities. They would do mini-comic-book parodies of movies with titles like “The Empire Strikes Out” and “Raving Bully” or TV shows like “Diff’rent Jokes” and “The Dopes of Haphazzard”; they would do various satires of celebrities, “Things you can bet were never said,” Spy vs. Spy, Fold-Ins, Marginals, Don Martin…it’s hard to explain. Recently, on Jerry Seinfeld’s web show, Seinfeld and Howard Stern revealed to each other that the most valuable thing they each have in their work offices is a framed, blown-up version of themselves appearing on the cover of Mad. Marveling at the coincidence of this, Seinfeld tried to summarize the appeal of Mad: “You know what it is? That’s when you found out that there were adults that were silly.”
Anyone could/can learn the street addresses of Marvel and Mad simply by looking in one of the issues. I had no idea what would happen if I just walked up and rang the bell. I started with Marvel, headquartered in a large midtown skyscraper. I couldn’t just walk onto the elevator; a guy at a front desk asked me what I wanted.
“I want to go to Marvel.”
“Do you have an appointment?”
“No, but do they give tours?”
“You want to take a tour?”
After a minute on the phone, he told me to go up to whatever floor. (I was hoping it was the 35th, like the Baxter Building, home of the FF, but I can remember that it wasn’t.) The elevator opened into a large white lobby with almost no decorations, just the word MARVEL written in big letters on one wall. The lobby was hermetically sealed; just white walls, like in a sci-fi movie. On one side there was a window, like a Western Union cashier window where they can talk to you through the little speaker in the middle? I walked over to it and rang a bell. No one came. After a minute, I rang again. Finally, a lady came.
“Hi, I’m a huge fan of Marvel Comics, and I was wondering if there’s any way I can look around.”
“Well, I don’t know, maybe see the offices where people work.”
“You can’t do that.”
“Oh, uh, I mean, are there easels or something where people…”
“Most of our artists do their work off-site.” I actually knew that. But I also knew that the “lettering” and the “coloring” was mostly done in-house. Even seeing that would be awesome. But I somehow figured not to catch this lady in a lie/exaggeration.
Instead I said, “So, you don’t do tours?”
“No, we don’t normally give tours.”
“The guard downstairs said you did.” This wasn’t exactly true, but what the hell.
She left for ten minutes. I had nowhere to go. I rang the bell again. She came back.
She said, “Okay, I was mistaken. We do give tours once a week, Friday at 11.”
“Perfect! I’ll come back Friday.”
“This week’s tour is all booked. The next available tour is in November.” I guess I should have planned and called. Well, I had called, but you could only leave a message on a phone tree, and at the time it didn’t seem worth doing.
I said, “Can I just show up and see if any spots open up?”
She said, “Yes, that’s fine. Be here ten minutes early. But don’t expect to get in.”
So I came back on Friday at 10:45. Told the guard I was there for the Friday 11:00 tour. He waved me up. When I arrived in the lobby, there was one – one – other person waiting there. Cool-looking dude, maybe mid-20s, nice Afro. He had some kind of large wide briefcase with him. We got to talking and he was also hoping to get on the tour.
11:00 rolled around, then 11:05. Nothing and no one other than us. I rang the bell. The same lady came.
“The tour is cancelled.”
“WHAT?” I said. “Why?”
“A group of Japanese tourists didn’t show up.”
“But why can’t we just go?”
Then the other dude came up to her and opened his briefcase, which had art samples inside. He wanted to show them to someone, but she blew him off.
He left. I stayed. I was pissed. The next time the elevator door opened, someone came through, and they buzzed him in to the front door. I almost followed him in surreptitiously – why didn’t I? – but instead I peered in through the door as long as it was open. Sure enough, easels. Unfinished art, on its way to becoming comics. My dream factory. The bullpen! I wanted to see!
“Sir, you’ll have to leave,” the lady said from the window.
“But I’m here for the tour! I can pay.”
“The tour is cancelled, sorry.” She was about to say This is private property. I saved her the trouble and got in the elevator.
It would be great to finish this story by saying I never bought another Marvel comic. However, that would be a lie.
Instead, I’ll finish it with my experience at Mad. I walked into the midtown skyscraper, which didn’t have a security guard. I looked at the lobby’s glass-covered list of names and floors. Found Mad, took the elevator up. The lobby was a little like Marvel’s, but smaller. There was a big bronze statue of Alfred E. Neuman as Patton. Awesome. There wasn’t a window, but only a door. I knocked.
A lady opened it. “Yes?”
“I’m a huge fan of Mad magazine, and I’m just wondering if I could visit the offices?”
“Oh yes, sure. Come in.”
This was a super-nice lady! She was probably around 35, with gold-brown hair in a little New York bob and bad posture – like me. Before that day ended, I stopped at a New York newsstand and looked for her name in the credits – sure enough, she was assistant editor. I knew her name then, don’t know it now, but let’s call her Pam, because she had what I know now as a kind of Pam Beesley vibe (The Office).
Pam showed me all around the Mad offices. She took me through the steps of producing a magazine – from writing to art to finished art (e.g. inking) to lettering to all the post-production steps. She had all the original “plates” of every Mad issue – every one since it started in the 1950s. The “usual gang of idiots” weren’t around, but that didn’t matter. Pam was very, very nice and generous…I got the feeling I could have had her cat if I wanted it.
Pam also had long vertical files of the large, easel-size original drawings that the artists had done. She asked me, who do I want to see? Of course I named Sergio Aragones, Al Jaffee, and Don Martin off of the top of my head, and we looked at some of their stuff. The truth was, I hadn’t actually read an issue of Mad in years. To be fair, I hadn’t read a Marvel comic in years, either.
“So, do you still read Mad?” Pam asked me.
I said, “Uh, sometimes.” I scrambled. “I liked the Batman movie parody.” A year before, I had seen Alfred E. Neuman with the bat-mask on the cover.
“Oh, that was great, Warners sent us the script in advance, so our issue actually coincided with the film’s release.”
“That’s so cool! How often do the studios do that?”
“Sometimes,” she said. “Did you stop reading Mad at a certain point?”
I sweated. I didn’t want to seem ungrateful. “Kind of. I still love it.”
“We find that kids stop reading it around 13 or 14 years old.”
“Why do you think that is?” She was asking this question in the tone of someone saying Why do some people get cancer, and others live to be 100? Her face was earnest, searching mine.
I had no idea what to say. Certainly not people outgrow it! “Well, they don’t know what they’re missing.”
“Daniel,” she said, “Can you wait here a minute?”
I did. She came back. “Would you like to meet Bill Gaines?”
Even I knew that was the guy who started it all, the Hugh Hefner of comic book-parody. I was like “Yeah!”
She escorted me into his office. His office looked exactly like you’d guess: dozens, maybe hundreds, of framed awards and memorabilia all over the place. Strewn papers and files and faxes, and the original Santa Claus-esque Comic Book Guy sitting on the other side of the desk. Actually, this was before the Simpsons invented Comic Book Guy. He pretty much looked like this:
William Gaines didn’t get up and I didn’t care. I shook his hand and he told me to take a seat. I said something like thank you for all the great issues of Mad. I wish I could remember our conversation more clearly; it’s a sort of a blur as I think back on it. I think he wanted to know what I liked most about Mad, and I probably named the movie and TV parodies, the humor comparison pieces, and Spy vs. Spy, or something. I thanked him for his sensibility, which was pretty much saying “blecch!” or “yeah right” at everything in the world. I know that I actually recalled a few specific jokes from old issues, and as I cited them he seemed genuinely tickled. He laughed and said something like “That was a good one.”
Bill Gaines wanted to know what I was planning to do with my life. I had no idea, and he was one old man who didn’t seem to think that was a problem. It seemed as though we could just go on chatting, but Pam wrapped us up after five minutes or so. I didn’t think to get a photo with him (dammit! These days everyone gets a photo). Pam thanked me so much for coming, and we hugged goodbye like friends. In the elevator, I felt like I’d been touched by greatness. Less than two years later, William Gaines died, and the obituaries confirmed that I had: his list of achievements was nothing less than legendary. And…after he died, Mad stopped being a cool independent Gaines-run thing, and Warner Bros. merchandised it for all they could.
So, what’s the moral of this? Do I still go to Marvel movies? Yes. Did I like Mad TV, back when it was on? Not really. One secret of The Wizard of Oz is that after they pulled back the curtain, Dorothy and her friends weren’t all that disappointed. When we pull back the curtain on our personal Wizards, we don’t necessarily want to see the same Big Powerful Jerk-Face Wizard Floating Head that we already saw; we just want to see a human being. In the era of Big Transparency, where every celebrity is required to tweet their feelings on everything (or pay someone to do it), this is a truism we live every day. I learned it in 1990. Thanks Marvel, but especially, thanks Mad.