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Snafu #1-3 (November 1955 to March 1956).

Snafu 2Start-up data for Mad's Imitators.

by John Benson.

The sudden influx of Mad imitations was obviously due to Mad’s phenomenal success. But when did that success occur? In the Feb. 1954 issue of Writer’s Digest, EC publisher Bill Gaines reports (in his article “Madman Gaines Pleads for Plots") that the first four issues of Mad lost money. He goes on to say: “When the sales reports began to come in on Mad #5, with a bang we had done it! Today the print order on Mad is 750,000 and on its way to a million.” (Four months later the June 1954 Pageant still reported a circulation of 750,000, so Mad may never have reached a million as a color comic book—though, of course, it still had a year to go as a color comic.)

This raises some questions as to how soon Mad’s success was noticed by EC’s competitors. First, one has to wonder how dramatically Mad #5’s sales increased over those of #4, considering that the independent whole-salers were so incensed by #5’s contents that they nearly decided to put EC out of business by refusing to handle its comics. In May 1952, Gaines told Ray Bradbury that EC print runs ranged from 350,000 to 500,000. (This is higher than the industry average, but possibly he was exaggerating a bit.) An untested new title would have been at the low end, 350,000 or maybe even 300,000, and wouldn’t have been upped while it was losing money. Which issue was in print at the time the Writers Digest article was written? Possibly Mad #8, cover- dated Dec. 1953-Jan. 1954, or more likely #9 (Feb.-March 1954). That means that in four (or possibly three) issues Mad more than doubled its circulation. It’s unlikely that the print run increased significantly with #6, which would have gone to press before sales returns for #5 were fully in, so the press-run increase must have been steep on each of the next three issues.

In that same article, Gaines says that “already there are 11 imitations on the newsstands” He could have been making that number up (he once said that Atlas published 70 horror titles), but it’s an odd number to pick out of the air—and it happens to be correct (discounting the one-issue late-bloomer Unsane and the mixed-bag Super Funnies). The problem is that the first issues of two of those imitators had a March 1954 cover date, three others an April 1954 cover date, while that of another was Feb. ’54. Yet the Writer’s Digest had time to produce its article and go to press with its February issue that quotes Gaines as saying that these were all “on the newsstand.”Snafu 2

One factor at work here is the matter of newsstand display life, roughly calculated as the length of time from a magazine’s appearance on the stands to the month on the cover. It seems that comics had a much longer display life than magazines. Thus it’s entirely possible that those March and April issues appeared on the stands well before the February Writer’s Digest. Display life also complicates the issue of how fast other publishers caught on to Mad’s success. Data available suggests the display life of comic titles could vary from more than 120 days down to 30. Mad came out about 50 days before the first day of the month on the cover. If some other publishers had a longer display life than Mad, then, in real time, they followed Mad even more quickly than it appears.

There’s also the question of how long it would take from the time a publisher decided to bring out a new title to the appearance of that title on the stands. Roy Thomas, based on his experience in the industry a decade later; has suggested that the absolute minimum would be four to five months. Given a month or so’s delay for full sales returns to come in, it seems Atlas and Charlton acted with top speed, which suggests that the data on Mad’s sales must have been spectacular. It’s also possible that preliminary data and/or anecdotal evidence from wholesalers was dramatic enough to spur action even before complete returns were in.

But how is it that Whack beat other publishers by a full two months, apparently hitting the stands only a little over three months after Mad #5? My theory is this: in addition to the sales returns, Mad created a creative buzz among comics professionals from its very first issue. Kubert and Maurer were able to choose which comics they wished to produce for St. John, and their theory was that comics that interested them would interest their readers. Thus, when they saw Mad and were turned on by it, they started up their own version after seeing only the first three or four issues, considerably before sales reports pointed the way I recently sent Joe Kubert a copy of a draft of this article, and he replied: “Your surmise [is] pretty much on the mark”.

From Alter Ego Magazine #86.