Alfred E. Neuman is the fictitious mascot and cover boy of the American humour magazine MAD, a face that had drifted through US pictography for decades before being claimed by the title’s editor Harvey Kurtzman, and later named by the magazine’s second editor Al Feldstein – but a chance discovery by author Van Reid in archive pages of the Daily Iowan has uncovered another possible source of inspiration for the character was based.
Information on the MAD magazine web site and an extensive article on Wikipedia details the character’s first appearances in MAD and his possible origins, noting that since his debut in MAD, Neuman’s likeness has appeared on the cover of all but a handful of the magazine’s issues. Distinguished by jug ears, a missing front tooth, and one eye lower than the other, Harvey Kurtzman first spotted the image on a postcard pinned to the office bulletin board of Ballantine Books editor Bernard Shir-Cliff.
“It was a face that didn’t have a care in the world, except mischief,” recalled Kurtzman. In November 1954, Neuman made his MAD debut on the front cover of Ballantine’s The Mad Reader, a paperback collection of reprints from the first two years of the magazine. The character’s first appearance in the comic book was on the cover of MAD #21 (March 1955), in a tiny image as part of a mock advertisement. A rubber mask bearing his likeness with “idiot” written underneath was offered for $1.29.
MAD switched to a magazine format starting with issue #24, and Neuman’s face appeared in a central position on the illustrated border used on the covers, with his now-familiar signature phrase “What, me worry?” written underneath. Known briefly as “Melvin Cowsnofsky” or “Mel Haney” (and names as both Neuman and Mel Haney in #25) the crowded cover shot on MAD #27 marked Neuman’s first color appearance.
When Al Feldstein took over as MAD‘s editor in 1956, he seized upon the face, deciding he wanted to have a visual logo as the image of Mad, the same way that corporations had the Jolly Green Giant “and the dog barking at the gramophone for RCA.
“This kid was the perfect example of what I wanted,” he recalled So I put an ad in the New York Times that said, “National magazine wants portrait artist for special project”. In walked this little old guy in his sixties named Norman Mingo, and he said, “What national magazine is this?” I said “Mad,” and he said, “Goodbye.” I told him to wait, and I dragged out all these examples and postcards of this idiot kid, and I said, “I want a definitive portrait of this kid. I don’t want him to look like an idiot — I want him to be loveable and have an intelligence behind his eyes. But I want him to have this devil-may-care attitude, someone who can maintain a sense of humor while the world is collapsing around him.” I adapted and used that portrait, and that was the beginning.”
Mingo was a versatile artist who worked in everything from comic strips to paperback covers for Pocket Books to sexy pin-ups for men’s magazines, as well as story art for American Weekly, Ladies’ Home Journal, Pictorial Review. He even did Paper Dolls (Deanna Durbin), but his commission to draw Neuman came after he had virtually retired, going on to draw the majority of MAD covers for nearly 20 years.
Neuman’s precise origin is shrouded in mystery, but a comprehensive collection of early Neumanesque images can be found in Maria Reidelbach’s comprehensive bestseller, Completely Mad: A History of the Comic Book and Magazine. publisher Bill Gaines gave Reidelbach total access to the magazine’s own files, including the collection of Neuman-related images that had been assembled for a 1965 copyright infringement lawsuit.
When MAD was sued for copyright infringement by a woman claiming to hold the rights to the image, the magazine argued that it had copied the picture from various materials dating back to 1911 (which pre-dated the plaintiff’s own claim). The lawsuit was unsuccessful, and the boy’s face is now permanently associated with MAD – so much so, in fact, that according to MAD writer Frank Jacobs, the US Post Office once delivered a letter to the MAD offices bearing only a picture of Neuman, without any other address or identifying features.
While proto-Neumans appear as early as the 1890s in dentistry ads and the name was borrowed indirectly through The Henry Morgan Show, perhaps the most obvious influences on the characters look brought to life by Mingo appear on 1930s postcards like the one above.
It seems that even in the 1930s the image had caught the public eye, because a chance discovery in the archives of the Daily Iowan (from the 1st January 1936 edition, PDF link) reveals another ancestor of Alfred E. Neuman with his half-wit grin.
This advertisement purchased by insurance company HL Bailey (a company advertising in the newspaper as early as 1914, based on a very quick search) appears to utilise another drawing of the feckless lad, to the one popularised on postcards, However, it’s an indication of how embedded the character – named “Oscar” ad – already was in the American psyche before he would go on to become MAD’s long-extablished and unforgettable cover boy.
A search for further HL Bailey references in the archive reveals most of their advertisements veer more toward straightforward promotion for their car insurance, so perhaps the business owner was feeling in a festive mood when he placed this.
HL Bailey was a longtime insurance man who continues to advertise until the early 1940s in The Daily Iowan; an article in the Iowa City Press newspaper in 1913 notes that when many insurance companies proved unable to honour insurance claims arising from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, his was one that paid up in full.
• MAD magazine is online at www.madmagazine.com
• Andrew Maniotes, Professor of Graphic Design at Eastern Michigan University notes that in 2008, the Eastern Michigan University and Ford Gallery hosted an exhibition and lecture called “Alfred We Hardly Knew Ye” (link to write up of the event). John Hett , editor and publisher of The Journal of Madness, presented expensive comic history on this. Al Feldstein even was at this event. Hett showed that these “Me Worry” images were clip art plates of “an idiot”. “This is how MAD got out of lawsuits whenever someone would say ‘I drew that first'”, says Andrew. “They would show clip art (in the form of metal plates at printers) in court… [Hett] even found an image in a Revolutionary war drawing that looked like Alfred!”
• With thanks to author Van Reid for the discovery of the 1930s image and Andrew Maniotes for extra information on Alfred’s origins