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MAD’s Dave Berg Looks At The U.S.A
posted June 8, 2009
Dave Berg, Al Feldstein
Signet, paperback, 160 pages, 1964, $.50
There are several ways to dive into a book like this. I'll give you two. One is that the Signet MAD paperbacks were one of those not-exactly-rare, not-exactly-common circumstances where a secondary publishing platform had a life and energy that was distinct from the primary, in this case MAD
itself. What I mean by that is that they were a unique reading experience one can imagine being one's sole exposure to the cartoonists and type of humor featured. A second is that Berg didn't really hit his stride with the magazine until I think 1961, when "The Lighter Side" debuted, even though as a kid my friends and I that read MAD
assumed Berg was more of the dad figure and the parodies -- with the magazine since the beginning -- were the newer offerings. Al Feldstein's editorial run at MAD
is vastly under-appreciated and little studied, but like many people taking hold of a franchise he seemed to have enjoyed some success by bringing in sturdier, arguably more classic approaches to the general mission, the way a television show-runner might add established character actors to their cast. I'm not sure what either entrance point means in this case except that there's this wealth of material out there at library sales and through places like abebooks.com that could provide you enough comics reading for the rest of your life if you wanted, and that this is old-fashioned recognition-and-reversal gag material of the type that holds up quite well.
A running theme of Al Feldstein's multiple-page tribute to Berg in Looks At The USA
is "who is this guy, anyway?" It's obvious that he's a super-solid artist, much less stylized than some of the MAD
folks, with a polished, advertising agency sheen. Berg drew endless processions of goofy-looking dudes and beautiful women, and put them all in the same line of clothes from 1971. That last is remarkable only that he did it ten years before that line was created and nearly twenty years afterward. Mostly, though, the Dave Berg that comes through these cartoons may just be The Angriest Man In America. Although the gags themselves are solid, they're often sold to the reader by some suburban designate (housewife, commuting city-worker, kid, etc.) twisting their face into psychotic rage on behalf of their delivery. It's not that the American life he depicts is full of capitulations to social order, it's that these allowances have invisibly flayed their subjects until their bodies are weakened with barely containable flesh-wounds of psychic misery, ready to shake itself free and thunder to the surface if properly prompted. It's not something you'd catch when you were eight years old and used to seeing these sort of faces on the parents you just made wait two hours after dinner while you played football with the Maynard twins, but viewed as an adult it startles. It may even make you want to reconsider Berg from the bottom up. This may be a ridiculous observation in a lot of ways but in tone the work in this book reminded me more of Jules Feiffer than it did of Don Martin. Berg's work -- in this volume at least -- is the bright red strip of sunburn at the edge of a sharply-starched golf-shirt collar. I was amused all the way through.