Cover gag for Mad #85 (March 1964)

Norman Mingo was a commercial artist, who illustrated various advertisements, paperbacks and magazine covers, including for American Weekly, Pictorial Review, Ladies' Home Journal and The New York Times before he eventually became acquainted with the publication he's nowadays most famous for: Mad Magazine. He not only illustrated many classic covers, but also made the definitive design of their mascot Alfred E. Neuman, which all other artists of the "usual gang of idiots" have copied since. 

Mingo was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1896. He served in the US Army during the First World War. After returning to civilian life he was mostly active as a commercial painter in the style of Norman Rockwell. He also painted official portraits, including one of US general George Patton. In 1956 he applied for a newspaper ad in The New York Times which had an intrigueing request: "National magazine wants portrait artist for special project." When the sixty-year old artist heard he had to work for Mad Magazine he instinctively refused to have anything to do with them. Chief editor Al Feldstein managed to convince him otherwise. Soon Mingo was hired to make a more classy and stylized design of a character they were using as a running gag. This particular character was a young, freckled, gap-toothed and jug-eared white boy. The editors dubbed him 'Alfred E. Neuman' and gave him his own catchphrase, "What, me worry?", which perfectly encapsulated his naughty streak and jolly way of putting anything serious into perspective. Yet Neuman's face wasn't an original creation. Prototypes had appeared as early as the late 1890s in advertisements and were possibly even older. Already in 1893 F.M. Howarth created a one-shot text comic 'A Joke That Went Too Far', which starred a young boy whose face bares a canny resemblance to Alfred E. Neuman. Even Richard F. Outcault's character 'The Yellow Kid' (1895-1896) bares some resemblance to Neuman. The closest resembling prototype is a 1930s postcard for auto parts of the James Evans Parts Company, which even sports the slogan "Me Worry?".

First Alfred E. Neuman cover by Norman Mingo for Mad #30, 1956

Mingo kept Neuman's caricatural features, but otherwise painted his face as realistically as possible, to resemble the kind of art work featured in serious magazines. The new design first sported the cover of Mad's 30th issue (December 1956). It was the first time that Neuman's face covered an entire magazine cover, rather than being just a tiny detail of a larger drawing. The issue was also significant for another reason. Mad's earlier chief editors, Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder had left and were succeeded by Al Feldstein and William M. Gaines, marking a new era in the magazine's history. Alfred now became Mad's offical mascot and has sported nearly every cover since. Mingo paved the road for all other artists who used the character and many of his covers have been become classics.

He pioneered the notion of letting Alfred do something absurd by changing a situation on its head. Typical examples would be the cover of issue #31 (February 1957), where he paints the road around the center line instead of the other way around. Or the cover of issue #113 (September 1967), where his ugly face scares a jack-in-the-box. Mingo was also the first to have Alfred dress up like a celebrity or a pop culture character. This includes him being worshipped as a guru by both Mia Farrow, The Beatles as well as their own guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (issue #121, Sept 1968) and insulting the readers by mimicking James Montgomery Flagg's recruitment poster 'Uncle Sam Wants You' as 'Who Needs You?' (issue #126, April 1969). Mingo made up to 97 covers for Mad between 1956-1957 and 1962-1979. This record remained unsurpassed until Mark Frederickson broke it in 2016. From the 174th issue (April 1975) on, the born-again Christian signed an ichtys symbol next to his name. He also designed covers for Mad's paperbacks, reprint specials and posters and did so until his death in 1980. Apart from front covers he occasionally designed back covers too, including the one for issue #210 (October 1979), which satirized his own creation and shocked many longtime readers. It featured Alfred, pale and frightened, standing next to a nuclear power plant and saying: "Yes... me worry!". The cartoon in question referred to the narrowly avoided disaster at the power plant of Three Mile Island, earlier that year.

From: Obituaries for Traditions, Pastimes and Other Dying-Out Landmarks of the American Way of Life' (Mad #136, 1970)

Norman Mingo continued working for Mad for many years. Throughout his entire career he only illustrated one interior article, namely Frank Jacobs' article 'Obituaries for Traditions, Pastimes and Other Dying-Out Landmarks of the American Way of Life' in the 136th issue (July 1970). Yet, some of the artwork on his covers does make use of narrative sequences. The cover of the 80th issue (July 1963), for instance, shows Alfred lighting a fire cracker in three sequences, only to explode himself in the final panel. On Mad #85 (March 1964) Alfred again appears in a three-sequential scene where he throws a snowball at a man in a high hat who turns out to be President Lincoln. Two-sequential comics appeared on four covers. The first (issue #88 , July 1964) has Alfred ignite a rocket and blast himself in the air. Another two-sequence gag was featured on the cover of issue #162 (October 1973) where the tide washes Alfred away but leaves his sand castle intact. On the cover of issue #172 (January 1975) Alfred inflates a Christmas tree, while he paints the king of hearts on the cover of issue #211 (December 1979).  Norman Mingo passed away in 1980. In November 2008 Mingo's original cover art for Mad's 30th issue was auctioned for $203,150. 

Even though Mingo passed away, Alfred E. Neuman is still a popular culture mainstay in the USA. His image has been homaged in several comics and animated cartoons, including Charles M. Schulz' 'Peanuts', Mort Walker's 'Beetle Bailey' and Matt Groening's 'The Simpsons'. During a 1958 TV special legendary tap dancer Fred Astaire danced while wearing a rubber Alfred E. Neuman mask. Andy Warhol once said that Neuman gave him a love for people with big ears. S. Clay Wilson borrowed the gap-toothed grin of his character 'The Checkered Demon' (1968) from Alfred's iconic smile. In 1974 Rick Griffin designed the album cover of 'Slow Motion' (1974) by the band Man, parodying the font of Mad's logo by designing and writing the band's name in the same way. The cover also showed Alfred E. Neuman holding a fish, but since the magazine didn't give permission for this the illustration had to be cropped, showing only two hands holding the fish.

Cover gag for Mad #80 (July 1963)

Series and books by Norman Mingo in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:


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