Mad forever: Tel Aviv comics festival hosts a comedy legend

A conversation with Sam Viviano, art director for Mad Magazine.

Festival special guest Sam Viviano has been art director of ‘Mad’ magazine for over 18 years (photo credit: SAM VIVIANO)
Festival special guest Sam Viviano has been art director of ‘Mad’ magazine for over 18 years
(photo credit: SAM VIVIANO)
Mad magazine fans of all ages are in for a treat when Sam Viviano rolls into town. The 64-years-young caricaturist and art director is one of the guests of honor at this year’s Animix Tel Aviv Festival, along with compatriot comics writer John Layman, Brazilian animator Cesar Coelho and French graphic novel publisher Nicolas Grival.
To give it its full titular due, after the Animix Tel Aviv bit, the festival goes by the name of the Israel International Animation, Comics and Caricature Festival. That is quite a mouthful but clearly conveys the full genre spread of the 17th edition of the highly popular event that takes place at its regular berth, the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, August 8 to 12.
As usual, there will be a ton of goodies on offer over the five days, including cartoons of varying lengths and age compatibility from across the globe. One particularly delectable offering comes from the BBC, with the 1982 definitively non-PC Revolting Rhyme hourlong film based on Roald Dahl’s hilariously scandalous parodies of much-beloved kiddies’ stories, such as Red Riding Hood and various Grimms’ fairy tales.
The festival always offers a rare opportunity get a handle on works from different non-English-speaking cultures, and the Anima Mundi Today slot will provide some insight into contemporary Brazilian animation. With the Middle Eastern refugee crisis still far from a lasting solution, and the way global politics are currently panning out, it seems particularly opportune for Animix to screen the adult-oriented Ethnophobia 80-minute selection of animated shorts from around the world. The festival blurb précises the compilation as “poking fun at racists of all shapes.”
Naturally, the man with the “interesting” hair, a certain Donald Trump, provides fertile ground for comedic takes – some pretty dark – and the US president features in a number of works that will be displayed in the regular exhibition berth at the Cinematheque. There will also be intriguing workshops spread across the festival program, courtesy of the Israeli Animation College. The latter takes in animation, graphics and digital comics.
For the past 18-plus years the quality of the visual end product has been overseen and signed off by Viviano, who freely confesses to having a well-developed funny bone. I put it to Viviano that, having an Italian mother implies that he is blessed with a healthy sense of humor. “Either that or I’m in the wrong profession,” comes the jovial quick-fire rejoinder.
There aren’t many people as well versed in the ethos and evolution of the venerated American funny as Viviano. Presumably, then, being part of the iconic publication for so long has colored Viviano’s approach to life in general, and taking a tongue-in-cheek view thereof.
“One of things about working for Mad magazine for so many years – in my case that’s 18 years as a contributing illustrator and another 18 and a half years as the art director – I guess I’ve been around for a fairly long time, although I don’t hold a candle to people like Sergio Aragones [who turns 80 next month and has been contributing to Mad since 1962] or [now 96, whose first Mad offering ran in 1955] Al Jaffee. Somehow, you manage to maintain, let’s call it, an adolescent view of the world,” says Viviano mirthfully. “You take nothing too seriously, and you find humor in both the likely and the unlikeliest of places.”
Viviano has clearly been adept at that himself, as well as supporting the efforts of his fellow fun pokers at the magazine, for many a year.
His first cover for the mag was of the then ubiquitous TV character J.R. Ewing from the hugely successful Dallas soap opera, back in 1981.
“One of the tricks is being able to find humor in yourself, and your own life” he posits. That generally incorporates a gloves-off, unfiltered approach. “Nothing is sacred,” he declares. “Nothing is off limits in terms of your own view.” Then again, even Viviano doesn’t get to let it all hang out, all the time. “That doesn’t mean that everything will ultimately make it into the magazine. We do have some discretion there, I think.”
What about political sensibilities?
“From the beginning Mad’s point of view has been don’t take anything at face value, don’t believe anything you’ve been told just because it comes from a supposed source of authority. You know, you should think for yourself.” Sounds like an emotionally healthy approach to life, and the often insane media circus to which most of us are routinely subjected.
“To that end we’ve always made fun of whoever is in power, here in the States.” Left, right, all are fair game. “Democrats, Republicans, nobody has been spared,” continues Viviano. Then again, there are politicians who get more than their fair share of inch space in the magazine. “That doesn’t mean we don’t hit some more than others, mainly because they give us broader targets to hit.” For some reason the image of the current White House incumbent hove largely into view. “He’s a pretty broad target,” says Viviano with a touch or two of understatement.
Some have suggested that Trump’s behavior is often so outlandish that he almost preempts satirizing.
“He preempts it because those of us in the business have been pretty busy trying to keep up with him,” Viviano says wryly. And the proof of the pudding has been there for all Mad fans to see.
“I made a point recently that, while every president since it started, meaning back to the administration of Dwight Eisenhower, has been on the cover of Mad in the last 65 years – with the odd exception of Gerald Ford; oddly enough, he was our only unelected president – Mr. Trump has been on the cover of the magazine six times in the last year and a half. Given the fact that we only come out six times a year, he’s been on the cover quite a bit.”
Viviano’s own path to producing parodying, caustic and sometime downright ludicrous humor for a living began when he was far too young to grasp it all fully. He first came across Mad magazine almost six decades ago, as a child growing up in Detroit.
“I have an older brother. That always helps,” he laughs. “When I was five, he was 10, and he was precocious. He was reading Mad at that age.” The infant was drawn to the visually captivating publication and took to perusing it after his older sibling was through with it.
“I’m not going to pretend that I understood most of Mad at the age of five, but I certainly found the imagery appealing. I remember some of the very early covers by Kelly Freas, who was the cover artist in that period, of Alfred going through a stop sign, or Alfred as the headless horseman.” The “Alfred” in question is, of course, the cheekily insouciant-looking curly haired kid, with outsized ears and missing front tooth, who has taken on iconic status over the years.
Mad may have caught the youngster’s eye and imagination but Viviano had other childhood pictorial interests.
“I was a voracious comic-book reader in those years,” he recalls. “For a long time it was just all the influences that were coming my way, as a child and an adolescent.” Even though he grew away from Mad and such in his later teens, that early formative influence survived. “The thing that fascinated me was how much my own personal interest and direction were in synch with it, even when I didn’t realize it.”
Even so, when he eventually made his first trip to New York, at the age of 15, he was looking to get in on the comic-book act, rather than Mad.
“All I really wanted to do was to visit DC Comics and meet the comic book artist who, at that point, had been my hero and who was then the editorial director. I managed to meet him at the office, and he introduced me to Neal Adams, who was like a supernova at that time.” Adams helped to create some of the staples of the superhero pantheon, such as Superman, Batman, and Green Arrow, and Viviano brought some of his youthful work with him.
“He spent an hour with me telling me how badly I drew.” That could be a crushing blow for a teenager, but it seems Viviano was simply spurred on by the criticism. “Having Neal Adams telling you how badly you draw is much better than having your mother tell you how well you draw.”
A subsequent trip to the Big Apple helped the young Viviano to crystallize his career path, but only after he’d gotten a young foot in the door. He sent DC a bunch of drawings – not about superheroes, but about his visit to the publication, naturally in a suitably humorous vein. The DC editors were so taken with the youngster’s work that they ran the pictures as a series.
He made a return trip to the comic-book powerhouse.
“I met Dick Giordano, who was an executive editor at DC at the time,” says Viviano. “He looks at all my drawings and he says ‘You should be drawing funny.’” Therein lay Viviano’s professional epiphany. “He could see through it. I think that’s the point. You either have that in you to begin with, or you don’t. You either see the world in a funny way, or you don’t.”
Point taken. And Viviano will, no doubt, enlighten his Tel Aviv audience with more tales of his professional derring-do – peppered with recollections of such legendary characters as cartoonist and illustrator Jack Davis, a founding member of the Mad brigade who died last year at the age of 92, and fellow Mad pioneer Harvey Kurtzman. An entertaining and edifying time is in store for one and all.
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