Immediately after MAD Magazine's editorial staff announced that they would cease the publication of new material on July 4th of this year, the publishers of the horniest sci-fi comics anthology magazine on earth, Heavy Metal Magazine, announced that they would be picking up MAD's slack with a new comedy publication. Stepping in to fill the void before the adoring eulogies for MAD could even be published was a classic old-school publishing move. You had to admire Heavy Metal's brazenness; they were reanimating Alfred E. Neuman's corpse before it even had time to get cold.
But you also have to admire Heavy Metal's industriousness: yesterday, roughly two months after their announcement, the first issue of their new humor anthology comic, Soft Wood — get it? — landed in comics shops. This is light speed for the creation and distribution of a new magazine.
So Heavy Metal invited the comparison on themselves: How does Soft Wood read in comparison to MAD Magazine? Unfortunately, it's not a substitute. MAD was more or less an all-ages magazine, no matter what the parents who wouldn't let their children read it for content concerns might think (I forgive you, mom.) Soft Wood is full-on smut. There's a reason why the magazine comes in a plastic bag: it's packed with swear words, a few explicit shots of genitalia, and more than a few distasteful prostitute jokes. If you give Soft Wood to your children, you are a bad parent.
Given the short publication window, most of the work in Soft Wood has clearly been repurposed from other publications. In fact, the central strip, a parody of Watchmen by Bleeding Cool comics journalist Rich Johnston, was originally published in 2009. (To be fair, that original publication was black-and-white, while this republication features beautiful Watchmanesque colors from John Higgins.) And to continue the comparison with MAD, Watchmensch is the only full-on parody in the book, so those who miss MAD's timely parodies of popular culture won't find much in this issue to latch on to.
But for adults who are looking for a new comics magazine, Soft Wood demonstrates a lot of promise. The book contains a nice mix of funny cartoonists who've been in the business since the 90s (Evan Dorkin, Shannon Wheeler, Bob Fingerman;) some artists with a more European bent (Osmarco Valladao, Manoel M., and Carlos Cabrera;) and some cartoonists who I've never heard of before (Jake Thompson.) Of these, the standouts for the issue are Wheeler, who contributes a hilarious and moving memoir piece about summer camp and micropenises, and Thompson, whose gag strips often end with a character's awkward stare that feels more real and visceral than ink on paper should. One particularly weird strip from Krent Able, featuring newscasters measuring their taints in the middle of a breaking news report, is likely to haunt my dreams tonight.
In short, there are a lot of surprises here, and it's honestly thrilling to flip through a glossy comics magazine. The colors pop, the art has more room to breathe than in the standard comics format, and at $8.99, the magazine manages to cram in a lot more pages than your standard four-dollar comic.
I'm excited to see what Soft Wood will do as it grows and changes. Will the book embrace more of MAD's legacy through parody strips and a series of regular features, or will it find its own way to something completely different? Either way, it's good to see an organization who views the death of a legacy media publication as an opportunity, rather than another excuse to wallow in sentimentality or lament the end of the world as we know it.