If your holiday wasn't dominated by the peerless excitement of blowing your fingers off with illegal Fourth of July fireworks, you probably heard the sad news about DC Comics shutting down MAD Magazine. I taught myself to read using my father's sizable collection of the long-running satire rag, and it pains me to say goodbye to one of the main reasons I'm warped beyond belief.
Jabbing at politics and pop culture is MAD's entire raison d'etre, which adds up to a lot of jokes and silly wordplay lobbed at movies, television, and music through the past 67 years. But MAD also swung at video games, sometimes in hilariously inexplicable ways.
In the April 1999 issue's parody of The Matrix (named "The Faketrix"—brilliant), we see a re-imagining of the classic, horrific scene where Agent Smith inserts the robot bug into Thomas Anderson's belly button. Except, instead of using a worm-bug thing, Agent Smith inserts a tiny Gyarados. Pokemon was only starting to garner mainstream attention at this point, so I appreciated the reference—though not as much as I appreciated the absurd sight of a tiny Gyarados hovering above the bare belly of a mouthless Mr. Anderson.
But MAD's game parodies go much further back, at least as far as its classic Pac-Man "Man of the Year" Time cover parody from 1982. In between that cover and the Pokemon sight gag in "The Faketrix," we had "Joystick Jabberwacky" on the back cover of the January 1990 issue. Syd Lexia has a good scan and excellent breakdown of the poem, though I can't say I forgot about it in the decades since. How do you forget a poem with the lines "The Shadow Boss Twinbellowed through, backed up by Pengs, Chicago Ox, twelve Ninjas and McGoo?"
As its name suggests, "Joystick Jabberwacky" is a game-based re-writing of Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky." Like its source, "Joystick Jabberwacky" is utter nonsense. (I'm probably courting the wrath of Batman's Mad Hatter by calling it nonsense.)
Only same as "Jabberwocky" starts to make a worrying amount of sense when you read it over a few times, it becomes clear "Joystick Jabberwacky" had a tremendous amount of work put into its rhythm, its rhymes, and its references. Nearly every noun can be traced to an actual game; look at Syd Lexia's breakdown for a thorough list. There are shout-outs to throwaway enemies, mid-bosses, and bosses from Mega Man, Kid Icarus, Dragon Warrior, Castlevania, and Solomon's Key on top of obvious picks like Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda. Amazingly, Carroll's original rhythm is kept intact through the entire parody.
"Joystick Jabberwacky" would've been an easy project for MAD writer Frank Jacobs to phone in. Jacobs was over 60 by the time the poem was published; it's not impossible that he loved Nintendo games, but it's not extremely likely during a time when video games were largely a pastime for kids. Even if he did enjoy video games, he clearly put a lot of research into "Joystick Jabberwacky's" myriad obscure references. I sure didn't know what a "Zigmo" or "Folfu" was until I read Syd Lexia's breakdown. Jacobs could've just referenced video games in a more generic sense, with rhymes about tanks, dragons, and saving princesses. He clearly respected his young audience too much to talk down to it. In fact, most of MAD's writers and artists carried that respect and exhibited it month after month, year after year.
What a gang of idiots.
Side note: The teenage Alfred E. Neuman lookalike illustrating the bottom of the poem is literally ejaculating on Super Mario Bros. I have absolutely no idea how MAD got away with that one.