Interview with Mad Magazine Art Director Sam Viviano

Interview with Mad Magazine Art Director Sam Viviano SUTTONSIGNER.jpgBy Ward Sutton

After a 22-year career as a freelance illustrator, Sam Viviano became the art director of Mad magazine in 1999. I've had the pleasure and honor of working with Sam for many years, and he was gracious enough to take time to speak with me about his unique career.

WARD SUTTON: You are a man of multiple talents--illustration and art direction. Do you like one better than the other?

SAM VIVIANO: I took on the job of art director for Mad 16 years ago. And they said it wouldn't last! To be honest, I still feel like an impostor. I never pictured myself in this role. I always think of myself as an illustrator and cartoonist.

WARD SUTTON: And you still illustrate--in fact, you recently won an award from the National Cartoonist Society, correct?

SAM VIVIANO: Yes, I won the Magazine Illustration Award for my work in 2008. It was the first thing I'd ever won since high school. Finally, I can call myself an award-winning illustrator! [laughs]

Last year I was named to the MIN Editorial and Design Hall of Fame for my work as art director here at Mad. I've got a nice glass plaque on my desk and the satisfaction of knowing I'm not only an award-winning illustrator but an award-winning art director as well. Now I can die a happy man.

2Sam.jpgWARD SUTTON: Do you write cartoons as well?

SAM VIVIANO: No--and I used to shy away from the label "cartoonist" because it implies writing and drawing both. But my strengths are in visualizing--what is the best way to present an idea or tell a story?

WARD SUTTON: So art directing is a natural extension of that talent.

SAM VIVIANO: Yeah. When I was just drawing for Mad, I was like a utility infielder: I could kind of illustrate anything they needed--a cover, a poster, articles.

But when I became art director at Mad, I knew I was not going to be the best at every part of the job. One of the things I did in that first year or two was to start adding people to the staff. And the people I hired had to be better than I was. I could compose illustrations well, from the crucial standpoint of telling a story. But in terms of type, and pure design, I didn't really have the training or experience. So I hired people--some were better at pure design, some were better at pastiche, some were better at storytelling. So now when stories come up, I think, "Who is the best person on our staff to design this?"

WARD SUTTON: How do you think art directing Mad is different than working on other magazines?

SAM VIVIANO: Having never worked on any other magazine as art director, i have no idea. But I think at Mad, partially it has to do with the nature of the material. The magazine is very visually driven--not so much from a design standpoint but more broadly--almost everything is illustrated. I doubt I would feel at home as art director of any other magazine. At another magazine, I would feel nonplussed with all the type and photos compared to all the funny images we work with at Mad.

Also, on the Mad staff it feels less about holding a specific position than that you are a part of the group; everybody works together to eke out the magazine somehow.

WARD SUTTON: Your first illustration for Mad was in 1981. How did you make the leap from illustrator to art director in 1999?

SAM VIVIANO: After DC Comics took over Mad, there was apparently a mandate to get a "name" art director. There were a lot of portfolio reviews, but the editors couldn't find anyone they were happy with.

I didn't think I was even in consideration. To me, art directors came from the world of design, not the world of illustration (with the few exceptions of people like Paul Davis and Milton Glaser).

One night, after a casual conversation with (current Mad editor) John Ficarra, a light bulb seemed to go off above his head, which I somehow failed to notice. The next day he offered me the job.

"Are you kidding?" was how I responded. "Do you think I'd be more valuable to you as art director than as an illustrator?" John said yes. John will tell you now that those first few weeks I was like a deer in the headlights--I had no idea what I was doing.

I'm not entirely sure what led Mad to offer me the job. Around that time, I had been experimenting with computer-generated imagery. They probably thought I knew more than I did. But as opposed to those "name" art directors who had been gunning for the job, I had a presence in the Mad cosmos, so that pleased the administration of DC Comics, which published Mad (and still does).

My wife thought I wouldn't be happy working in an office environment after working by myself in my studio. But I'd been doing what I was doing for 22 years and felt I needed a new challenge. So I decided to give it a year and if I didn't like it I would go back to what I was doing before. Here I am 16 years later--I guess it worked out.

WARD SUTTON: Are there times when you assign a project to an illustrator that you think, "I wish I could do this one ..."?

SAM VIVIANO: I do some freelance work here and there and that satisfies my illustration jones. For years I used the pseudonym credit of "Jack Syracuse" for my illustrations in Mad--it became an in-joke for readers. But illustrating would come out of my personal time--not my time at the office. Sometimes, when we couldn't find an illustrator, I'd say, "Okay, I'll do it over the weekend."

My favorite part of the job is working with the illustrators. My god, I'm friends with Al Jaffee (famed creator of the iconic Mad "Fold-In") and every two months I tell him what to do. It's the stuff of fantasy!

WARD SUTTON: Were you a fan of Mad as a child?

SAM VIVIANO: I was a comic book nerd until early high school. In those years, the lines weren't drawn the way they are now: if you collected comics, you collected Mad. But I didn't see myself as being a Mad artist--I wanted to draw comic books.

At 15, I made my first visit to New York and realized my dream of getting to visit DC Comics. I met with (famed Batman artist and DC Editorial Director) Carmine Infantino, who introduced me to (70s superstar comics artist) Neal Adams. Neal spent an hour with me, telling me how bad my drawing was. I loved every second of it. Having Neal Adams tell you how bad your drawing is way better than hearing your mother tell you how good it is.

The next year I returned and met with (artist and editor) Dick Giordano. He said, "You should be drawing funny." As a 16-year-old, I felt he was devaluing the superhero drawings I was showing him. Since then I've learned he was very perceptive; it was valuable to hear someone say that. He was the first one who articulated that for me.

"Funny" is something inside. People who don't have it can try to draw funny and it MIGHT work. But for some artists, even when you do something serious, the humor comes out. (Legendary Illustrator) Jack Davis is the best example: even when he was drawing horror stuff it still looked very funny.

3Sam.jpg(Above): Illustration by Jack Davis

WARD SUTTON: How did you break into Mad?

SAM VIVIANO: My first portfolio was a mishmash of stuff. Art directors would ask, "What do you DO?" I realized it was a specialist's marketplace. I asked myself, "What do I do best? What do I like to do best?" I decided to draw funny pictures of other people. Caricatures. People would say, "You should go to Mad."

When I called (then-Mad art director) John Putnam, he said, "It's a closed shop." Back then, artists would come in to drop off their pieces and pick up their next assignments. With their full roster, they filled issues month after month like that. People used to say, "Somebody has to die before you get into Mad."

Well, as fate would have it, in 1980 (Longtime Mad cover artist who formalized the image of Alfred E. Neuman) Norman Mingo passed away. (Mad editor) Al Feldstein called not long thereafter and asked, "How'd you like to do a cover?"

4Sam.jpgWARD SUTTON: Your first assignment for Mad was a cover? The "Who Shot J.R.?" cover?

SAM VIVIANO: Yeah, I had spent time visiting the office and everyone was friendly, but that cover came out of nowhere. I gave it my all--I actually did the whole thing a second time when I was dissatisfied with my first attempt. But by 1981 standards, the issue didn't sell very well, and I don't think Al was comfortable working with new artists. My second Mad job didn't come for four years.

WARD SUTTON: Wow. Okay, I want to jump backwards a bit. My earliest memories of your work are from Dynamite magazine, back in the late 70s. I loved that magazine as a kid. What was it like to work for them?

5Sam.jpgSAM VIVIANO: I think of Dynamite and (sister Scholastic publication) Bananas together. Dynamite came first, created by Jeanette Kahn, who went on to become president and editor-in-chief of DC Comics.

My first job for Dynamite was in 1978. The art director was Greg Wozney, who was the nicest guy. He worked his own way, in his own studio and not in the office. His philosophy was, "Find the right guy, give him the job and leave him alone." It's not necessarily the way I art direct Mad today (I always try to find the right guy--or gal--but I don't always leave 'em alone), but it was a wonderful way for me to thrive as a young illustrator.

I have very fond memories--I'd have carte blanche. For one piece, I was asked to include likenesses of a few of the celebrities mentioned in the article. I decided to draw all 35 of them!

6Sam.jpgWARD SUTTON: One of your pieces for Dynamite that I've never forgotten was the cover with "The Bee Gees Vs. The Beatles" from the time of the Bee Gees' Sgt. Pepper movie. Looking back now, and realizing what a flop that film was, I wonder if you had wanted to mock the Bee Gees with a little more Mad edge than perhaps you were allowed to at the time?

Well, Scholastic wanted the magazine release date to coincide with the film's release date, so as we were putting it together we didn't know it would be a flop! No, I had a ball drawing the musical characters, although I thought the idea was hysterical. The Bee Gees were just dopey disco versus the meat and potatoes music of the Beatles.

That was actually my first cover--not just of Dynamite, my FIRST COVER. It was a big deal. I remember doing the research--buying Bee Gees magazines, etc. For me it has a place of importance as much as my first Mad cover.

7Sam.jpgWARD SUTTON: I did some research and found that there were actually two issues of Dynamite that had Alfred E. Newman on the cover.

SAM VIVIANO: Yes. The one that has Al sticking his tongue out is the first issue I had work in.

WARD SUTTON: That's prophetic!

SAM VIVIANO: The people at Dynamite were big fans of Mad. You have to remember Mad had a huge circulation at that time, and it was really important to the age level of Dynamite readers.

WARD SUTTON: Bananas had a lot of humor. You drew one hilarious cover parodying the Rocky sequels that looked straight out of Mad.

SAM VIVIANO: Yeah--with the old Rocky ... little did we know that it would literally come to pass!

Dynamite and Bananas collected a huge number of up-and-coming illustrators--some went on to big things. (Famed lettering and logo artist) Michael Doret designed the logos for both magazines.

In the late 70s and early 80s there was a whole community of hungry, up-and-coming illustrators in New York. Each weekend there'd be huge parties ... people doing the same thing, on the same trajectory. Without even talking shop, there was a sense of osmosis that you'd absorb from each other. It was a real moment.

8Sam.jpgWARD SUTTON: You've had a wealth of experience.

SAM VIVIANO: I have a healthy ego, but it's a realistic ego. There's only one Mort Drucker. Only one Jack Davis. My place in that scope of things never came close.

I don't know where I exist in the history of illustration, in the history of art direction. But I've had an interesting career: Two decades as an illustrator, hopefully two decades as an art director, decades teaching. I worked for artists' rights through the Graphic Artists Guild in the 70s and 80s. I'm happy with my lot at Mad, I love the people, love the magazine. Every two months when the boxes of the new issue arrive from the printer--seeing the magazine, seeing that it's something real-- it is concrete, all 60 pages, and I think, "I made that."

I packed a car after college and moved to New York. I crashed with relatives for six months until I was able to rent my own place. To me, New York, as I'd seen it in comics and movies, was the Emerald City. Even today I pinch myself being here: I'm living that dream I had when I was a little kid.

A Complete List of Sam Viviano's Covers and Illustrations for Mad
Sam Viviano's Wikipedia Page

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