Alfred E. Neuman, the lovable freckled, jug-eared kid with the insouciant gap-toothed grin (a face that only a mother could love), has been gracing the cover of Mad Magazine since December 1956. Al Feldstein, the magazine’s second editor, explains the art direction he gave illustrator Norman Mingo: “I dragged out all these examples and postcards of this idiot kid, and I said, ‘I want a definitive portrait of this kid. I don’t want him to look like an idiot—I want him to be loveable and have an intelligence behind his eyes. But I want him to have this devil-may-care attitude, someone who can maintain a sense of humor while the world is collapsing around him.'”
One of the archetypes that Feldstein was referring to was a black-and-white sketch that appeared in an ad for The New Boy, a comic farce stage play that premiered on Broadway in 1894. Peter Brown, who researched the history of the famous icon, describes how this stage character captured Neuman’s essence: “The New Boy image depicts the play’s title character, Archibald Rennick, who is enrolled as the ‘new boy’ in school. The image displays all of the familiar visual characteristics of Alfred E. Neuman, a head-and-shoulders frontal view, a boyish face, an incongruous Adam’s apple, a wide grin with missing teeth, lazy eyes, tousled hair, big ears and a coat and tie. [And like Neuman,] The New Boy image is paired with a slogan that conveys the mood expressed by his facial expression… [a] two-part, fatalistic, rhetorical question, ‘What’s the good of anything? – Nothing!’ similar in tone and format to Neuman’s ‘What? Me Worry?’ catchphrase.” Based on the Rennick character, Mingo drew the detailed color portrait that became the magazine’s beloved mascot. The portrait was always paired with Neuman’s famous catchphrase: “What, me worry?”
Harvey Kurtzman, the first editor, recalls how they came up with the name: “The name Alfred E. Neuman was picked up from Alfred Newman, the music arranger from back in the 1940s and 1950s. Actually, we borrowed the name indirectly through The Henry Morgan Show. He was using the name Alfred Newman for an innocuous character that you’d forget in five minutes. So we started using the name Alfred Neuman. The readers insisted on putting the name and the face together, and they would call the ‘What, Me Worry?’ face Alfred Neuman.”
For further reading: Completely Mad by Maria Redidelback, Little Brown (1991).