The Ghastlygun Tinies: MAD's Edward Gorey satire that takes aim at school shootings

Edward Gorey's "Gashlycrumb Tinies" is a much-beloved, macabre illustrated children's book that is a favorite of remixers of all kinds; but Mad Magazine's Ghastlygun Tinies dials up the "trenchant" knob to 11.

The satire, written by Matt Cohen and drawn by Marc Palm, appears in Issue #4 of MAD (MAD rebooted earlier this year, and started numbering issues from 1 again), and, like Gorey's original, it depicts the proclivities of 26 children, one for each of the kids at Gashlycrumb Elementary.

The gag in the Gashlycrumb Tinies is that each of them is obviously doomed -- "A is for Amy, who fell down the stairs" -- and that same menace hangs over Ghastlygun, but given that "gun" in the title, and as school shootings bifurcate America into the solemnly furious who want action, and grifters enabled by politicians deep in expensively purchased denial, the sense that there's something more going on with the Ghastlyguns gives it an air of ha-ha-only-serious menace.

That menace pays off. As Patton Oswalt notes "The last panel of this will knock you down."

He's right.

There's a very interesting thing going on here with copyright and free expression that's worth noting. While US fair use is broad and "fact-intensive" (that is, it's hard to know what is and is not fair until a judge makes a ruling), there's a broad consensus that fair use protects "parody" (using a thing to make fun of itself) but not "satire" (using a thing to make fun of another thing). MAD usually engages in parody and is thus generally in a safe zone when it comes to copyright, but this is clearly satire (MAD even labeled it as such), and so there's a higher fair use bar for MAD and co to hurdle here.

On its face, copyright (in which the government lets you use the law to decide who can utter which words, draw which pictures, etc) is hard to square with the First Amendment (which bans the government from regulating expression). This is a good example of that tension: though this is satire, it's clearly important political speech that is having an impact on an issue of urgent public interest, and the impact is derived, in large part, from the fact that this work builds on another, famous and very profitable copyrighted work.

The Supreme Court has told us -- in ruling on the Eldred v Ashcroft case -- that the way we resolve the tension between copyright and the First Amendment is with fair use -- it's the escape valve that free expression uses to peacefully co-exist with the state-backed monopoly on expression in copyright.

If that's so, then here is a prime example of why satire -- and not just parody -- should be fair use, at least some of the time. The world is a better place having a better debate thanks to the Ghastlygun Tinies, and since the purpose of copyright is to "promote the useful arts and sciences" and since this is "useful art" and since Edward Gorey (and the creators who come after him) are unlikely to be deterred from making art even if this kind of satire is permitted, this is clearly the kind of thing the Supremes had in mind in Eldred.

(Thanks, Fipi Lele!)