“The Insult that Made a Man out of ‘Mac’” (or a variation on the theme) was impossible to avoid if you read practically ANY comic book between the 1940s and the 1980s—and maybe beyond. It was an ad for the Charles Atlas “Dynamic-Tension” fitness program—our hero, a weakling named “Mac,” is humiliated in front of his girlfriend by an archetypal sand-kicking bully on the beach. Later, at home, wounded by the affront, Mac subscribes to the Atlas Dynamic-Tension program and quickly becomes a he-man cut like a Greek statue. He returns to the scene of his emasculation to knock the bully down with a single punch and become the “HERO OF THE BEACH!” His girlfriend of course immediately returns to his side, but other women are taking notice of the musclebound Mac, sooooo…
I am frankly baffled by a contradiction as regards the longevity of that ad. Not that it doesn’t deserve its classic status—disregard for the moment the cringeworthiness of its deference to violent machismo and misogyny and note how well it adheres to the “Hero’s Journey” template, though it first appeared years before Joseph Campbell named and described that literary trope in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. My problem is just that, OK, look, obviously people were buying the program or the ad wouldn’t have run in every comic for decades, but male comics fanatics aren’t exactly reputed for being chiseled physical specimens (obviously there are exceptions but go to a con and tell me how much beefcake you see). If the ad was so successful, wouldn’t the opposite be the case? Wouldn’t the comic shop guy on The Simpsons be an Adonis instead of an obese, embittered, overlooked snob?
I’m tempted to conclude that nobody who bought the book actually followed through with it.
The ad’s eternal appeal has made it fit matter for parody, and indeed, it’s been parodied plenty. Recently, John “Derf” Backderf, the Eisner-winning author of Trashed and My Friend Dahmer (we’ve told you about him before), hipped me to “The Insult,” a webcomic that’s detourned the ad nearly 100 times. Currently, its creator Scott Marshall is posting a new one every day in a lead-up both to his own birthday and to this weekend’s Dartmouth Comics Arts Festival in Nova Scotia. If you have an idea for an “Insult” strip, Marshall maintains an online suggestion box.
Here’s an assortment of strips. Dangerous Minds’ column width makes them a little small to read properly, but a mouse click will spawn an enlargement.