Wednesday, December 16, 2009


In 2007 Running Press published the be-all/end-all compilation of Don Martin's works done for MAD Magazine: "The Completely MAD Don Martin." Seeing as how the $150 price was almost as hefty as the two-volume slipcase, I put off the purchase until last week, when a friend working at the local independent bookstore brought it to my attention - a discounted set had arrived at half-off! Even though you can get a copy for substantially less elsewhere, buying local and buying NOW was irresistible. So it's been a nostalgic and inspirational waltz down memory lane (with double-jointed feet no less) ever since. >Skloosh-zwit-Sproing FWAP<

I've written here before of using Don Martin's trademark sound-effect onomatopoeia at this summer's "Big Cartoon Kablooey," but haven't gone too much into depth at the extent of his influence over my own work in both technique and style. In the personal pantheon of greats I rank him alongside Jim Henson and B. Kliban, and MAD Magazine was as pivotal to my background as were the works by classic underground comix creators. The greatest comment I ever scored from a "hero" was the letter he wrote back to me on his personal stationary about one of my books: "Very refreshing stuff. Like a great Northern goose to the spirit!" He unfortunately passed away just prior to my moving to Georgia for a couple years; I had hoped to make a pilgrimage and meet in person. He left behind more laughter than most, and this compilation is a monumental tribute. >Fwabadap!<

The set of books contains every single piece of art done by Don Martin for MAD, over thirty years worth of work spanning from 1956-1988, and is chronologically arranged so as to present the evolution (I wouldn't use the word "maturing") of Martin's style. The main shift begins to occur in the early 60's along with the inclusion of the insane sound effects which would become part of his primary repertoire. Heavily pantomimed and extremely exaggerated anatomy fit hand-in-glove with Martin's sight gags and slapstick punning, even if the jokes get clichéd, he either did 'em first or it did it best. In the earliest examples of his work his linework is comparatively complex and drawings much more detailed than when he really hit his stride, but the caricatures and humor are still unmistakably Martin. Full-color reproductions begin to make an appearance by the late sixties, though the majority of works were in black & white. And though much of Martin's work was both as a writer and artist, one can also see the gradual use of other writers for his material by the 1980's. As a graduate of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Martin's evident confidence in drawing and design shows his mastery of the medium: he is a cartoonist's cartoonist. >Yargh!<

The collection is interspersed with recollections and testimony, both personal and professional, from fellow contributors and colleagues. Former MAD editor Al Feldstein and Nick Meglin offer their perspectives on both the work of and working with Martin, and Meglin also notes the unique stylistic distinction of who would eventually become "MAD's Maddest Artist" stood in stark contrast to the material from other legendary luminaries such as Al Jaffee, Mort Drucker, Jack Davis and Sergio Aragonés. MAD was to become the absolute king of printed comedy with almost 3 million readers world-wide, and Don Martin was consistently at the top of readership popularity, and so was to become indelibly associated with the magazine as it's flagship artist. The only surviving EC Comics publication by Bill Gaines after the 1956 Comics Code, MAD circumvented the industry-wide censorship by claiming "magazine" status, thus pushing the boundaries of good taste and standards of polite humor with regular impunity and irreverence (also notable it was advertisement free).

Interestingly enough, in the collection's forward by Gary Larson, he characterizes Martin's work as having a lack of "malice," claiming the first and foremost aspect of any cartoon is to just be funny. While this is true, it shows Larson's (understandable considering the source) lack of perspective when within the first few pages of volume one there are jokes about suicide and murdering husbands, wives and family members. Martin's humor was at times about as benign as Looney Tunes and in the same class of comedy - but never attracting any serious controversy with its mostly harmless and goofy content. Larson also states in his introduction that humor is unexplainable; "no one can explain to someone else why something is funny," (which I disagree with) and goes on to describe for example New Yorker cartoons as "droll and urbane," and if you find those funny then your "inner child is dead" - which kinda negates his earlier premise by defining what isn't funny. >Glurk< >shika shika shika<

If there is one shortcoming to this massive compendium (and proving it's never enough) there is a maddening tease of original sketches promised on the cover - but there's only one by Don Martin himself, and a few compositional roughs by principle writer "Duck" Edwing. Given my fan-boy fetish over pencils and sketches this was a disappointment not to see more of the creative process behind these masterpieces. But hey, in the meantime this'll more than tide me over. >Plortch!<
What the collection doesn't encompass (aside from a couple cryptic hints from colleagues) is the work Don Martin did with the successful MAD clone "Cracked," which underscores the falling out he had with Bill Gaines over copyright issues. The business dispute was over Martin maintaining he was denied rightful royalties due from reprints, with Gaines insisting on flat-rate, work-for-hire. This led to Martin's jumping ship in 1987 and working for the competition for the next six years; one of the only other drawbacks to this publication is that EC Comics (which technically now DC owns, in turn a subsidiary of Warner, and then Time-Warner etc.) retains the copyrights to this body of work, and thus Martin's estate won't see any profit from this venture. Though given the deeply discounted fate of this set of books I doubt anybody saw much money in the end.
Now my head's filled with Martin's classic setup captions like "One Fine Evening," "Early One Morning," "Late One Night" and "Meanwhile At The [insert place here]." This impressively professional presentation and weighty tome of toons will occupy the central place of honor in the library for many months. >Gashlikit! Shkloort!<

No comments:

Post a Comment