Click to EnlargeDon Martin
The Maddest One

Don Martin's initiation into the annals of Mad history was scarcely auspicious even if there was something mildly insane about it. By late 1956 when he walked, unannounced, into the old EC Comics offices on Lafayette Street south of Houston in Manhattan, Al Feldstein, the editor, had been nudging the magazine down the road Harvey Kurtzman had paved for him for only about a year. When Kurtzman left his addled brainchild behind in late 1955, lured away by the satirical potential of a more extravagant format under Hugh Hefner's Playboy umbrella, he had been followed by his kindred spirit in lunacy, Will Elder, as well as two of the other quartet of Mad regulars, Jack Davis and Wally Wood. Feldstein, who had been producing EC's in-house knock-off of Mad, a blatant (and therefore self-satirical) imitation called Panic, was tapped to fill Kurtzman's shoes, a daunting enough task in itself, and he also needed cartoonists to replace the distinctive work of those who had scampered off with the Mad founder, so he was happy to see Martin. Looking through the shy young cartoonist's portfolio, Feldstein couldn't find anything he could use, but he saw promise. He asked Martin to try doing an article in the rampant style of Mad parody, and Martin went away and came back a few days later with two pieces—one on etiquette and another spoofing the inspirational vaporizing of Norman Vincent Peale. Feldstein bought them both, according to comics historian Dennis Wepman (in Contemporary Graphic Artists, Volume 2), but asked Martin to do them over. The art was too fussy and tight, Feldstein thought; he told Martin to loosen up. Martin did. Too much. "You could barely see the lines," he told Wepman. "Feldstein was appalled," Wepman reported, "and said it was unusable." Martin begged for another chance. Feldstein acquiesced. And Martin, by now eager to sell something to the magazine he'd admired for several years, went back and worked through the night, hoping, no doubt, to find in Mad the exit ramp from the freelancing expressway.

            Don Edward Martin had been born May 18, 1931, in Passaic, New Jersey, the son of Wilbur Lawrence Martin, a school supply salesman, and Helen Henrietta Husselrath Martin. He grew up in the almost idyllic pastoral environs of Brookside near Morristown, and, under the influence of his older brother Ralph who drew his own comic books, Don began very early to draw, copying characters he saw in animated cartoons. He remembered copying Mickey Mouse and the Big Bad Wolf, and, by the time he was in his late teens, he was admiring Warner Brothers' Road Runner cartoons and the cat, Sylvester, who he considered "the funniest cartoon character." In the newspapers of his youth, he studied Krazy Kat, Bringing Up Father, Polly and Her Pals, and Toonerville Folks. He never wanted for drawing materials: his father provided a continuous supply of paper, pens, pencils and erasers; and his mother supplied endless encouragement. When twelve years old, Don and a friend produced a newspaper by hand, in single copy, which Don illustrated, and he also maintained an illustrated diary.

            Upon graduating from Morristown high school in 1948, Martin pursued his artistic bent by enrolling in the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Art; after three years, he transferred to the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts, where he studied for a year. Planning on a career as a fine artist, when he left the Academy in 1952, he went to live with his parents, working at various jobs during the day and painting in his spare time. By 1955, however, he was freelancing humorous drawings and doing spot illustrations and advertising art for magazines. These were not cartoons, he told Wepman, but "very flat, design-type drawings that I did with a crowquill pen, using very thin lines. They were humorous, and I had some success with them." Exploiting his affection for jazz (which remained the background music in his studio all his life), Martin approached record companies and found assignments illustrating album covers, including those for such luminaries as Miles Davis, Stan Getz, and Sonny Stitt. He moved to New York City that year and sold work to science fiction magazines and greeting card companies. For several months, he held a position with a commercial art studio on Canal and Lafayette streets, propitiously proximate to the Mad lair. His boss, Bill Levison, liked Martin's work and, noting its inherent wackiness, he suggested the young cartoonist show his wares to Mad. And so it came to pass that one day on his lunch hour, Martin took his portfolio of comic drawings around the corner and three blocks up to the offices of Mad magazine, a journey that resulted in his spending all night completely re-doing his pieces on etiquette and Norman Vincent Peale.

            When he finished, the work had assumed the maniac manner of the "mature" Martin style. And when Feldstein saw it, he was delighted. "That's what I want!" he exclaimed. And, as it proved, so did Mad's doting adolescent readership: Martin's work was an immediate hit, and before long, the cartoonist was known as "Mad’s maddest artist," a sobriquet he would flourish proudly the rest of his life. As Feldstein explained in Don Martin Steps Out, the first collection of Martin's work in 1962: "Martin's five or ten million loyal fans ... love him because his style is unique, because his outlook on life is especially appropriate to our times, because his sequences have the same outrageous physical impact as the old silent-movie greats—Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, the Keystone Kops. But mainly, they love him because he is funny."

            Martin’s graphic insanity is amply evident in almost any sample of his work. Virtually all of his characters have the same angular anatomy, limbs bent at right-angles, toes turning up. They are nearly all anvil-jawed, jug-eared, bug-eyed, knock-kneed, and hinge-footed with bulbous noses flattened onto their faces. Martin’s affection for Charlie Chaplin’s splay-footed stance can be seen throughout his work, and, as Wepman notes, "the delicately extended little finger of even his biggest louts recalls Oliver Hardy's poised pinky." The influence of big-foot magazine cartoonists John Gallagher and Tom Henderson (favorites of his) can also be seen in the loose-limbed and bottle-nosed renderings. He admired Virgil Partch for his zaniness and Al Hirschfeld for his graceful line.

            Martin’s sense of humor was aggressively physical. Inspired by the Three Stooges and Laurel and Hardy, he subjected his characters to a gamut of abuse, to which, after their initial comedic reaction, they seemed wholly imperious. A man at a bus depot sees a door marked "the quick way out," pulls the doorknob, and—SPLOP!—the door flattens him. A man goes up to a "Change" machine, inserts a bill, and—SPLIF!—becomes a woman. Even in the absence of abuse, the comedy was physical, depending heavily upon the visual character of the medium. A woman in a French bistro nibbles at a dainty repast of frog legs only to—PAF!—see them become the disembodied legs of a prince. A hotel guest comes to the front desk to complain about cockroaches in his room and discovers that the desk clerk is a giant cockroach with four arms and quivering antennae.

            According to Wepman, Martin denied any high-flown satirical purpose in his cartoons: "The purpose of my cartoons [is] to be comical, both visually and in content. ... The sillier the better. The anatomical distortions are the way they are because they strike me as funny. ... I love Laurel and Hardy’s slapstick and nonsense. Doors slamming in people’s faces are fun. Pies in the face are fun."

            The madcap names Martin gave some of his characters reflect the same purpose: Fester Bestertester, often accompanied by the pin-headed Karbunkle, and the colossally inept superhero Captain Klutz, and the zany psychiatrist Dr. Fruitcake B. Fonebone. In pursuit of the same manic muse, Martin carefully concocted onomatopoeic sound effects. "Shklip" is the sound of construction workers tossing wet concrete at each other; "splop" is a surgeon dropping body parts into a doggie bag; "fagroon" is a collapsing skyscraper. In an interview in Cartoonist PROfiles, Martin revealed something of his creative process for sounds: "I just did [a drawing] of somebody falling, and he goes ‘splabadap.’ But in this particular picture it seemed like the sound was too long, so I made it ‘spwap.’ Actually, a body falling down from a height of a few stories would go ‘splabadap’ because it would bounce a little bit whereas ‘spwap’ is like getting slapped in the face with a fish." In No. 11 of the Mad fanzine, The Journal of Madness, congeries of Martin fans assembled an exhaustive dictionary of Martin sound effects. It runs for 33 pages, perhaps 1,000 terms, from "CHK CHK CHA-GONK BRBBRBBRING!" (which accompanied a drawing of a man whose eyes were being poked like a cash register's keys, followed by his jaw popping open like a till drawer) to (another of my favorites) "SNAP PLOOBADOOF" (the sound of Wonder Woman releasing her Amazon brassiere). Unhappily for researchers the world over, the Don Martin Dictionary is not alphabetical: instead, it is chronological, starting with Mad No. 31, Martin's debut issue in February 1957, and ending with No. 274, October 1987.

            Although his cartoons were loud and boisterous, Martin himself was mild-mannered and soft-spoken—"the living antithesis of what he drew," according to Nick Meglin, an editor at Mad. Among Martin’s favorite recreations was canoeing into the Everglades and camping in the silent wilderness. Quiet stuff.

            Not only is Martin quiet and retiring: he is also, contrary to the extravagant expectations of his admirers, not funny in person. In Mad Art, Mark Evanier quotes writer Dick DeBartolo, who says: "You'd sit in a room with Don Martin and tell him an idea for one of his strips: 'Okay, there's a hundred Indians charging across the field—.' And Don would interrupt: 'Five.' You'd say, 'Five?' Don would say, 'I have to draw this. Five.' 'Okay, fine—five.' So you'd tell him the whole gag and you'd get to the end and it would be a very funny idea but Don would just sit there and say, 'Okay.' He'd do a great job with it, but in all the years I was around him, I only saw him laugh once, and that was when we were on one of the Mad trips and I got bitten by a dog.."

            Martin was a meticulous and painstaking worker, Evanier reveals. Although the drawings seemed simple, they were laboriously produced. "Owing to poor eyesight and an increasingly unsteady hand," Evanier writes, "Martin slaved over every drawing, and often drew a panel over and over before it met his standard. Another artist composing a six-panel gag would draw all six panels on one sheet of illustration board. Martin sometimes had to draw (and redraw) each panel individually, then paste the best versions up to form a page."

            In the early years, Martin conjured up gags as well as art. But as time went on, he couldn't produce good material frequently enough to furnish the "Don Martin Department" of the magazine every issue by himself. Increasingly over the years, Evanier says, Mad's editors gave Martin scripts written by others, most often, Don "Duck" Ewing. As a tribute to the magic of Martin's name, none of these writers were credited in the magazine, which normally publishes complete attribution for every article. In recent reprints, however, full billing has been given.

            In 1962 in association with Mad, Martin and a friend, writer E. Solomon Rosenblum,  produced the first of more than a dozen books of his cartoons, Don Martin Steps Out. After the third of these volumes, Martin used as a basis for his books the cartoon ideas that Mad had rejected as well as longer stories by the writers with whom he collaborated. These pictorial narratives are typically presented one picture to a page, an unusual feature in the genre and one that provides ample display of Martin’s drawings. Altogether, Martin’s books have sold well over seven million copies worldwide in a dozen languages.

            On the cusp of becoming a regular contributor to Mad, Martin married Rosemary Troetschal (December 14, 1956); the couple moved to Miami, Florida, in 1957, where they had one son, Max, and divorced in January 1976. Martin married Norma Haimes, a librarian, writer, and sculptress, August 23, 1979, and she became his creative partner thereafter. In 1982, Martin collaborated on the choreography and designed the sets for a comic ballet, Heads Up, for the New World Festival of the Arts. In 1981 and 1982, the National Cartoonists Society named Martin the cartoonist of the year in "special features."

            In 1987, Martin severed his thirty-year association with Mad in a dispute about creator’s rights. William Gaines, publisher of Mad, had always retained reprint rights as well as ownership of the original art he purchased for the magazine; without an unencumbered right to his work, Martin was unable to enhance his modest income from Mad through reprint royalties in the manner he believed he was entitled to. Martin went to work for Cracked, a Mad simulacrum. Shortly thereafter, Martin and his wife collaborated on a syndicated newspaper comic strip, The Nutheads. Focusing on a typical Martin cast of goofy crazies, the strip began in 1990 and ran until about 1993 but never achieved wide distribution.

            Afflicted with a degenerative eye condition, Martin had corneal transplants late in his life, after which he could see to draw only with the aid of an uncomfortable contact lens that covered the entire eye and a magnifying glass. He and his wife became vocal advocates of creators’ rights, and he continued to draw. He remained at home for most of his mortal struggle with cancer but died at Baptist Hospital in Miami on January 6, 2000. The immortal part of him, his cartoons, will live on, though—lasting testimony to the madness of Mad's maddest artist.

Bibliography. Martin’s books include--with E. Solomon Rosenblum: Don Martin Steps Out (1962), Don Martin Bounces Back (1963), Don Martin Drops Thirteen Stories (1965); with Dick DeBartolo, Phil Hahn and Jack Hanarhan: The Mad Adventures of Captain Klutz (1967); with DeBartolo: Mad’s Don Martin Cooks Up More Tales (1969), Mad’s Don Martin Comes On Strong (1971), Don Martin Steps Further Out (1975); with DeBartolo, Don Edwing, Mark Jacobs, and John Gibbons: Mad’s Don Martin Digs Deeper (1979); Mad’s Don Martin Carries On (1973), The Completely Mad Don Martin (1974, reprints), Don Martin Forges Ahead (1977), Don Martin Grinds Ahead (1981), Captain Klutz II (1983), Don Martin Sails Ahead (1986), and Don Martin’s Droll Book (1992). The best single source of biographical data is Contemporary Graphic Artists, Volume 2 (Detroit: Gale Research, 1987). Extensive interviews appear in Cartoonist PROfiles, Nos. 82 (December 1981), 83 (March 1982), 88 (December 1990), and obituaries can be found in the Miami Herald (online January 8, 2000) and The New York Times (online January 8, 2000).

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