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
Don Edward Martin had been born
Upon graduating from
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
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 "
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
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
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