Friday, May 9, 2014

In Memoriam: Al Feldstein 1925-2014


Artist. Illustrator. Writer. Editor.

"When Mad came about, it was the reaffirmation of those feelings in print. We were saying, 'Kids, Madison Avenue is lying to you. Your parents are lying to you. The President is lying to you.'"

Young Al Feldstein went to New York City's High School of Art and Music--what today would be called a magnet school--in the late '30s and early '40s. Students attending the school around the same time include Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, and Al Jaffee, all of whom will be mentioned later on.

Future Miss America Bess Myerson also went to the High School of Art and Music (she played the piano) around that same time. Her name will NOT be mentioned later on. I just find it interesting that she walked the same hallways, ate in the same cafeteria, and possibly sat in same classrooms with the likes of Feldstein, Kurtzman, Elder, and Jaffee. I wonder if any of them ever asked her out on a date. I wonder if she told them she had to wash her hair that night. Such a rejection could be one possible reason they all ended up writing and drawing for Mad magazine.

 Before and after service in World War II, Feldstein worked for the Igar and Eisner comic shop. This was the earliest artwork I could find from Feldstein, and he only did the inks, the actual pencils done by a fellow by the name of Henry Karl Kieffer. It dates from 1946.

A year or so later, Feldstein  was working for a publisher by the name of Victor Fox, who reportedly stiffed him for the above drawing. Feldstein was also a writer by this time, and most likely came up with whatever story or stories found inside the covers. Junior looks like it might have been an Archie knockoff, but I don't know that Betty or Veronica ever, um, protruded as much. At the time, Fox was the grindhouse of comics, but, fear not, good citizens, Feldstein would not work for such a disreputable employer for long.

OK, good citizens, NOW is the time for fear.

 Feldstein quickly moved up the ladder at EC Comics. By the early 1950s, he was an editor as well as a writer and artist. That's him on the right. To the left is his boss, William M. Gaines, who changed the "E" in his late father's company from "Educational' to "Entertaining". And, boy, were they, even if you did feel like taking a shower afterwards.

 A typical government denial, though one easier to refute than most.

Even the aliens aren't sure what the hell is going on.

Feldstein wasn't afraid to add a dollop of social significance to his stories. At first glance it might seem rather redundant to use a hydrogen bomb to "end" an atomic war. But it would have made good semantic sense to 1950s audiences, especially when you consider that an atomic bomb is used as a FUSE for a hydrogen bomb. Such nuances matter little these days. It's all weapons of mass destruction (even some things that aren't nuclear.)

Looks like Feldstein and Gaines may have spread themselves a little thin with their alien invasion stories. Feldstein spread himself thin in other ways as well, not even having the time to draw himself. Joe Orlando did this particular piece of art.

There MAY have been an anti-drug story in this one.

Note Feldstein's signature in the picture's upper-right hand corner. EC was one of the few comic book publishers that let their artists sign their own drawings.

Um...You ARE looking at the signature in the upper-right hand corner, aren't you?

The cure is sometimes worse than the malady.

See those three folks on the left? Feldstein felt his horror stories required emcees. 

The Crypt-Keeper was the most famous of these emcees. He was drawn by a lot of different artists (most notably Jack Davis) along the way, getting more and more gruesomer as he went along.

Bill Gaines chats with his new employee.

By the 1990s, the Crypt-Keeper was on TV schmoozing with Whoopie Goldberg.

Feldstein's latter-day rendering of the character.

What can happen when you wash with hot water.

Always exercise caution when playing with handcuffs. 

Note Ray Bradbury's name. Adaptations of his stories appeared regularly in EC comics. But don't worry, squeamish reader, Bradbury didn't write the gory tale that appears on the above cover. Instead, his had something to do with dismemberment.

 Al Feldstein wasn't the only artist/writer/editor working at EC in the early 1950s. Harvey Kurtzman was responsible for the company's war comics when Gaines suggested he try his hand at humor, resulting in...

The success of which inspired other comic book companies to copy the format.

Including Mad's own publisher. Yet another title for Feldstein to write, draw, and edit.

Al and Bill at the end of another story. I believe Feldstein did draw this one.

The fallen world that Feldstein and Gaines forged with the able and sometimes maniacal assistance of such pencillers and artists of sequential Grand Guignol as Jack Davis, Graham Ingels, Johnny Craig, Bernie Krigstein, Wally Wood, and colorist Marie Severin (who somehow could turn even a sunny afternoon in May into an apocalyptic nightmare), was one populated by, or littered with, imbecilic oafs, smarmy businessmen, gold-digging trollops, loathsome Lotharios, blowzy Gypsies, debauched pensioners, gruff janitors, desperate file clerks, shyster lawyers, quack doctors, hirsute slumlords, withered morgue attendants, drooling delivery boys, chain smoking scrubber women, and vengeful  milquetoasts, all lying to, cheating, and stealing from each other, more often than not as a mere warm-up to cold-blooded murder, only to have Fate step in, though what was stepping in was not some Heavenly Father adjudicating due process but rather a grinning martinet from Hell taking sadistic pleasure in spaying mindless retribution on the unjust and just-too-stupid alike, and leaving behind a scorched landscape of spilt blood, gaping cadavers, dead leaves, crumbling headstones, and cross-hatchings. Plenty of cross-hatchings. After all, it's a comic book.

As it so happened, not everybody found the above in the best of taste.

Especially not this guy, Dr. Fredric Wertham, a well-meaning but party-pooping psychiatrist who thought comic books were harming the one audience that appreciated them the most: teenagers.

A best-seller was born. 

Congress got into the act.

Censorship reared its well-coiffed head.

Now, the code, a hurried creation of the comic book industry itself, wasn't legally binding. So Bill Gaines chose not to carry the seal of approval on any of his publications. So distributors chose not to put EC comics on any of their racks, pushing the company to the brink of bankruptcy. Scores of titles were canceled. Harvey Kurtzman, meanwhile, had been bugging Gaines for quite some time about transforming Mad from a comic book into a magazine. Though Kurtzman's reasons for wanting this had little to do with Dr. Wertham, it suddenly made a great deal of sense to Gaines. Magazines, after all, carried no such code.

EC Comics, itself renamed Mad, was prosperous once more. This prosperity did not go unnoticed by Kurtzman, who felt he was largely responsible for it. He marched in Gaines office and demanded 51% ownership of the magazine. Gaines refused, and Kurtzman was out the door. A new editor was now needed.

Al Feldstein, whom Gaines had laid off months earlier, got the gig.

Several sources lists the above as the first Feldstein-edited Mad, though most of it may have been put together by Kurtzman before he left.

 The very next issue is when it really became Feldstein's own.

Last August I wrote an essay about Harvey Kurtzman titled Humility in a Jugular Vein, in which I devoted a paragraph to Al Feldstein. I reprint it here:

This post is about Harvey Kurtzman, not Mad, but I think it's important to note what happened to that magazine after he left. Gaines tapped Al Feldstein to take over. Like Kurtzman, Feldstein had started out as an artist at EC, and was quickly promoted to editor-writer, of the notorious horror line in his case. Once you got past the severed limbs, gouged eyes, moss-covered skeletons, and blood-soaked meat cleavers, these were really just tounge-in-cheek stories with gag endings (sometimes literally so.) Feldstein, then, wasn't a bad choice to head a humor magazine, and in fact had already done the EC in-house knockoff Panic. I recently came across an interview in which Feldstein expressed bitterness about his inability to get out out from Kurtzman's shadow, that his long stewardship of Mad (1956-1985) wasn't sufficiently appreciated. Feldstein's Mad just happens to be the one I grew up with. His lengthy tenure saw the emergence of such talented artists as Don Martin, Sergio Arogines, Sergio Arogines, Antonio Prohías ("Spy vs Spy"), Mort Drucker, Dave Berg, Paul Coker, George Woodbridge, Norman Mingo, Jack Rickard, and Bob Clarke. On the writing side there was Larry Siegel, Dick De Bartolo, Stan Hart, Tom Koch, Arnie Kogen, Lou Silverstone, and, perhaps the most celebrated, song parodist Frank Jacobs, all accomplished humorists. Finally (at the suggestion of associate editor Nick Meglin) Alfred E. Neuman was promoted to the front cover, and immediately (and ironically, given the thrust of the magazine's satire) became a pop culture icon. All this on Al Feldstein's watch. So, yeah, I'd say he has some reason to be bitter. Unfortunately, he lets this bitterness get the best of him in that interview. Indeed, it almost reads as a parody of bitterness. Apparently Feldstein feels that not only should he get credit for Mad's great success after Kurtzman's departure, but also for what happened while he was still there. In fact, he's responsible for Kurtzman's ascension in the first place. Feldstein claims to have gotten him the job at EC, the war comics, Mad, and, finally, to have made the suggestion that he satirizes established comic book characters rather than mere genres. Sorry, Al, but I just don't buy it. People did keep on buying Mad, however, proving it could survive without Kurtzman at the helm.

I know I was a bit hard on Feldstein last August, but keep in mind that I basically agree that he's been underappreciated. I wouldn't be doing this lengthy obituary (still a bit more to go, folks) if I thought otherwise.

Will Elder came to Feldstein's defense in a May 2003 issue of The Comics Journal. Elder was one Mad's original artists and arguably its most influential, his characteristic use of "eye pops", or background gags, widely copied. When Kurtzman left Mad, Elder left right along with him, which at least for a while didn't seem like the wisest decision as it led to a few lean years. In an interview, TCJ publisher Gary Groth was asking Elder about those lean years when Feldstein's name came up:

GROTH: In the ’50s, when you were looking for work, you were knocking on doors and you were working for Cracked and Pageant and so forth, did you consider calling up Gaines and going back to Mad?
ELDER: I got a call from Al Feldstein. Al offered me all kinds of things — to sleep with his wife…
GROTH: Which I assume you did.
ELDER: Yeah, I didn’t mean it, Al, wherever you are. He would laugh. That’s the kind of guy he is. I like Al. I think he’s a very bright guy. He deserves more credit than he’s getting. Just because he took over institutions, people hate the people who take over the institution. They don’t realize that if it wasn’t for them, the institution wouldn’t be around! That’s what happened to Mad magazine. There’s 50 years of it. Don’t forget that for a moment. That guy kept it alive. As much as I thought Harvey was tremendous, one of the best, Al shouldn’t be pointed out as an interloper. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Not a bad tribute to Feldstein from a guy who didn't owe him anything.

However, I'm not sure what Mrs. Feldstein would make of it.

In the paragraph from my Harvey Kurtzman post, I mentioned a few artists Feldstein hired. I'm going to show you some examples of their work, instantly recognizable to anyone who's read Mad between 1956 and 1984.

Don Martin.

Sergio Arogines

 Antonio Prohías

Mort Drucker

Dave Berg

Paul Coker

 Al Jaffee worked briefly for Mad during the Kurtzman era, so I can't count him as a Feldstein hire. Upon his return in the early '60s (after first following Kurtzman into some failed ventures) Jaffee came up with one of the magazine's best-known features, the Mad Fold-In. It was editor Feldstein who gave the go-ahead, so he at least gets credit for that.

 When Feldstein took over in 1956, Mad had a circulation that's estimated to have been somewhere between 325,000 and 750,000. By the early '70s, it had climbed to and peaked at 2,850,000, a number not in dispute, perhaps an indication that Feldstein also hired a good bookkeeper along the way.

Feldstein retired from Mad in 1985, not on the best of terms with Bill Gaines, who, among other things, immediately rehired Harvey Kurtzman (though as an artist, not an editor.) As I indicated before, many have seen Feldstein as one who merely hitched rides in limos owned by others.

Al Feldstein's standing in the world of comics has gradually improved over the years, and I expect it to improve even more so in the future. In 2003, he was inducted into the Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame held at the famed San Diego Comic-Con International. In 2011 The Horror Writers of America bestowed upon Feldstein the Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime Achievement. Past winners include Stephen King, Anne Rice, Joyce Carol Oates, Ray Bradbury, and Peter Straub, putting him in very good company indeed.

Odd thing about that horror award. Feldstein certainly deserved it. Though I've focused more on his art in this piece, it was as the chief writer of the EC horror line that he won such an honor. Once you got beyond all the monsters and mayhem, these comic books contained cleverly written stories with twist, as well as twisted, endings. Yet in none of the on-line bios or obituaries I've read, have any said that Feldstein was a fan of horror growing up. Or science-fiction. For that matter, none have said he had a burning desire to be a humorist. He excelled in all those genres, because Bill Gaines paid him to excel in all those genres. I suspect Feldstein saw himself, professionally, as a working stiff. Harvey Kurtzman saw himself, professionally, as something more than that (at least in the beginning.) That difference between the two men I think accounts for some of the enmity comic art enthusiasts have toward Feldstein.

That's not to say that, on a whole different level, Feldstein didn't think of himself as an artist. Only that like other comic book professionals of his era, art was something you did in your spare time--or when you retired. Upon his own retirement, Feldstein did indeed devote himself to art. He moved out West, and began painting landscapes, wildlife, and the occasional human being. A sampling:

Three Young Lion Kings

Bryce Canyon Skeletons

Cheyenne Sioux Woman at Rest

Early Frost on the Merced 

Watering Place 

 Feldstein's paintings hang in numerous galleries in the Northwest. He's participated in many regional contests and has won several awards. In late 1980s he placed two paintings in Top 100 of the Arts for the Parks competition sponsored by the National Park Service. A decade later, he placed another painting in the Top 100. Around the same time, he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of the Arts degree by Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana. More of Feldstein's work can be seen here.

So Al Feldstein got to do something that gave him much satisfaction, and even received some recognition for it. Good for him. It's not everybody that can say that.

But art for art's sake is not how I want to end this thing.

 It may not be wildlife, but it sure is WILD.




  1. Your post on Feldstein is the best I've read since his death. MAD is so stuck in our culture we comics people forget that "civilians" may not know the people who put MAD together. You have all the pertinent information along with illustrations, even some of Feldstein's after-MAD artwork. Excellent.

    In Grant Geissman's biography of Feldstein he said that in the '70s (pre-computer era, anyway), the bookkeeper at MAD left his ledger open when he left the office, and the staff peeked at Feldstein's salary. According to Geissman, Feldstein made more than all the staff of Mad put together. He had gotten a special deal from Gaines at one time, and the more successful MAD got, the more he made.

    I believe it engendered some real hard feelings among the Usual Gang of Idiots. Dick De Bartolo in GOOD DAYS AND MAD doesn't even mention Feldstein. I don't know how much creative control Feldstein had at MAD vis a vis his days at EC where he did editing and much of the writing, but at MAD he showed his talents as an editor. Readers knew what to expect when they picked up MAD, because Feldstein kept the magazine consistent over his years as editor. Some say boring; I say he was giving the readers what they wanted, and what they expected.

    Those who may be angry that Gaines let Kurtzman go should know that Kurtzman was very slow. He could not have kept up the pace and the schedule that Feldstein was able to maintain. I think Feldstein was not as obsessive-compulsive as HK, or if he was he made it work for him.

    Anyway, thanks again. Very good read, Kirk.

  2. Thank you so very much for your comment, Pappy. I know you know a lot about comics (I still consider Mad a comic book, even if it's technically a "magazine") so any kind words from you are especially appreciated.

    (Not that I don't appreciate kind words from someone doesn't know jack about comics. Last thing I want to do is offend anyone.)

    Despite my having snagged his cover for this post, I have yet to read Geissman's biography. I'll definitely put it on my to-do list. I did read somewhere that Feldstein owned a piece of Mad (though not the 51% Kurtzman demanded). This allowed him to buy a big ranch out West once he retired. Odd that the Mad staffers would hold his income against him but not Gaines. I may have told you this elsewhere, but I'll repeat myself for anyone' who's interested. I have a 60th anniversary compilation at home titled TOTALLY MAD. It's interspersed with behind-the-scene chapters by Frank Jacobs. TWO of those chapters are devoted to Bill Gaines. Feldstein only gets a few mentions throughout the book (here's one: he and Mort Drucker never went on those Mad vacations because Gaines had a no-wives rule.) I'd say Jacobs had something against Feldstein, except Kurtzman gets short shrift, too, so I'm not sure what's any of that's about. As for Dick De Bartolo, I've seen his name in the closing credits of MATCH GAME, the popular 1970s game show. I wonder how he feels about Goodson and Todman.

    Whatever Feldstein's salary, I stand by my working stiff characterization. I based it on a quote of his that I came across that at first wasn't going to use (excuse me while I kick myself) and then when I changed my mind, couldn't find again! He had retired and said he got more satisfaction out of his Western paintings because they didn't involve chasing after a dollar.

    Al Feldstein's Mad, however boring others may have found it, is the Mad I grew up with and fell in love with. Later on I discovered Harvey Kurtzman's Mad, and fell for that version, too (I feel like some kind of bigamist writing that.) I'd like to think there's room enough in the comics universe for both of those guys.

    Again, thanks for commenting, Pappy.

  3. Goodness, I am so amazed by your posts !
    I always feel your understanding and love of the subjects come through.
    hahahahahaahaha on my blog I try to have more photo less writing.!
    I must say I never got into Mad Magazine. But as an artist I understand the time they put into their work.

    cheers, parsnip

    cheers, parsnip

    1. So, did ya ever get into horror comics, parsnip? You don't have to answer that if you don't want to.

      Even if you don't care for Mad's sense of humor, they had some of the best cartoonists around in their heyday. Easily as good as anything you'll find in your newspapers. There's a few artists I left out due to space considerations.

      Not only are you an artist like Feldstein, parsnip, but you also made a home out West. You both have that in common.

    2. No, I don't/didn't like the horror comics or even horror movies.
      See you can tell I am not a writer didn't put that in.
      I do agree they had some of the best cartoonists. I think much like today's political cartoonist.

      Great post.

      cheers, parsnip

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