Monday, 12 May 2014


My obituary of Al Feldstein, the editor/writer at EC Comics, and for three decades, at Mad Magazine, is up at the Guardian web site (link here), and should be in the paper paper soon. I wrote it ten days ago while I was in the States, and it appears now pretty much as written.

I concentrated on Mad because that's his wider significance, and what readers would recognise, but I would have loved more space for his work with EC, which in its own way was just as significant, and crucial in comics history.

Feldstein caught Bill Gaines' attention because of his 'headlights', which was 50s slang for the pin-up style embonpoint he drew on his women. It was designed to attract boys to the high school and romance comics which were considered the girls domain (and then, as now, it was adolescent boys who drove the comics market). The Guardian cut the headlights reference out. His talent remained crucial, especially for the covers of the science-fiction comics, as his well-endowed space maidens faced off against Cthulu-influenced bug-eyed monsters with lots of tentacles.

Gaines, who'd inherited the business from his father, was overweight, and took diet pills, which were speed, so he was insomniac as well. He'd stay up nights pouring through science fiction, horror, and pulp novels, and then borrow plot ideas liberally from them. Ray Bradbury famously recognised two of his stories cannibalised into one by EC; he called for payment and wound up recommending other stories they could adapt, and wound up often being flagged on the covers for those adaptations. Gaines and Feldstein would brainstorm stories which Feldstein then wrote; virtually all the stories in 5 or 6 comics a month. I was fascinated to discover that they had attended together a writing course taught by Theodore Sturgeon, arguably the best sf writer of the Fifties. I couldn't say that I'd sensed a Sturgeon influence in Feldstein's EC work, though Bradbury's is indeed often apparent.

What was important was first the way Gaines stood up to the censors, until it almost broke him, and second, especially in the context of Mad, the social consciousness those EC comics, grisly and violent as they could be, often exhibited. This came from Gaines and from Feldstein, and if anything intensified as the persecution of comics grew.

I mentioned Bernie Krigstein's story 'Master Race', whichappeared in Impact, and is considered a classic not just for its subject matter but also for the cinematic way Krigstein told the story, especially the scenes in the New York subway. It was supposed to be a six-page story, but Krigstein came back with eight pages, something artists never did. Feldstein was so taken with them he adjusted the rest of the book to fit the story.

I could just as easily have mentioned 'Judgment Day', another classic EC story, a parable of racism drawn by Joe Orlando. In the story an astronaut from earth arrives on a planet which has been seeded with robots, to check if they've evolved enough to be admitted to the 'Galatic Republic'. He discovers the blue and orange robots are segregated, with the orange robots living privileged lives while the blues exist on separate but equal facilities. The astronaut explains to the robots why they haven't yet qualified for human society, and, in the final panel, the twist is revealed: the astronaut himself is black. This was 1953, remember, and the magazine was titled Weird Fantasy. Gaines had to go head to head with the nascent Comics Code Authority, who wanted the astronaut made white, and then, when they gave in to Gaines' threats to go public, tried to insist EC remove the beads of sweat sparkling on his face in that final panel. The seeds for Mad Magazine were planted firmly in EC comics.

As an artist turned writer/editor Feldstein got the best out of the remarkable stable of EC and Mad artists, and the work is a pleasure to revisit today. And as anyone who grew up in the brave new world of post-war America soon realised, Mad's poking gleefully at the edges and under the surfaces, was givinmg you an indoctrination in what your world was really like. Not just parodies of insipid entertainment, or sleazy politics, or fear-mongering, but things as crucial as the way advertising bent minds to its own reality. Mad was at the forefront of the assault on smoking--and had the tobacco industry nailed from the start (see left).

You might say that Mad laid the groundwork, among kids in the 50s and early 60s, for what is now remembered as a decade of conflict. But what we really experienced in those times was a sort of transition, from protest to changing life style, and today it really seems to have been a transition from one kind of conformity to a new kind. I knew there was a good reason why my parents didn't want me to read Mad. But I don't think it's anywhere near as subversive now, and it probably wasn't anywhere near as subversive then as we like to think it, and we, were. But when you look at most of the comic entertainment you might well find subversive today, you won't have to dig far to find Mad somewhere at its roots.

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