The Al Feldstein Story, Pt. 1

Choke! The Horror Of It All!

It's no exaggeration to say that Al Feldstein was one of the best ground breaking comic book editors in the field. During his time at E.C. Comics he managed to edit seven books while writing the majority of the literate, highly provocative stories in them, going on to edit the highly successful Mad magazine until his retirement, and leaving behind the legacy of a fondly-remembered line of comic book classics.

Born in Brooklyn on October 24, 1925, Feldstein's first artistic recognition came when he won an award designing a poster for the New York World's Fair in 1938. The accomplishment led the thirteen year old to decide to make his career in art, and after passing the entrance exam, he attended my own alma mater, the High School of Music and Art. The Depression was still strong enough to stress the Feldstein family's budget, however, and Al's parents could barely afford the subway fare to school.

The young Feldstein looked around for ways to raise transportation money (and for dating!), and, upon hearing that someone at school was making good money doing comic book art, decided to try his hand at a field he was totally unfamiliar with. "I had never read a comic book, so I got a couple," recalled Feldstein in an interview. "I borrowed a couple from somebody and made up a small portfolio and I went around looking for work. I got a job at an art service, a studio that was working for various publishers."

That art service was the S.M. Iger studio, a shop founded with Will (The Spirit) Eisner in 1937. Iger serviced various publishers like Fiction House, Quality, Standard, and Victor Fox. Some of the biggest names of comics passed through his studio, including Lou Fine, Joe Kubert, Reed Crandall, George Tuska, and Jack Kamen. It was a great training-ground for the would-be cartoonist, who worked after school and during summer breaks, although his first jobs consisted of typical beginner's tasks like erasing pages and running errands. As time went on, Feldstein graduated to inking backgrounds and then made the giant step of inking human figures.

After graduating from M&A Feldstein won a scholarship to the Art Students League, taking day courses at Brooklyn College and attending League courses at night. When World War II broke out, he enlisted in the Air Force, taking time out during basic training to wire a proposal to his high school and college sweetheart, Claire. For the duration of the war Al stayed stateside, painting messhall murals, decorating planes and flight jackets, and contributing strips to airfield newspapers.

After his time in the service he began freelancing again, packaging teenage books for Victor Fox, as well as scripting an adaptation of the Corliss Archer radio show. Feldstein, like a lot of artists, wasn't happy about working for Fox, who had a reputation for forgetting to pay his freelancers, and when he heard that an "outfit downtown" was looking for someone to do a teen book he took the subway down to 225 Lafayette Street to meet with the new publisher, one William Gaines.

Gaines, together with business manager Sol Cohen, had inherited the reins of Max Gaines' Entertaining Comics after the elder Gaines had died in a boating accident. Impressed by Feldstein's ability to draw busty young women in tight sweaters, Bill Gaines gave the newcomer a teenage romance title, Going Steady With Peggy. The teenage trend in comics was dying, though and poor Peggy never saw print --until John Benson printed the story in his fanzine, Squa Tront #8.

In 1978. Feldstein was put to work doing scripts and art for E.C.'s more serious titles, War Against Crime and Crime Patrol. Unfortunately, like the romance books, crime wasn't paying. "We were the smallest, crummiest outfit in the field," Gaines later commented, "We just imitated."

That period of following trends would soon come to an end, along with mediocre sales, when Feldstein suggested introducing horror stories in the back of the crime books. Gaines, who enjoyed the radio show, "The Witch's Tale," agreed.

Where E.C. once had been a follower, it would soon become a much-imitated leader when The Crypt Keeper was born in Crime Patrol #15, followed by The Vault Keeper in War Against Crime #11 . E.C.'s first "yelp yarns" were watered down efforts compared to what would follow in the "New Trend" titles, but the new injection of horror increased sales. Gaines dropped his crime and western titles by the simple expedient of changing their titles. By the spring of 1950 Crime Patrol and War Against Crime had become The Crypt Of Terror and The Vault Of Horror, while A Moon... A Girl... Romance became Weird Fantasy and Saddle Romances became Weird Science.

Weird Science and Weird Fantasy were Feldstein's favorites, and the carefully-plotted stories were far closer to standard science fiction short stories found in the magazines than the space opera "sci-fi" that competitors ran. Towards the end of the two titles' run Feldstein even began to adapt stories by s.f. master Ray Bradbury, beautifully illustrated by Wallace Wood and Al Williamson, among others.

Despite all that, the horror and the crime suspense books (which also ran Bradbury stories) consistently outsold the two science fiction books. "As a matter of fact," Feldstein commented, "the horror books kind of supported them for a while until they took off. They were never the profit-makers the horror books were...but we loved them."

As for the horror books, readers were enthusiastic about Feldstein's mausoleum masterpieces about premature burial and revenge from the grave, narrated by his fiendish GhouLunatics. Readers were enthusiastic, but business manager Sol Cohen was not, evidently knowing a bomb when he saw one. "The ship is sinking," he told Gaines, and then resigned. Sales started to climb and then soared. Within a year E.C.'s shaky financial situation was a thing of the past.

Next: Part 2, The Dynamo at E.C.

Steve Stiles