The Al Feldstein Story, Pt. 3

Go Mad,Young Man!

With the collapse of William Gaines' little comic book empire in 1955, all that remained of E.C. was the Harvey Kurtzman edited Mad. Al Feldstein, who had edited E.C.'s science fiction, horror, and crime titles, as well as the last gasp New Direction books (Aces High, Piracy, et cetera) was out on the streets and out of work.

Although Feldstein couldn't know it at the time, his period of unemployment was only to last two and a half months. During that time he wrote a few scripts for Stan Lee (Atlas Comics) and shipped proposals around to various publishers. It was just after one such a day of job hunting when Feldstein got off the train at Merrick, Long Island to find Gaines waiting for him on the platform with a job offer. Harvey Kurtzman, after a five year, 28 issue run at Mad, the magazine he created, had left the E.C. fold.

The exact details of Kurtzman's departure remain unclear, as each of the principles involved tell a different story, but basically Kurtzman had wanted a controlling interest in Mad and, on not getting it from Gaines, had left to work for Playboy's Hugh Hefner on a lush expensively produced new humor magazine called Trump (it lasted two issues).

On the advice of fellow publisher Lyle Stuart (Expose), Gaines decided to bring Feldstein back. After all, Al had edited Panic, Mad's sister magazine and had done a quite creditable job during its twelve issue run.

One of the first innovations at the new Feldstein-edited Mad was the inanely grinning Alfred E. Neuman, who would become the magazine's mascot and cover boy. Kurtzman had used the "What, Me Worry?" yokel in Mad's cover borders and on the cover of Mad's first paperback, The Mad Reader (Ballantine, 1954). No one seems to agree on Alfred's origins, although his likeness seems likely to have dated back to the turn of the century. One reader remembered seeing Alfred's picture in a high school biology textbook as an ugly example of iodine deficiency.

Whatever the case, Feldstein, who had used "Alfred E. Neuman" as a writer's pseudonym in E.C.'s Picto-Fiction books, decided that Mad needed an icon, like Esquire's lecherous Mr. Esky, or Playboy's bunny. Alfred was it, making his debut on the cover of Mad #30, painted by portrait artist Norman Mingo. The next issue featured Alfred on Mount Rushmore. From then on there would never be a Mad cover without the genial idiot's gape-toothed grin.

Feldstein faced a serious shortage of Mad material. When Kurtzman left the magazine he had taken Will Elder, Jack Davis, writer/artist Al Jaffee, and Harry Chesler with him. Which left Feldstein with about a half issue's worth of inventory.

The talent vacuum was partly filled by continuing Kurtzman's policy of using old material, cheaply obtained and written by well known comedians like Ernie Kovacs, Stan Freberg, Orson Bean, and Tom Lehrer. But new writers began arriving. The first was Frank Jacobs, who walked into the office with "Why I Left The Army And Became A Civilian." Feldstein bought the piece on the spot. (Jacobs thought the job would just be temporary and wound up staying with Mad for the rest of his career.)

Soon the floodgates opened, bringing in Bob Clarke, Mort Drucker (who had never done a caricature in his entire life up until then), Bob and Ray's gag writer, Tom Koch, and one of Mad's all-time great gagsters, Don Martin. Jack Davis and Al Jaffee had also returned, following the failure of Kurtzman's Humbug. "It was just one of those periods in my life when things were just flowing into place and working right," said Feldstein.

So right that Mad's circulation began to climb to 450,000 by the late fifties. The times were also right for that magazine's particular brand of satire. Another reason for Mad's success was that Feldstein pushed for higher rates for his writers "because artists weren't worth a damn without good writing. I had pushed to pay them for each page of Mad as much as the artist got, because without it, we didn'thave a magazine."

Mad was a hot property and after the first burst of prosperity the magazine was sold to a textile manufacturer called Premiere Corporation as a tax shelter for surplus profits. Later Mad was sold again, first to Independent News/National Comics and then to Warner Communications, which boasted an excellent distribution system. By 1973 the magazine's circulation peaked at 2,000,008. There were also eleven foreign editions of Mad,as well as over 200 Mad paperbacks eventually published.

1973 marked the high point. Subsequently sales would begin to fall as Mad became more predictable. A new kind of humor typified by Saturday Night Live was in the air. Mad was stuck with a formula niche aimed at sophomoric teenagers, while magazines like Nation Lampoon siphoned off older readers. By the 1980s sales had halved from the high point in the seventies, and sales would drop further in the '90s.

Feldstein felt frustrated in his desire to expand the scope of the magazine by Gaines, who disliked change. Bill was also having no part of Al's ideas on including advertising in Mad, starting a Mad advertising agency, and producing VHS versions of the magazine. "There came a point where I just felt we weren'tgoing to go anywhere and I had proved right because the magazine has deteriorated in sales," Feldstein said in an interview. "It could have been just natural attrition as well as anything else, but I felt there was enough scope that we could have offset it with other kinds of things."

By 1984 Feldstein had spent twenty nine years as the editor of "the usual gang of idiots" and had decided to retire ("I was never burned out, I was more kind of bored. There wasn't enough challenge to fill the magazine. I thought basically I had done every kind of approach to satire I could think of.").

Today Al and his wife Michelle enjoy life on 270 acre ranch north of Yellowstone Park, together with numerous horses, dogs, and cats. Feldstein is back to painting again (when he isn't horseback riding or fly fishing), painting westerns, landscapes, and science fiction art on commission, and exhibiting his work at a Montana art gallery. Some of his paintings can be viewed at his website. As a comics professional he leaves behind a legacy of some of the most highly regarded titles in the industry, as well as Mad's transformation into an icon of the publishing field.

What, he should worry?

--Steve Stiles