Remembering DON MARTIN on His Birthday

Mort Todd‘s tribute to one of the funniest guys who ever dragged a pen across paper. The man who put hinges on feet — Don Martin.

Martin was born May 18, 1931 and died in 2000. His hilarious cartoons live on.

By MORT TODD

Don Martin has one of the most distinctive cartoon styles in the whole history of cartoonery. While all artists have their influences (Don was particularly fond of VirgilPartch, aka VIP, and Bill Holman, who did Smokey Stover), Martin’s art and sense of humor seemed to come out of nowhere and inspired a couple generations of readers with his lunacy. Kids would scrawl Martin­like drawings in their school notebooks or carve them into their desks. Even people who didn’t know him by name would light up when his art and predilection for zany sound effects was described.

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As much joy as he brought readers from his 30+ year tenure at Mad magazine, he wasn’t always a happy camper there. Though it introduced his work to a worldwide audience, he felt like an indentured servant as one of publisher Bill Gaines’ “usual gang of idiots.” His page rate there, pleasant for many cartoonists, also came with the stipulation that he didn’t own any of his artwork, both copyright­wise or the physical original art. Don’s material was reprinted over and over again, in many formats and profitable ventures without Don seeing another dime. Gaines also limited his artists from doing other freelance work unless he approved it. Not just for other magazines, but for advertising and other media. If an ad agency wanted Don to do some work and called Mad to get his contact info, they’d have to run the Gaines gauntlet. Fortunately some were more dedicated to using Don and tracked him down outside of Mad, but it’s a shame that we didn’t see more of Don’s work outside the magazine.

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Rather than give bonuses, reprint money or royalties, Gaines would have his infamous trips around the world with Mad creators… only if they did a certain amount of pages a year (which they had no control over). These would be without wives (which caused some friction) and creators had to bunk together (also causing some friction). Many artists, like Don, would have preferred getting a bonus to use towards raising the family, mortgages and medical expenses (they had no medical benefits from their decades of freelancing either).

The late Don Martin

The late Don Martin

 

Don sure could have used some extra income to defray medical expenses. Since the 1950s he had eye problems and received some pioneering eye surgery back when corneas had to be hand­stitched on the eyeball in a Frankenstein manner. Unlike most creators in other media, Don could not rest and collect royalties for his lifetime of work; he would have to draw new pages each month to make money. At Cracked I worked regularly with a few creators who were legally blind. Despite contributing to comics for decades they still had to make new income by grinding out pages with increasing difficulty.

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While boy editor of Mad’s rival Cracked in the late 1980s, I was aware of Don’s grievances with Gaines’ terms, but in those pre­internet days it was hard to track people down. Fortunately, I heard from a literary agent, Diane Wheeler­Nicholson (daughter of DC Comics founder Major Malcolm Wheeler­Nicholson), who knew Don’s lawyer. I contacted him and heard back almost immediately from Don. We were able to match his Mad page rate and allow him to keep his copyright and original art. We also got him on a medical plan with our company for a rate cheaper than he could get as an individual. A lot of people expect cartoonists to look like their creations. Don certainly did not look like his drawings. He was pretty suave, tall with a full head of pompadoured ivory hair and fashioned his sideburns into thunderbolts! He reminded me of Lee Marvin a bit and he always wore shades due to his sensitive eyes.

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Though I got Don on Cracked and out of Mad’s servitude, he ended up staying at the magazine longer than I did, as I had my own problems with remuneration from my publishers. However, I did keep in touch with Don and even did some later collaboration with him. When the rights to some of his paperback material reverted to him (he had a better deal with the book publishers than with Mad), he needed some stories rewritten. Some were done by other writers and those rights were returned to them, so Don found himself having art without stories. I was contracted to come up with yarns for the drawings, which was a bit of a task. It was akin to translating a foreign film without knowing the language, yet it was a complete blast!

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Lastly, Don was very fortunate to have a fantastic wife, a protector and guardian of Don and his legacy. I’ve always been envious of creators like Don, John Severin and Gene Colan, who had defensive spouses to make sure the artists got paid and handled other matters so the guys could just go and draw without a lot of annoyances. Norma Martin did that and more, making sure nobody would ever screw over Don or exploit his work again. Don passed away in early 2000, but I’m happy to say I’ve been in touch with Norma recently and she is dedicated to re­releasing Don’s great body of work (that which they own, anyway) to expose future generations to Fester Bestertester, Carbuncle and Captain Klutz, amusing new readers as he’s amused us for so many decades. So happy 84th birthday, Don Martin, who I am sure is having “One Fine Day” in cartoon heaven. SHTOINK!

Author: 13th Dimension

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9 Comments

  1. A fine and succinct tribute to a true legend in the cartooning world. Glad that creators like this had folks like Mort to cut them a fair deal.

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  2. Great article, thanks for the behind-the-scenes info. We adorned our book-covers and even some of our clothing with D. Martin drawings back in the ’70’s. There is a sidewalk near me with a Martin-style drawing etched into the concrete, which must go back years and really brings back memories! He was our favorite cartoonist of the time, beating out Jaffee, Aagones, Berg, and newspaper greats like Hart, Laswell and Schultz.

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  3. Don originally kept me laughing during my difficult “wonder years”and still is a favorite that I revisit for a surefire laugh. Brilliant, creative man! Thanks for a great article.

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  4. That’s just taken me straight back to my childhood and some very happy memories of reading “Mad” with Don Martin, Dave Berg and others like Spy vs. Spy. I’m in the UK, where we had our own edition including reprinted material from the American original but also fresh content relevant to our own local culture – the send-up of “Doctor Who” in about 1975 was a particular favourite of mine.

    Thanks for reminding me – times like this I love the Internet.

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  5. I can’t thank you enough for this beautiful tribute. I still have many of Martin’s paperbacks on my shelf, slowly yellowing after decades – I never loved any Mad artist more, and I was terribly gratified to know that you had “sprung him out of the joint,” so to speak. He deserved a good deal, and I’m pleased that he was able to improve his situation thanks to your efforts. Pfft-FRACK-Pop-Sproing-Ging!

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  6. Many thanks for this lovely tribute, and for rescuing Don from the bowels of the pit of despair. He was long my favorite MAD artist, and I still have many of his paperbacks on my shelf, yellowing gracefully after decades of being loved.

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  7. Don Martin’s insanity was an inspiration to me as far back as I can remember. My father dug him too, and would buy me his books as soon as they came out. More recently I found out that my Swiss uncle is in to him too. So a warm gooey feeling oozes over my heart whenever I think of him. Great article.

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  8. Don left MAD for several reasons. While he spoke against MAD’s practice of reprinting the “magazines” pages in pocketbooks, etc. without any payments to the artists and writers of this work, Don was more unhappy with the loss of his art and copyrights. However, when MAD made a move to get him to say the magazine created his style of art and work (via a 60 Minutes show celebrating MADs 45th year of publication- where Safer interviewed Don in his Miami studio ), that pushed Don over the edge into Cracked. As for medical coverage–Don did have it at MAD and he paid all the premiums for it. A few other “stars” also had this coverage. Don needed his coverage because of his eye problems. He had cornea transplants when he was in his late teens and the possibility of needing a second set of transplants was always present. MAD has pushed the idea that Don did his “best” work while he was a contributor to the publication. This is a false statement and discredits years of work done after he left. Take a good look at the covers for Don’s magazine and any newly created work in them. While some work he created was inked, these were always retouched until he was satisfied with them. Don was always a perfectionist. When he stopped contributing to MAD he didn’t stop being a genius. Norma Martin

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