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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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!
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!