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The wildly funny and acerbic Don Martin is capture in this short animated piece. A unique and hilarious artist who was a brand unto himself. He was bigger than Mad Magazine, for whom he toiled for years. His work is unmistakable and cannot be duplicated because it is so him. A perfect synergy of art and staging. Words were not even needed.
Don Martin (May 18, 1931 – January 6, 2000) was an American cartoonist whose best-known work was published in Mad from 1956 to 1988. His popularity and prominence was such that the magazine promoted Martin as “Mad’s Maddest Artist.”
Born on May 18, 1931 in Paterson, New Jersey, Martin studied illustration and fine art at Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts between 1949 and 1951 and subsequently graduated from thePennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia in 1952. In 1953, he worked briefly as a window trimmer and frame maker before providing paste ups and mechanicals for various offset printing clients and beginning his career as freelance cartoonist and illustrator. Martin’s work first appeared in Mad in the September 1956 issue.
Just prior to his work with Mad, Don Martin illustrated the album covers of a few legendary jazz artists for Prestige Records, including Miles Davis’ 1953 album “Miles Davis and Horns” (Prestige LP 7025). He also did “The Art Farmer Septet” (Prestige LP 7031), “Sonny Stitt / Bud Powell / J.J. Johnson” (Prestige LP 7024), Kai Winding’s “Trombone By Three” (Prestige LP 7023) and Stan Getz’ “The Brothers” (Prestige LP 7022).
Career with Mad
Martin often was billed as “Mad’s Maddest Artist.” Whereas other features in Mad, recurring or otherwise, typically were headed with pun-filled “department” titles, Martin’s work always was headed with only his name — “Don Martin Dept.” — further fanfare presumably being unnecessary. At his peak, each issue of Mad typically carried three Martin strips of one or two pages each.
Although Martin’s contributions invariably featured outrageous events and sometimes outright violations of the laws of space-time, his strips typically had unassuming generic titles such as “A Quiet Day in the Park” or “One Afternoon at the Beach”. In one four-panel gag, titled “One Night in the Miami Bus Terminal,” a man approaches a machine labeled “Change,” inserts a dollar bill, and the machine changes him into a woman. In another gag, a man is flattened by a steamroller but is saved by the timely intervention of a concerned passerby, who folds him into a paper airplane and throws him towards the nearest hospital.
Martin, who was a member of both the National Cartoonists Society and The Graphic Artists Guild (GAG),was regarded as a quiet man who enjoyed relaxing on the beach near his home in Miami, where he liked slipping into the backgrounds of photographs tourists would take of each other, so when their films were developed they would wonder who the strange man was. Fellow Mad contributor Sergio Aragonés had the same impish habit.
Style and technique
Martin’s immediately recognizable drawing style (which featured bulbous noses, and the famous hinged foot) was loose, rounded and filled with broad slapstick. His inspirations, plots and themes were often bizarre and at times bordered on the berserk. In his earliest years with Mad, Martin used a more jagged, scratchy line. His style evolved, settling into its familiar form by 1964. It was typified by a sameness in the appearance of the characters (the punchline to a strip often was emphasized by a deadpan take with eyes half open and the mouth absent or in a tight, small circle of steadfast perplexity) and by an endless capacity for newly coined, onomatopoetic sound effects, such as “BREEDEET BREEDEET” for a croaking frog, “PLORTCH” for a knight being stabbed by a sword, or “FAGROON klubble klubble” for a collapsing building.
His characters often had ridiculous, rhyming names such as Fester Bestertester or Fonebone (which was expanded to Freenbean I. Fonebone in at least one strip), as well as Lance Parkertip, Noted Notary Public. In this middle period, Martin created some of his most absurdist work—for example, “National Gorilla Suit Day“—an extended narrative in which a hapless character is violently assaulted by a series of attackers in various disguises, including men dressed as gorillas and gorillas dressed as men. His unique cartooning style gave an uncanny visual depth and dimension to his hilarious scenes and off-the-wall textual sound effects.
Charles Taylor described Martin’s unique art style:
- “His people are big-nosed schmoes with sleepy eyes, puffs of wiry hair, and what appear to be life preservers under the waistline of their clothes. Their hands make delicate little mincing gestures and their strangely thin, elongated feet take a 90-degree turn at the toes as they step forward. Whether they’re average Joes or headhunters, Martin’s people share the same physique: a tottering tower of obloids. Martin puts the bodies of these characters through every kind of permutation, treating them as much like gadgets as the squirting flowers and joy buzzers that populate his gags: glass eyes pop out from a pat on the back; heads are steamrollered into manhole-cover shapes. All of this accompanied by a Dadaist panoply of sound effects found nowhere else: shtoink! shklorp! fwoba-dap! It’s unlikely Samuel Beckett was aware of Don Martin, but had he been he might have recognized a kindred spirit.”
His work probably reached its final peak of quality and technical detail in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In later years, particularly during the 1980s, he let other people write most of his gags, most notably Duck Edwing.
Concurrent with his Mad output, Martin and an assortment of writers produced a series of paperback books, to which he retained the copyrights and eventual publishing rights. For this reason, the content of these books was not included in 2007’s Completely Mad Don Martin box set. Martin described his heavy workload for these projects:
- “Once I get the OK on the roughs I start the finished drawings. I sort of begin this stage slowly, because doing the finished work always ends up being a seven-day week. An all day, and all evening ordeal. I always anticipate I can draw the books faster than I can. That is a big mistake, since it adds a lot of anxiety, and aggravation to the project. I thought I had developed a system with the last one. I worked on the book in batches of 15 pages or so. I even kept a record to see how long it took me to do the pencils, and how long it took me to do the inks, but it still ended up being seven days a week for a couple of months. I find I have to get some momentum going when I draw. I can’t work with interruptions. I like to have three or four days where I don’t even leave the house on an errand. I get a lot more done that way, because I build up a head of steam.”
Break with Mad
In his last years of working with Mad, Martin had a falling out with publisher William Gaines over royalties for the paperback compilations of older Mad articles and cartoons released under new omnibus titles, such as The Self-Made Mad.Gaines insisted that Martin’s original page rate was for both publication in Mad and all future reprints in any format. Martin objected, claiming at one point that he had likely lost over $1 million in royalties because of this “flat rate” for this work. Martin later testified before a Congressional subcommittee on the rights of freelance artists.
With bad blood flowing in both directions, Martin left Mad in late 1987. His last contribution appeared in issue #277 of March 1988 (“One Special Day in the Dungeon”, written by Antonio Prohías). Soon afterwards, he began cartooning for the rival humor publication Cracked, which tweaked its larger competitor by billing Martin as “Cracked’s Crackedest Artist.” Martin’s debut cover for Cracked was pointedly signed “©1988 D. Martin.”
After six years with Cracked, Martin parted company with the magazine. A year later, he launched his own short-lived publication, Don Martin Magazine. This included reprints from some of his original Mad paperbacks to which he had retained copyrights. The first issue included an otherwise nonsensical Martin “interview” conducted by Martin himself, in which he said, “My agent thinks I was nuts to have worked there [Mad] as long as I did,” before expressing fondness for his time at Cracked. In 1991, Martin complained about Mad’s chummy and tribal atmosphere to the Los Angeles Times, saying, “It’s looked upon by the people there as a good thing, like one big family. I came to realize that it’s only a good thing for Bill Gaines. I was so terribly loyal all those years that I turned down work because I had something for Mad Magazine—which is ridiculous.”
Despite a degenerative eye condition, Martin continued to draw into the 1990s using special magnifying equipment. In 2000, he died of cancer in Coconut Grove, Florida at age 68. A private, unassuming person, he delighted in having struggling cartoonists visit his home.
Awards and honors
Martin was honored with the Ignatz Award at the Orlando Comicon in 1980. He received the National Cartoonists Society‘s Special Features Award in both 1981 and 1982, and he was inducted into the Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame in 2004.
Martin’s cartoons appear in public collections at the National Cartoonists Society and the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum. He served as a juror at “Hürriyet Vakfi,” an International Cartoon Competition held in Ankara, Turkey in 1986.
Influence on popular culture
Martin’s work has been referenced in numerous arenas, from The Simpsons and Family Guy to The Colbert Report to Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel Motherless Brooklyn, which describes in detail the Tourette’s-afflicted protagonist’s affinity for Martin’s cartoons.
In 1986, the animated feature Don Martin Does It Again was created in Germany by director Andy Knight, and produced by Gerhard Hahn’s Deutsche Zeichentrick Erste Produktions GmbH & Co. KG. It won first prize at the 1986 International Children’s Film Festival in Chicago. Martin strips have also been adapted on Cartoon Network’s Mad and the Fox sketch program MADtv.
In episode #307, “The Day the Earth Stood Stupid” (2001), of Matt Groening’s science-fiction animated television series Futurama, lead character Hermes Conrad mentions a planet called “Don Martin 3” that went “kerflooey”, a homage to one of Martin’s sound effects. (Indeed, Martin himself owned a vanity license plate which read “SHTOINK,” patterned after one of his famed “onomatopoeic” sound effects.) The “Stranded in Space” film shown on TV’s Mystery Science Theater 3000 (show 305) included various visual weapon sound effects (e.g., a gun with a flag which pops out, bearing the sound effect “BANG!”). After a stick of dynamite produced a banner reading “KACHOW”, one of the show’s characters wondered, “Kachow? Kachow?! What, is Don Martin working with you guys now?!”
From 1989 to 1993, Don Martin created a daily comic strip published by Universal Press Syndicate called The Nutheads, featuring a family. The characters included a mother: Hazel, father: Nutley, daughter: Macadamia and baby: Nutkin. Universal Press latter dropped it, because Martin switched to self-syndicating toward the end of the run.
In 2007, a two-volume hardcover box set of Martin’s complete Mad magazine work was published by Running Press.
Taking their cue from one of Martin’s more celebrated stories, National Gorilla Suit Day, fans have celebrated National Gorilla Suit Day by wearing gorilla suits on January 31. No specific date is given in the story, which appeared in the 1963 paperback book Don Martin Bounces Back.