Sunday, May 4, 2014

Godspeed Al Feldstein

Writer and artist Al Feldstein, best known as long time editor of Mad magazine, died on 29 April 2014 at the age of 88.

Al Feldstein was born on 24 October 1925 in Brooklyn, New York. He took to art while very young. It was when he was eight years old that he won third place in the John Wanamaker art competition. He later won an award in the 1939 New York World's Fair poster contest. Mr. Feldstein studied art at the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan. He was only 15 when he went to work at Will Eisner and Jerry Iger's comic book packaging studio. He started out doing menial tasks and went onto draw backgrounds for Sheena, Queen of the Jungle.

After graduating from high school Al Feldstein took classes at Brooklyn College and the Art Students League of New York. With World War II under way, Mr. Feldstein enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces.He was assigned to Special Services. During the war he illustrated the comic strip Baffy for the newspaper of the base in Blytheville, Arkansas, painted signs, designed posters and so on.

Following the war Al Feldstein worked as a freelancer in the comic book industry. He did quite a bit of work for Fox Feature Syndicate, writing and drawing the teen humour titles Junior and Sunny, as well as writing and drawing Meet Corliss Archer (based on the radio show of the same name). It was comic book letterer Jim Wroten who warned Mr. Feldstein that Victor Fox (who owned Fox Feature Syndicate) was having financial difficulties and told Mr. Feldstein that he should make sure that he got paid for his work before he started on another comic book for Fox. It was also Jim Wroten who suggested that Al Feldstein visit a young publisher named Bill Gaines who had just inherited E. C. Comics from his father (the legendary M. C. Gaines, who had died in a boating accident on Lake Placid).

Al Felstein then took samples of his work to Bill Gaines, who immediately hired him to work on E.C.'s new teen humour comic book, Going Steady With Peggy. Unfortunately, Mr. Feldstein had only finished pencilling the first issue of Going Steady With Peggy before Bill Gaines cancelled the project upon learning that sales for teen humour titles were less than desirable. Fortunately Al Feldstein still found plenty to do at EC Comics, drawing and eventually writing stories for such titles as Crime Patrol, Gunfighter, Saddle Justice, and War Against Crime. By 1950 Al Feldstein was not only an artist and writer at E.C.Comics, but an editor as well.

It was in 1950 that Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein launched a new line of comic books they called "the New Trend", comic books that were meant to be more literate and socially aware. The first title was The Crypt of Terror, its first issue cover dated October/November 1950. The Crypt of Terror (later retitled Tales from the Crypt) would be followed by two more horror titles, The Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear. Although best known for their horror titles, EC Comics would publish titles in other genres as part of the New Trend. Al Feldstein worked on titles that ranged from science fiction/fantasy comic books (Weird Fantasy and Weird Science) to crime (Crime SuspenStories).

Unfortunately the late Forties and early Fifties had seen increasing concern on the part of moral watchdogs with regards to comic books, particularly crime and horror titles of the sort published by EC Comics. The comic book industry was eventually forced to form a self regulating body called the Comics Code Authority. In the wake of the institution of the Comics Code, EC cancelled all of their horror and crime comic books. EC Comics then launched a line of titles they called the "New Direction", which included Impact (essentially a watered down version of Shock SunspenStories), Valour (a title dedicated to historical adventures), and Aces High (which featured stories about aerial combat during both World War I and World War II). As with the New Trend, many of the New Direction titles were edited by Al Feldstein. The New Direction titles did not sell well and E.C. found itself constantly at odds with the Comics Code Authority. It was then in 1956 that E.C. Comics cancelled all of its titles except for Mad, which by then had been converted to a black and white magazine format.

Mad was the creation of Harvey Kurtzman and its first issue was cover dated October–November 1952. For its first two issues Mad published parodies of other comic books, but by its third issue it had expanded to parodies of radio shows, TV shows, films, comic strips, and even books.  Mad took its current form as a black and white magazine with issue #24, July 1955. Although it is popularly believed that Mad became a magazine in order to avoid the Comics Code Authority, in fact it was a matter of Bill Gaines trying to retain Harvey Kurtzman as its editor. Harvey Kurtzman had been offered a position with Pageant. Knowing that Mr. Kurtzman had wanted Mad to become a slick magazine, Bill Gaines then changed its format so that he would remain as its editor.

Harvey Kurtzman did not remain with Mad as a magazine for long, leaving it in 1956. Bill Gaines then hired Al Feldstein as the new editor of Mad magazine. While Harvey Kurtzman had created Mad, it was arguably Al Feldstein who shaped it into the magazine with which everyone is familiar. It was with Al Feldstein's second issue that a kid with big ears and a wide grin appeared on the cover of Mad as its candidate for President of the United States. Of course, the kid was Alfred E. Neuman, who has remained its mascot to this day. Al Feldstein also assembled a team of humour writers rarely matched in the history of magazines, including Don Martin, Mort Drucker, Dave Berg, Antonio Prohia, and Al Jaffee.

With Al Feldstein as its editor Mad magazine became even more successful. By the early Sixties Mad magazine had risen to a circulation of a million. By 1974 it had reached its peak of  2,850,000. Mr. Feldstein remained with Mad for 28 years, retiring in 1984.

Following his retirement Al Feldstein moved to Wyoming and then Montana where he owned a 270 acre ranch. He took up oil painting, painting both Western wildlife and landscapes.

Even if Al Feldstein had not been the editor of Mad magazine, he would have made an important contribution to American pop culture.  Quite simply, it was Mr. Feldstein who, alongside publisher Bill Gaines, launched E.C. Comics' "New Trend". With Bill Gaines he created Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, The Haunt of Fear, Shock SusnpenStories, and many other of EC Comics' best remembered titles. Although E.C. Comics' New Trend line only lasted for about four and a half years, it would have a lasting impact on American popular culture. They would influence the work of such figures as writer Stephen King, director George Romero, director Robert Zemeckis, director Wes Craven, and, of course, numerous comic books artists and writers. Stories from the New Trend titles have been adapted for film and television, most notably in the Amicus films Tales from the Crypt (1972) and Vault of Horror (1973) and the 1989-1996 HBO television series Tales from the Crypt.

Of course, even given Al Feldstein's role in E.C. Comics' New Trend line of comic books, there can be no doubt that his most lasting impact was as the editor of Mad magazine. While the tone of the magazine was largely set by its creator Harvey Kurtzman, it was Al Feldstein who transformed it into a true force in American pop culture. As mentioned earlier, Mr. Feldstein assembled one of the greatest creative teams in the history of magazines. It was also during Al Feldstein's long tenure as editor that Mad magazine's style of humour, cheerfully mocking and just a little bit subversive, was refined. Mad would inspire such imitators as Cracked and Crazy, as well as lead the way for such humour magazines as The National Lampoon, Spy, and The Onion. Never mind that the magazine was the basis for the Fox TV series MADtv, it would have a lasting impact on television and film as well, leaving an imprint on everything from Saturday Night Live to The Daily Show. It is quite possible that between his role in EC Comics' New Trend titles and his long tenure as editor of Mad magazine that Al Feldstein could be one of the most influential men to emerge from the comic book industry. He has certainly left behind a considerable legacy.

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