Al Feldstein is a comicbook legend, even if he might be before most of us were born here. A main contributor and editor to EC Comics, creating the Crypt-Keeper along the way, and when they were forced to fold, later editing ‘Mad’ magazine. However, as the work in this book, ‘Feldstein: The Mad Life And Fantastic Art Of Al Feldstein!’ shows, he could not only do comicbook material but fine-art paintings as well. A total all-rounder and probably one of the first to then be put in the editor’s chair because of it.
Writer Grant Geissman covers Feldstein’s history and development in the depression and breaking into the then comicbook industry. In some respects, looking at his early work, some from original pages, the technique is pretty straight forward, usually from a fixed camera position. I suspect that if you looked at all the artists from that period, they would all look similar. Something I thought was weird was seeing his ‘Junior’ comics where the lead character was a blonde ringer for ginger-haired Archie Andrews, who was created nearly a decade earlier. The important thing was to get the work drawn to deadline and out to draw a cheque. Feldstein also made the break into getting to also write his own stories after not being satisfied with what he was getting. When he became editor, he also ensured all creators got their cheques when they handed their art over having been there himself and knowing what a hand to mouth business it was.
Feldstein’s rise from artist to writer-artist and then editor at EC Comics is an early demonstration of working up through the ranks. The only other one to do this there was Harvey Kurtzman, who didn’t appear to rein in his artistic sensibilities against deadline needs which ultimately led to him being fired. Sensibly, Feldstein kept his hand in drawing covers and writing stories working out ideas with his boss and publisher, Bill Gaines. Something I hadn’t known is that they were probably the first company to use exclamation marks at the end of each sentence in word balloons. They were also the first company to employ a colourist to ensure that the printers didn’t mess up the tone required for their comicbooks. This was the great Marie Severin and seeing the original covers pre-colour compared to colour shows what an incredible contribution this makes because it made the images stand out so well and shows the value of people who do such work. Marie, for all intents and purposes, created the bullpen colourist aspect of the comicbook industry. The experiments with 3D art were less successful commercially, mostly because it was created with moveable cut-outs. If you still have your 3D glasses, it’s worth having a look at the samples here used for creating depth.
The more I read the book, the more obvious it became this book was more a history of EC Comics than Feldstein. Considering their career paths were linked, this is hardly surprising but also makes the book handier for covering everything, including the development of ‘Mad’ magazine which originally was Harvey Kurtzman’s project to speed him up and make him some money compared to the time he spent on the two comics he worked on. Originally, comic-size, ‘Mad’ became a ‘slick’ or magazine-size to appease Kurtzman who wanted to work in that format. When Kurtzman was fired, Feldstein was re-hired, having lost his job when EC no longer created comics, and sorted out such problems. Oddly, though, Feldstein never contributed material but was the filtering agent to ensure the best work got published. Geissman certainly balanced the…er…books out here as later in the book he explains that the fans only tended to see Kurtzman and not realise just how much Feldstein did that ensured they all remembered really came down to him. For many years, Feldstein did not attend comicbook conventions which probably explains this imbalance.
What is really significant is the details of the Senate hearing regarding the assertions of Dr. Fredric Wertham that the horror and terror comics produced by EC Comics were unhealthy for children. Reading the transcripts with only Bill Gaines being interrogated, it’s obvious he was the target and although Feldstein was asked his role, he wasn’t interviewed by them. These days, I’m sure Gaines would have had a lawyer or even allowed a break to gather his thouhts, which would have helped with his medications, but this was the 1950s. Reading it all, I thought Gaines brought up a good defence but it was obvious that the senators were out for blood simply because they could. Interestingly, the fifty other comicbook companies saw it as a means to remove a rival, more so when the Comic Code Authority grew up out of this and oddly Gaines was part of at the beginning. If you aren’t going to buy this book for any other reason, then buy it for reading this informed chapter and how violated the First Amendment was broken by the Senate. Gaines’ arguments that cover art avoided showing extremes and letting the reader imagination take over, together with said covers, really struck home with me. I do wish Geissman had put his comments from the last chapter of the book in here where Wertham had actually misrepresented his own evidence to get his own way. One can be glad or hope that evidence would be scrutinised more these days.
Of course, with the fall of EC Comics comicbooks, it was inevitable that despite being fired, with Kurtzman leaving that Feldstein would be re-hired to run ‘Mad’ magazine. If you’re interested in how ‘Mad’ evolved under his auspices, this makes for a terrific section. It’s also interesting seeing the early interpretations of Alfred E. Neuman and ultimately contradicts something Frank Kelly Freas said about being in on his creation, although for that period, he did produce the most covers although I suspect little Alfie isn’t that worried about it. It’s obvious how the ‘Mad’ mascot got under the skin of the American population, especially as each issue sold over a million issues. There’s even a couple stills of Fred Astair wearing a Neuman mask for a TV special.
There are a lot of stills of Feldman’s team of idiots and if anything, their looks belie the madness (sic) they brought to the pages. The finale of this book is a massive selection of painting that Feldstein painted both in the style of EC Comics and also as fine art. I wish they’d been dated because it would have shown how his work evolved in this period of his life.
Al Feldstein died 29 April 2014 at the age of 88, a year after this book came out. If you want a truly magnificent book about him and a history of both EC Comics and ‘Mad’ magazine combined then you’ve found it here.
(pub: IDW. 416 page indexed illustrated hardback. Price: $49.99 (US). ISBN: 978-1-161377-676-6)