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Don Martin, 1931–2000
By Dave Shulman
First published in L.A. Weekly, March 3, 2000.
Just as alcohol is a gateway drug and milk a gateway food, so was the Mad magazine of the ’60s and ’70s a gateway periodical — you’d be hard-pressed to find a former Mad aficionado who isn’t now an accomplished reader of urban newsweeklies, if not outright pornography. To Midwestern schoolteachers Leota Goldie and Betty Burns (fourth- and fifth-grade, respectively), Mad magazine was a misdemeanor where underground comics were felonies, “You’ll get this back at the end of class” versus a complete psychiatric overhaul. Mad farted where Crumb (et al.) shat.
(Damn! Broke another nib. My computer’s in the shop, so I’m writing this first draft on Bristol board with a Hunt Speedball — SHIK-shika-shiZAK — and a — DINK DINK — jar of black ink.) On January 6, Don “Mad’s Maddest Artist” Martin beat Charles M. “Peanuts” Schulz to death by a month and six days. Of these two tremendously gifted cartoonists, Schulz made the stronger impression on me until the age of 8 or 9, at which point my 12- or 13-year-old brother got a subscription to Mad, and I started in on Don Martin.
Schulz’s prepubescent Peanuts characters spoke through a melancholic language well beyond their years — sometimes approaching American haiku (pace Jack Kerouac) when set to jazz, as in their holiday specials — but otherwise managed to escape the perils of American adulthood. Martin’s grotesques, on the other hand, grappled their way through worlds of unemployment, depression, alcoholism and absurd violence, all microtuned to Martin’s finely honed onomatopoetics: FRAK (brick bouncing off a head), KLOON (man committing suicide by jumping off building bounces face-first off fire-escape railing), IG! (cockroaches ejecting a patron from his fleabag hotel room), SPLOP (excised body parts land in seedy surgeon‘s trash bin), SUT, FLUT, FLIT, FLOT (folding up a steamrollered man), FAGROON (skyscraper collapses, dies).
It was the work of someone as liberated by as he was arrested in adolescence, and it garnered quite a following. Martin released a series of paperbacks — previously unpublished material — and a nation of early pubescents began spending its allowance on them, as we’d done with Peanuts (and non–Don Martin Mad anthologies) just a few years earlier. “Those first three were classics,” a colleague reminisces at the photocopy machine. And, without a beat: “Don Martin Steps Out, Don Martin Bounces Back and Don Martin Drops 13 Stories!” These classics were followed by runners-up Mad’s Don Martin Cooks Up More Tales, . . . Comes On Strong, . . . Carries On, . . . Steps Further Out and a handful more. Altogether, about 7 million copies.
Martin’s stories were at worst passably funny. But Martin’s pictures — the trademark flap-footed, tuber-jawed, chicken-legged, wig-flipping, Buddha-bellied humanoids, their twirling index fingers and anviled stompings leaving frantic blurgit-flourishes, high-tailin’ briffits and drunken squeans in their wake — left the magazine’s most recognizable afterimages since the bursting veins and pimply corrosions of Basil Wolverton. There was Dr. Fonebone, the alcoholic, barrister-wigged surgeon with bottle-thick spectacles (“Calling Dr. Benway”); Fester and Karbunkle (Of Mice and Men?); Captain Klutz, né Ringo Fonebone (no relation), a comic-reading idiot who becomes a slightly super hero following a failed suicide attempt (see “KLOON,” above).
Martin’s protagonists lived in ruts and squalors, resigned to the occasional fish KERSHPLOPF to the back of the head, or to drowning in the frozen, point-blank SFLOOF of Sissyman’s Ice Cream Gun. Martin’s was an honest message from a kindly spirit: The world will be constantly fucking you over, dear readers, with displeasures far beyond the rock in your trick-or-treat bag or landing flat on your back after Lucy pulls the football away. But don’t worry — it’s just a cartoon.