thrift store finds: don martin bounces back
(Thrift Store Finds is a mostly-weekly “column” of sorts where I discuss some of the cool books I’ve happened upon in my neighborhood St. Vincent DePaul store. Please don’t mistake me for an expert on any of the books I am writing about… I’m just a fan of a bargain.)
One of the cartoonists most associated with MAD Magazine is Don Martin. Martin’s goofy, exaggerated characters inhabited stories with mundane titles like “One Fine Day at the Beach.” These stories always took a quick left turn from their normal-sounding monikers into absolute lunacy and cartoon anarchy. Some of Martin’s trademarks include the perplexingly bent toes on all of his characters and a penchant for making up the most terrific sound effects you’ve ever ready. Don Martin was a trailblazer in the world of onomatopoeia; I dare say that there was no writer in the world during the back half of the 20th century who was so crazily inventing new sound effects. When something exploded in a Don Martin comic, it didn’t just go “BOOM!”… it went “KRA-BA-MA-BLOOWIE!” It was lovely stuff.
With that in mind, let’s look at one of those paperbacks for which that royalty dispute robbed MAD of its’ maddest cartoonist:
MAD’s Maddest Artist: Don Martin Strikes Back was orignially released in 1963, although this copy is a Warners Books reprint from 1984. All told, Martin had fourteen MAD Magazine paperbacks all to himself, far more than any other individual cartoonist. Don Martin Strikes Back is #2 in the series. According to the inside cover, Martin and EC Publications share the copyright on the material. It was a dispute over the royalties for these very paperbacks that lead to the unthinkable happening at the end of the Eighties: Martin defecting MAD for it’s Undistinguished Competition. Nabbing MAD’s Maddest Cartoonist was quite a coup for Cracked, which has always been the lesser of the two long-running humor magazines… although, I suppose if you look at it in a certain way, it’s also the most successful MAD knock-off.
The first quarter of Don Martin Strikes Back is a reprint of Martin’s National Gorilla Suit Day comic strips. A day when “people of all shapes and colors around the world get their gorilla suits out of the closet, put them on and go door-to-door,” National Gorilla Suit Day has become a small-time Internet sensation in recent years, with prominent bloggers like Mark Evanier and Cory Doctorow extolling its many virtues and benefits. For those curious, National Gorilla Suit Day happens on January 31st of every year. You may have missed out on 2010, but start planning for 2011, everybody!
I was surprised at the length of the National Gorilla Suit Day comic, as the Don Martin I have in my recollections was a one or two panel gag guy… but I was clearly mistaken. The National Gorilla Day stuff goes on for an impressive FIFTY-SIX pages. I love the way that Martin takes one flimsy joke and props it up from every conceivable angle with new and outlandish gags. The cartoonist’s regular cast, Fester Bestertester and Karbunkle are involved with what, from I can tell, is every possible permutation of being beat up by a person in a gorilla costume. This one is my favorite:
…and they go on like that.
…and that’s not even the longest story in the book! Clocking in at over 80 pages (almost half the book) is the Fester and Karbunkle story “The Hardest Head in the World.” The setup is similarly structured for a maximum amount of violence and damage as Fester discovers and monetizes the fact that Karbunkle’s noggin can withstand a crushing amount of punishment. It’s also a really fun story full of Martin trademarks.
I don’t want to get all “English professor” here, but I find it interesting that most of the comics in the book are centered around or deal with commerce and consumerism. The Gorilla Day material is (besides good old fashioned slapstick) an inditement of the corporatization of various holidays, and all of “Hardest Head” pivots around the rising and falling monetary fortunes of Fester. I’m not trying to write a thesis on what Martin was REALLY trying to say with these comics; likely as not, he was just trying to make people chuckle at a guy getting hit in the head with a cement mixer. I’m just mentioning that in light of Martin’s later troubles with EC over paperback royalties, it colors the tone of those strips interestingly.
Anyhow, the book was a good deal at fifty cents, American from my local thrift store Want to see a better deal that YOU can take advantage of, if you so choose?
MAD’s Greatest Artists: The Completely MAD Don Martin is as impressive a tome as comic collections get. At 1,200 pages, The Completely Mad Don Martin is a weighty package comparable to other recent high-quality collections like The Complete Calvin & Hobbes or The Complete Far Side. It contains EVERY Don Martin comic from MAD Magazine during his association with the magazine, beautifully presented across two hardcover books in a slipcase.
…and here’s the best part. I’m going to let you in on a great bargain, because you and I are really good friends. This book normally goes for well over $100 dollars… but if you order it from Barnes & Noble online, it’s currently in deep discount. You’ll only pay about $23 bucks! In the past few weeks, comic fans have been going nuts over misprinted online prices for omnibus trades, but this one’s the real deal. I bought mine last week and it’s well worth the money.
The cool thing is that buying this book is that it doesn’t put you out of the running for doing some primo thrift store shopping, as The Completely Mad Don Martin only collects Martin’s work that appeared IN MAD Magazine… and much of the cartoons and comics collected in these old paperbacks is original material and therefore not included in the hardbound collection.
EDIT: I received this comment from Ms. Norma Martin, widow of Don Martin:
Tues/Oct 19/2010–Chris: I appreciated your appreciation of my husdband’s work. However, you are perpetuating several errors.
He did not have any issues about “royalties”. Not regarding MAD’s hundred or more pocketbooks which contained MAD Magazine work OR his DON MARTIN pocketbooks (13) which contain his work and which he/I now own the copyrights. It would be nice if you corrected your comments. Don left MAD in order to own his art and writings.
In other respects, the CRACKED deal (brokered by Jerry De Fuccio) was as good, if not better, than the one he left.
Happy holidays, Norma
I thank Ms. Martin and am in the process of correcting this article. My “sources” were a baker’s dozen of MAD fan sites and the guy who ran my town’s comic book store in the early Nineties… neither of which are the types of sources I’d want my students citing on a research paper. I regret the error, especially as I hold Don Martin in such high esteem.