Known as Mad magazine’s maddest artist, Don Martin drew balloon-footed boobs cavorting with their heads under their arms, clowns who tap-danced into disaster, and insects in boxer shorts who cracked jokes.
His sound effects were legendary. In Martin’s world, people didn’t talk, buildings didn’t fall and objects weren’t thrown: They blorted and skroinched and katoonged. The humor was sick, black and slapstick: Mona Lisa, in one famous strip, was shown looking enigmatic, euphoric, then relieved as she rose from a toilet and flushed.
Mad fans couldn’t get enough of Martin’s warped vision, which filled the irreverent publication for 30 years until 1987, when the artist got really mad over the rights to his work and jumped to another magazine.
“There’s always been physical suffering in comedy,” Martin once said of the insanity that seeped from his brain to the pages of the satirical magazine founded in 1955 by William M. Gaines. “Even ancient clowns kicked each other in the seat of the pants or hit each other over the head. It’s the same thing in our time, just a little stronger.”
Martin, who died of cancer Thursday in a Miami hospital at the age of 68, brought his first drawings to Mad in 1957. He showed the editor cartoons of humans with square heads and double-jointed feet and was “immediately snapped up,” said Frank Jacobs, a longtime Mad writer, who wrote “The Mad World of William M. Gaines,” published in 1972. For the next three decades, Martin was Mad’s most popular artist.
“He exemplified Mad more than any other contributor,” said Jacobs, a Burbank resident who serves as Mad’s unofficial historian. “He was the only person who could take a lame premise and make it hysterical because of the drawing.”
In one cartoon, the first image invites laughter. A floozy in a bodice-baring dress is kissing a man with a rectangular head and anvil-shaped jaw who is tightly gripping the steering wheel of a convertible. The woman’s lips appear to deliver a jolt so strong that his hair curls up and lifts off his head. In subsequent frames, beads of sweat start to pop from the poor man’s face until he perspires so violently that--sposh--it has turned into a geyser gushing up from his collar. The cartoon was called “One Fine Evening in Lovers’ Lane.”
In other visual gags, his malformed humans get hit on the head with bricks that go fwak, a farmer sloshes through mud that goes ga-shpluct, a frying pan bounces off a man’s face with a pwang, a woman sticks a cigarette in her husband’s ear, singeing his brain with a sizafitz.
“Don was the only guy who could have a man just walking down the street in the first panel and you’re laughing before anything happens,” said Mad co-editor John Ficarra.
There may have been some physical roots for Martin’s twisted view of life. Since the early 1950s, the New Jersey-born artist had struggled with cornea problems that severely restricted his vision. He often had to use a magnifying glass to draw fine details.
He had a license plate that read “SHTOINK,” another of his trademark sounds. That may have been the only visible hint of his unusual occupation.
Martin, according to his colleagues, was the antithesis of his characters, so shy and retiring that “you could be in the room with Don for an hour and not realize it,” Ficarra said.
He was attractive but unassuming, “totally uneccentric,” Jacobs wrote in his book about Mad.
Born in Patterson, N.J., Martin showed an early talent for drawing. Growing up in the 1940s, he was influenced by the cartoons of Vergil Partch in Look magazine and by the drawings of Norman Rockwell. He was a graduate of the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
By 1987, Martin began to chafe under the magazine’s policy of controlling the copyright to the work he did for it. A bitter legal battle ensued, with Martin demanding greater financial control of his work. The magazine insisted that it legally owned his cartoons and all proceeds, including spinoffs such as T-shirts and posters. He ended his relationship with the magazine the same year.
For a while his drawings appeared in Cracked magazine, where he negotiated a better deal. He retained the copyright to a dozen cartoon books he had written earlier. His illustrations began to appear in Europe and he was commissioned to produce animated campaign spots for Sweden’s Social Democratic Party.
In 1994, he published the first edition of Don Martin, a cartoon magazine that featured a full range of his creations. The gags centered on characters with names like Dr. Dork, the Fabulous McWebbs and a dancing spider named Ickey.
Although some comic connoisseurs questioned whether such vintage characters would appeal to the post-Beavis and Butt-head generation, Martin was unconcerned.
“Is it funny? That’s the only test I know when it comes to cartooning,” he said. “Not whether it’s sick, or whether it’s going to ruin people’s values or morals. You only have to ask a simple question: Is it funny?”