Naturally, most readers of Mad Magazine point to the issues they enjoyed as children as representing the best years of the highly influential periodical. It’s a bit of a game to try to nail down when, or if, the magazine went into any kind of decline. For most of us, however, the truth is we grew up and left the sort of humor embodied in Mad in our adolescent rearview mirrors. But new generations would follow us, and their Mad would keep alive the perennial “What, me worry” sentiments of cover boy, Alfred E. Neuman.
It all began in 1952 when EC Comics publisher Bill Gaines and editor Harvey Kurtzman launched Mad as a comic book. Then came 1956 and things changed dramatically. For one matter, the new editor became Al Feldstein, a veteran writer and artist for various EC titles. Due to the pressures of authorities who felt comic books were a cultural problem for America’s youth, many comic books were cancelled and Mad became a magazine which removed it from the strictures of the comic book codes.
Until his retirement in 1984, Feldstein remained editor of Mad. It was under his guiding hand the magazine enjoyed its heyday and reached its highest sales figures during the mid-70s. It was Feldstein who brought in the creative talents of writers and artists including Don Martin, Sergio Aragones, and Mort Drucker. Clearly, Feldstein is a figure important not only to the comic book industry, but to American popular culture as a whole. So he’s well deserving of an authoritative appreciation, and author Grant Geissman has more than done that job in Feldstein: The Mad Life and Fantastic Art of Al Feldstein!
In fact, it’s hard to imagine any creator who could be more pleased to see his legacy captured so fully and richly than Al Feldstein. Geissman, a personal friend of Feldstein’s for over 20 years, is the author of three previous histories, Collectibly Mad, Tales of Terror: EC Companion and Foul Play: The Art and Artists of the Notorious EC Comics. So Geissman clearly knows his subject, has had many opportunities to interview his friend in depth, and, for Feldstein, was granted generous access to Feldstein’s personal archives.
But Feldstein: The Mad Life and Fantastic Art of Al Feldstein! is much more than a mere illustrated biography. The 416 9.25×12.25 pages on glossy stock paper include a cornucopia of comic art, especially early work for EC Comics featuring full stories, splash art, and many, many covers, both original and reproductions. The subjects, not surprisingly, range from sci-fi monsters to traffic cop robots to graveyard ghouls to voluptuous temptresses to Feldstein’s non-comic art of scenic Western vistas. For Mad fans, there’s a bounty of photos taken during the famous annual “Mad Trips” Gaines used to take his staff on to cities all over the world.
Yes, there’s ample text exploring the life and work of Feldstein, and gratefully it’s candid enough to avoid being a gushing fan appreciation. Feldstein’s problems in his personal life are laid bare, juxtaposed against a career that has invited as many detractors as admirers. Odds are, you’ll get around to reading the detailed biography only after first thumbing through the book to enjoy the visual delights. Then, you’ll want a second exploration to read some of the vintage comic stories, and then finally kick back to read the pages devoted to the man behind it all. This is no quick read which means this is a book more than worthy of its cover price. Feldstein: The Mad Life and Fantastic Art of Al Feldstein! is an impressive tome for any lover of comic books and anyone who ever saw Alfred E. Neuman’s toothy grin on the cover of a magazine that was, at one point or another, essential reading in your life.