Few young minds of any recent generation have been untouched by Mad, the satiric magazine that became an instant institution upon its founding in 1952. Al Feldstein edited Mad from 1955 to 1984, establishing the wacky template it follows to this day. But his roots in the comics industry stretch to the early '40s, when his career began in the studio of the legendary Will Eisner. From there, he worked his way up to Mad's original publisher, William Gaines' notorious EC, where he co-created, edited, wrote, and drew some of the best comics ever made, including classics like Tales From The Crypt and Weird Science. EC collapsed in the '50s after Senate hearings that accused comic books—EC's in particular—of causing juvenile delinquency. That witch-hunt led to the creation of the Comics Code, a system of self-censorship that strangled the creativity of the comics industry until the advent of the direct market in the '80s. Now 81, outspoken as ever, and enjoying a new career as a popular wildlife painter, Feldstein recently talked with The A.V. Club about his cultural legacy.
The A.V. Club: You started out in Will Eisner's studio as a teenager in the '40s. How did that come about?
Al Feldstein: Actually, it was called Eisner & Iger. I was 15, going through the High School Of Music & Art in New York, and I was looking for some extra work. My folks were in the depth of the Depression, and they didn't even have a dime to send me to school. I heard that some kid was making 20 bucks a page drawing comic books. Wow, that was a lot of money, and I thought, "What the hell, I can do that." I never read a comic book, because I never had the dime to spend on one. I really had not had a formal education in Superman and the rest, so I borrowed a couple comic books and made page samples, and I naïvely went around to some publishers. Some laughed me out of the place. One guy, though, was very kind, and said, "Why don't you get a job at a studio, and see if you can started as an apprentice." So I went to this Eisner & Iger studio.
AVC: Did you ever get to work with Eisner himself?
AF: Eisner had left; he was no longer there. I think he was in the army when I got there. I showed my portfolio to Jerry Iger, and he said, "Oh, yeah, okay, you've got potential, but you need to be trained. What are you looking for?" I said, "I'm looking for a job after school." And he said, "Okay, you run errands and clean up the pages, and I'll pay you $3 a week."
AVC: How did that lead to drawing your own comic books?
AF: I was sitting among what are now legends in the comic-book industry, guys like Lou Fine, Jack Kamen, Bob Wood. Bob Wood was doing Sheena, and my desk was next to his. One day, he said, "How would you like to do some artwork that'll get published, instead of just running errands?" And I said, "Gee, great." So my first artwork was painting the leopard spots on Sheena's brassiere and loincloth. [Laughs.] I went from that to doing backgrounds for Bob, and then eventually I began to ink figures, and I worked my way up until I was a full-fledged, full-page artist.
AVC: The whole perception of comics was very different back then. How did people react when you told them you were a professional comic-book artist?
AF: Oh, they thought it was great. In those days, there were 600 comic-book titles on the stands. It was the visual entertainment; you could stick it in your back pocket. This was before television really got strong. There were some television sets back in the '50s, but they were expensive. People would gather at the rich guy's apartment down the hall to watch Milton Berle on his 10-inch black-and-white screen. [Laughs.] The comic-book industry today is not what it was back then, unfortunately. Kids are no longer interested in reading comic books; they've got television and the electronic games that they can bury themselves in like ostriches. They don't have to pay attention to what's going on in the world around them.
AVC: People talk about violent video games the way they used to talk about EC Comics, saying that they corrupt kids. Do you think that argument is valid in any way?
AF: Today, I go around singing a parody: "Where Have All The Flower Children Gone?" Where are all these people who were protesting the Vietnam War and the inadequacies and problems of our culture, the racial and religious intolerance? We finally got people out from the back of the bus and started integrating schools, and that was progress. But where are the young people today? Why are they allowing some of the things that are happening in their country? I am really upset about that. I feel that they are burying their heads in the sand of electronic games and television. They don't want to know. Maybe they realize that their yuppie parents who protested Vietnam have turned on their ideals and are now struggling to buy a Lexus or whatever. These kids don't know what to revolt against, so they just completely ignore it, which is a very frightening thing.
AVC: How did you wind up doing horror comics for EC?
AF: I was working for a publisher named Victor Fox, and my letterer told me, "Be careful; this guy has ties to the Mob, and I think he's in financial difficulty. You ought not to put all your eggs in one basket." I just heard that M.C. Gaines—who was the inventor of the comic book—had been killed in a speedboat crash. His wife was forcing his son to take over the business and learn it, so I went down to meet this nerd with horn-rimmed glasses and a crew-cut, named Bill Gaines. And I was with him for 35 years after that.
AVC: How did you and Bill Gaines formulate the EC style, the horror and war and science-fiction titles?
AF: When M.C. Gaines started the company, it was called Educational Comics, picture stories from the Bible and world history and science. He was losing his shirt, so he had to start putting out crime books and Western books. That's what Bill inherited. I started working on those books, and when [Joe] Simon and [Jack] Kirby invented the romance comics, we came out with our own. Saddle Justice became Saddle Romance. [Laughs.] I used to plead with Bill, "We're imitating crime and romance books. Why do we follow? Let's be innovators instead of imitators. Let's start our own trends; let them follow us." And he said, "Well, what do you have in mind?" And I said, "How about horror?" When I was a kid, I used to sneak down the stairs when my folks were listening to The Witch's Tale and Inner Sanctum on the radio. I went to see Frankenstein in the movie theater and got the pants scared off of me. I said, "Why don't we try this in comics, and scare the pants off the kids?" And Bill said, "Okay, let's try it." So I created The Crypt Of Terror with The Crypt Keeper as the narrator and host, much like The Old Witch was the host on The Witch's Tale.
AVC: EC wound up having a host called The Old Witch, too.
AF: Yeah, I really did a direct swipe there; I was so desperate. [Laughs.] She was the hostess of The Haunt Of Fear, which was our third horror title. I was doing them all myself. The sales were promising, so we changed all the crime books over to horror. That's when we started to get some noise from wholesalers; this was a time when juvenile delinquency was stirring the country. People were concerned with what their kids were reading, and some of the wholesalers suggested that The Crypt Of Terror was too scary, so we changed it to Tales From The Crypt.
AVC: Did you write all those early stories yourself?
AF: I was, because I wanted to get that extra $6 or $7 a page in addition to the artwork I was doing. Bill liked the way I wrote, and he wanted me to write for the rest of the artists. I told him, "The problem is, I don't know if I can plot all those stories," and he said, " Don't worry; I've got insomnia, and I do an awful lot of reading. I will bring plot ideas, and we will make variations together." He always had a weight problem, so he used to take an appetite suppressant that had Dexedrine in it. You could get it over the counter back then. He'd take it before dinner, and he'd be wired all night. He would come in the next day with all these springboards for plot ideas, then I'd go up and develop the ideas with all the characters and everything.
One day he came in and slapped two pulp magazines on my desk, and he said, "What do you know about science fiction?" I said, "Absolutely nothing." And he said, "Well, I love it. Take this home and read it." I came back to Bill—greedy little me, I was a whore—and said, "I can write this stuff." [Laughs.] So we started putting out Weird Science and Weird Fantasy. Then we got into the political aspect of our society at the time: the fact that we had racial intolerance, anti-Semitism. What we went to World War II for, at least in my mind, was not getting taken care of. It was supposed to be a brave new world, but we were getting back into the old ruts, and we were in a cold war with Russia. We started this title called Shock SuspenStories, because it had these shock endings. Bill labeled them "preachies"—they were stories that had to do with racial intolerance, politicians, corruption.
AVC: When you came up with these stories dealing with contemporary issues, did you assume any adults were reading them?
AF: Yes, we were assuming that curious young adults were reading them. The soldiers that started reading comics as a throwaway pastime in the barracks during World War II were still reading them in the '50s. We were writing up to our readership. I knew our readers probably started at 7 or 8, but it ran up into college and beyond. We were writing what we liked and pleasing ourselves, not really worrying about the statistics.
AVC: You made all those socially relevant stories, but Congress still came after EC and accused you of perverting the kids of America.
AF: Nobody mentioned those stories to the [Senator Estes] Kefauver Committee. Nobody mentioned any of the positive aspects of what we were doing. They only talked about how there were vaginas in the creases of women's pants in our comics. Fredric Wertham was an Austrian psychiatrist who wrote a book called Seduction Of The Innocent that was based on his experiences at a Harlem clinic, and his stance was, every problem child he had ever treated had read comic books. Therefore, comic books were the root cause.
AVC: They probably all drank milk, too.
AF: Yeah, it was such a fallacy. Bill volunteered to appear before the Kefauver Committee, and they effectively crucified him. He became nationally known as a purveyor of smut and God-knows-what, a destroyer of American youth. They were looking for a scapegoat for juvenile delinquency, and comic books were it.
AVC: Bill Gaines was the figurehead of the fight against comics censorship, but what kind of toll did it take on your own life?
AF: All I worried about was how my income was going to be affected. I was a professional prostitute back then, and my services were writing and drawing comic books. I was Rosie The Riveter with a brush in my hand. That was my attitude: I did the best that I could, and wrote good stories that I was proud of. But I didn't think one way or the other about whether I was contributing to juvenile delinquency. When they called me in closed session before the Kefauver Committee, I said exactly that. I told them, "The way to solve this problem is, if you don't want your kid to read Tales From The Crypt, tell them, 'If I catch you reading that, I'll beat the shit out of you.' You don't have to censor the books and put us out of business. That's not going to solve anything. Kids are going to find their outlets and their emotional releases in other places."
Nobody looked at the real problem, and I'm convinced it was this: America and Russia were arming themselves to the teeth with atomic bombs, and these young Baby Boomers had no control over the fact that they were facing instantaneous annihilation. They were forced to play duck-and-cover in school, in hopes that a desk would protect them from an atomic explosion. It was all bullshit, and they knew it. They were questioning the entire adult establishment, and that was the root cause of juvenile delinquency. It was also the root cause of EC's success; kids were looking for ways to numb themselves to this horror that they felt. When Mad came about, it was the reaffirmation of those feelings in print. We were saying, "Kids, Madison Avenue is lying to you. Your parents are lying to you. The president is lying to you."
AVC: What was the genesis of Mad?
AF: One of my writers, Harvey Kurtzman, was encouraged to start a magazine called Mad; the title was suggested by me. Kurtzman had done two war books for us, Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat, that showed war the way it really was, like in the novel, All Quiet On The Western Front. They showed that the guys we were killing were human beings just like us, with mothers and kids back home. War is hell, and it's fought for the profits of somebody else.
Anyway, we started Mad, and Harvey left after it had been converted from a comic book to a Time-sized magazine. Hugh Hefner offered Harvey a job doing a really lush version of Mad called Trump, and he took all his artists with him except one. I had been fired from EC because our distributor had gone bankrupt after the congressional hearings and the passing of the Comics Code, but Bill hired me back to do Mad. The first thing I did was get a goddamn staff together again. Luckily at that time, because of the pressure on comics from the Code, there were a lot of comic-book artists wandering around looking for work. For an atheist, I thank God all these guys showed up: Don Martin and Bob Clarke and Dave Berg. Writers started coming in, and Mad was progressive with its success. When I had been out of work, I imagined starting an adult magazine that would be a showcase for iconoclastic humor, featuring people like Lenny Bruce and Ernie Kovacs and Bob Newhart, who were beginning to crack the establishment with their humor. When Bill asked me to take over Mad, I immediately started to get name-people like Ernie Kovacs to write for me. I hesitated at Lenny Bruce. [Laughs.] I didn't want to get into trouble again.
AVC: What was the inspiration for Alfred E. Neuman?
AF: Ian Ballantine of Ballantine Books came to Bill and said, "I want to do a paperback version of the original Mad." It was called The Mad Reader, and Ballantine's editor stuck this face on the cover, the face of this grinning idiot kid with a gap tooth and freckles and big ears. He'd been around for years; there had been many, many versions of this kid around. I decided that I wanted to have this visual logo as the image of Mad, the same way that corporations had The Jolly Green Giant and the dog barking at the gramophone for RCA. This kid was the perfect example of what I wanted. So I put an ad in the New York Times that said, "National magazine wants portrait artist for special project." In walked this little old guy in his 60s named Norman Mingo, and he said, "What national magazine is this?" I said "Mad," and he said, "Goodbye." I told him to wait, and I dragged out all these examples and postcards of this idiot kid, and I said, "I want a definitive portrait of this kid. I don't want him to look like an idiot—I want him to be loveable and have an intelligence behind his eyes. But I want him to have this devil-may-care attitude, someone who can maintain a sense of humor while the world is collapsing around him." I adapted and used that portrait, and that was the beginning.
AVC: Have you seen the episode of The Simpsons where Bart visits the Mad offices in New York? Are you ever surprised by the cultural impact Mad has left?
AF: Yeah, I saw that episode. The guys at The Simpsons are big Mad fans. Early on, I developed a bunch of writers, because I couldn't write the whole magazine myself. Really, I wasn't a humorist; I was better off doing horror comics. [Laughs.] These guys came to us from the mail, from submissions. They'd start freelancing for me, and after getting rather successful with Mad, they decided they wanted to go to the West Coast and try Hollywood. So they would go there, and doors would open for them. "Oh, you guys are from Mad? Come on in!" They got jobs with Bob Newhart, Johnny Carson, Carol Burnett. They won Emmys. They'd move on to the high-paying stuff, but every one of them continued to write for me, maybe out of gratitude; I don't know. I'd call them and ask them, "Can you do a satire of Star Wars for me?", and they'd say, "Sure."
AVC: What would you say is the biggest stamp you put on Mad?
AF: The bipartisan approach to all subjects. It filtered up through my typewriter. I used to say, "Mad takes on both sides." We even used to rake the hippies over the coals. They were protesting the Vietnam War, but we took aspects of their culture and had fun with it. Mad was wide open. Bill loved it, and he was a capitalist Republican. I loved it, and I was a liberal Democrat. That went for the writers, too; they all had their own political leanings, and everybody had a voice. But the voices were mostly critical. It was social commentary, after all.