Mad’s Greatest Artists: The Completely Mad Don Martin reviewed by Leonard Rifas

Posted by on December 22nd, 2009 at 10:00 AM

Mad’s Greatest Artists: The Completely Mad Don Martin Volume 1 1956-1974, Volume Two 1974-1988; Edited by Greg Jones, Emily Ryan Lerner and John Ficarra; Running Press; 1,200 pp., $150; B&W and Color, Hardcover; ISBN: 9780762430505

Mad’s Greatest Artists: The Completely Mad Don Martin is, in the words of Mad’s editor John Ficarra, “a well-deserved tribute to … one of the greatest cartoonists of the twentieth century.” A reader picking up even one notably weighty volume of this 1,200-page, two-volume, slip-cased collection of every Don Martin page Mad ever published will find it difficult to avoid pondering what noise it would make if it were to drop from a height onto the head of a hapless passerby. (SPLA-DOINK!? Your results may vary.)

Between Martin’s comics, these volumes intersperse a festschrift in the form of handwritten, typed, or typeset letters from Mad’s editors, cartoonists and writers (plus a foreword by Gary Larson). Most of them idolize Martin. For those readers who share their enthusiasm, these repetitive letters make enjoyable, but light, reading. Most of them knew Martin personally only from the magazine’s famous shared vacations, or not at all.

Gary Larson insists in his foreword “no one can explain to someone else why something is funny.” Nevertheless, if any white-coated scientists with eyeglasses like Coke-bottle bottoms ever did work out the formula for successful humor on their chalkboard, it might be by reverse-engineering Martin’s comics. Their equations would have to include not only the gags themselves (sometimes contributed by other writers including Duck Edwing, Dick DeBartolo, Charlie Kadau and Joe Raiola), but also Martin’s unique drawings.

When the contributing Mad idiots try to pinpoint what made Martin’s drawings hilarious, they agree on a few main points: the lantern-jawed, long-faced, droopy-eyed, bulbous-nosed, square-chinned, rubber-limbed, pigeon-toed characters with hinged feet! The characters’ eyes were also usually close-set enough to touch each other and those who were not pigeon-toed were typically splayfooted. Some of them could balance on a single toe.

Several contributors note that Martin’s cartoons made an enormous impact on baby-boomer boys who passed through the age of 13 in the early 1960s. Amen to that. At that time, with Basil Wolverton out of the picture, even an approximate regular substitute for his kind of slapstick cartoon madness could not be found. Martin’s work went beyond anything on the newsstands in speaking to teenage social anxieties over bodily functions. An experimental pimple cure pops a man’s head; a holdup victim’s body odor knocks out his mugger; a noxious burp knocks a bird out of the sky; a South American general raises his arm and all three members of his firing squad and the condemned prisoner are knocked out by his underarm smell. He even got away with diarrhea jokes (set in Mexico). Martin spun such vapors into comedy gold.

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3 Responses to “Mad’s Greatest Artists: The Completely Mad Don Martin reviewed by Leonard Rifas”

  1. patford says:

    It has been reported in several places that the book can be purchased online, and in chain book stores at a huge discount. I just bought one off the discount table at a B&N for twenty-five dollars.

  2. Hyksos says:

    You can buy it new at for $40.00 with free shipping.

  3. Aaron Ber says:

    I just got this at BMV in Toronto for $40 – they may have a few left.

    This collection makes me happy to the point of becoming ridiculous.