Don Martin (May 18, 1931 – January 6, 2000) was an American cartoonist whose best-known work was published in Mad from 1956 to 1988. His popularity and prominence were such that the magazine promoted Martin as "Mad's Maddest Artist."
Born on May 18, 1931 in Paterson, New Jersey, and raised in nearby Brookside and Morristown, Martin studied illustration and fine art at Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts between 1949 and 1951 and subsequently graduated from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia in 1952. In 1953, he worked briefly as a window trimmer and frame maker before providing paste ups and mechanicals for various offset printing clients and beginning his career as freelance cartoonist and illustrator. Martin's work first appeared in Mad in the September 1956 issue.
Martin suffered from eye problems for his entire life. He underwent two corneal transplants: the first in 1949, at the age of 18, and the second forty years later in 1989. After the first procedure, Martin's head had to be held in place for three days by a pair of sandbags to prevent movement.
Just prior to his work with Mad, Don Martin illustrated the album covers of a few legendary jazz artists for Prestige Records, including Miles Davis' 1953 album Miles Davis and Horns (Prestige LP 7025). He also did The Art Farmer Septet (Prestige LP 7031), Sonny Stitt / Bud Powell / J.J. Johnson (Prestige LP 7024), Kai Winding's Trombone By Three (Prestige LP 7023) and Stan Getz' The Brothers (Prestige LP 7022). He also drew greeting cards and science fiction magazine illustrations.
Martin brought his portfolio to the Mad offices in 1956 and was immediately given an assignment. "The drawings that I first brought to them were kind of tight," he later recalled. "There was a very tight kind of design quality — I was using a very fine line. They encouraged me to loosen up a little bit and that’s what I did."
Martin often was billed as "Mad's Maddest Artist." Whereas other features in Mad, recurring or otherwise, typically were headed with pun-filled "department" titles, Martin's work always was headed with only his name—"Don Martin Dept."—further fanfare presumably being unnecessary.
At his peak, each issue of Mad typically carried three Martin strips of one or two pages each. But Martin also did several longer pieces, including parodies of poems by writers like Longfellow, Coleridge and Clement Clarke Moore, thematic collections of gags on a single subject such as Moses, superheroes or Dracula, as well as full parodies of the Gentle Ben TV series and the film Excalibur. He also drew some insert bonus material for "Mad Specials" such as stickers and posters.
Although Martin's contributions invariably featured outrageous events and sometimes outright violations of the laws of space-time, his strips typically had unassuming generic titles such as "A Quiet Day in the Park" or "One Afternoon at the Beach." The six-panel "The Impressionist" features a bull who becomes a famous artist by smearing an outdoor painter against his canvas and displaying his remains as an abstract design. The four-panel "One Night in the Miami Bus Terminal" presents a man who approaches a machine labeled "Change," inserts a dollar bill, and changes to a woman. In another gag, a man is flattened by a steamroller but is saved by the intervention of two passersby, who fold him as a paper airplane and throw him to the nearest hospital.
Martin's immediately recognizable drawing style (which featured bulbous noses, and the famous hinged foot) was loose, rounded, and filled with broad slapstick. His inspirations, plots, and themes were often bizarre and at times bordered on the berserk. In his earliest years with Mad, Martin used a more jagged, scratchy line. His style evolved, settling into its familiar form by 1964. It was typified by a sameness in the appearance of the characters (the punchline to a strip often was emphasized by a deadpan take with eyes half open and the mouth absent or in a tight, small circle of steadfast perplexity) and by an endless capacity for newly coined, onomatopoetic sound effects, such as "BREEDEET BREEDEET" for a croaking frog, "PLORTCH" for a knight being stabbed by a sword, or "FAGROON klubble klubble" for a collapsing building. (Martin's dedication to onomatopoeia was such that he owned a vanity license plate which read "SHTOINK," patterned after the style of his famed sound effects.)
His characters often had ridiculous, rhyming names such as Fester Bestertester or Fonebone (which was expanded to Freenbean I. Fonebone in at least one strip), as well as Lance Parkertip, Noted Notary Public. In this middle period, Martin created some of his most absurdist work—for example, "National Gorilla Suit Day"—an extended narrative in which a hapless character is violently assaulted by a series of attackers in various disguises, including gorillas dressed as men. Charles Taylor described Martin's unique art style:
His people are big-nosed schmoes with sleepy eyes, puffs of wiry hair, and what appear to be life preservers under the waistline of their clothes. Their hands make delicate little mincing gestures and their strangely thin, elongated feet take a 90-degree turn at the toes as they step forward. Whether they’re average Joes or headhunters, Martin’s people share the same physique: a tottering tower of obloids. Martin puts the bodies of these characters through every kind of permutation, treating them as much like gadgets as the squirting flowers and joy buzzers that populate his gags: glass eyes pop out from a pat on the back; heads are steamrollered into manhole-cover shapes. All of this accompanied by a Dadaist panoply of sound effects found nowhere else: shtoink! shklorp! fwoba-dap! It’s unlikely Samuel Beckett was aware of Don Martin, but had he been he might have recognized a kindred spirit.
His work probably reached its final peak of quality and technical detail in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In later years, particularly during the 1980s, he let other people write most of his gags, most notably Duck Edwing.
Concurrent with his Mad output, Martin and an assortment of writers produced a series of paperback books, to which he retained the copyrights and eventual publishing rights. For this reason, the content of these books was not included in 2007's Completely Mad Don Martin box set. Martin described his heavy workload for these projects:
Once I get the OK on the roughs I start the finished drawings. I sort of begin this stage slowly, because doing the finished work always ends up being a seven-day week. An all day, and all evening ordeal. I always anticipate I can draw the books faster than I can. That is a big mistake, since it adds a lot of anxiety, and aggravation to the project. I thought I had developed a system with the last one. I worked on the book in batches of 15 pages or so. I even kept a record to see how long it took me to do the pencils, and how long it took me to do the inks, but it still ended up being seven days a week for a couple of months. I find I have to get some momentum going when I draw. I can't work with interruptions. I like to have three or four days where I don't even leave the house on an errand. I get a lot more done that way, because I build up a head of steam.
In his last years of working with Mad, Martin had a falling out with publisher William Gaines over royalties for the paperback compilations of older Mad articles and cartoons released under new omnibus titles, such as The Self-Made Mad. Gaines insisted that Martin's original page rate was for both publication in Mad and all future reprints in any format. Martin objected, claiming at one point that he had likely lost over $1 million in royalties because of this "flat rate" for this work. Martin later testified before a Congressional subcommittee on the rights of freelance artists.
With bad blood flowing in both directions, Martin left Mad in late 1987. His last contribution appeared in issue No. 277 of March 1988 ("One Special Day in the Dungeon", written by Antonio Prohías). Soon afterwards, he began cartooning for the rival humor publication Cracked, which alluded to Martin's defection from its larger competitor by billing Martin as "Cracked's Crackedest Artist." Martin's debut cover for Cracked was pointedly signed "1988 D. Martin."
After six years with Cracked, Martin parted company with the magazine. A year later, he launched his own short-lived publication, Don Martin Magazine. This included reprints from some of his original Mad paperbacks to which he had retained copyrights. The first issue included an otherwise nonsensical Martin "interview" conducted by Martin himself, in which he said, "My agent thinks I was nuts to have worked there [Mad] as long as I did," before expressing fondness for his time at Cracked. In 1991, Martin complained about Mad's chummy and tribal atmosphere to the Los Angeles Times, saying, "It's looked upon by the people there as a good thing, like one big family. I came to realize that it's only a good thing for Bill Gaines. I was so terribly loyal all those years that I turned down work because I had something for Mad Magazine—which is ridiculous."
From 1989 to 1993, Don Martin created a daily comic strip called The Nutheads, featuring a family that worked at "Glump's Market," a cluttered store. The characters included a mother and father, Hazel and Nutley, and their two children, Macadamia and baby Nutkin. It was briefly syndicated by Universal Press Syndicate; Martin later revived and self-syndicated the strip.
Despite a degenerative eye condition, Martin continued to draw into the 1990s using special magnifying equipment.
Martin was a member of both the National Cartoonists Society and The Graphic Artists Guild (GAG). He resigned from GAG and returned a donation from them in 1997, following a dispute.
Martin was regarded as a quiet man who enjoyed relaxing on the beach near his home in Miami, where he liked slipping into the backgrounds of photographs tourists would take of each other, so when their films were developed they would wonder who the strange man was. Fellow Mad contributor Sergio Aragonés had the same impish habit. Despite his preference for privacy, he delighted in having struggling cartoonists visit his home.
In 1972, after sitting for an interview with The Miami Herald, the newspaper wanted to take a photograph of Martin and his family to accompany the piece. Martin refused. However, he then drew impromptu lifesized character masks, which Martin, his wife and children obligingly wore over their faces for the published portrait.
Martin was honored with the Ignatz Award at the Orlando Comicon in 1980. He received the National Cartoonists Society's Special Features Award in both 1981 and 1982, and he was inducted into the Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame in 2004.
Martin's cartoons appear in public collections at the National Cartoonists Society and the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum. He served as a juror at "Hürriyet Vakfı," an International Cartoon Competition held in Ankara, Turkey in 1986.
Martin's work has been referenced in numerous arenas, from The Simpsons and Family Guy to The Colbert Report to Jonathan Lethem's 1999 novel Motherless Brooklyn, which describes in detail the Tourette's-afflicted protagonist's affinity for Martin's cartoons. The character of Uncle Grandpa was inspired by the look of Martin's designs.
In 1986, the animated feature Don Martin Does It Again was created in Germany by director Andy Knight, and produced by Gerhard Hahn's Deutsche Zeichentrick Erste Produktions GmbH & Co. KG. It won first prize at the 1986 International Children's Film Festival in Chicago. Martin strips have also been adapted on Cartoon Network's Mad and the Fox sketch program MADtv.
The name of character of Fone Bone in cartoonist Jeff Smith's epic graphic novel Bone is derived from Fonebone, the generic surname that Martin gave to many of the characters that appeared in his Mad magazine strips.
In episode No. 307, "The Day the Earth Stood Stupid" (2001), of Matt Groening's science-fiction animated television series Futurama, lead character Hermes Conrad mentions a planet called "Don Martin 3" that went "kerflooey", an homage to one of Martin's sound effects. The "Stranded in Space" film shown on TV's Mystery Science Theater 3000 (episode 305) included various visual weapon sound effects (e.g., a gun with a flag which pops out, bearing the sound effect "BANG!"). After a stick of dynamite produced a banner reading "KACHOW", one of the show's characters wondered, "Kachow? Kachow?! What, is Don Martin working with you guys now?!"
In 2007, a two-volume hardcover box set of Martin's complete Mad magazine work was published by Running Press.
Taking their cue from one of Martin's more celebrated stories, National Gorilla Suit Day, fans have celebrated National Gorilla Suit Day by wearing gorilla suits on January 31. No specific date is given in the story, which appeared in the 1963 paperback book Don Martin Bounces Back.