MAD’s Maddest Artist Gets Even: Don Martin Strikes a Blow for Creators’ Rights

In 2004, radio personality Howard Stern caused a stir within his chosen industry, even for a controversy magnet like himself. Since the early 1980s, Stern had made nearly every attempt possible to turn American broadcast radio on its largely sedate ear. Personifying the term “shock jock”, Stern explored and stretched not only boundaries of good taste, but also what is considered obscene by American law. Love him or hate him, one would be hard pressed to argue that Stern did not completely transform the landscape of this particular medium.

But eventually, the self- and government-inflicted binds on that medium, the very ones Stern had for so long exploited, became too restrictive even for him. In the wake of Janet Jackson’s famed “wardrobe malfunction” during the Super Bowl half-time show in February of 2004, the broadcasters on the public TV and radio airwaves began reigning in the artists on their payroll even further. The walls Stern and his ilk had fallen were being re-erected and stronger than ever before.

Due to this stifling creative environment, one that had not been so repressive since the Reagan years, Stern announced that he would take his wildly popular show to Sirius Satellite Radio, and so bypassing the questionable censorship laws of the FCC as well as the nervous corporate sponsors. The move itself created a furor, and the fact that Stern’s show is still going strong with subscriber-only financial support only proves that outside influences can only withhold an artist for so long.

Comics are still on a much smaller scale than any other medium in popular culture. This can be as beneficial to the medium as it can be detrimental. Aside from the great witch-hunt years of the 1950s, when the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency effectively put EC Comics and its fellows in the horror-comics field out of business, comics have largely flown under the public’s radar for obscenity. This is not to say that obscenity charges are not laid at the door of comics artists still; in 1996, Mike Diana was forced to stop drawing even in private by a Florida judge as part of an obscenity conviction stemming from Diana’s Boiled Angel. But for the most part, comics are still largely considered to be “for kids”, and therefore go largely ignored by mainstream audiences. While this may ensure that few will ever get rich from making comics, at least the medium is probably the freest for the exploration of sex, death, and all other taboo topics in America.

Not getting rich is one thing; not even being paid what one is owed is another entirely. Yes, while comics may be a vast playground where creators can work mostly unsupervised, the downside of this is that their work is rarely taken seriously and, therefore, their livelihood is often at risk. If an artist is being financially exploited (and this is sadly the precedent, ever since Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster first lost the rights to their multi-million dollar creation, Superman, in 1938), few outside of the industry are going to realize this or even care. How much money can you make drawing funny-books anyway?

From nearly his first issue drawing for MAD magazine, Don Martin became one of the magazine’s most popular cartoonists. Having sold his first cartoon to editor and publisher William M. Gaines in 1956, Martin was published consistently in MAD for the next 30 years. Martin’s hallmarks included an outlandish cartooning style of gangly, nearly elastic schmucks, whose shoes often folded at the toes. This drawing style was in high contrast to Martin’s writing; his cartoons were generally only one or two pages long, and his characters nearly always dead-panned their reactions to the highly farcical punch-lines.

What probably most set Martin apart was his use of sound effects. He is still considered to be the cartoonist to bring the onomatopoeia to its heights—when one’s sound effects go above and beyond, they can be considered “Don Martin-esque”. When a Don Martin character has a heart attack, it sounds like: “ACK ACK GARK!” When a doctor is making an incision on a patient: “Sit sit sit”. Comics are, in essence, a static medium that uses words and pictures. For Martin to so effectively bring a sort of “sound” to that medium using only word-pictures is, without hyperbole, surely a mark of genius.

Although Martin spent the bulk of his career at MAD, it would seem the relationship was far from perfect. Gaines paid each of his artists and writers a flat fee per page. As generous as this fee may have been, and despite all the other reasons creators loved to work for the gregarious, friendly publisher, Gaines still held the reprint rights to all the work. From 1961 on, MAD magazine published no less than fourteen paperback reprints of Martin’s work, as well as other paperback reprints of the magazine that featured some of Martin’s cartoons. While Gaines insisted that he had paid his artists fairly, Martin vocally disagreed.

It is unknown why exactly Martin did not attempt litigation at this point. But it could be fairly safe to assume that Martin’s well-known gentle demeanor, as well as his preference for life out of the public eye, had at least something to do with that. Rather than fight it out with MAD in court, Martin did what so many others in his field did, others like Jack Kirby — he packed up and went across town.

Cracked magazine began in 1958, one of many in the wave of MAD imitators over the years, like Sick, Trash, and Crazy. But Cracked was one of the few that stuck in for the long haul, its original incarnation lasting until the early 2000s. Cracked may have been second-best, but in 1988, they tried harder. By promising Don Martin the rights to his work after initial publication, Cracked succeeded in luring away their main rival’s most well-known artist. Although Martin no doubt took a substantial cut in pay, the creative benefits alone were worth it. When he released his Don Martin’s Droll Book with Dark Horse Comics in 1992, he dedicated it to his wife, claiming that without her, his art and livelihood would still be “chained to MAD magazine”.

Even when one is an established figure in one’s field, to make any major move could be considered career suicide. Howard Stern left public radio after more than twenty years of success, but his risk paid off and he remains as popular as ever. Don Martin parted ways with his home at MAD magazine after 32 years, although he was making a living doing what he loved and was generally allowed total creative freedom. For anyone less established, this may have seemed insane. But to not take that risk, to continue to give up the rights to his own creations, that would have been insane. So Don Martin must have thought. Although it may be a comparatively smaller occurrence, only affecting the oft-ghettoized comics industry, Don Martin’s bold move against his long-time employers help set the stage for the huge influx of creators’ rights that was seen in the 1990s. Without the bravery of MAD’s maddest artist, many in comics today would not be able to break even.

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