MAD about creating: MAD Magazine founder Al Feldstein

MAD Magazine founder Al Feldstein

An artist turned an idea into a cultural icon: MAD Magazine



MAD creator calls Montana home



Al Feldstein turned his collar against the cold New York City wind.

He ducked into a publisher’s office among the tall buildings and felt a moment’s reprieve from the cold. Feldstein, only 13 at the time, needed a job. It was the height of the Depression, and Feldstein’s parents were losing their home. He desperately needed a job and he knew what he wanted to become: an artist.

Feldstein, who had no real art experience, said he was laughed out of most of the publishers’ offices, “but one kind editor said ‘why don’t you get a job at a studio servicing the industry and perfect your style and technique of comic book artwork?’” Feldstein says.

Feldstein approached the firm of Eisner and Eiger and landed a job at $3 a week running errands and erasing pages in the printing department. But one day he got his big break: the editor asked him to paint the leopard spots on the underwear of “Sheena, Queen of the Jungle.”

The best opportunities at commercial art in the 1930s were in, no less, pulp fiction. Comic books like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman were all the rage, as kids hovered around newsstands on street corners to leaf through the monthly offerings of new comics. Feldstein says he had heard of a kid making $20 a page to illustrate the art. “I couldn’t even afford the ten cents to buy the comic book,” Feldstein says now, looking out over his ranch on the Yellowstone River near Livingston.

He never got the job at the publisher, but just out of eighth grade, he was accepted at an art school across town. In the height of the Depression he did what ever it took to earn the bus fare to get to class. He worked as a pin setter at a bowling alley and delivered prescriptions. “My parents could hardly afford to give me a brown bag lunch,” he says.

Feldstein, 83, worked his way through the Madison Avenue publishers and by 1950 he and a partner were publishing their own series of comic books. It was a cutthroat business, with publishers competing hard for the coveted spots on the newsstands — and for the attention of young readers.

At the time, comics were the cheapest visual entertainment a kid could get. “For 10 cents a kid could put them in their pocket and read them on the subway,” Feldstein said. “There was no television, movies were a little more money and you could only go to them on the weekend. It became quite an industry.” According to Feldstein there were over 600 comic book titles on the stands every month in the 1930s and 1940s.

Feldstein’s publisher at the time was producing two science fiction comic books with aliens and rocket ships and they had two crime books. In 1950 they published “The Crypt of Terror,” which evolved into “Tales of the Crypt.”

In that competitive, crowded market, Feldstein saw an opportunity among the crime rags and cartoon comics: young adult entertainment.

From that early inspiration, MAD magazine was born.

Millions of Americans grew up reading the pulp comedy in MAD magazine. But this was not just a job. Feldstein was always a passionate liberal and as an artist he found, through MAD, the ultimate platform for telling others about his beliefs on corporate greed, politics and society.

Feldstein lives on 169 acres on the Yellowstone River south of Livingston, but for nearly 30 years he was the editor of MAD magazine, a color newsprint magazine that fed idealism and cynicism to hundreds of thousands of readers each month — mainly young adults. The magazine continues today under the ownership of Time Warner. As its founding editor, Feldstein helped take the magazine from its infancy and a press run of under 300,000 to over 3 million copies.

In 1956 Feldstein was at the helm of a magazine title that continues today. The face of MAD magazine was the iconic face of Alfred E. Neuman, the red-haired, freckle-faced boy known for the saying “What, me worry?” Feldstein and his publisher came upon Alfred E. Neuman as a way to brand their magazine. The name “Alfred E. Neuman” was one of Feldstein’s pen names, but the face came from a Ballantine collection of comic books called MAD reader.

Feldstein saw the face as a perfect fit to represent MAD magazine.

“We were in a society of corporate image logos — the Green Giant, Aunt Jemima, the dog at RCA,” he says. “I felt we had to have a logo and this face looked like a wonderful image to be our visual logo.”

Feldstein advertised in the New York Times for a portrait artist to remake the face of Neuman. Norman Mingo, a sketch artist, answered the ad, but and he walked out of the interview when he found out the job was for MAD magazine. Feldstein convinced him to try the portrait, and Mingo went on to create dozens of Neuman facial expressions and covers for MAD.

“Alfred was never a real person,” Feldstein says. “He was an evolution of an escape philosophy.”

The philosophy of MAD reflected Feldstein’s own social and political bent.

“To me MAD was an opportunity to disseminate to the young people a philosophy that they should be very skeptical of what goes on in the country,” Feldstein says. “Madison Avenue could be lying to them, the senators could be lying to them, their parents could be lying to them.

“We exposed the shenanigans, through humor, and taught them to think for themselves and read between the lines. That, to me, was the philosophy of MAD.”

Rather than staying on the liberal side of the fence, Feldstein lampooned both sides of the political and social spectrum. That tradition at MAD and MAD Television continues today. “I was tolerant of a bipartisan approach,” Feldstein says. “We shot at both sides, liberal and conservative.”

That philosophy resounded well with the generation of the 1950s. They found in MAD a voice that had not spoken to the young men and women of the time following World War II.

Feldstein capitalized on the magazine industry’s growth. He took MAD magazine from 350,000 issues published quarterly, to eight times a year and annual sales of nearly $3 million. Using the MAD image, the company published 11 foreign editions and had 250 paperback books in print.

But there was trouble ahead in the early days of the magazine.

Like the McCarthy senate hearings that sought to root out the red evil of communism, a similar movement began to try to quell the rise of what conservatives were calling “juvenile delinquency.”

Austrian researcher Frederick Wertham had written a book called “The Seduction of the Innocent” on how comic books were leading to the moral demise of America’s youth. The arch conservatives at the time jumped on the issue. Like president Bush’s “weapons of mass destruction,” 1952 presidential nominee Estes Kefauver found the issue of social ills (including comic books and juvenile delinquency) something he could hang his campaign on, Feldstein remembers.

A former mafia boss who was nominated for the vice presidency with Kefauver helped launch a Justice Department inquiry, and they grabbed Wertham as their star witness, Feldstein recalls. 

“They blamed the comic books for this rising problem (of juvenile delinquency),” Feldstein says. “There were lots of people with agendas who jumped on this problem.”

MAD’s competition also wanted them out of business. “We were stealing dimes from Superman, and Marvel and Archie Comics,” Feldstein says. In response to a Senate investigation of the so-called social ills of comic book publishing, a self-governing code of ethics was imposed on comic book publishers.

The first thing the code did was list the words publishers couldn’t use in comic book titles — words like “horror, fear, crypt or terror,” Feldstein says. “They also listed subject matters that could not be covered — which included all of ours. They set up this comic book authority and they put us out of business.”

MAD was on the ropes. The publisher had to let the artists and writers go, and Feldstein once again found himself walking the streets of New York looking for work.

It wasn’t long, though, before Feldstein was hired back. He continued as editor until 1984, when he retired to the Paradise Valley of Montana.

He retired from comic book publishing but continues his art work. Feldstein now focuses his artistic talent on creating vibrant, colorful acrylic paintings of landscape, people and wildlife.

That young man who discovered art in eighth grade still finds his creative outlet in front of an artist’s easel. His studio in Livingston looks out over a field that falls toward the Yellowstone River. His home is full of animals that his wife rescues or adopts, including a talking parakeet.

In front of him on a cold January afternoon is a colorful painting of giraffes that he created from a photograph taken on a recent trip to Africa. “Art is my first love,” he says.

Art, he says, is a love first — a business second. “I’m very fortunate that I made my money with MAD,” Feldstein adds. “That’s why I’m living on a ranch in Montana. I was lucky ... it was serendipity. I was in the right place at the right time.”






Please note, comments must be approved before they are published