Guilty Pleasures: Don Martin, 1931–2000

It’s Don Martin’s birthday. He’d have been 86 years old.

Who’s Don Martin? Jeez. WC must be getting old.

Don Martin does Michelangelo

Don Martin does Michelangelo

Don Martin was the best thing at Mad Magazine for 30 years. Sometimes the only funny thing. 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.

The two things that WC liked most about Martin’s work were the sound effects and the way he could capture a kind of burlesque in his work. The sound effects are famous, mocked even by Martin himself:

Martin's Sound Effects Board

Martin’s Sound Effects Board

In fact, Martin had a Florida vanity license plate, SHTOINK. If you can stand it, there’s even an on-line dictionary of Don Martin’s sound effects. “KRUNCHLE KRAKLE SHLINK SKROTCH” is, of course, the sound of a man chewing glass.

But it was his ability to bring a kind of burlesque style to his comics that kept a reader coming back. His characters – slouching, lantern-jawed schleps all – were generally belligerent, moronic or both. Mostly, though, they were unfortunate. Stuff happened to them. Unfortunate stuff. Usually involving sound effects. Martin wrote,

When I write gags, I am also just trying to be funny. My humor is mainly visual humor as opposed to being verbal humor. I don’t usually make much of a comment socially or politically. It’s a silly sense of humor. Doors slamming in people’s faces are fun. Pies in the face are fun.  The only test I know when it comes to cartooning is not whether it’s sick, or whether it’s going to ruin people’s values or morals. You only have to ask a simple question: Is it funny?

Yes, it was often pretty stupid. But it made you laugh; it made you snort through your nose. In junior high school, WC got his buddies into trouble by slipping them Don Martin cartoons and making them laugh at the wrong time.

It certainly wasn’t High Art. It probably wasn’t even art. But it was immensely influential. Fester Bestertester, Phineas T. Fogbone and National Gorilla Suit Day live on, at least for a few of us.

Happy Birthday, Don Martin.