By Michael Dirda
Sunday, December 9, 2007
THE COMPLETELY MAD DON MARTIN
By Don Martin
Running Press. Two volumes. $150
Back in the early 1960s, any young boulevardier between the ages of 10 and 15 knew that the greatest publication in all the world was Mad magazine. Oh, Sick and Cracked might have their aficionados, but for the true connoisseur of humor and satire these Mad wannabes functioned largely as backups, temporary palliatives to tide one over until next month's Mad appeared at the corner drugstore. In those days an issue cost 25 cents (cheap!) and featured not only the smiling freckled face of Alfred E. Neuman, but also the double-crossing antics of Sergio Aragones' Spy vs. Spy, parodies in verse by the ingenious Frank Jacobs, and the ever-popular send-ups of current television shows and popular films. Best of all, the 1960s were also the heyday of Don Martin, the comedic draftsman celebrated in these two weighty and essential volumes.
Essential, that is, for boys, even those boys who through some strange, fiendish twist of fate worthy of "The Twilight Zone" now find themselves in their 40s, 50s and 60s. It must be admitted that few girls, of whatever age, have ever fathomed the delirious appeal of Mad humor. Obviously, one's dopey sisters could hardly be expected to grasp the sheer genius of a name like Elwood Pleebis, Fornis J. Plebney, or Horace Veeblefetzer. But even those girls one kind of, sort of, liked might actually fail to roll on the ground with uncontrollable laughter at a political poster that proclaimed: "Help the mentally incompetent. Re-elect your congressman!" Of course, no girl, and certainly no mother, could be expected to appreciate the risqu¿ insightfulness of "Snap Ploobadoof" -- the sound of "Wonder Woman releasing her Amazon brassiere."
Don Martin made up that sound, and that poster, and those names. But, as Gary Larson emphasizes in his foreword to The Completely Mad Don Martin, the man most truly dazzled in his drawing. His jowly, cross-eyed characters stare at us from the page with an utterly sublime imbecility, unaware of their smug silliness, confident that they are in control, the captains of their destiny and the masters of any situation, no matter how complex or improbable. In fact, Martin's characters -- half of them named Fonebone -- resemble and behave like the Three Stooges, but Stooges without the least modicum of intelligence. Martin's naively stupid fairy-tale princes, incompetent surgeons, hapless Tarzans and demonic dentists generally end up with cracked skulls and dazed what-hit-me grins. Whatever happens to them, though, they never, ever see it coming. But the reader does -- and this is part of the pleasure of Martin's humor: Like silent-era comedians, his characters toss a banana onto the sidewalk, then slip on it.
In these bountiful pages, one can duly enjoy variation after variation of Rapunzel, discover dozens of dismaying outcomes when the Princess kisses a frog (in one, a frog kisses the new prince back into frogginess), and return again and again to a firing squad or a medieval dungeon or an innocent-seeming encounter at a park bench. Many sets of drawings bear generic titles: "One Fine Day at the Corner of South Finster Boulevard and Fonebone Street" or "Early One Morning on a Desert Island" or, less simply, "One Night in the Acme Ritz Central Arms Waldorf Plaza Statler Hilton Grand Hotel."
My favorite single drawing -- one I remember from boyhood -- is "An Evening in the City." A stubble-bearded guy with rolled-up shirtsleeves peers out of an office window and says, "I tell you, Mrs. Frimp, I'm getting sick and tired of this Rat Race!" At the next window the blowsy Mrs. Frimp answers, "I know what you mean, Mr. Eck! We're all getting sick of it!" Below the couple, one sees the street: full of large, very determined rats, in track suits, running a marathon through the city. Mrs. Frimp then adds, needlessly, "Besides . . . a 7-day Rat Race is such a stupid idea in the first place!!"
In a great many of Martin's multi-paneled features, a character will eventually achieve a moment of almost epileptic self-destruction. (See, for instance, the boggle-eyed gentleman wearing a green zoot suit on the poster titled "Fight Demeaning Plebney.") These frenetic epiphanies are usually accompanied by Martin's endlessly inventive sounds -- "Durp," "Faglork," "Kloonk," "Thwop," "Skroinch," "Glong," "Ook Ook" and many others. (In the final panel, the frazzled and wide-eyed character often looks directly out from the page, as if asking the reader to share in his bewilderment and discomfiture.) Martin's colleagues and admirers revere his onomatopoeic diction almost as much as they do his drawings of slack-jawed urban yokels.
The Completely Mad Don Martin has only one drawback: It doesn't reprint the artist's non-Mad paperbacks, starting with Don Martin Steps Out. These usually contained three pictorial "novellas," most memorably the DeMille-like epic of Fester Bestertester and Karbuncle in "The Hardest Head in the World." But apart from that lacuna, all fans of Don Martin's genius will rejoice in this double-decker omnibus. Yes, it's $150, but for what you're getting, it's $150 (cheap!). *
Michael Dirda's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book, "Classics for Pleasure," has just been published.