What sound effect did Don Martin make when he died?
Or perhaps a simple "Thort"?
The twisted and humane, repulsive and hilarious cartoonist, who plied his trade for Mad and Cracked magazines for more than 30 years, died of cancer at a Miami hospital yesterday. He was 68.
When Mad was a 20th-century Punch--offering cutting-edge satire from the late '50s to the early '70s--Martin stood out among its pantheon of poop-slingers. He especially stood out after the rest of the magazine slipped in quality. Some of Mad's cartoons--such as "Berg's Eye View"--took a gentler, more "Lockhorns" tack on personal foibles. Martin's did not. They were often ruthlessly graphic and always spit-take funny. As wasn't the case with his colleagues' work, you could rarely see the punch line coming. And when it came, it hit you upside the head like a 12-pound halibut, complete with one of his signature sound effects, such as "Plort!" Martin's license plate read: "SHTOINK."
The genius of Martin was his ability to take conventional humor situations--the patient on the psychiatrist's couch, the sidewalk salesman, the baby in a crib--and turn them freakishly inside out. Here's a classic example: "One Afternoon on a Remote Jungle Island:"
A dark-skinned native (can you even draw dark-skinned natives anymore? Is it legal?) is walking through his village of huts. Suddenly, he is struck in the head by a human foot, bearing sound effect: "Mamp."
In the next frame, he is brained by what appears to be a human heart: "Spwat." Then a human head, with the eyes in little x's: "Tok." Then we see two white explorers in a boiling pot. We understand: This native is a cannibal. Finally comes the punch line in the last frame, a wide-screen view of the entire village, with natives everywhere slinging a hail of body parts. One shouts: "FOOD FIGHT!"
It is primarily because of Martin that I laugh at jokes such as: "What do you call a boy with no arms and no legs in a pile of leaves?" (Russell.) Because Martin trained me thusly, I busted a gut laughing at Evelyn Waugh's "The Loved One," a black-humored satire of a mortuary. As a college youth, I couldn't get enough of Monty Python explosions, defenestrations and sword amputations, all thanks to Martin's cartoons, which I read as a kid in my room, after lights-out.
Martin taught us a key life lesson: That real humor emanates from real pain. The only way to defeat a fear or to claim a heartache is to seize it firmly with both hands and laugh in its horrific face.
Martin's characters were instantly recognizable, with their prominent, Leno-like chins, their self-satisfied, half-closed eyes and their curiously hinged feet, the tops of which flopped over in stride. But their main trait was their humanity--their nobility soldiering on in the face of ever-present doom. Witness "One Morning on a Street Corner:"
A derelict panhandler wears a sign around his neck, advertising pencils for 15 cents. Along comes a wild-haired doomsayer in a sandwich board: "The world will end today at noon." The panhandler consults his watch and gravely scribbles a new ad slogan: "Going out of business sale: pencils 10 cents."
Toward the end of his life, Martin's eyesight was almost gone. He drew his cartoons through a magnifying glass with his face an inch from the paper. A cartoonist losing his eyesight? That's Old Testament-style pathos. That's absurd tragedy. And that's funny, in a twisted, Don Martin way.
CAPTION: Cartoonist Don Martin's crazed humor stood out in Mad magazine.
CAPTION: Don Martin in 1990, signing the work of another artist at a Miami restaurant.