One of the things Al Feldstein regularly admitted was that he didn't know fans would still be eagerly collecting EC comics all these years after they stopped making them.
"If I did, I'd probably be a lot richer," he told Scoop with a laugh in 2002, "because at the time, I had at my disposal boxes of mint copies of everything we were doing. I would take two copies, one for bound volumes of my work that I kept as a record and one to bring home to my kids. I never kept back issues, which of course in later years proved to be idiotic because they became so valuable. Who knew back then that they would become collectors' items?"
During his tenure with EC Comics, Al Feldstein wrote, illustrated and edited titles in one of the most influential comic book lines in history. With a body of work ranging from horror (Tales from the Crypt) to science-fiction to crime and suspense, his contributions have been reprinted numbers of times over the years.
He passed away Tuesday, April 29, 2014, at his home in Livingston, Montana. He was 88.
Often characterized as difficult to work with but fantastic with his fans, the writer-artist first met Bill Gaines when Gaines was taking over the business following the death of his father, M.C. Gaines. The two immediately hit it off and drafted a contract to create a teen comic entitled Going Steady With Peggy.
The three-issue contract Feldstein signed even gave him a chunk of the speculative profits of the comic. The teen market was starting to fade, however, and Gaines may have re-thought his contractual generosity, so Going Steady With Peggy never happened. He agreed to tear up the contract and work on other titles together.
"I would ask Bill, 'Why are we following trends?' Simon and Kirby would start a trend. Everyone would follow," he says. "The innovators always last. When the teenage market started to soften, Archie still lasted even though everything else was getting hurt. Same with the romance market. The Simon and Kirby books lasted longer than the imitators," he said.
"Bill and I used to go to Roller Derby together a lot. We chatted about the things we loved when we were kids. I remembered listening to Arch Obler's Witch's Tale, Lights Out, and The Inner Sanctum. I said 'Why don't we do real Gothic horror in comics?' I admit that there were dabblings in that genre - there was Adventures into the Unknown, for one - but it wasn't what I had in mind. That's how I got the Crypt-Keeper and Vault-Keeper started. Bill was a little cautious. He wanted to try them out. So he introduced them in Crime Patrol and War Against Crime (with The Crypt of Terror in Crime Patrol and The Vault of Horror in War Against Crime). That's how we got started in the horror business," he said.
The successful titles of EC's "New Trend" line that included Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror and others were killed with the advent of the Comics Code. Gaines tried to keep them going with the "New Direction" Code-approved titles, but they were faced with the same distribution problems. Because of that, Feldstein says, they didn't ever really had a chance to establish an audience.
Next came the Picto-Fiction titles, with their illustrated stories in a magazine format, but none of the titles were successful. Though forgotten by many fans, this line did leave at least one memorable legacy.
"If you're really an astute fan, and you're looking through some of the Picto-Fiction [issues] where I wrote more than one story, you'll see I used the pseudonym Alfred E. Neuman. This is prior to me taking over MAD. When I decided to use this grinning idiot as the MAD mascot, even though Harvey had played with the face, I gave him my pseudonym," Feldstein said.
From the entire EC line, only MAD survived.
"MAD was a special kind of magazine,'" he said. "It was a satire and social commentary magazine, and I directed it that way when I took over. [It] reinforced the beliefs that young people had but weren't seeing in print elsewhere. We were putting it into print."
"Back when I first took over, I was determined to give the creators credit. I started working on the first masthead, but I didn't want to change it every issue, so I wrote 'The Usual Gang of Idiots.' It's still there," he laughed.
After a long tenure, though, he retired in 1984. Circulation, which had peeked at 2.8 million, had slid to 1.75 million. He wanted to spend money and make changes. He said Bill Gaines did not, so that was that.
The time at EC and MAD gave him the opportunity to work with an amazing array of creators. Of them, who did he really like working with? "Everybody on the staff. I didn't work with any people I didn't like or didn't feel were professional," he said.
He did have a problem, though, with the lack of credit he has received.
"I've lived with this Kurtzman cult even though I took over the magazine in 1956 and turned it into a rather American icon of social criticism, I was never able to undo cult attachment of Harvey. There were articles written about us in the '70s about our effect on the 'Make Love Not War' population, the burning of bras, the tearing up of draft cards and so on. They never once credited me, but said it was done by Harvey Kurtzman. Harvey stopped doing MAD in 1956 and this stuff was taking place in the '60s and '70s. It was a problem for me from an ego point of view," he said.
“Even though we sadly note the passing of Al Feldstein, we can take solace in that he lived long enough to see his work on the great EC comics not only acknowledged, but acclaimed. His impact on generations of storytellers will not diminish in his absence, and we know that his body of work has already stood the test of time,” said Steve Geppi, President and CEO of Diamond Comic Distributors.
“With Al's passing we have truly lost a legend. He was the indefatigable artist-writer-editor who worked alongside publisher Bill Gaines to create most of the best known EC Comics of the 1950s, including Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror, Haunt of Fear, Weird Science, Weird Fantasy, and Crime SuspenStories. And it was editor Feldstein, aided and abetted by the Usual Gang of Idiots, who spearheaded MAD magazine into the American institution that it became, and turned it into a publishing phenomenon. There really won't be another Al Feldstein; he was one of a kind,” said EC and MAD historian Grant Geissman.
“When I was 13 years old, I cut my teeth on Feldstein EC stories. I loved his use of shadows and heavy inks that gave his stories a unique atmosphere or “film noir” feel both in his horror and his science fiction stories. Two of my favorite Feldstein horror stories are “Terror Train" and “The Strange Couple” which appeared in Vault of Horror #12 (#1) and Vault of Horror #14 (#3), respectively. One of my favorite science fiction Feldstein stories is “Spawn of Venus” in Weird Science #6. Back in the early ‘50s, I lived for each week’s offering when the ECs came out on the newsstand. My close friend, Landon Chesney, and I would act out the stories and we spent hours studying the brush strokes and pen lines of our favorite EC artists and were inspired to write and draw our own stories in the EC tradition. Chesney even sent in one of his stories to EC for approval. Our best story “Study in Horror” was published in Bill Spicer’s Fantasy Illustrated #1 and was republished in full color in The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide #30 back in 2000, which featured a new Feldstein cover in classic form (with an alternate Al Williamson science fiction cover),” said Robert M. Overstreet, Publisher for Gemstone Publishing.
“EC would not have happened, if not for Feldstein’s classic covers and story plots to launch the series. Somehow, Feldstein was able to capture the atmosphere and feel of the best radio (horror and science fiction) and films of the 1940s and translate them into the comic book format. As young readers, we were thrilled with the whole EC concept and instantly became loyal fans that lasted to the last EC published,” he said.
“Al Feldstein was a complicated man. He was very gifted and intelligent, even a genius, when it came to writing and editing comic book stories. At the same time, he was difficult to work with and made enemies of virtually all the people he worked with at MAD,” said Russ Cochran, who has spent the better part of four decades helping keep the EC legacy alive. “Still, nobody could write and lay out a comic book story like Al Feldstein.”
“We’ve lost a great talent. Al Feldstein was not just an editor but was a driving force behind one of the greatest comic book companies in the history of the medium. As a writer and artist he created some of the most memorable stories we’ve ever read. I had the pleasure to interview him on my radio show ComicZoneRadio.com and will always remember it as one of the most insightful talks I’ve had on the creative process,” said Metropolis Collectibles’ Vincent Zurzolo.
“Al explained how he could lay out the dialogue and captions for an entire seven-page story in panels and have it perfectly end on the last panel. The art would then be added later. This was the exact opposite of the Marvel style but was equally as effective. The world will never forget Al Feldstein or his contributions to the comic world. He will be sorely missed,” he said.
“There’s a large core group of people ranging in ages from their late 30s to their early 60s who grew up with MAD magazine during Al Feldstein’s tenure. Phrases like ‘The usual gang of idiots’ and ‘What, me worry?’ punctuate their vocabulary and, more importantly, their sensibilities. MAD showed what could be done with humor in lieu of vitriol, a legacy of Al Feldstein’s of which we should perhaps be more mindful,” said Melissa Bowersox, President of Geppi’s Entertainment Museum.
Editor’s note: Grant Geissman’s book Feldstein: The MAD Life and Fantastic Art of Al Feldstein!, a hybrid biography – coffee table art book, was published in 2013 by IDW Publishing. Scoop covered its release at Comic-Con International: San Diego. Also, if you click the related link, you can hear Vincent Zurzolo's interivew with Al Feldstein.