Al Feldstein: 1925–2014 by Jerry Whitworth
On April 29, 2014, the United States lost a pop culture icon. Al Feldstein passed away in his home in Livingston, Montana and while his may not be a household name, his contributions to our culture are significant. Discovering a talent in art at a young age, Feldstein worked as a teenager for Will Eisner and Jerry Iger as part of their Art Syndication Company which provided comics for various publishers including Editors Press Service, Fox Comics, and Quality Comics. Some of Feldstein’s earliest published art would be backgrounds for Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. When he was old enough, however, the artist would enlist as a soldier in the Air Force in order to join in World War II. Similarly with Stan Lee and Will Eisner, Feldstein’s talent as an artist brought him to Special Services where he produced comic strips and helped paint and decorate planes. He returned from the war as a freelancer working mostly for Fox. When that publisher seemed to be on the way out, Feldstein approached Bill Gaines for work at EC Comics.
At the time, EC Comics was in a transitional period as its founder Max “M.C.” Gaines died tragically in a boating accident. Gaines’ son William (better known as Bill), a military veteran going to school to be a Chemistry teacher, would inherit his father’s company Educational Comics which specialized in adapting Bible stories into comic books. Bill revised the publisher into Entertaining Comics, producing work in various genres like horror, crime fiction, science fiction, and so on. Instrumental in this effort was Al Feldstein and Harvey Kurtzman who came on as editors, the former taking on the lion’s share of the work editing and writing for seven of these titles. The result was dynamite. The company nurtured new writing talent (including Harlan Ellison’s first published work) unshackled by the restraints of other publishers and the artists were encouraged to develop their own distinctive styles. This environment offered the opportunity for the editors to take assignments and hand them out to those they felt best complimented the concept. Fans ate the books up, with EC Comics blowing virtually every other publisher out of the water. Although, it wouldn’t be long before people in power found the books to be dangerous to young people. Simply put, EC tackled the persisting problems within the country’s society no other medium at the time dared mention, be it drugs, racism, rape, domestic abuse, police brutality, and on and on. What did in the company, however, was the graphic nature of its art and its portrayal of gore and eroticism. Psychiatrist Fredric Wertham would publish a book connecting comic books to juvenile delinquency which led to a public and political outcry against comics (including book burnings). EC Comics was all but dismantled in the aftermath.
Following the backlash against the comic book industry, new self-regulated guidelines were put in place to prevent the collapse of the companies that survived. EC Comics tried to abide by the new guidelines but soon learned those in power exploited the system towards their own ends. The final straw was a comic EC produced presenting an allegory on racism featuring an African-American in the story’s reveal that the Comics Code Authority wanted to suppress. The story, “Judgment Day” by Al Feldstein, helped motivate the publisher to produce magazines instead (which were exempt from the CCA). Mad, a humor comic largely produced by Harvey Kurtzman, was chosen to be turned into a magazine. This decision was both motivated by the CCA and Kurtzman’s desire to move toward magazine work. As EC changed towards this direction, Feldstein was released but after a year, Kurtzman left Mad and Feldstein returned to become the magazine’s editor. Since Kurtzman provided the overwhelming majority of work on Mad, his departure left a virtually clean slate for Feldstein who brought on Don Martin and Frank Jacobs to produce the title. Feldstein led Mad to become the most popular humor magazine on the planet. At its zenith, the magazine circulated millions of copies per issue. Its been said Mad helped shape the youth of our nation toward viewing the government (and the establishment) critically, be it questioning wars, calling out political corruption, and to realize big media was controlling the perceptions of its audience. Through the use of humor and parodying pop culture, Mad was an entertaining product that also made you think (something seemingly becoming rarer every day). Feldstein guided the ship for Mad for nearly three decades before retiring in 1984.
Having worked for the legendary Will Eisner and been a guiding force for two of the biggest publication ventures in American history, Al Feldstein took up oil painting and moved to the West. Settling down in Montana with his wife Michelle, the couple ran a guest house at a horse and llama ranch just north of Yellowstone National Park. Feldstein spent his final decades doing what he loved: painting scenes of nature, animals, Western lore (of cowboys and native Americans), and fantasy. His art was featured in dozens of galleries and is actively sought by collectors. In 2003, he was inducted into the Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame and in 2011 he earned the Bram Stoker Lifetime Achievement Award by the Horror Writers Association. As can be inferred, you can’t properly quantify the contributions Feldstein and his work at EC Comics provided to our culture. From kicking the hornet’s nest of what was considered acceptable content for the youth of America to expanding the minds and perceptions of the public, Feldstein’s work was some of the earliest shots fired in the war on ignorance (purposeful of otherwise) in our society. Feldstein, an admitted liberal Democrat, took both pleasure and joy in his contributions towards waking the public up to what was going on around them while taking no sides politically (lampooning both sides of the aisle equally). As a creative force and a scholar in the study of man, Al Feldstein will be missed and his work is a gift that the world can enjoy for the rest of eternity.