Two men have died in recent weeks whose names you’re unlikely to know, but whose work you’ve probably enjoyed.
That is almost certainly true of Al Feldstein, who died April 29 at 88. He’s not a household name, but he has affected pop culture twice in powerful — if quiet —ways. Feldstein was the editor of Mad magazine for 28 years, from 1956 to 1984. It was under Feldstein that the magazine’s circulation hit its highest peak — more than 2 million monthly in the early 1970s — and it was Feldstein who assembled the original “Usual Gang of Idiots.”
Feldstein wasn’t the first editor of Mad, which began as a comic book in 1952 under the editorship of Harvey Kurtzman. Kurtzman was a brilliant satirist, but he was also a terrible businessman and meticulous control freak who wrote virtually the entire comic book and drew thumbnail sketches from which the assigned artists could not vary. The result was hilarious, but slow — Kurtzman not only didn’t make much money taking so long to do a single comic book, he kept blowing deadlines. To appease Kurtzman’s demand for more money, publisher William Gaines made Mad a magazine with issue No. 24 in 1955, but Kurtzman left three issues later anyway.
In desperation, Gaines turned to Feldstein, a born editor who used inventory material from Kurtzman’s reign to fill issue No. 28, and parts of No. 29 and No. 30. By “Mad” No. 31 (January-February 1957) it was all Feldstein — as it would remain for almost three more decades.
It wasn’t Feldstein who came up with Alfred E. Neuman, but he did the most important part. Kurtzman first used the image of the gaptoothed boy with the goofy grin. But it was Feldstein who married the name Alfred E. Neuman and the “What, me worry?” slogan to the image, creating a mascot he used to anchor the magazine.
The other recent loss in the comics community was the less-influential but widely respected artist Dick Ayers, who died May 4 at age 90.
Ayers broke into comics in the late 1940s, and almost immediately cemented his place in comics history by co-creating (with writer Ray Krank) the western-themed supernatural character Ghost Rider, in “Tim Holt” comics in 1949. Ghost Rider proved so popular that he graduated to his own title in 1950, and was only put in his grave for good by the same mid-’50s comics hysteria that killed E.C. Comics.
Years later, Marvel Comics published its own western-themed, non-supernatural Ghost Rider character with an identical look after the original GR copyright lapsed. Who did they get to draw it? Dick Ayers, of course. (Marvel later re-used the name Ghost Rider for a modern horror/superhero biker character that has starred in two movies.)
But where Ayers is familiar to most fans is his work for Marvel Comics in the 1950s and ’60s. He inked a lot of monster stories in the 1950s that were drawn by comics legend Jack Kirby. And he was a mainstay at Marvel in the 1960s, during what is called the Silver Age of Comics — and an explosion of superhero characters.
Finally, it was in the late 1960s that Ayers made his most lasting contribution, a 10-year run drawing “Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos.” That series, set in World War II, was originally a typical gung-ho war book, but took a more thoughtful turn under Ayers and writer Gary Friedrich that is fondly remembered today.