Al Feldstein passed away today. He’s not a household name like Stan Lee, but he was arguably one of the most important editors of the twentieth century, because of one job he held for twenty-nine years. Namely, wrangling the Usual Gang Of Idiots and getting them to make one of the most consistently popular humor magazines of all time.
Feldstein actually has roots in the Golden Age of comics: He began in the industry working as an errand boy and a background artist for the Eisner & Iger studio. From there he spent a lot of time as a journeyman in the industry, inking backgrounds, writing and drawing knock-off comics, and generally just getting by in a fledgling industry.
Until he ran into Bill Gaines. Gaines, in 1948, had reluctantly taken over his father’s comics publishing company, and he needed guys who knew the field. That was Feldstein, and Feldstein rapidly took over EC’s cutting-edge horror, crime, and fantasy comics.
These comics are best known for Tales From The Crypt, but as Feldstein himself has pointed out on more than one occasion, the comics, as lurid as they were, often tackled serious issues where no one else was. In many parts of the country, the only place most people could find a discussion of drug addiction, racism, child abuse, domestic violence, and other social ills being actively swept under the rug by the entertainment industry was on the newsstands.
It didn’t last. After a disastrous hearing in front of HUAC, caused by agitation by prominent psychiatrists and parent’s groups, EC was victimized by the Comics Code, and left with only one title that was selling: MAD, a humor comic being published mostly because it made Gaines laugh and happened to sell well.
Feldstein took over editing after Harvey Kurtzman, the original editor, left, and the magazine we all know and love began forming almost immediately. Feldstein hired Don Martin as one of his first orders of business. He made a point of hiring Antonio Prohias, best known for Spy Vs. Spy, but also a political exile.
Essentially, Feldstein put together probably the most influential comic book, and ran it for nearly three decades. After he retired in the 1980s, he turned back to art, becoming an award-winning and prolific landscape and wildlife painter.
Feldstein isn’t necessarily famous, but the work he did was influential and important. He will be missed.