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Don Martin : Strikes Back : Once MAD's maddest artist, the cartoonist who influenced a generation of dark humorists is up to his old tricks in a new magazine. But will his work seem relevant in today's smash-and grab video culture?

January 18, 1994

NEW YORK — Don Martin presents the sights and sounds of the big city:

Fagrooon. Fooma-doom. Splooga-poom.

Whattaya, weird? Those are buildings col lapsing in the distance.

Poit! Thwap!

An eyeball pops out and hits the floor.

Spwapo!

One kid's fist meets another's nose.

"Look, I just try to imagine what these things sound like, and then I draw them," Martin says. "If they're funny, that's all that matters to me. I've been thinking up these visual gags for years."

It's lunchtime in a noisy Manhattan bistro, and the slack-jawed waiters waddling by Martin's table fit right into the cartoons he made famous in MAD magazine. You can almost imagine him dreaming up comic characters as cups and saucers clatter around him and the mid-day pig-out begins:

Glink! A steak knife bounces off the metal plate in a customer's head.

Dikka-dakka. Dikka-dakka: The credit-card computer spits out a bill.

Shaglomp! A man chews and spews cole slaw.

"Hey, I could use all this stuff," says Martin, marveling at the bedlam. "I get creative material everywhere . Always have."

For more than 35 years, Don Martin has been an avatar of sick humor in a culture that cries out for swift kicks in the pants. Long before Beavis and Butt-head, he drew unsettling and warped cartoons that amused some (mostly adolescents) and alarmed others (mostly parents). A quiet and reclusive man, he's created an irreverent world where Franz Kafka and Looney Tunes collide, leaving good taste--and civility--in the lurch.

In the strip "One Fine Day in Florence," for example, Martin draws the Mona Lisa with expressions ranging from enigma to euphoria and relief. In the last panel, she rises from a toilet, flashes an unambiguous smile and flushes.

Twisted? Martin grins. Proud of his demented humor, he modestly acknowledges its offshoots in the work of Gary Larson ("The Far Side"), Matt Groening ("The Simpsons") and others.

"All these people were influenced by Don Martin because he was one of the first to do truly black humor," says Sergio Aragones, a cartoonist with MAD magazine for 30 years and a co-founder of the Cartoon Artists Professional Society in Southern California. "I always used to look for his contributions first in MAD, since he took such a different approach. It was wacky and very grotesque."

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To his fans, Martin's characters are instantly recognizable: Fat-footed boobs prancing down the street with heads under their arms; clowns tap-dancing into catastrophe; wisecracking insects in boxer shorts.

There's a darkness in his work, some of it autobiographical. Since the early 1950s, Martin has struggled with cornea problems that have greatly impaired his vision. He often uses a magnifying glass to finish off fine details in cartoon drawings, but this hasn't greatly affected his creative output. He continues to churn out wickedly inventive work.

"There's always been physical suffering in comedy," Martin says, as a waiter almost spills soup in a grandmother's lap at the next table. "Even ancient clowns kicked each other in the seat of the pants or hit each other over the head. It's the same thing in our time, just a little stronger."

Last month, the 62-year-old cartoonist published the first edition of Don Martin, a cartoon magazine featuring a full range of his cartoons and characters. It's a big step forward for a man who feuded bitterly with MAD over the copyright to work he did from 1957-1987. Although Martin demanded greater financial control of his work, MAD insisted that it legally owned his cartoons and all proceeds, including such spinoff products as T-shirts and posters.

The dispute tempered somewhat in 1992 with the death of William Gaines, the magazine's founder, who had clashed bitterly with his upstart cartoonist. By then, Martin had moved on to Cracked magazine, where he negotiated a better professional deal. Meanwhile, he retained the copyright to some 11 cartoon books written earlier and became more financially secure.

Not bad for a cartoonist once known as MAD's Maddest Artist. But now he faces troubling new questions: Are his slapstick comic books relevant in today's smash-and-grab video culture? Will teen-agers buy them?

"I don't know," Martin says with a shrug. "I wonder myself. It wouldn't surprise me to hear somebody ask that. . . . Things change."

The artist looks perplexed, then his wife charges in. Norma Berger has been fidgeting while her husband muses about creativity, and she's ready to burst. How dare people ask such questions? Don't they know this man is a genius?

"People do get older," Martin continues. "Young people come up in the culture and other people are replaced. It just happens."

"Mozart is never replaced!" Berger interrupts, shocking the table into silence.

Martin looks puzzled, but his wife swells with pride. She straightens in her seat and savors every syllable: "I said, Mozart is never replaced!"

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