Genius of Tales From the Crypt, MAD Magazine, and E.C. Comics
1999 INTERVIEW WITH AL
Jim Vanhollebeke: First of all Mr.Feldstein, thank you for the countless hours of entertainment all those years ago and still today with the current reprints. I am sorry that you and Bill (Bill Gaines - then owner of E.C. Comics and Al's collaborator) were not on better terms before he passed on. I have just visted your beautiful web site and it's so gratifying to see that you are now enjoying a second incredible life. Your western paintings are just beautiful and your Deer Haven Ranch looks like heaven! I hope to be able to visit some day. You are a legend and a hero. So again, my heartfelt thanks.
AL FELDSTEIN: Thank you, Jim, for your ego-building and kind words. Yes, Bill Gaines and I had differences of opinions about the future of Mad and what should be done about it...so I decided to retire. As it turned out, my fears were well-founded. Mad's circulation has nose dived since my end-of-l984 retirement, and the TV show I wanted to do 25 years ago (which Bill resisted) finally came to pass after his death. But the idiots up at Time-Warner, not ever having a clue about what the old Mad was really all about, handed it over to a rock music producer who turned out an imitation of Saturday Night Live, only much more raunchy. It certainly isn't the TV show I envisioned. And the over-staffed and under-talented D.C. supervision of the current Mad has resulted in a low-selling (275,000) no-character-or-personality-or-point-of-view product that I'm so glad I'm no longer affiliated with. It certainly isn't the Mad that I wanted to bring into the 90's and the 21st Century! Oh, well... By the way, would love to have you visit us some day.
JVH: I find myself wondering: Have you met Russ Cochran (publisher of the latest round of E.C. reprints)?
AF: Yes, I've met him many times when he'd drop by the Mad offices to visit Bill Gaines (many years ago).
JVH: What do you think of Cochran's E.C. horror, sci-fi, and crime comic reprints?
AF: I think they are fantastic... wonderful reproductions of the original black-and-white art and an invaluable permanent record of what we did back in those wonderful E.C. years.
JVH: Are you at all surprised at E.C.'s longevity thus far ?
AF: Of course I am! If I wasn't, I'd be rich...because I would have saved hundreds of mint copies of everything we printed that were available To me back in those days, and I could be selling them now for a fortune. But who knew?! I never imagined they'd become valuable "collectors' items"! And Bill Gaines's personal collection of 12 mint copies of each issue of each title that he put away (and are now being sold by Sotheby's) weren't saved because he knew(!) but because he wanted a record for any possible questions that might arise concerning his second class mail entries.
JVH: Do you think the contemporary reprints should continue into new issues??
AF: I'm not sure what you mean by "new" issues. They are already being reprinted by Gemstone Publishing Company (Russ Cochran).
JVH: Would you be receptive to certain solicitations for your writing (and/or drawing) if E.C. started pumping out new stories?
AF: If the money was right and the project was right. I'm retired and loving my fine art pursuits now. It would all depend upon the offer.
JVH: How 'bout your possible services in reviving the Ghoul-Lunatics (the Cryptkeeper and friends) and sci-fi tales?
AF: Since I don't own the rights to the E.C. properties, I couldn't entertain any offers concerning them except with the approval of the Gaines estate.
JVH: Are you glad it's all behind you?
AF: I wish it was all behind me! I am constantly being wrenched back... doing fine art commissions of my old E.C. covers (I have that right!) for rich E.C. collectors and fans ...being invited to "comic conventions" as an honored guest... being bugged by old fans like you (only kidding!). But it was a fun time that I remember fondly, and a painful time (at the end) that I remember with sadness.
JVH: Don't you think a bio-book about all of you (E.C. comics) guys would be great?
AF: I think a table top bio book about me ...my early years, my entry into the comic book world, my art and stories for E.C., my 29 years as editor of Mad, and my current fine art...would be great! Individual bio books about the other guys would be great too, of course (I know of one book in the works about Bernie Krigstein that is being written by his nephew!).
JVH: Do you agree there's a lot more of the E.C. story (stories) that should be told?
AF: Ahhhh...now you have hit upon a sore spot with me. The true story of my influence over Bill Gaines in the early years... which led to the successful creation of the E.C. line... my autonomous rule over Mad ...after I took over from Harvey Kurtzman at 375,000 copies quarterly (if he made the deadlines) and my consequently turning the magazine into an American icon with sales of 2,800,000 8 times a year, with 250 paperback reprint and original titles, 4 "annuals", and 11 foreign editions ...was totally suppressed by Bill Gaines after my retirement... writing me out of the E.C. and Mad "histories". Only now are the true stories and the proper credits coming to light.
JVH: I know I was sure surprised when I began learning how extensive your roles were in the formation and literal creation of E.C. and Mad. And some of the mis-placed accolades make my blood boil. You were E.C.. Bill was your fan ! Why , I oughtta' … Oh. S orry 'bout all this ramblin'.... heh heh.......
AF: Sorry about mine! heh heh.......
JVH: Guestbook's ready!! ( http://oeonline.com/~canovan/ )
AF: I signed it!
JVH: Mr. Feldstein, I know you've resented Bill Gaines at times (...and I can't blame you) ... but it is Harvey Kurtzman (editor of Mad during the first few years) who has always stuck in my craw. Bill was way too good to the likes of 'em !! ......just my opinion.
AF: Ahhhh......you have touched on another sore point with me. Throughout my career as Editor of Mad (1956-1984), I was never able to overcome the cult-myth reputation of Harvey Kurtzman... who failed miserably at being able to Edit/Publish another successful Mad-type magazine/imitation once he left the creative, brainstorming, competitive, advisory, chiding, and encouraging atmosphere of E.C. I painfully remember many articles about Mad published in the '70's (N.Y. Times Sunday Magazine, etc.), about it's influence on America's youth through the late '50's and '60's (well after Harvey had left and I'd taken over!)...and never mentioning me, but crediting Harvey for its success. Harvey was a great talent I will be the first to admit... which is why I convinced Bill to hire him, gave him work in my books, encouraged Bill to give him his own titles ("Two-Fisted Tales" and "Frontline Combat") and suggested that his third title be an "adult" humor book, even to the title, recommending THAT from phrases used by the Cryptkeeper, Old Witch, etc., like "Welcome to my E.C. mad mag, 'Tales From...'" that we should call it "E.C.s MAD Mag"...which Harvey (rightly so) shortened to "Mad". His initial efforts were to humorize the story genres being published by E.C. in its other titles, i.e. a funny sci-fi story, a ridiculous horror story, etc.. It wasn't until I chided him to humorize more recognizable comic book properties, i.e. "The Lone Ranger" ("The Lone Stranger), "Superman" ("Superdooperman"), etc., that the magazine began to show some promise. And further chiding on my part pushed him into satirizing other subjects throughout Americana. My own magazine, "Panic," an admitted imitation of Mad, was a hastily-written-and-edited (one week, as opposed to Harvey's 8-week, later 4-week schedule) that foreshadowed my future success with MAD. It is interesting that, in the annuls of fandom, Harvey (due to his cult-myth following) and Bill (due to his publishing successful magazines created by others) and Wally Wood (whom I encouraged to break loose from the clutches of Harry Harrison and start working for me on his own as an individual talent) are all in the "Will Eisner Comic Hall of Fame"...and I have never been awarded that honor. Such is life. However, I am happily retired, living on a 270 acre ranch here in Montana, and doing my fine art thing ...thanks to my "Cash and Credit" arrangement with Bill Gaines (He paid me "Cash"...and he took the "Credit"!).
JVH: Believe me Al, I'm not the only bozo who's been able to read between the lines on all this crap. You'll get your due. The final book hasn't been written.
AF: Yeh, but I'm 73... and fading fast!
JVH: Too bad it has to take a hunnert years.......but that's history for you !!...........
AF: Not much consolation!
JVH: ...........It's incredible the contribution you've made to comic books. the writing....the art..... innovation, story messages, imagination....surprises.................. hell, I'm frustrated myself !! Speaking of writing, ....did you get to read my "biography" of The Old Witch ??!
AF: Yes, I did.....and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's funny, but when I created The Old Witch and the other two GhouLunatics, I never contemplated their biographical past.....so it was fun reading your version.
JVH: Great. Thank you so much for spending this time and sharing. I can't tell you how much this means to me as a fan. Best wishes and take care, Al.
AF: Take care yourself, and keep me posted on any scuttlebutt you hear about E.C. and/or me. I've been invited to the 2000 San Diego ComicCon as an honored guest (It's E.C.'s 50th Birthday/Anniversary!)...so who knows?! MAD-ly yours, Al Feldstein
Conversations with an
Jim Vanhollebeke: Al, I recently discovered an interview with William Gaines (Qua Brot #1) in which he stated his hopes of getting together with you to put together ..."ONE MORE WHOPPING ISSUE of Tales From The Crypt, just to get it out of my system". This was, perhaps, 1985. He’d hoped it to be his final comment on (and to) the code. He had the artists picked out and a bunch of story ideas to "spring" at you! I'll bet you know about this interview but I wanted to tell you JUST IN CASE you didn't. You guys! Wotta’ team!
AL FELSTEIN: No...I’m not familiar with the interview you quoted. I retired as Editor of MAD on Dec. 31st, 1984. My leaving MAD was not very well accepted by Bill...and our relationship was rather strained. I suspect that his statement was pure BS...since he knew that I would not be receptive to such a project. However, I would be interested in having a copy of what he actually said.
JVH: No problem.
AF: Thank you. I'm curious!
JVH: Al, I can't help thinking, in reading between the lines (through these years of interviews) ...that Bill had a quiet sadness that you guys had somehow drifted into irretrievable and discordant positions.
AF: No doubt about it. Bill, for some reason, had suddenly decided to extract himself from our plotting/writing team well before E.C. was crippled and destroyed by the Comics Code. I really believe that Lyle Stuart, his business manager and a manipulating individual, had convinced him that what he was doing was not what a "Publisher" should be doing...that there were plenty of writers out there that I could use, either as collaborators or as an Editor...hence the arrival upon the E.C. scene of Jack Oleck, Dan Keyes, Carl Wessler, etc., etc. ... writers that I hired and developed, then re-wrote/edited their scripts directly to the art boards. When the Code Authority doomed E.C., and Bill had to drop all of his titles and fire me (along with most of the other artists), and all he had left was MAD and Harvey Kurtzman and the MAD staff, and he'd been crucified before the public on TV as a monster/comic book publisher, it had been a terrible, ego-shattering blow. Then, when Harvey engineered his own firing (so he could run off and join Hugh Hefner with no guilt (after talking Bill and his Mother into saving MAD by paying off the debts they were stuck with from the Leader News, our Distributor's, bankruptcy!) by demanding 51% control of MAD, forcing Bill to fire him, Bill then had to come, hat in hand, to ask me to come back to work for him as MAD's Editor...it was even more humiliation. And the worst was, that as MAD became more and more successful, and his sole function as Publisher was to write checks and handle "business", being completely left out of the "creative process" because he really had no "feel" for "MAD", it was an even further ego-deflation for him. But even more devastating was his early and premature sale of the magazine for a capital gains deal, before MAD really took off...and his pacifying me with a "Percentage of the Gross" work contract, rather than share the sale proceeds with me... which, after MAD's sales exploded, resulted in me as Editor earning more than he as Publisher! I really believe that he began to resent me and my success, both with the magazine and financially.
JVH: I'm sure it's complicated and the fact that you have been under reported by some historians certainly hasn't helped. But Bill seemed to settle into a downcast when he spoke of you. As if his memory of you and him creating those stories were the REAL MEAT of his existence and it was all gone.
AF: Correct. That was the period when he felt the most self-worth, when he was "participating" in the creative process and the resultant success of E.C.
JVH: I'm sure he had some regrets and feelings of guilt. We all do.
AF: Regrets, perhaps! But I'm not sure what he felt "guilty" about...unless you mean being personified as a terrible, greedy, unconscienceable publisher who was destroying America's youth. Certainly, there were no feelings of guilt on his part as far as I was concerned. After all, he was paying me very well, as per my contract. He even used to go around bragging (as a result of MAD's phenomenal success) that I was the highest paid Editor in the world (an exaggeration; Henry Luce, Harold Ross and Hugh Hefner were certainly making much more than me!).
JVH: Good points. Only you know whether my perceptions are valid ..but I still feel that Bill missed you (even before you left). I'm hoping also that he was, perhaps, a tad more honorable then your reservations about him might lead you to suspect.
AF: If that were true, why was there a conscious effort on his part made, after my retirement, to write me out of the history of E.C. and MAD?! When I retired, Bill made himself believe that I was leaving because my wife had terminal cancer. Which, if he'd thought it through, would have been really idiotic on my part...to leave a high-paying job so that I could be with my wife 24/7 until she died...because after she'd passed on, that would be the time when I would have needed my job the most! No...there were many much more important reasons why I chose to leave, which, at the beginning, I chose to keep to myself. However, when E.C. Comics (and I point out that it was "E.C. Comics"! Not Bill Gaines!)...when E.C. Comics was inducted into the "Horror Hall of Fame", Bill didn't even have the courtesy to invite me to join him at the TV Dinner/Awards Ceremony/Show. Me! Who'd created "The Cryptkeeper", "The Vaultkeeper", "The Old Witch" and the whole E.C. story-writing/art approach! And when he accepted the statuette, he off-handedly thanked his editors, his writers...and then singled out Lyle Stuart by name. Not me by name. Not Johnny Craig by name. Lyle Stuart...who had advised him to demand an appearance before the televised Kefauver Senate Committee's Investigation Into Juvenile Delinquency (which I violently opposed!), wrote his speech for him, and then failed (or refused) to sit by his side and help him to answer the questions that crucified him after its delivery. Bill felt that that award and induction into the "Horror hall of Fame" was his personal vindication! His and Lyle's! When Maria Riedlebach spent three days on the phone, interviewing me while researching her book "Completely MAD", I told her everything...including all of my reasons for leaving (the first time I'd ever told anyone!). Several months later, she called me to profoundly apologize...to tell me that she couldn't use most of what I'd said...because Bill wouldn't permit it to be printed...and because she needed his complete approval of the manuscript so that she could obtain the rights to the reprinting of the copyright MAD material...without which, her book couldn't exist. And that's when Al Feldstein really began to disappear from the history of E.C. and MAD... until I started granting interviews and accepting invitations to conventions. Here. See what I mean? (Al produces a clipping of USA TODAY article “For 50 years MAD Gladly Snubs Authority” dated 3-18-02. The article celebrates the 50 year history of Mad - mentioning Kurtzman, Gaines, and Meglin as the key figures. Feldstein’s omission is obvious.)
JVH: Al, I hope you'll pardon the rose colored glasses. I know it was horrible of Gaines to "cut you out" of the legend that EC has become. But that was after "the divorce", I’m thinking, when he was hurt that you’d left him.
AF: No, it started before "the divorce"...when Bill realized exactly why I'd retired! He then cut me out of the 1987 "60 Minutes" tribute to MAD Magazine... insisting that it just be limited to the then current staff. I had been contacted by "60 Minutes" to set up an interview with me, to which I agreed. When they never got back to me, I called to find out what was happening, and they gave me the bad news.
JVH: In fact I believe you'll notice that in the interview I’ve referred to, he declares that everything in MAD is you. You run the show from top to bottom. He gives you all the credit, …possibly the highest praise you'll read!
AF: When was this interview given? Before I retired, no doubt! But after I retired, his song changed to silence! And everybody went along with it. Witness Dick De Bartolo's book...where I'm not even mentioned once in the text. And the "MAD About The 60's...70's... and 80's" Reprint Softcover Books, where I wasn't even invited to comment about those years...when everything they'd reprinted had gone through my typewriter! Even Grant Geissman, who wrote the introductions to those books, was instructed (he has reluctantly admitted to me!) not to contact me for my perspective on those years.
JVH: I am very disappointed with these people. I guess their hands were tied. Sure can't blame you for feeling stiffed. I know I would.
AF: Their hands were tied by WHO? D.C.?! No, there's more to it than that. When I announced to Bill that I was retiring...after his initial shock...he asked me who I thought should be my replacement, and I answered without hesitation, "John Ficarra!" (Knowing I planned to retired, I'd been training John ever since I'd hired him to replace Jerry DeFuccio. I was convinced that Nick Meglin, whom I'd worked with for over twenty years, although extremely talented creatively, was not disciplined enough nor impartial enough to do the job.) "I can't do that to Nick," Gaines answered. "He has seniority...he's been with us for over 25 years!" And so Bill's solution was to appoint them "Co-Editors"...which I violently opposed. And Nick, learning of all this, has had it in for me ever since. He has gleefully taken up the "erasure" program that Bill instituted.
JVH: Yes, of course. MAD'ning ...But ...it's gonna change! Just a matter of time. Nobody's hands can be tied anymore. WE'LL SHOW'EM!!
JVH: …Of course, Bill later told everyone you had to retire to be with your (late) wife. Don't you agree he was saving face?
AF: Perhaps. He may have actually believed it... until he realized differently.
JVH: Maybe that’s why he was so hurt. I want to think that Bill was your biggest fan (next to me, naturally).
AF: He was, during our glory days. And I was his ...until the middle 70's and early '80's, when we began to differ on MAD strategy.
JVH: I’m sure Bill contributed very little as a "business" man or "writer" but …
AF: Wrong! He was an astute "business" man!
JVH: …but he was a FAN. He encouraged and cheered ~ didn’t interfere with you and "the gang". He financed the launch of the ship and tied himself to the hull (for better or worse). Gosh. When you think about it, that's a lot!
AF: Absolutely! Because he was an astute businessman...he made the right moves! He nurtured talent... gave us our heads... and reaped the rewards! First, financially... and then as an image!
JVH: I’m amazed at your recall on all these details. Your memory is sharper than my computer. If God exists....his name MUST be Feldstein!
AF: If God exists, I wouldn't have to "ramble" like I do!
JVH: I want you to know ...any thoughts you express to me … if you would like them shared, I will be willing.
AF: Anything that I say to you is yours... to do with what you like. It's all the truth as I see it.
JVH: Again, I know a complicated tale such as this cannot be put "in a nutshell”...so many influences. So many interpretations. Motives. Trust, mistrust. Fear, Horror …
AF: You're so right! That's why "The MAD World of William Gaines" is such a farce!
JVH: But, I know this: Yer' number ONE!
AF: Thank you ...but with MAD, I had a lot of help from a lot of talented people, a great staff, fantastic artists and most importantly, superb socially-conscious writers!
JVH: From the LIGHTER NOTE DEPT.: As I sit here, the burning question that refuses to subside ~ In the EC pre-code days, Did the ghoulunatics actually have individual personalities?? I can't recall for sure that they did. It seems as though their personalities were interchangeable. And yet I never came to that (semi)conclusion 'til I was well into my 30's and have wondered about it ever since!
AF: When I first created The Three GhouLunatics, writing and drawing my own stories for them, I really attempted (ineffectively, I must admit in retrospect!) to infuse them each with distinctive personalities. And I really believe, when I surrendered "The Vaultkeeper" to Johnny Craig, that he effectively expanded VK's! But it was difficult delineating personalities when all you're doing is an opening "intro" balloon...and a closing "sign off" balloon. The development of all those atrocious "pun" comments was, I think, an attempt to at least demonstrate that all was tongue-in-cheek on their parts, and that each had a sense of humor...which our fanatic critics, when the deluge came, sadly lacked!
JVH: Ain’t THAT the truth! If I may ramble , in your present career, your western paintings are beautiful. The bright colors and emphasis on lighting and contrast, also, a feeling that the scenes are 'captured MOMENTS' as well as great art. You can't cease to amaze me!
AF: They're for sale, you know! Also "Cover-Revisited" paintings. (I can send you some sample jpegs of them if you haven't seen any!...chuckle, chuckle)
JVH: I would love that. I’m afraid “samples” is the only word in my budget allowance! THANKS. Have you ever thought about doing a periodic Internet SATIRE newsletter? With your wit, it's a shame not to unleash it here and there.... in an unpressured venue of some kind. Autobiographical .......political .......historical ........ philosophical ... photos with YOUR captions or comments ......anecdotes ......cartoons. HECK! Did I just describe MAD?
AF: Hey, fella! I'm supposed to be retired! As it is, I'm being kept busy doing all these furshlugginer "E.C. Cover-Revisited" paintings! I just can't escape my past!
JVH: RETIRE? YOU??!! Who you kidding. Retire! You probably can't even slow down! But I DO miss the satire. YOU started it. Can you really walk completely away??
AF: I guess I never did!
JVH: Random thought: KURTZMAN was a jackass.
AF: No comment!
JVH: He's lucky that poor Will Elder stuck with him. ( Unlucky for Will, who was a genius in his own right.)
AF: I attempted to lure Elder away from Kurtzman's self-destructive clutches on many occasions during my Editorship of MAD...with no success!
JVH: Incidentally, my selection of the word "jackass" was a SECOND choice. Being a kid and all, I am too shy to use the "F" word.
AF: What word is that? "Funny"?!
JVH: Of course! As always, THANK YOU for the immeasurable hours of entertainment and inspiration. Did I ever tell you? I was proudest of your SCIENCE FICTION work too! God ...but those stories could mess with your mind!
AF: Glad you liked it.
JVH: Thanks again for your time and candor, sir. My appreciation in closing can only be described in a loving signature from a little fan to his big hero: “Potzrebie, ~jimmy vanhollebeke, 15 going on 57”
AF: MAD-ly yours! ~Al Feldstein, 75 and fading fast …
POSTSCRIPT: About a month after this interview, Mr. Feldstein’s desire to tell his side of the story received a new setback. After collaborations on a forthcoming book about him reached a stalemate, he released the following timely statement :
About the author
Jim Vanhollebeke is an occasional writer and recording artist in Michigan. His writings have varied from humorous fiction to science research but are professionally limited to his reputation as an Elvis writer, most notably a 12 year run with his ForElvisFansOnly column in Goldmine (and later Discoveries) magazines. He was always in awe of the writing and innovative satire contained in the legendary E.C. comic books of the 50's. Its influence on his writing style is often evident. Also an Elvis Presley sound-alike singer, Jim has released several albums and loves to brag that he is mentioned in several books about Elvis (!).
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