Al Feldstein was a groundbreaking comic book editor and artist, and one of the mainstays of EC Comics. He had a remarkable career with Bill Gaines' company, first as an artist, writer and editor for seven of the horror and science fiction titles of EC's "New Trend", and then as the longtime editor-in-chief of MAD Magazine.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Albert Bernard Feldstein was the son of a Russian immigrant father and an American mother. He picked up drawing at an early age, and it were his mother and his elementary school teacher who encouraged him to pursue his artistic ambitions. He won a couple of art contests while still a youngster, but initially had the ambition to become a doctor. The family's financial funds didn't allow such an expensive education, since his father had lost his dental lab during the depression. Thus, Al Feldstein enrolled at the High School of Music and Art. After his education, he started working in the comic book industry as an apprentice at Jerry Iger's shop in 1941. He cleaned up pages pencilled by Reed Crandall, Rafael Astarita and Bob Webb, and did all sorts of chores. He eventually got the opportunity to ink and draw some backgrounds on the 'Sheena, Queen of the Jungle' feature for Fiction House.
While attending Brooklyn College by day, he took night classes from the Art Students League. He was in the Air Force during World War II, and created the comic strip 'Baffy' for the Blytheville Air Force base newspaper. He was also assigned to draw informational posters and slides, and paint service club murals, while additionally painting custom designs on pilot's flight jackets. After his discharge he briefly went back to Iger before turning freelance. He worked as an artist and packager for companies like Fox Comics on such teenage titles as 'Junior', 'Sunny' and 'Meet Corliss Archer'. He was an inker on Fiction House features like 'Hooks Devlin', 'Kayo Kirby' and 'Sky Girl', and also worked on stories for Ace Periodicals ('Hap Hazard', 'Super Mystery'), Aviation Press ('Flight Class'), Universal Phoenix Features ('Seven Seas Comics') and Quality Comics ('Dollman').
Feldstein joined Bill Gaines' EC Comics in February 1948, and stayed with this company until his retirement in 1984. He was initially assigned to set up a teenage comic book called 'Going Steady with Peggy', but the title was dropped before the first issue was published. Instead, he drew stories for crime and western comic books like Saddle Justice, Crime Patrol and War Against Crime!. During this period, Feldstein also started writing his own stories, and developed a steady bond with publisher Gaines. He would further develop his scriptwriting in EC's famous line of horror, science fiction and suspense comics, which is known as "The New Trend". These comic books stood out for their groundbreaking subject matters, clever plot twists and high quality artwork, in which the artists were free to work in their own style.
But before the official launch of the New Trend comic books, Feldstein and Gaines started printing horror stories in the crime comic books Crime Patrol and War Against Crime!. Within a couple of issues, the titles were renamed to Tales from the Crypt (1950-1955) and The Vault of Horror (1950-1955), respectively, while Gunfighter became The Haunt of Fear (1950-1954). In addition to editing the three horror titles, Feldstein oversaw the production of Weird Science (1950-1953), Weird Fantasy (1950-1953), Crime SuspenStories (1950-1955) and Shock SuspenStories (1952-1955).
Feldstein and Gaines drew most of their inspiration from horror radio shows like 'Inner Sanctum', 'The Witches Tale' and Arch Oboler's 'Lights Out', and from the collections of horror and sci-fi stories of the time. They sometimes took plotlines from these pulp novels, changed them, and turned them into comic stories. Short stories by science fiction writer Ray Bradbury were also "borrowed" for EC's fantasy titles. But instead of making a big deal out of it, Bradbury merely suggested they used more of his work, although with a byline and a small financial compensation. According to Feldstein himself, his own writing improved because of the involvement of Bradbury. Unlike other scriptwriters, Feldstein wrote his scripts directly on the boards that would be given to the artists, often resulting in complaints for his copious captions and balloons.
During the height of the New Trend, Feldstein wrote four stories a week, based on plot ideas ("springboards") by Gaines. Along with his editing work, it is no surprise that Feldstein eventually dropped his own drawing activities. Although slightly stiff, Feldstein's horror art was in fact very effective and creepy, and trend-setting for EC's horror line, since most of the early covers were by him. He continued to do some of the science fiction covers, while leaving the story art to the capable hands of EC's other artists. The core of the New Trend artist team consisted of Johnny Craig, Graham Ingels, Wallace Wood, Reed Crandall, Frank Frazetta, Jack Kamen, Al Williamson, Joe Orlando, George Evans, Harvey Kurtzman, Jack Davis, John Severin, Bill Elder and Bernie Krigstein.
In 1952, EC had additionally launched a humor comic book called MAD, which was edited by Harvey Kurtzman. Its success prompted Gaines to launch a second humor title in 1954. Feldstein wrote all of the stories for the first six issues, but he admitted he couldn't give it the attention he wanted to because of his heavy workload. Jack Mendelsohn and Nick Meglin were brought in as additional writers, but the title lasted only twelve issues. It was around the same time that the horror and crime comic books had to be dropped because of the introduction of the highly restrictive Comics Code, which was a result from the condemning book 'Seduction of the Innocent' (1954) by psychologist Dr. Frederic Wertham.
Feldstein helped Gaines to make the transition from the New Trend to EC's New Direction comic books and the Picto-Fiction books with illustrated short stories in 1955. Feldstein served as editor for Impact, Valor, Psychoanalysis and M.D., but all these titles lasted only a couple of months. He was forced to try his luck as a freelancer again, and did some scriptwork for features like 'Yellow Claw' for Stan Lee at Atlas. However, Harvey Kurtzman had left MAD in 1956, taking with him most of the artists that worked for him. Feldstein was asked to save the title, which had survived the censorship wave because it was turned from a comic book into a magazine in 1955.
Feldstein remained with MAD Magazine for 29 years, and made it into the title it is today. He gathered a new artist team around him, called "The Usual Gang of Idiots". With artists like Don Martin, George Woodbridge, Mort Drucker, Norman Mingo, Kelly Freas, Bob Clarke, Dave Berg, Al Jaffee, Angelo Torres, Sergio Aragonés and Antonio Prohias, many of the magazine's classic features came to life, such as Berg's 'Lighter Side', the fold-ins, the movie parodies and 'Spy vs. Spy'. Although Feldstein was heavily criticized by a group of Kurtzman aficionados, MAD's circulation was over a million during the 1960s, and it doubled in the 1970s with over two million copies sold per issue. A ferocious worker and inventive creative, Feldstein was also strong on the business side. He even managed to receive a percentage of the profits, which made him, according to Gaines, "the highest paid editor in the world."
In late 1984, Al Feldstein retired. He sold his home in Connecticut, settled in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and later bought a ranch near the Yellowstone River in Livingston, Montana. He spent his time making fine art paintings which depicted Western life, while also attending comic-book conventions as a featured guest. He briefly came back to the field of comics in 1997 to draw covers for the comic book series 'Tomb Tales', published by Cryptic Comics. He has also returned to his early EC years in a so-called series of "EC Revisited" paintings in the early 1990s. He was awarded an honorary Doctorate of the Arts degree by Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana, and was inducted into the Will Eisner Hall of Fame in 2003. Al Feldstein passed away at the age of 88 in his home in Livingston, Montana, on 29 April 2014.