Don Martin

Remembering the Mad magazine cartoonist who created characters like Fester Bestertester and Karbuncle, yet still had the time to invent National Gorilla Suit Day.

Published January 15, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Don Martin, the former Mad magazine cartoonist, was no A.A. Milne. His characters, Fonebone and Fester Bestertester among them, bore no resemblance to Winnie the Pooh. But news of Martin's death from cancer last week at age 68 certainly gave me a Christopher Robin moment. I'm sure I'm not alone.

The poignant coda of the Pooh books suggested that, long after we children grow up to become indifferent adults, our childhood fantasy worlds live on in some lonely forest glade, patiently awaiting our return.

Hearing Don Martin's name again (in the usual unfortunate circumstances that cause long-forgotten names to reappear) was like awakening from a dream. How did I manage to so thoroughly and completely forget the man whose comic sensibilities ruled my grade school world?

Not every '60s kid discarded Martin cartoons, and Mad in general, with their lunchboxes and GI Joes (not every '60s kid discarded their lunchboxes and GI Joes either, which is why some are now wealthy and some cursing Mom for cleaning their rooms). But for every reader who stayed loyal, many more dropped William M. Gaines' impish publication and reinvented themselves as sophisticated '70s National Lampoon readers. A lot of what filled the pages of Mad was better off forgotten. But in our rush to grow up, we unfairly tossed Don Martin out with the bath water.

Martin sold his first cartoon to Mad in 1956 and his work appeared in the magazine for over 30 years. His creations -- slouching, lantern-jawed schleps all -- were generally belligerent, moronic or both. Mostly, though, they were unfortunate. If for any reason there happened to be a fish in the air, it was certain to make a sudden stop at someone's face, accompanied by one of Martin's trademark sonic re-creations -- "Spladap," perhaps. (A particular favorite: "Foinsapp" -- the sound made when a man is smacked with a saw.) It's not surprising that Gary Larson has identified himself as a fan. Don Martin's cartoons lacked the cleverness of "The Far Side," but both men clearly displayed a love of absurdity and anarchic mayhem.

"There's always been physical suffering in comedy," Martin once said. Slapstick violence was a large part of Martin's work, but not the whole show. He was also the man who invented National Gorilla Suit Day. Peeved at the serfdom required by the Mad empire, where Gaines retained all rights to work published in the magazine, Martin began creating his own books on the side in 1962. Eventually his books sold over 7 million copies.

I had the one that featured National Gorilla Suit Day. As I recall, the story centered on peevish Fester Bestertester, his doltish, easily amused companion, Karbuncle, and their activities on that festive holiday occasion, National Gorilla Suit Day. "Everybody knows it's just a ploy by the gorilla suit companies to sell their products," grumps Bestertester.

I'll spare you the details except to say that, as it turns out, almost every organic object on the planet from delivery boys to bananas can be unzipped to reveal a homicidal gorilla. Bestertester is punished for his ill humor by a succession of baboons who pound him into shapes that never cease to astound the affable Karbuncle.(One of Martin's ongoing themes, other than the ability of human flesh to remodel itself with help from fish and frying pans, seemed to be that good-natured idiots will always get through life relatively happy and untouched while curmudgeons invariably attract more than enough misfortune to confirm their pissy worldview.)

The same book told a heartwarming show-biz story of a man who soared to the top thanks to his ability to take an anvil off the skull. Anvils clang off his head from greater and greater heights as his fame spreads. Naturally, life at the top -- cars, gals, champagne -- leaves him soft in the head and, well, you might get away with that in the presidential primaries but not in the anvil-braining trade. More interesting flesh configurations result before a stirring comeback is mounted. I forget how it ends.

From the sound of it, Martin's own denouement was a difficult one, with not even a moist sound effect to accompany it. Serious vision problems forced him to work with a magnifying glass toward the end of his life, and his ongoing financial dispute with the late Gaines drove him over to Cracked magazine in 1987. Gaines, no doubt languishing in Hades as predicted by countless outraged '50s parents, deserves an extra prod with the red-hot pitchfork for forcing on Martin the indignity of appearing in Cracked, the "Battlestar Galactica" of juvenile humor mags.

The New Jersey born-and-raised Martin eventually succumbed to cancer last Thursday in a Miami hospital. At the end, no one even had the decency to smack him in the head with a ball-peen hammer. I feel as though we let him down.

Pass me that banana, would you, Karbuncle, old boy?

By Steve Burgess

Steve Burgess is a Salon contributing writer.

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