Born on May 18, 1931 in Paterson, New Jersey, Martin studied illustration and fine art at Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts between 1949 and 1951 and subsequently graduated from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia in 1952. In 1953, he worked briefly as a window trimmer and frame maker before providing paste-ups and mechanicals for various offset printing clients and beginning his career as freelance cartoonist and illustrator. Martin's work first appeared in Mad in the September 1956 issue.
Martin was often billed as ‘Mad's Maddest Artist’. Whereas other features in Mad, recurring or otherwise, typically were headed with pun-filled ‘department’ titles, Martin's work always was headed with only his name — ‘Don Martin Dept.’ — further fanfare presumably being unnecessary. At his peak, each issue of Mad typically carried three Martin strips of one or two pages each.
Although Martin's contributions invariably featured outrageous events and outright violations of the laws of space-time, his strips typically had unassuming generic titles such as ‘A Quiet Day in the Park’ or ‘One Afternoon at the Beach’. In one four-panel gag, titled ‘One Night in the Miami Bus Terminal’, a man approaches a machine labeled ‘Change’, inserts a dollar bill, and the machine changes him into a woman. In another gag, a man is flattened by a steamroller but is saved by the timely intervention of a concerned passerby, who folds him into a paper airplane and throws him towards the nearest hospital.
Martin's immediately recognizable drawing style (which featured bulbous noses, and the famous hinged foot) was loose, rounded, and filled with broad slapstick. His inspirations, plots, and themes were often bizarre and at times bordered on the berserk. In his earliest years with Mad, Martin used a more jagged scratchy line.
His style evolved, settling into its familiar form by 1964. It was typified by a sameness in the appearance of the characters. The punchline to a strip was often emphasized by a deadpan take with eyes half open and the mouth absent or in a tight small circle of steadfast perplexity and by an endless capacity for newly coined onomatopoetic sound effects, such as ‘BREEDEET BREEDEET’ for a croaking frog, ‘PLORTCH’ for a knight being stabbed by a sword, or ‘FAGROON klubble klubble’ for a collapsing building. Martin's dedication to onomatopoeia was such that he owned avanity license plate which read ‘SHTOINK’, patterned after the style of his famed sound effects.
His characters often had ridiculous, rhyming names such as Fester Bestertester or Fonebone, which was expanded to Freenbean I. Fonebone in at least one strip, as well as Lance Parkertip, Noted Notary Public. In this middle period, Martin created some of his most absurdist work—for example, ‘National Gorilla Suit Day’—an extended narrative in which a hapless character is violently assaulted by a series of attackers in various disguises, including men dressed as gorillas and gorillas dressed as men.
His work probably reached its final peak of quality and technical detail in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In later years, particularly during the 1980s, he let other people write most of his gags, most notably Duck Edwing.
Martin was regarded a quiet man who enjoyed relaxing on the beach near his home in Miami, where he liked slipping into the backgrounds of photographs tourists would take of each other, so when their films were developed they would wonder who the strange man was. Fellow Mad contributor Sergio Aragonés had the same impish habit. Despite his preference for privacy, he delighted in having struggling cartoonists visit his home.
In 1972, after sitting for an interview with The Miami Herald, the newspaper wanted to take a photograph of Martin and his family to accompany the piece. Martin refused. However, he then drew impromptu life sized character masks, which Martin, his wife and children obligingly wore over their faces for the published portrait.
In 2000, he died of cancer in Coconut Grove, Florida at age 68.
The pages selected to this presentation is covering Martin’s career growing from the first page in 1956 to late in the 80es.