83. MAD-LY GETTING PIN-UPS
ORLDANDO MEGA-CON, February 24-26th, 2006
The exciting, funnest part of the weekend for me was my experience with Al Feldstein. I assumed he would only have occasional scheduled signings, for an hour here and an hour there, and that would be it. I was surprised to see he didn't have mobs of fans five people deep all around him. No lines. No nothin'. He had a premium, spacious booth, right by the entrance, and was just sitting there all weekend.
I introduced myself and showed him my humongous treasury and asked him about commissions. He gave the same reply I'd gotten from his representative who mans his website: He's only doing landscape paintings, which he frames up really nice and charges thousands of dollars for. I pressed by asking about pen-and-ink commissions. He said he hasn't done comics work in fifty years. I had known all this coming into the conversation, and didn't expect any other answer. I was just excited to have some time to speak with him, so I visited some more. He talked about living through the McCarthy hearings, but feeling our current political climate is worse, because now the politicians are trying to change the constitution. I made one last inquiry before leaving, about if he might have time to do a sketch since it was kind of quiet today. He said, so how much do you pay all these other guys? He suggested a price which I found very fair, considering he was giving me permission to publish it. He told me he'd need paper.
WOW! I was surprised and ecstatic! I ran back to the artists alley, and timidly asked my neighbor there for some paper. Rushed it back to Al. When I checked back later, he had drawn a great pencil sketch of "RIP, EC," with a corpse coming out of a grave. I went back to Elizabeth, beaming. I said, you know, I'm going to ask him for another. I went back, and he said, What like a space ship, maybe? I thought that was great.
I went back to my table and told Elizabeth it was perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and maybe he wouldn't be interested, but I felt like I was hitting it off with him, and I was considering actually asking Al to dinner. Not long afterwards, he walked by (on the way to the bathroom. My most effective way of meeting people at cons, it seems!) I stopped him, introduced him to Elizabeth, and asked if he'd like to join us for dinner, and he agreed!
When we met him at his booth at the end of the day, he had started my second sketch, and it looked just like an EC sci-fi cover, with a planetary landscape, a spaceship, and some astronauts. But no giant monster. I asked him about it, and he said, “No, no giant monsters. He asked if I knew what they used to call monsters in the EC Comics. BEMs. Bug-eyed monsters. He'd already gotten the composition lain out, so my sketch wouldn't have any BEMs.
That night, there was a party at a local comics shop. We decided to check it out, because it had food, and then maybe go to dinner after, if we still needed to eat.
We walked in, and Al spotted some EC reprints on the shelves, and picked them up and flipped through them, and showed Elizabeth some of his covers. We visited with the owners of the store, who rushed up and introduced themselves. He talked about back when these classic comics were being published, the post office would give shipping discounts if books met a certain set of rules, including a limited number of ads, and a guaranteed two pages of text, which explained the two-page text stories in each issue. He was making fun of them. He didn't care much about them, because he knew no one would read them anyways, so he said they were all garbage, just for obligatorily written by who-knows-who for the discount.
He talked about not seeing any royalties for his EC books, because on the back of each page, acceptance of his paycheck meant giving all rights for the art, as well as the art itself, to the publisher. But he said for him, the money he initially made on the book was worth more than the fortune in royalties the publisher later got, because it allowed him to pay his rent. He spoke a little about getting called to make a statement for the McCarthy hearings, I assume because his works were "causing the delinquency of minors."
We went to the back of the shop and sat down. I asked him about why he quit drawing and did all the writing, and if he missed doing the art when he switched over. He said he did. He said originally, he was one of the few writers in the EC stable who wrote his own stories, and Bill Gaines liked what he had been doing. So Gaines asked if Al could write other artists' stories. Al told him he couldn't afford to, because writers got a lesser pay than the artists. He needed some of the artist pay to supplement, so Gaines said he'd give him editorial duties as well. Bill also said he'd help him come up with stories.
Apparently Bill had a weight problem, so he took diet pills to try and lose the weight. These pills back then had these weird sleeplessness side-effects, and kept Gaines up all night, so he would be up all night pacing and reading, and "getting inspiration" (stealing?) from other novels, coming up with these bizarre stories, and writing and writing, all night. And then he and Al would use all these ideas and write all the EC stories.
Al said he didn't create MAD Magazine, but that he edited it for fifty years. He said he created Tales from the Crypt.
He said he enjoyed us asking him about his career and talking about his history, even though he'd given plenty of interviews, and all the info he was sharing with us was in plenty of books. He's trying to get an autobiography coffee table book, with lots of samples of his art. He's had some trouble getting permission to reprint the art. One deal was that he could only use the art if he agrees to let them have rights to edit anything he may have to say. He said he wasn't interested in a deal like this. Supposedly this is the agreement Krigstein made to have his coffee table book released by Fantagraphics.
We had a nice dinner back at the hotel, where once again we saw Allison, Adam, and Howard. As we left I asked Al again about a BEM in the sketch. He said, "I already told you there's no room for it in the picture. Pretend the BEM is behind you." I felt like maybe I was beginning to irritate him, but my book's theme is giant monsters, so why wasn't he putting a giant monster in the sketch?
Next morning, at breakfast, we saw Allison and Adam, Nick Cardy, who said he was still thinking about an idea for the monster pin-up, and Sal Buscema, who I thought was so sweet and friendly.
Al delivered a gorgeous sci-fi pin-up. He asked if I wanted it personalized, and I said, "Well, I was thinking about what you said last night. Could you have a voice bubble for one of the guys, saying, "Behind you! A BEM!" " He turned away and kind of shook his head and rolled his eyes. "Too corny?" I asked. "Yeah." He said, "You really want a BEM, huh? All right, get me another piece of paper."
Al told me he never does convention sketches, but added with a twinkle in his eye that he was finding them so lucrative that he couldn't pass them up. He even told other people that I was basically responsible for his charging so much for pin-ups. But I said then and I'll say it now: He deserves it. He's arguably (in my opinion) one of maybe three of the most important historical figures in the history of comics still living from that era. He deserves it.
Elizabeth picked up this third pin-up from his table. When she came back, she said, "Honey, I think you're going to like this." She brought it face down. I flipped it over. What a BEM! Gorgeous. I went back to Al and told him this last one made me speechless. They were all gorgeous. He said I didn't have to pay for this one if I didn't want to. He said it was for Elizabeth and the baby. I told him I had money in my pocket. "Well, all right, give me the money!" he laughed. He deserved it. Gorgeous!
We shared another cab with Adam and Allison on the second night. I asked Adam how he got into comics. He said he made up his mind he would give comics a try, and if he didn't get into the industry within three years, he would learn a trade. It was a New Year's Resolution, and he found work within three days! It's pretty rare you hear a success story like that. But his talent is pretty rare, too.
Overall, we ended up doing all right sales-wise at this con. The first day was REALLY slow, and I had thought it was going to be our worst convention, to be beat out only by my pathetic bookstore signings. But it wound up in the higher level. I'm telling you, having ten dollar books really makes a difference.
But even if it had been a complete flop with sales, the con was SO great. Getting pin-ups from Sal Buscema and Nick Cardy, and THREE from Al Feldstein! Sharing a cab with Adam Hughes! HAVING DINNER with AL FELDSTEIN! What a FUCKING great trip!