On February 14, 2013, Gary Groth interviewed Al Feldstein for Child of Tomorrow (a collection of EC comics drawn by Feldstein). This is the extended version, which may be the Mad editor and EC writer / artist’s last interview.
GARY GROTH: I think you said at one time that Bill Gaines introduced you to science fiction, and prior to that you weren’t really familiar with the genre. Is that correct?
AL FELDSTEIN: Yes, that’s quite true. We had just introduced our horror comics, which I convinced Bill to try, and which checked up pretty well on the introduction of the Crypt-Keeper and his stories and the Vault-Keeper and the Old Witch. He was feeling pretty good about how his success was developing as a publisher and he asked me if I knew anything about science fiction, because he has the science fiction bug — you know, he was a fan of it. And I told him no. So he gave me a couple copies of Astounding Science Fiction, the John Campbell pulp. He said, “Read this and tell me what you think.” And I went home and I read them and I came back and said, “Oh, we can do this.”
He said he’d been wanting to try some science fiction comics. I was aware that the comic book reader was not necessarily at all familiar with true science fiction. They may have read comic book titles with soap opera junk, but it wasn’t straight science fiction, like in the Campbell pulp. So one day he asked me to start with various titles, and I came up with Weird Science and Weird Fantasy
. I introduced them by story, so that the reader would understand what we were talking about at first —with the science fiction type of story. I limited myself to lab stuff. Like robots, the disc sightings that were going on back then. And so we developed it, and the stories became better as we progressed. We educated our reader to science fiction and we enjoyed doing this, Bill and I, in terms of plotting. So he was now using — not only the horror stuff that he wrote springboards for — he read and brought his springboard ideas for the simple science fiction stuff.
GROTH: I’m curious about your working methods, and to what extent Bill Gaines was a collaborator.
FELDSTEIN: H was a collaborator in that he brought in these plot ideas from stories that he’d read. Let me make a preface here: he thought he had insomnia, but he read practically half the night. He was talking diet pills, and in those days the diet pills contained Dexedrine. And so he was wired. He would take them before dinner, and he was wired after dinner, and when he went to sleep, he couldn’t fall asleep, because he had armed himself with the Dexedrine. So he considered himself an insomniac, and he read an awful lot of content and it would give him ideas.
He had talked me into writing — not only my own stuff, which I had been doing — but he wanted me to write all the rest of the stuff for the other guys. Except for, of course, Johnny Craig, who wrote his own. And Kurtzman, who I recommended Bill give some books to do, because he was in an expansive mood and he wanted to expand the line — and I was writing five books at that time. And then he added two more for me, and I had to practically give up most of my hours.
GROTH: Now you mention springboards and I’d like to know what those consisted of. Let me get your routine down: I believe you would write four days out of five.
FELDSTEIN: That’s right, yes.
GROTH: And you would have what I’d call an editorial conference with Bill four days out of five.
FELDSTEIN: And in the morning he’d come in and start telling me the ideas that he had, based on the stuff he read the night before. I had to take into consideration at the time that I was writing full-time, and he had let his freelance writers go. We were now writing ourselves. And he would suggest these story ideas, and I would take into consideration who we were writing for that day, and —
GROTH: So you actually had the artist in mind as you were writing that particular story.
FELDSTEIN: Absolutely. I had to first convince Bill that artists should not be asked to imitate other artists or follow the style of other artists. I felt that every artist should have his own style, and write in his own handwriting, and that would make him individual. And then what I found what I liked to do was write the content based on the ability of the artist. I would not, for example, give walking corpses to Jack Kamen, because his artwork was so clean and illustrative that he did Father Knows Best type of things.
GROTH: You’d want a lot of pretty girls with Kamen.
FELDSTEIN: That’s right. I wouldn’t give Graham Ingels pretty girls to draw, because he just couldn’t do it.
GROTH: How long did they last every morning?
FELDSTEIN: It was all according to how long it took him to get to an idea that excited me and that met my criteria. I know that he used to talk about the knots in his stomach until he convinced me of a particular plot idea that I could flesh out and accept. But actually I was really being careful about who I was writing for and, as far as the time concerned, it was variable.
GROTH: What was the range? How short could it be and how long could it be?
FELDSTEIN: For example, one day I had been fishing over the weekend. Surf-casting at Jones Beach, which was on Long Island, and I got this idea about fish catching humans, laying some sort of bait on the sand and towing them into the water. That took an announcement to [Gaines]: “don’t worry about it, I’ve got a plot,” and I wrote it. Then it could conceivably last a couple of hours until I arrive at something that was satisfactory to me and met the criteria I needed and that seemed to be a good, working story.
GROTH: Al, did you welcome these sessions? Did you enjoy them?
FELDSTEIN: Sure. When he proposed that he wanted to drop his freelance writers and have me write all the stories, I was a little panicked, because I figured I couldn’t think of all the plots that would be necessary. Yes, I wrote my own stuff, and that was part of the beginning — but he wanted me to write for everybody, and so I accepted when he assured me that it would not hurt me financially. And yes, I enjoyed it, because I really enjoyed the writing the stories based on the final plots that Bill and I came up with.
GROTH: So your greater strength was actually crafting the story, rather than engineering the plot.
FELDSTEIN: I would say so, yes. I think the biggest challenge in accepting a plot idea that Bill would go ahead and springboard, was my ability to flesh out the story with character development and incidents that were not included in our discussion. And I would have to come up with — in my solitary time —writing the actual story on storyboards. I felt that I owed it to the reader to present a fully fleshed-out story with character development and plot development on my own.
GROTH: How good was Bill at the back-and-forth when you were in these sessions, helping provide the plot details?
FELDSTEIN: We had a wonderful, very easygoing relationship. We were very good friends. And our goal was the same: to produce a good title that was salable and a little bit above the average in terms of quality of material. And we worked very well together. It wasn’t until Lyle Stuart showed up on the scene — and I don’t know why Bill was attracted to him — when Frank D. Lee decided he had to retire, because he was getting too old to commute from his home in Queens to the office. I don’t know what it was about Lyle that Bill was attracted to, but he permitted the gentleman to destroy our relationship.
GROTH: Really? Now Stuart, was he a business manager?
FELDSTEIN: Yes, he took Frank D. Lee’s place, supposedly as a business manager, but he advised Bill on a lot of things that I disagreed with — for example, his demand for a public appearance at the Kefauver Committee. I was against it. I had been interviewed by the Kefauver Committee in private and I gave them all the reasons why I thought whatever we were doing was good business, and not anything that was malicious: we weren’t trying to turn kids into juvenile delinquents, and all we wanted to do was entertain.
GROTH: Can you tell me how you think Stuart drove a wedge between you and Bill?
FELDSTEIN: Oh, it was all rather subtle. For example, I don’t know how it happened, when he made this decision that he no longer wanted to spend nights reading and to bring in springboards, and that I should work with other writers and give up that particular pattern of creativity that we had worked on for so long. He then announced to me that he was going to give me my own office, one story up, for me to entertain writers and to do my work — and actually the intention, I assume, was to get me out of the office, so I wouldn’t know what’s going on as far Lyle’s advice to him was concerned. I know that Lyle insisted that he demand a public appearance with the Kefauver Committee, so that he could support his horror comics —
GROTH: Definitely not a good idea, as it turned out.
FELDSTEIN: And the thing that really bothered me was that he was left to sit at his desk and present this speech — which was quite an interesting statement of reasons for being a horror publisher which I though was pretty good, that speech was pretty good. But he lacked having Lyle sitting at his side, as any mafia person had a lawyer sitting at his side to help him answer the questions.
GROTH: Now, getting back to your creative relationship with Bill. Did you feel that your creative partnership with Bill was unique, that it was somehow different than just an editor / writer relationship? More intimate, or closer?
FELDSTEIN: I felt that we had a desire to produce really entertaining stuff and we did it with great enjoyment. We used to dash off our plot and I’d have the idea pretty well set in my mind. We used to go out to the Three Cs, which was the local Italian restaurant, and have lunch and talk about anything other than business.
GROTH: I guess like there’s a sexual chemistry, there’s also creative chemistry, and it sounds like you had that chemistry.
FELDSTEIN: I think we did. And I really rued the day when it was starting to devolve.
GROTH: You started writing for EC within a couple of months after you arrived.
FELDSTEIN: I started writing my own stuff almost immediately. Bill’s business manager, Saul Cohen — whose job Frank D. Lee took over when Cohen went to Ace — suggested that they do a teenage book, because teenage stories and titles were doing well (Archie, of course, being the leader). And he got in touch with Jim Wroten, who was our usual letterer. Jim was lettering my books for Fox [Comics], my teenage books, the two of them, but the one-shot introduction to the radio show he lined up [Meet Corliss Archer] and he had me introduce the first book with adapted stories, etc. He was being an advisor.
His father died and Bill reluctantly took, was asked, was ordered, by his mother to take over the business, even though it was really doing badly. He sent for me through our mutual letterer. I was lettering my stories for Fox, and lettering M.C. Gaines’ stuff for his titles, and so I went down and met Bill, and Bill was quite impressed with the sexuality, I guess, of the girls I was drawing.
GROTH: The “headlight comics,” yeah.
FELDSTEIN: “Headlight comics,” a great term. I was amused by that category and we became quite fast friends. But I, in some crazy, nervy way, said if he wanted me to do a book for him, he had to give me a piece of it. And he wrote up a contract like that, with a percentage of the profits — a book called Going Steady with Peggy — I went home after we signed the contract and everything. And was penciling the first story, when he called me up in a panic, and said that he wanted me to come and talk. What he wanted me to do was let him escape from the contract, because I think he came under huge pressure from his mother and EC’s lawyer — that you just don’t give a writer or artist a piece of the magazine, that he was the capitalist and supplied the money and therefore took the risk etc., etc. He told me that — although I don’t think it was true — the teenage market was collapsing from overcrowding (although he was obliged to print three different issues of Going Steady With Peggy) and that, if they didn’t sell well, of course, our relation would be finished. I suspected about Fox, and had heard from various sources, that he was in financial difficulty, and that I had to be very careful to ensure that I was paid, and I did in terms of the PA styles that I did for Fox — and I suggested to Bill that if he would give me work, I would tear up the contract.
GROTH: I see. Now, based on your own political orientation, how did you feel about Bill taking that position, that he was the one putting up capital … ?
FELDSTEIN: He didn’t take the position. It was something that already concluded, had happened in his effort to get out of the contract.
GROTH: Did you think that was fair?
FELDSTEIN: I understood that if it was a collapsing trend and that the books would not sell to produce a profit, my contract was pretty useless, except for what I did in terms of story and art. And also there was the threat that Fox was in financial difficulty and my particular future was in danger, and I was having a youngster, my firstborn, and so it was through all these difficulties that I volunteered to tear up the contract if he would give me work in the books that he was publishing: Gun Fighter and Saddle Justice and Crime Patrol and War Against Crime, and all of those. I started to work for him doing those things, crime stuff and Western stuff. And I insisted that I write my own, so I would get a little more than just 25 dollars a page that he was paying.
GROTH: Now you had not written comics before this, correct?
FELDSTEIN: That’s not true! I was writing the teenage books for Fox. When Fox Arrow introduced me to Victor Fox, because Victor wanted to put out a teenage book, Victor demanded that he was not looking for an artist; he wanted someone to package the whole title. And I said to him that’s great, because my wife — I lied — I said my wife is a writer, and so we would do the package for him. And that’s how I started writing teenage stuff for Junior and Sunny, which were two of the titles that I created for Fox, plus the Corliss Archer adaptations which I introduced him to back over to Fox to sign to him the artist; I could only do the two books that I was doing, one a month.
GROTH: It sounds like you were brimming with confidence in terms of your ability to write, to draw and to package books.
FELDSTEIN: Yes, I was. I was young and crazy. And I was lucky that it all worked out. When I left Jerry Iger’s shop, because I figured that the two pages that I was doing, the page-and-a-half that I was doing a day for him, amounted to about three or four times more than what he was paying me, and I decided to freelance. And I did a lot of freelancing around the industry, and ended up with Sam Singer.
Sam Singer was an animator that had connections at Ace, I was doing some teenage books for him; I didn’t do the writing, but I did do the art. But I saw how easy it was — I knew I could write it. You’re right, I was nervy, and confident, and little bit of a bullshit artist. But in terms of selling myself and in the case of my starting the teenage books for Fox, actually lying about the fact that my wife was a writer and that she’d be writing these books while I was doing the artwork. And we would present a salable package.
GROTH: Those were probably all necessary skills to make a living.
FELDSTEIN: As I told you, I was expecting a child and freelancing was really tough, delivering stories hopefully to get another assignment and all that jazz, so I had a tendency to look for connections that were a little more solid and stable, and continuous.
WRITING SCIENCE FICTION
GROTH: Let me start talking about your science fiction stories that you both wrote and drew. Now, did you go through the same plotting process with Bill for the stories that you drew as well as wrote?
FELDSTEIN: Yes, I think we did. I think that he brought in springboards for the science fiction stuff that he was reading, some of which I rejected, because I felt they were a little too esoteric, and I was looking for a simplified sci-fi story for people — youngsters that were not really into classic science fiction. And the beginning was mostly that kind of thing. But we eventually got into the fancy stuff, time travel and stuff like that.
GROTH: Well, some of them are pretty complicated — like the one with the fourth dimension monster. [“It Was the Monster from the Fourth Dimension.”] You had to pay attention.
FELDSTEIN: Bill and I had lots of chats, and aside from his wanting to present plot ideas for me, we also just kicked around theories, like — where the guy wants save the Titanic, so he goes back in time and actually causes the collision, that kind of stuff [“Sinking of the Titanic”]. But we had a lot of fun doing it! One of the things about Bill and my relationship, and his approach as a publisher was that it was a toy, this business he had to begin with, and he was having fun doing it with me. And we enjoyed the experience, and I think that came across in the content of the book.
GROTH: I think you’re right. In fact, you even drew yourselves into some of the stories.
FELDSTEIN: We started to do that more for fun.
GROTH: I think that reflected how much fun you were having, that you were able to do that.
FELDSTEIN: Yes, and at the same time we drew the readers into our creative process with the letter pages and the fan club, and all that jazz. We were kind of unique in terms of comic book publishing at the time.
GROTH: Now, earlier, you said that you were always aware of who you were writing for; can you tell me who you felt was your ideal reader?
FELDSTEIN: Someone in the 13-to-17 age group. Although we knew that we were getting ex-GIs who had started reading comics in the barracks, and they were still reading them as they were being discharged. And we knew that we had a select audience of the more discerning readers. So we attempted to satisfy them and ourselves by writing just a little of both, the level of comic book writing.
GROTH: And as you said, it got more sophisticated as time went on.
FELDSTEIN: Yeah, right. Maybe too much; I don’t know. Our sci-fi books never sold as well as our horror books, but that’s the choice of the subject matter and the demand of the reader.
GROTH: One thing I wanted to ask you about is that you and Bill took a short story writing class at a New York college.
GROTH: I think Theodore Sturgeon —
FELDSTEIN: We went to see what it was about and how it would help us. He assigned us a story to write, and so we typed up one of our stories that we had already run in one of the titles, and Sturgeon was very impressed until we confessed to our professionalism. But it was a fun experience. And listen: Bill and I used to go to the roller derby and to Brooklyn Dodger games, and I had a marriage that was in trouble, and so I spent a lot of time away from it with him. He was single at the time, having been recently divorced, and so we were not only collaborative in terms of business, but also in terms of pleasure.
GROTH: It sounds like you were pals.
FELDSTEIN: Kinda, yeah. And so it came as shock to me, when he told me that he was going to have dinner at the Arts Students League cafeteria with a guy named Lyle Stuart, who was running this newspaper called The Independent that had exposed Walter Winchell, and had infuriated him. And this was part of the problem that we had with Panic, and the problems we had with Kefauver, because Winchell had a lot of clout. So most of the problems that we got into were really caused by Lyle’s own personal agenda, as far as his muckraking newspaper was concerned.
GROTH: And what was this lunch or dinner about?
FELDSTEIN: Bill wanted to meet Lyle. And at the same time, he understood that Frank D. Lee was going to be retiring, and Saul Cohen had already escaped to Ace. And he was in need of a business manager, and he thought Lyle would be the guy. He had an inexplicable admiration for the man, which I didn’t.
GROTH: Let me get back to the writing course, because what I thought was interesting about it — it that you were professional writers, you and Bill, and it seems like it took a certain amount —
FELDSTEIN: He was a professional plotter. Or a plot stealer. [Laughter.] I was the writer, and did the actual creation of the story at the comic-book end.
GROTH: But you were both pros and it seems to me like it took a certain humility to actually go to a course, and want to learn more about the fine points of writing.
FELDSTEIN: We did that, and in terms of that course …
GROTH: That’s unusual.
FELDSTEIN: Well, I don’t know. Writers didn’t do that?
GROTH: I don’t think so, no. I mean people who made it I don’t think have any interest in educating themselves beyond what they need to do what they’re doing.
FELDSTEIN: I was always aware of the need to educate myself and improve my ability, and Bill was cooperative in that respect.
GROTH: Did you actually learn anything from the class that helped you?
FELDSTEIN: I don’t remember. [Laughter.]
GROTH: Sturgeon is a great writer.
FELDSTEIN: He was. That’s one of the reason we were attracted to take the course.
GROTH: Was he a good teacher?
FELDSTEIN: Actually, I don’t remember much about him, except our submitting the story we already published and his enjoyment of it and our confession of our professionalism.
CARTOONING SCIENCE FICTION
GROTH: Now I’d like to ask you a little about the process in which you wrote and drew your own science fiction stories.
FELDSTEIN: I was writing my own stories for the horror, too. Until, little by little, he wanted me to write more and more, and I had to keep up. Some of the stories that I was doing, the artwork, the entire package, in an effort to fill the need for the writing.
GROTH: You’d have a plot conference with Bill and then, how would you proceed to write and draw — with the stories that you drew yourself — how would you proceed to do that? You would write them on the actual artboards?
FELDSTEIN: Right, and that went for all the stuff I did for the other artists too. I wrote directly on the board and they went to Jim Wroten for lettering, captions and balloons, and then turned over to the artist. So the story was really laid out.
GROTH: When you wrote the text on the actual art boards, did you do sketches on the art boards to indicate where the placement of figures, and that kind —?
FELDSTEIN: No, no. That was one of the outstanding differences between Harvey Kurtzman and me. I never made sketches for the artist to follow in terms of how I wanted it illustrated. On the contrary, I thought that once they read the story blank with the blank panels, that they envisioned it in their own way, and that I tried to encourage.
GROTH: Were the balloons themselves inked when the artist got the work?
FELDSTEIN: Yes. The captions were lettered and the balloons were lettered. The artist did the outline around the balloon and inked the panel, which was all in pencil.
GROTH: If the balloon tails were lettered, that would pretty much dictate the composition that the artist had to —
FELDSTEIN: There were no balloon tails. There was a break in the balloon shape, that the tail could go anywhere in the panel. That was the artist’s own prerogative and mine, of course, with my own.
GROTH: That gave the artist more latitude.
FELDSTEIN: I don’t know whether it was because I felt that I was limited in what I was capable of doing, but I wanted the artist to do whatever they were capable of doing without forcing them to do what I wanted in terms of composition. I disagreed with Harvey completely and there were many artists that did too, but they were forced to satisfy him in order to make a living.
GROTH: So Harvey was more of a control freak than you.
FELDSTEIN: Oh my God, yes! [Laughter.] My control freak was that I wanted them, all of our other artists, to draw in their own handwriting, their own style, and not imitate anybody. And to indulge themselves in their own creativity in terms of illustrating the written dialogue, the words that were presented to them on the pages.
GROTH: It sounds like that was a point of principle for you.
FELDSTEIN: Yes, it was and I think it was a successful philosophy. Because EC comics had a kind of an individualism, which was the product of each of the guys doing their own style.
GROTH: Yeah, that was a very important component of EC.
FELDSTEIN: The book that you’re publishing, of course, is my style of illustrating the stories, and most of them were written at a time when I was doing my own stories before I actually asked by Bill to help by writing the rest of the stuff for the guys until I had to go back to using writers again, after Lyle came by.
GROTH: Your science fiction stories started in June 1950, and go for a year and a half through August 1951.
FELDSTEIN: And that’s when I started writing for other artists, and not so much for myself.
GROTH: How did you feel about writing and drawing your own stories, was that very fulfilling to you?
FELDSTEIN: Oh yeah, I enjoyed that very much. But I also realized that Bill’s desire for me to write for the other artists would be financially good for me, and could be due to — I had expressed a fear that I would cut my income or that I was not able to supply the plots that he wanted me to, but it turned out that we worked very well together, and I was doing very well financially.
GROTH: Let me get back to the process. You would write your stories on the art boards, it would be lettered.
FELDSTEIN: Yeah. There’s no script of any Al Feldstein story in existence, because there was none. These freelance artists and writers that work for the publishers would submit a script, and there would be this script that the artist would follow and lay out and everything like that. That was all usurped by my writing directly onto the illustration board. I’d really look at it before I’d submit it, and I’d drop down two lines of type and wrote the caption in the balloons, so that Jim Wroten could see the writing and letter in in the proper place, and that’s the way it worked.
GROTH: Now Jim Wroten — he used Leroy lettering. Correct?
FELDSTEIN: Yeah, he was a Leroy letterer. He used to work for K&E. Keuffel and Esser. I think it was an engineering supplier or printer or something. And he found or sold or represented the product of an artificial lettering using a stencil. And augmented what K&E had produced as a product for his use in attempting to letter in comics, and he developed this sliding stencil thing. He started an industry on his own. And was doing lettering — I don’t know how he got involved with M.C. Gaines — but when Bill took over his father’s business, he was their official letterer, and so he lettered this stuff that I was writing.
It was interesting that Harvey Kurtzman never liked Leroy lettering, and he insisted when I recommended to Bill that he give Harvey comic book titles to do, like an adventure book or a war book, that he had his own letterer, who did the hand-lettering type of balloons and captions.
GROTH: Did you like the Leroy lettering?
FELDSTEIN: I saw Harvey’s argument, but I was really stuck with it [laughs] for a variety of reasons. Bill was very loyal to everybody that worked for him.
GROTH: Was lettering a full-time job?
FELDSTEIN: It turned out to be for Wroten. Wroten, I think, had has wife [Margaret] writing with him too, and I think he also had a helper, because he was getting Fox’s lettering, and ours.
GROTH: Yeah, with the amount of text you wrote, I can imagine it being more than a full-time job.
FELDSTEIN: It took a lot of time. I don’t really know how he did it.
GROTH: So did you write the stories literally panel by panel? Was that how you constructed the story?
FELDSTEIN: I used to amaze myself, and certainly amazed people who observed my writing, that I’d start at the beginning — I thought it was going to be a six pager, I knew when I had to come down toward the end, and whatever the denouement was on the sixth page, and the eight pager with that much more fleshing out. And it was intuitive. I amaze myself sometimes, that I would end up where I belonged.
GROTH: Did you have to lay out the story panel by panel first and then put in the text?
FELDSTEIN: No, I did not. I think Harvey did that, but I did not. I used to just go upstairs, I was gonna write an eight pager with a splash, I was gonna end up on page eight with whatever had happened in terms of a denouement or a surprise or whatever. And I just started writing and when I got to page — if it was an eight pager, and I got to page five, I then was starting to envision how I would time the balance of the story to end correctly with the gimmick, whatever it was, that was part of the ending. It was weird, there was no question about it. I have no idea how I did it, but I did it out of gut and glory, Dodge other tasks, or the Dodge Ram.
DRAWING SCIENCE FICTION
GROTH: Now I’ve heard you say that you were dissatisfied with your drawing; is that true? Do I remember that correctly?
FELDSTEIN I always felt that my drawing was stiff. Although there were periods where I improved, when I started doing the romance stuff with Bill. And my drawing was better. I always felt that a guy like Johnny Craig was so much more talented than me. I have since learned that my particular style of drawing was very unique. And though I felt it was static and stiff, it had a kind of personality.
GROTH: Absolutely, absolutely. I can see where you would notice that Johnny Craig had a kind of fluidity to his work that I suppose yours lacked. But yours had a kind of baroque inking style that gave it this marvelous finish.
FELDSTEIN: I don’t know how it developed over the years. I started with Iger, I sat next to Matt Baker and learned to draw headlight comics. Jack Kamen and the rest, all the rest of those wonderful artists in Iger’s shop. I learned how to ink their stuff and I developed this style, but I didn’t progress beyond a certain point and I always felt a lack of ability in terms of some of the illustrations that I did. Kind of stiff. But when I look back at it, especially like for example the book you’re putting out, some of those drawings are really great, and I don’t remember how I did them.
GROTH: I think it’s got this great idiosyncratic charm; they suit the stories perfectly. Now let me ask you — and again this just goes back to your process — did you pencil the entire story and then start inking or did you ink it page by page?
FELDSTEIN: No. I used a pencil for the entire story and then I inked it.
GROTH: And can I ask you what you used to ink? Was it a brush?
FELDSTEIN: Windsor/Newton No. 5 and India Ink, I forget the name of the manufacturer.
GROTH: So many of these stories have to do with a nuclear holocaust —
FELDSTEIN: That was what was going on in the ’50s: the Cold War with Russia, the fact that we were arming to the teeth with atomic weapons. It was my feeling that Wertham was all wet in his condemning comic books for the behavior of juvenile delinquents, that truly these kids were being told to climb under a wooden desk to save themselves from an atomic explosion! I mean that whole thing was idiotic and ridiculous and they knew it, and I was tapping into their fear of being pulverized with an atomic war, so I was concerned about it, and I wrote about it.
GROTH: There’s a fatalistic element to a lot of these stories. Many of your stories have to do with alien invasion and either the United States, or the earth being devastated at the end of the story. And I was wondering if that was an Al Feldstein point of view, or —
FELDSTEIN: At the time, yes. I felt that the war — the Cold War with Russia — and the arming to the teeth, first with atomic, nuclear bombs, and then hydrogen bombs, that the whole thing was pretty scary and that I, as an individual, had no control over my fate in terms of politicians and the like dictating our style of living.
GROTH: One of my favorite stories in here is “Child of Tomorrow,” and it it has to do with a a miner, and he goes into the mine —
FELDSTEIN: And he comes out after we trade atomic explosions and destroy ourselves, he comes out of the —
GROTH: That’s right.
FELDSTEIN: It was a way of presenting the last-man-on-earth kind of thing.
GROTH: But really enormously clever, and you pack so much story into those seven or eight pages.
FELDSTEIN: I packed what I could. [Laughs.] Into each of the stories that I did. Not only for myself, but for Al Williamson and the rest of them.
GROTH: One of the things I love about these stories — and tell me if you think I’m right here —but you take a fairly preposterous premise, and then you play it completely straight. A guy goes into mineshaft, and he comes out, and the entire United States has been carpet bombed with A-bombs, but it’s not ironic and not humorous and it’s not satiric; you play it straight, right down the line.
FELDSTEIN: Because to me, that was always a realistic possibility. And therefore I enjoyed treating that possibility.
GROTH: One of the stories you did that was not a realistic possibility was “Made of the Future.”
FELDSTEIN: I tried to step further into the future of science and technology in terms of being able to create your own robot human.
GROTH: The perfect wife.
FELDSTEIN: In that case, yes.
GROTH: [Laughs.] Which was such a crazy premise, but it worked.
FELDSTEIN: I think it fulfilled a kind of an idealistic fantasy. To be able to have a realistic enough robot to be able to relate to sexually and otherwise.
GROTH: And as crazy as it was, you believed it while reading the story.
FELDSTEIN: All the stories were tacked on a realistic level, because that’s the only way I could convince the reader that this was what could happen.
GROTH: You also did a great story where you used “The War of the Worlds” as a premise [“Panic!”]. An incredibly clever premise where he — the Orson Welles character — rebroadcasts it, and of course everyone knows it’s a hoax, but then simultaneously the real Martians come down and attack the Earth.
FELDSTEIN: That was just a twist on the reality of what had happened. Incidentally, the cover of that particular magazine, where that story was included, shows a couple watching television and saying how ridiculous these sci-fi stories are getting, and in meantime the doorway to their home is open to them coming in. That particular cover, for some reason or other, went for a huge amount of money for the original, which I got 45 dollars for or 35 dollars for. It was almost 60 grand! Unbelievable.
GROTH: That is unbelievable.
FELDSTEIN: I often tune in to Heritage comics auctions to see what’s going on and I’m amazed at what they’re paying for some of my stories. Oh my God, just the other day there was some art which I got like 30 bucks for, or 40 dollars, and that are going for 18 and 20 and 30 thousand dollars each; it’s amazing to me.
GROTH: You never would have foreseen that.
FELDSTEIN: No, I never thought that we were doing anything that would ever have any legs in terms of lasting or being collected or anything like that. I really didn’t. I never expected what happened in the’60s, after we were out of business by the Code, and the collecting craze started, and Bill sold — or gave to Russ Cochran to sell at auctions — all of the original artwork that he had in some warehouse somewhere, and how the secondary market developed these ridiculous prices.
GROTH: When Bill sold off the work you got a piece of that, did you not?
FELDSTEIN: Now see, he was kind and gave to all the artists a small portion of what he got from the auction sales, but if it was anything like it was today — that particular cover, that sold for 60 grand, probably I got, at the time it was sold at auction the first time, in the first round, I probably got around maybe 760 to 800 dollars for its sale. He was very kind in terms of doing that for us.
GROTH: Do you remember what percentage you got of the sale?
FELDSTEIN: No, I do not. I never was told.
GROTH: When you were doing this you and the other artists were drawing these in the 1950s, was it understood that Bill owned the original art?
FELDSTEIN: Yes. Not only was it understood, but in order to cash the check we got paid for doing this artwork, we had to sign a block of type in the back of the check which was actually a contract that gave him the rights, the copyrights to the material. We gave up any claim we had on ownership in order to cash the check.
GROTH: Now, Al, did you or any other artist ever object to his ownership of the art? Did you feel like you should own the art?
FELDSTEIN: No, not at the time, because we never expected the ownership to develop into a collectors’ item that had a value.
GROTH: You didn’t think it had a value, right.
FELDSTEIN: I just wasn’t aware of it. Most of us all were just freelance and we worked from the board to the kitchen table to supply ourselves with family food and rent and whatever. And that was what we were… we were the Rosie the Riveter of the comic book business.
GROTH: Bill was unique, also, in the fact that he actually kept the art safely.
FELDSTEIN: I don’t know what made him do that, but for some reason or another he had a great respect for the art and decided to save it all in drawers of flat file drawers until he had to get a space at a storage unit somewhere. But he respected the material themselves, but I don’t know whether he knew that it was going to someday have value or whether he was just keeping it because he liked it.
GROTH: As you probably know, many publishers just threw the art out.
FELDSTEIN: Yes. I don’t know what happened to the Junior stuff and the teenage books that I did for Fox. I don’t know what happened to the artwork.
GROTH: I’m curious as to what your attitude toward the art form was at the time. I know you saw it as a commercial medium; it was a way to make a living. But I also know you took a lot of pride in your craft and what you did.
FELDSTEIN: True. I have no explanation as to why I felt that what we were doing should be kept and preserved, but I did.
GROTH: So you regarded it as an art, even though it was a commercial art.
FELDSTEIN: Especially with the stuff that the EC line was doing. For some reason or another I felt that we were a lot ahead of the ordinary comic book publishers’ material.
GROTH: So you were aware of that?
FELDSTEIN: I felt kind of aware of that; I wasn’t avid about it.
GROTH: One thing I noticed in your stories, is that they’re very rigidly structured. For example the splash pages of all of your stories, except for one, has the same splash page structure, which is the big panel and the small panel in the lower right-hand corner. Do you remember why you chose that particular structure?
FELDSTEIN: I think that that structure was already adopted in the early books that M.C. Gaines was publishing — the Crime Patrol, and Horror, and War Against Crime. I thought it was a tradition that you had a splash, either full page, orm at least, the first panel included. I’m not sure why I continued to do that.
GROTH: You did it through almost every story in the book. The one story that you didn’t do was “Flying Saucer Invasion.”
FELDSTEIN: And was that a full-page splash?
GROTH: No, you had two panels at the bottom. There were two stories: “Things From Outer Space” and “Flying Saucer Invasion,” and you simply had a large splash panel and then two panels beneath.
FELDSTEIN: Don’t ask me why. [Laughter.]
GROTH: You seem like the kind of guy who needs to impose structure on things. Your work was very structured: You had the story conference, then you went to write, and it sounds like that was a necessary way for you to work, as opposed to some artists, who I think are more chaotic.
FELDSTEIN: I remembered, after we were put out of business and I was doing Mad, that I had heard Marvel, Stan Lee, that they were doing the artwork first, and then writing the story around it, or something. Weird things that were going on that I never quite understood how they could successfully produce the viable story, by reversing the whole process.
GROTH: That’s correct. It would be as if you gave Jack Kamen a plot outline and told him to go ahead and draw it, and you’d fill in the words later.
FELDSTEIN: Yeah, and who was actually writing it? Was it the artist who was actually writing it, or — ?
GROTH: That’s the big question. Let me ask you now, since you mention the actual writing of it, let me ask you why you wrote as many words as you did. EC is notorious for being copy-heavy.
FELDSTEIN: Oh, yeah. The gag around the office was that the artist had to the draw the characters hunchback so they could fit under the heavy balloons and captions. One of the things that affected my writing, that made me get a little more wordy, with a little more copy, was adapting the Ray Bradbury stories. I was very impressed with attempting to capture his style of writing and the visuality of what he was describing in my adaptations of his stories, which were merely text, and turning them into something text and visual. One of the things that I attempted to do when I was adapting his story, was to capture as much of his writing, the words, the pictures, the word-pictures, as I could.
GROTH: Krigstein was very much the opposite of that, in that he was most trying to use the visual vocabulary of comics to tell the story.
FELDSTEIN: Are you doing anything in terms of that problem that he and I had — it wasn’t a problem, but I had written a six-page story for him, and he decided to make it an eight pager!
GROTH: You mean “Master Race”?
FELDSTEIN: That’s right. And at the time that it happened, I was very excited about it. I thought that this was a step into the future development of the comic book art, and I was very enthusiastic about it. I was very pleased. We held that story for a birth of a new title. Impact.
GROTH: Impact #1.
FELDSTEIN: Because I was supposed to write it with him.
GROTH: Did artists ever ask you to write less? Did they ever approach you and say, “Please — ”
FELDSTEIN: Oh, yeah. I was always kidded about it. [Laughter.] I know for a fact that the stories were already pre-laid out, although it was not as bad as a partial tissue overlay, it did constrict the artist in terms of the break down of the panels, but I couldn’t figure out any other way of writing it, and if I just wrote something, and let the artist take the writing and break it into the story, which, I guess I was too much of a control freak to allow that to happen.
GROTH: There were no mutinies among the artists?
FELDSTEIN: No, no, there wasn’t.
GROTH: You’re a very important figure.
FELDSTEIN: I didn’t set out to be.
GROTH: Well, most people don’t, but then something happens and you become central.
FELDSTEIN: I have a lot of people that I’m grateful to for doing this kind of development and preservation of what we’ve accomplished, because I never expected to be here. I’m pleased that [my book with Grant Geissman, Feldstein: The Mad Life and Fantastic Art of Al Feldstein!] is finally going to be a reality, and that, together with the one that you’re publishing, is my inheritance.
GROTH: Your legacy.
FELDSTEIN: My legacy. That’s a good word.
Transcribed by Tom Graham and Jack McKea