don martin

by Art Chantry (

Recognize this illustrator? you should. he’s one of the most famous cartoon/humorist illustrators of the last half century. most of us grew up reading and laughing at this guy’s work. this is what his stuff looked like before we ever saw him, though. he was a hipster jazz beatnik fella who did a lot of images for jazz record covers and for jazz magazines like ‘down beat’ and the like. he was one cool dude. his name was don martin. yeah, THAT don martin.

AC:virgil partch - now there's a weirdo. and whatever happened to mort drucker, anyway? how come we've never ever seen his work anywhere but in MAD? is it because he lost his name like don martin? dunno. jack davis made it our alive...

These images (along with many others i’ve collected) are classic don martin humor. it depicts a lock step line-up of uniform hipster beat jazz saxmen rushing off, seen from the front. turn the page and the second image was printed exactly on the backside of the sheet were the first image sat. it shows the same lock step line-up of uniform sax layers speeding off into the distance. that’s extremely sophisticated and knowledgeable wit to see in a spot illustration from any period. thinking like that is almost non-existent today.

I collect old magazines and i especially love obscure jazz stuff. it’s like finding a tracer bullet through the underground of the fifties. so many loose ends and relationships and early careers can be found in old jazz-related publishings that it’s a motherload of american underground culture. the stuff never really sold well at the time, so it’s all obscure. not much of it was made, and a miniscule amount of it survived. that was the world don martin lived in. until he got hired by MAD magazine.

I’m not sure which issue was of MAD featured the first appearance of don martin (I could easily look it up, but don’t want to bother). but, he became synonymous with the magazine. don martin was eventually christened “MAD’s maddest cartoonist” and the billing stuck. his work was so attached to MAD that it became a symbiotic relationship – neither ever really recovered from the divorce. when they split the relationship (unhappily) neither don martin nor MAD were ever quite as good ever again. sometimes these things work like that. it’s as if they never really realize how special a working relationship is (rocky though it may be) until it’s in the past and can bee seen without all the emotional baggage that may be attached.

One of the big problems with MAD was the talent involved were all working in a contractual relationship called “work for hire”. that’s a legal term that sounds innocuous and actually rather descriptive of what a freelancer does – they work for pay (hire). but, that’s almost the opposite of what the legal meaning of that phrase actually delivers. through many years of court cases and legal hearings and long term battles, the legal term “work for hire” means that the guy doing the hiring gets everything and you get some agreed upon amount of money – period. basically, they get all credit, authorship, copyright, everything. you can’t even claim you touched it. the client gets to put his name on the finished piece and reap all reward coming. in fact, it’s the system long established in the commercial art industry (hundreds of years) called “the studio system”. whoever’s name is on the door, get it all. you just happen to be a wage slave. literally.

What’s even worse about ‘work for hire’ is that the phrase covers ALL of your work during the period covered by the contract. so, everything you do creatively is also technically legally owned by the client. the guy who invented ‘post-it’ notes came up with it on his own time in his own basement with his own stuff. but, 3M got the patent/copyright/control and all the money – just because he worked there during his daylight time. they just gave the guy a small bonus and a pat on the back, i guess.

That, sadly, holds true technically for anybody who signs a ‘work for hire’ contract. anything you do for another client or on your own time during the same period covered is also owned outright by the ‘work for hire’ client. i’ve never seen this enforced by a client in my direct experience. but it has and does happen, more often that you’d dare imagine.

This situation happened to all the MAD guys. it also happened to all the PLAYBOY magazine illustrators, and several other famous magazines. the lawyers simply added the phrase “work for hire” in that teeny tiny small print you see on the back of checks. so, when you cash they check, your signature is applied to a contract and then they gotcha. they own your work and your life. it’s only a matter of time in this current economic/hustle atmosphere we currently live in before we start to see these rules applied to us freelance people. too much money to be made for them sleazy corporate lawyers to ignore. i always read my contract and cross out the words “work for hire” before i sign them. it always freaks out the lawyers and i often lose the contract as result. but, i figger it’s worth it. i still have my ‘career’

In don martin’s case, he wasn’t so careful – or maybe he was just innocent and naieve. but, he cashed those checks for decades. when he angrily split with MAD, he found out that he lost all control of all his original work he did for the magazine. furthermore, because he had worked almost exclusively for them for so long that they became symbiotically identified with each other, he lost the right to use his own name. he also (technically) lost the right to even draw images that looked like his stuff (but that was too hard for the corporate guys to enforce). when warner brothers bought MAD magazine, and they bought the rights to don martins name with it. they sold all his original drawings at a huge auction and made an awful lot of money. none of it went to don martin. remember that animated cartoon strip that showed up in the early days of

WB network? it was done entirely without his involvement and he never got a penny from it – even though his name was plastered all over it. just the facts. copyright laws are not written to protect artists – they’re written to protect corporate interests. honest, it’s absolutely true. (so, all you little purity heads out there thinking you own your own work better look again…)

This was not only don martin’s problem. many famous illustrators ran into the same thing. patrick nagel became so closely identified with PLAYBOY magazine that when his widow tried to sell some of his old prints, corporate PLAYBOY stomped on her and sued her for what they legally claimed as their property. she counter sued and they counter sued back. i don’t know how that one finally ended (winners switched from side to side). but, it’s not uncommon to see. i know of several cases where very tiny unknown illustrators working on tiny unknown clients have legally lost their right to even draw – all because a misguided client was trying to protect their interests. it actually happens a lot and goes virtually unreported in the very trade magazines that this industry actually depends upon for information like this. such is the state of the ‘design industry’ today – utterly useless.

Back in the late 80′s i hired don martin to do a cover for the rocket (the christmas issue.) through connections, i was able to track him down living in florida. i had to deal through his current wife, who managed him (and you know what that can be like). but, i eventually talked to him directly on the phone. he was SO cool! i told him about the rocket, and he shut me up saying he already knew all about the rocket. he loved the magazine. i was very surprised, because the rocket was only distributed around the seattle environs and a only few issues were drop-shipped to a few locations around the country. it was testament to his hipness that he actually knew the magazine at the other completely extreme tip of the nation. how did he do that?

He was actually excited to do the cover. even though we could only offer him something like $400 (or some piddling amount like that) to do an image, he frankly needed the money. he had just undergone double retina transplant surgery and was in recovery. i actually felt guilty. i think i actually forked over a few extra bucks out of my own pathetic salary to seed the pay.

The image he sent was a b&w line drawing of the classic manger scene, with the virgin mary holding up her (christ) child to poor joseph, who has the expression of the completely befuddled “who knew” expression of a doltish fella whose virgin wife had just surprisingly given birth to some other guy’s kid. it was adult, daring and hilarious. i colored it using rubylithe overlay work by hand (how it was done back then) building up the primary 4-color inks.

It turned out smashing. i’ll try to find a repro of it and post in a follow-up post. the public reaction? ANTI-SEMETIC!!! we got letters saying that it was a slap at jewishness to have joseph look like a schmuck like that. we all laughed even harder. who knew?? we all felt like joseph in the drawing.

AC:when billy gates started buying up all the digital copyrights out there, he started by buying the DIGITAL rights to every piece in The Louvre. so, that if you ever use the mona lisa and it passes through a DIGITAL phase in the production of that piece (now a virtual guarantee) you actually owe a certain amount of usage to bill gates! of course, it’s not enforced, but he could if he felt like it.

so, i had a solo show of my work in the seattle art museum back in 1993. it was a hit and extremely well attended. but the museum was embarrassed by it (since it was not ‘real’ art, ya know) and nobody from the actual art museum showed up at the official opening (for example). only recently did they even begin to admit that the show ever happened – never mind that (at the time) only a show by dale chihuly had a bigger attendance draw. making money should mean SOMETHING, right?

anyway, billy gates bought the digital copyright to everything in the seattle art museum, too. since digital copyright is virgin territory, it’s open season. his father (part owner of one of the biggest oldest law firms in seattle) married the head of the art museum, so the deal was struck on easy terms.

thus, billy-boy gates managed to buy some of the DIGITAL rights to my own work. that museum shunned me, yet they sold the rights to my work in their collection along with everybody else’s. so, technically, there are a few pieces in my portfolio that i can’t pass through a digital phase without technically owing billy gates some usage. figure that, eh?

this is how copyrights work. they don’t exist for the little guys like us. they only protect monied power interests. wise up….copyright? that’s for amateurs and whores. i take the von dutch rules to heart. ‘take what you want – i’ll just make more.’ fuck ya.

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One Response to don martin

  1. Don stayed at MAD because he needed the medical coverage package that he paid for (100%). He faced possible blindness his whole life and had cornea transplants–first when he was a teenager and then in his 50s. Don’s work–his art and writing-did not suffer when he left MAD That is a MAD created fiction. In fact, his work was better. Look at his CRACKED work in the soon to be published Don Martin-AFTER MAD. This will include his CRACKED work and the ROCKET cover! Please note that.trademark and copyright rights are two separate animals. And they are acquired, bought or licensed separately. Thank you for the appreciation of Don’s early work.
    Norma Martin

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