You wouldn’t know it to look at the Western art he’s been painting since his retirement, but Al Feldstein played at least two small but crucial roles in American popular culture. Both stemmed from his position at Entertaining Comics. EC had been founded by Max Gaines, whose earlier company, Dell, may have been the first real comic book company. Gaines went on to found All-American Comics (later merged into DC; a number of All-American’s titles, penned by comic book pioneer Gardner Fox, are still available today in slightly different forms). The name originally stood for "Educational Comics", then stood for "Entertaining Comics", but seems to have simply been a nod to Gaines’ history with DC. When Max Gaines died young, his son William inherited EC, then having largely abandoned the educational comics game to become a publisher of funny animal books. Gaines doesn’t seem to have been terribly interested in the company until Feldstein came along, but the two seem to have gotten along like a house on fire. They quickly launched into crime comics, following in the footsteps of the lurid bestseller Crime Does Not Pay, and then (writing the stories themselves) began publishing Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, and the rest of the EC horror comics. The two men had created a genre. EC’s horror line, with its mordant humor, gross-out visuals, and eye-catching covers (many drawn by "Ghastly" Graham Ingels) quickly became hugely popular. Fredric Wertham was going after more prey than just EC when he wrote Seduction of the Innocent, his diatribe about the corrupting nature of comics on America’s youth (Wertham seemed more concerned with the glorification of criminal violence and sexual depravity he saw in crime comics), the Congressional hearings his book sparked led to the Comics Code and shuttered all of EC’s horror comics. The very word "horror" was now banished from titles. It was effectively the death of adult comics as a popular medium; although a few Westerns and romance comics struggled on into the Sixties, comics were a superhero genre now.
Was it a real loss? Most EC stories were forgettable — the mediocre HBO series wasn’t so off the mark with its formula of a pun-laden introduction, a slow buildup from a stock situation, a few grisly moments, and then a final scene of grislier retribution — but EC published a few masterpieces published. Bernie Krigstein‘s psychological study of a concentration camp commander, "Master Race", remains chillingly effective; in 1955, six years before the Eichmann trial and in a time when the full monstrosity of the Holocaust wasn’t a topic for public discussion, it must have been doubly so. To hear Art Spiegelman tell it, Kriegstein fought like hell to get the story done the way he wanted it, but it’s a recognized masterpiece today; it’s one of three adult EC stories included in The Smithsonian Book of Comic Book Comics (the other two are Harvey Kurtzman war stories, one, if I recall correctly, a nuanced piece about a dead Japanese soldier, the other a well-executed but unsurprising twist-ending story). The other two EC pieces in The Smithsonian Book are a rather doofy Superman parody and a great, vaguely creepy Howdy Doody sendup from EC’s (and Al Feldstein’s) other great contribution to American society: MAD Magazine.
Feldstein is responsible for the modern incarnation of MAD‘s gap-toothed mascot, Alfred E. Neuman. Neuman has been on magazine covers continuously for decades and has been leeching out into the wider field of popular culture ever since. Along with injecting Yiddish (and perhaps a Jewish comedic sensibility) into mainstream culture, inspiring folks like Paul Krassner and the Saturday Night Live writers, giving Sergio Aragonés someplace to hang out, and fostering the notion that broad parody of pop culture is inherently funny (sadly, I suspect that this will be MAD‘s most lasting legacy ; the mock-heroic epic rose to become a genre of its own and it’s dandy to see someone skewering targets you think deserve it, but when a bad Hemingway entry or painfully stiff parody movie fails, what is either the audience or the artist left with?) Neuman may be MAD‘s great contribution to the world.
Given that MAD is now owned by DC’s corporate parent, AOL Time Warner, and seems to be chugging along still, there’s no reason to think that his face will be any less recognizable in another fifty years. Ronald McDonald is big money; Santa Claus, given his current form by commercial (and pinup) artist Haddon Sundblom for Coca-Cola, is big money. But is Neuman really making big money for anyone? But there he appears, issue after issue, "What, Me Worry?"ing and remaining one of the most famous fictional faces in the world. Maybe it’s luck; maybe he triggers some sort of universal recognition; maybe the folks at MAD are just willing to stick with a winner; maybe, like the Morton Salt Girl or Sailor Jack and Bingo, simple longevity has made him more recognizable than he deserves to be. Personally, I prefer to think that his unassuming omnipresence and goofy grin disguises a simpler explanation; immortality is his superpower, and Alfred E. Neuman is only his secret identity.