An Interview with Mort Todd: Cracked Magazine, Crypt Records, Marvel Comics, Music Video Director - what doesn't this guy do??
by Lee Sobel (8/17/20)
I loved comics as a little kid. I had so many happy moments sitting in the backseat of my dad's car, reading them, staring at the ads for upcoming Saturday morning TV shows or the ads for "Amazing Sea Monkeys" or "X-Ray Spex." I loved the comic book companies that aimed their product at kids like me -- Harvey, Gold Key and Charlton. In fact when I was about 10 or so, my dad who worked in publishing, took me to the Charlton Comics headquarters/ factory in Connecticut and they let me take as many free comics as I wanted.
As a teenager I was way too into punk/new wave music, clothes and girls, to think about comics (or baseball cards which I also loved as a tyke). In my 20's I would buy Marvel Comics (DC always looked lame to me - until Dark Knight Returns) and the Frank Miller run of Daredevil, but I never got the rush from 80's comic books like the ones I had loved in the late 60's and early 70's. Then I discovered Eightball, and I was an instant Daniel Clowes fan for
Peter Bagge, Daniel Clowes and Mort Todd in the early days of their careers
life. I'd go to a store called Forbidden Planet in Greenwich Village and I'd see this young guy who looked like a little like James Dean haunting the aisles. Little did I know that this guy was a pal of Clowes, went by the name Mort Todd, and became the editor-in-chief of Cracked Magazine. You know that one that wasn't Mad, but tried hard to copy Mad and if you went to the newsstand and they were sold out of Mad you'd buy Cracked or what was that other one, Crazy? I vaguely remember confusing Cracked and Crazy -- I just knew they weren't Mad Magazine and Mad always reigned supreme. Young upstart
Mort Todd even managed to lure some disgruntled Mad staffers over to Cracked when he ran it in the 80's.
So to my mind, Mort Todd is "that Cracked guy" I saw at Forbidden Planet when we were both in our 20's. In fact, he's actually done so much in his lifetime that my brain won't take it all in. In addition to giving Daniel Clowes, Peter Bagge and other "alternative comics" people their start in the pages of Cracked, Mort later went to work for Marvel Comics, spearheading a short-lived series of rock 'n roll comics with major rock bands of the day. Since then he's done so many comics, illustrated all the covers for Crypt Records' amazing garage punk compilation series Back From The Grave, and he's also a filmmaker and has directed numerous very cool music videos. As Stan Lee used to say, "Nuff said." Let's get on with the interview.
Lee Sobel: Mort Todd is not your real name. Was "Mort" your homage to Mad Magazine's Mort Drucker (who, sadly, just passed away in April, 2020)? Why the change in name and what are your memories of reading Mad as a kid?
Mort gets his skateboard autographed by legendary Mad Magazine publisher Bill Gaines while working at Cracked!
Mort Todd: In high school I did a comic strip for a ‘zine and signed it (along with other stuff) “Dr. Death.” After a while I thought it was kind of corny, so came up with “Mort Todd” (French and semi-German for Death.) What can I say? I was a morbid kid! It was also an homage to many comic creators named Mort, least of all Drucker, but also Meskin, Weisenger, Leav, Walker, Lawrence, and others I’m probably not thinking of at the moment! My real name is too unpronounceable and always misspelled (even spelt differently by family members) so came up with this pseudonym.
Lee Sobel: What can you tell me about your childhood, any amusing memories that come to mind (other than reading Mad)? You obviously loved Charlton comics -- I think I told you that as a kid my literary agent dad took me to a meeting at the Charlton offices/factory in Connecticut and they let me take as many free comics as I wanted - how cool is that?
Mort Todd: That is wicked cool! Nothing better than free comics! My grandparents gave me a subscription to Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories when I was 4, and my family was shocked and happy that it shut my hyperactive self up. It was also the era of the Batman TV
show, so I was hooked and never looked back (to my pre-4 years old years). I discovered Mad under my uncle’s bed along with his Playboys, so figured it was an "adult" mag and loved all the zany crap in it. As far as regular comics, I was a DC, then Marvel snob, so didn’t get into Charlton until a bit later, little realizing I’d be working with a lot of these creators in a dozen or so years!
Lee Sobel: You famously took over as editor in chief of Cracked Magazine in your early 20's. What did you think of Cracked before you took over, and how did you get them to turn the magazine over to you?
Mort Todd: I was 23 when I started at Cracked. I distinctly remember first reading a Giant Cracked reprint when I was 7 and being very engaged by a Bill Ward story about “real-life dolls.” I couldn’t know why at the time, but I was ultra-fascinated by Ward’s details. I had kind of forgotten about it until I was hired at Cracked and took it upon myself to read every issue (including the reprints) to familiarize myself with the inventory.
I was first hired at Cracked as assistant editor, but then the owners fired the editor-in-chief because I found out he was ripping off the creators and
Above right: Early comic book co-created by Mort Todd and below: pix from Mort's era as Cracked Editor-in-Chief
they were looking for a new Ed-in-Chief they interviewed tons of horrible candidates, most saying you should get rid of the name Cracked and the magazine's mascot Sylvester P. Smythe (their answer to Alfred E. Neuman) after they has just paid a load for it. Meanwhile, I put together about three issues without the publishers knowing it and when they sold better than past issues they made me full editor.
Mort Todd: Like 99% of kids, I preferred Mad over Cracked at the time and whenever people tell me they liked Cracked more than Mad I am semi-suspicious. However, I like to think I turned Cracked from a fifth-rate imitation of Mad into a 3rd-rate imitation.
It was incredible fun to be Editor-in-Chief of Cracked at such a young age. We had much better rates than regular comic books, so I was able to work with some legendary talent that I grew up loving, as well as give some of the first ‘pro’ work to my pals I would gallivant with in the NYC scene, like Dan Clowes, Petter Bagge, Rick Altergott and J.D. King.
Above: John Severin, Don Martin, Severin's wife and Mort Todd at the Cracked 30th Anniversary party. Below: (l) with Bebe Buell in a Cracked photo comic; (c) With Dan Clowes; (r) Mort, Daniel Clowes & Rick Altergott hyping Psycho #1 at a con in 1981.
Cracked had just been sold before I started there and the short-lived editor there before me was pulling all kinds of scams including kickbacks from artists. As such, John Severin wouldn’t work with him, not to mention the insulting page rate he was offered. I told the new publishers without Severin Cracked would die very quickly, so my first official job was to get Severin back at any cost… and I did! As with other artists I hired, like Steve Ditko, Don Martin, Gene Colan, Gray Morrow and others, Severin and I became great pals and he was quite the mentor.
In the 80's, I felt Mad was a pale reflection of its former self, thus I decreed we wouldn’t copy them then as much as being inspired by their earlier days. I didn’t want any Drucker or Jack Davis clones and suggested artists develop their own styles, which would benefit them in the long run and make them unique commodities.
Everything then was a business expense, going to movies, traveling, buying toys and wining and dining creators, so it was a great time as I got reimbursed for doing anything!
Lee Sobel: There is a great picture of you getting Bill Gaines' (publisher of Mad Magazine) autograph. Didn't he realize you were working for the competition?
Mort Todd: That picture ended up getting published in Thrasher, the skateboard magazine. I skateboard-commuted to work and figured they'd get a kick out of it. The Mad visit must've been '87-'88. It was after I swiped Don Martin from Mad to work for Cracked. I had met Gaines' son at a con and asked if they still had tours at Mad. He gave me his card and arranged a tour. Had a great convo with Bill because I was a true EC Comics fan. When he saw us in his office, his son said "Here are some old EC fans, Bill!" Gaines looked at us and said "Those aren't old EC fans..." and I thought we were narked and looking for an escape. He continued "...those are young EC fans!"
Thrasher posted that pic of us (that I sent them, wasn't gonna print it in Cracked) and when Gaines found out he hit the roof! Had a bunch of "spies" at Mad and they told me they were sharing some urinals at a Mad party and I came up in the conversation and Gaines said I had brass balls!
Lee Sobel: What were the circumstances of your ending working at Cracked?
Mort Todd: I was doing several dozen books a year (including reprints), producing 1000s of pages annually with only my Art Director, the amazing Cliff Mott, on staff with me. Every now and then I could hire a freelance assistant editor, but I really needed a permanent one. I was also very active in bringing in licensing opportunities for the magazine that were rejected by the publishers. I was getting frustrated after working many years doing 60+ hours a week by their attitude and decided to leave. Retrospectively I felt I was sort of pushed out as they were planning to sell the magazine, which they did soon after I left. I think they sold the new owners a false bill of goods
A Rolling Stones Marvel Music comic Mort co-wrote with Mick and Keith!
based on our costs and profits as the new company ultimately had to hire five editors to do less than I had been doing.
Lee Sobel: After you left Cracked, you worked at Marvel Comics for their Marvel Music line -- what was that like?
Mort Todd: I’ve been fortunate to bring my "scene" to wherever I worked. Cracked was probably more ‘corporate’ than Marvel in that I had a Fifth Avenue office surrounded by ad agencies and other publishers. My Cracked office was a freaky oasis of weirdness, soaking in toys and skate posters on the door. Sometimes I would be my usual punked-out self or show up wearing suits, which were extremes to however everyone else were attired. Marvel was full of comic geeks so it was a looser atmosphere, but still uptight in many ways. I was lucky to have an office on a separate floor than the rest of the company, and the only one with cable TV and where you could smoke, so got a lot of deadbeat staffers showing up to hang out. I was Editor-in-Chief of my own line (Marvel Music) so didn’t have to follow the rules and edicts of the other editors. Since I was doing licensed titles with
musical groups, I got to travel a lot, hang out with rock bands and enjoy an expense account other editors hated me for.
Lee Sobel: You worked with Daniel Clowes early in your career. What do you remember about the circumstances of meeting him and what memories do you have of you both embarking on your careers in comics?
Mort Todd: When I first moved to New York City from Maine, I met other psycho comic fans like myself for the first time, including Dan. In fact, we started making comics and publishing them, including Psycho Comics. Dan and I would carouse at nightclubs, collaborate on comics and were roommates for some time. I also sold a screenplay about a teen rock superhero group called The Ultimates starring Dan looking like Speed Racer (when Dan had hair). It was produced but never released. I have all the raw footage and want to re-edit it. It is a wild comics and anime-inspired show shot in the decrepit 80s NYC and a historical document I’d like to see happen. At Cracked, Dan and I did The Uggly Family strip, which my publisher hated. I snuck it into the magazine and it became a fan favorite. Around then Dan started doing Lloyd
Llewellyn at Fantagraphics and I wrote and/or drew a few stories in the early issues.
Lee Sobel: Of all the projects you've been involved with, what are you favorites and why?
Mort Todd: The current and next ones are always my favorites as I put as much energy in them as any past projects. There are a lot of faves, natch, including the Monsters Attacks! series I did with EC and Warren horror comics legends (recently released in two volumes), the Sadistik photo comics that I’ve been trying to get some live-action action happening, along with animation, TV & film stuff I’ve done. I feel the Marvel Music titles I did are underrated considering the bands and comics talent I worked with. Am hoping I can get a collection of the Bob Marley graphic novels collected in the near future. Plus I did a daily celebrity biography newspaper comic strip with Severin that was a gas!
Lee Sobel: I get the feeling you know a lot of people in the comics business. Who have you met or worked with that you really admired or perhaps even influenced you?
Mort Todd: Everyone? Of course, as mentioned, I got to work with a lot of the best of the best creators that I grew up loving and got to be friends with. Most influential art wise and personally were probably Severin and Ditko. Spent dozens of hours a week with them on phone or in person and they helped crystalize a lot of who I am know by rapping with them in my youth.
Lee Sobel: Do you make personal appearances at comics conventions? Have you met any "interesting" fans or have stories about other writers or illustrators that have been strange or funny?
Mort Todd: I do, or did, a lot of cons before the plague. Back in the day, if I was spending time at a con with guys like Gray Morrow or Russ Heath, we’d hang out more at the bar than the con floor. One of the funniest fan interactions I remember was early in my career when I was on a panel with Altergott, Clowes, Bagge and others (with a growing collection of empty beer cans in front of us): A younger fan approached telling how much he liked our work. I asked him his name and he was reticent. He said he would, if we didn’t make fun of him or use his name in our comics. We agreed but had to giggle after he told us his name was Hyman Bender.
Lee Sobel: Would you say you have a subversive sensibility? Do you feel that the comics business needed some shaking up and maybe still does?
Mort Todd: A million percent on both! The industry has gotten away with putting out crap that the majority of the population has no interest in and now it’s starting
to catch up to them. If you look at my career, it’s always about putting out ‘alternate’ comics material that I think would appeal to a much wider audience than the assumed, safe, limited comic shop audience. Sometimes it has worked, sometimes not, but not for trying. I currently have some top secret projects that I trust will draw in a bigger crowd than has been seen in a lonnnnggg time by going after people who would want to like comics but don’t have access to them.