Celebrating Angelo Torres at The Society of Illustrators

Angelo Torres is duly famous for his nearly four decades with MAD magazine illustrating some of the most hilarious and brilliantly drawn movie and television parodies. What may be less familiar is what came before and what he has created since. And in his ninetieth year, Torres is producing some of his best work ever, often with a nod to his illustration roots.

Torres moved to the Bronx from Puerto Rico at the age of 14. A voracious consumer of the Sunday Funnies, he saw Milton Caniff, Hal Foster, Alex Raymond and Burne Hogarth as teachers. His talents led him to the School of Industrial Art (today’s High School of Art and Design) and after military service in Korea, he enrolled at the Cartoonists and Illustrators School (now the School of Visual Arts). His career took off after winning a contest sponsored by Stan Lee, then publisher of Atlas Comics (which later became Marvel).

He and his creative friends, dubbed the Fleagle Gang by the EC Comics staff – Al Williamson, Frank Frazetta, Roy Krenkel, Nick Meglin and George Woodbridge – often collaborated with one another, sometimes credited and often not, to create some of the most beautiful illustrations in comic and fantasy art history.

When Torres was offered the opportunity to illustrate a story entirely on his own, the Comics Code Authority ruled it in violation of its standards of decency and refused to let it be published. The book it was to appear in, Incredible Science Fiction #33 (January-February 1956), turned out to be the last comic book that EC ever released, and it took more than 15 years for his story finally to see print.

On his own (or sometimes working with Williamson), Torres drew stories for Atlas, Charlton, Harvey, Classics Illustrated, DC, Marvel and many other publishers during his career. His work for Warren’s Creepy, Eerie andBlazing Combat in the sixties showed his fans what he might have done if EC had continued its comic book titles. With the more illustrative style of the Warren magazines, Torres was finally able to demonstrate his mastery of composition, mood and expression like no other.

At the strong urging of Torres’s old friend Nick Meglin, MAD editor Al Feldstein asked Torres to join the magazine in 1969, where he remained until he retired in 2007. Torres has been widely lauded for his biting satirical work and his contributions in general to the field of comic art. He is a recipient of the National Cartoonists Society Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award, the Comic Con International Ink Pot Award and the Southeast Chapter of the NCS Cartoonist of the Year Jack Davis Award.

Since his “retirement,” Torres has embarked on a broad range of projects, including commissions of familiar and beloved characters, re-imaginings of “might have been” comic book covers, and devising and designing artwork for a soon-to-be published Fantagraphics graphic novel adaptation of science-fiction and comic book legend Otto Binder’s The Unwanted.

Why PANIC? Why Torres?

MAD magazine, which in its heyday boasted a circulation of more than two million, began its life in 1952 as a 10¢ comic book led by the legendary Harvey Kurtzman. Its success was so profound that dozens of imitators soon flooded the market. Not to be outdone, publisher Bill Gaines decided in 1954 to have editor Al Feldstein launch a companion humor comic, PANIC, the only “authorized” knock-off of MAD.

PANIC offered MAD readers more of what they loved. But as the anti-comics crusade became heated, Feldstein decided to push back a bit. Although issue #6 carried the usual PANIC masthead, except for a red asterisk it was almost totally blank. At the bottom of the page was the statement, “This cover, the result of hours of conference, is E.C.’s final answer to the comic book controversy. Designed to offend no one, it is blank!”

The Fleagle Gang drops in on Bill Gaines (l-r, Angelo Torres, Al Williamson, Frank Frazetta, Bill Gaines, Nick Meglin, George Woodbridge, Roy Krenkel)

This was revolutionary and a clear poke in the eye of overreaching politicians and the anti-comics crusading psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham. PANIC only lasted six more issues as the EC Comics line closed, and MADsoon became a magazine, no longer under Comics Code rule. When Kurtzman left to chart his own direction, taking many artists with him, Feldstein took the reins as editor of MAD for the next 29 years.

Long-time EC fan and publisher Russ Cochran began reissuing the EC titles in the mid-1980’s as hardcover collections and then in the nineties as individual issues to replicate the look and feel of the original comics, including PANIC #6 in June 1998. Copies of this PANIC #6 reprint, with new original art illustrations by Angelo Torres, are featured.

These “imagined covers” created between 2019 and 2021 provide a perfect canvas for the artist to demonstrate his wide range of genres, subjects and styles. And they have become an extremely popular attraction for Torres fans on #TorresTuesday, a weekly celebration of the artist’s new works on the EC Fan-Addict Club Facebook site.

What If?

EC and MAD chronicler Grant Geissman asked Torres to create a series of “what if” covers, meaning what if the anti-comics crusade which took down EC and countless competitors had been able to survive the McCarthy Era censorship assault, and EC had asked Torres to illustrate its covers? In his nearly 600-page, 13+ pound 2020 Taschen book, The History of EC Comics, Geissman displays the answer with five beautiful new covers created by Torres. These and other artwork completed thereafter also appear in this exhibition.

What More?

Exhibited for the first time are iconic examples of original artwork by Torres from EC, Warren, MAD and more, and a sampling of original artwork from his long-time friends and colleagues – Al Williamson, Frank Frazetta, Gray Morrow, Wallace Wood, Jack Davis, Reed Crandall, Will Elder and more. A preview of new art by Angelo Torres & Stefan Koidl for the upcoming Fantagraphics Otto Binder graphic novel, The Unwanted is also on display. Explanatory commentary provides context for each work.

Curated by Robert L. Reiner with special thanks to Clint Morgan

Exhibition runs troughs September 3, 2022, more information: https://societyillustrators.org/