PORTLAND – Comic books and comic strips, in case you haven’t noticed, are not about subtlety.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that Mort Todd, a former editor of Cracked magazine and writer and artist for Marvel and DC comics, has stirred up controversy with his creative efforts since moving back to his native Maine in 2011 after more than 30 years in New York City.
This summer, the 50-year-old Todd started a free comic-centric newspaper in Portland called Vex, and soon created some downtown drama.
In August, he wrote an editorial criticizing people who oppose the Eastland Park Hotel’s proposal to build a ballroom on what is now a public space, Congress Square Plaza. The editorial, in turn, prompted someone to vandalize Vex with stickers and inserts — which prompted Todd to devote an entire issue to the controversy.
Earlier in the spring, Todd made a couple of TV commercials for local businesses that irked some folks, including one that portrayed vegetarians as loafers. In a less controversial vein, he has painted murals on the walls of local restaurants Nosh and Taco Escobarr, and exhibited a documentary film that he made on photo comics.
Currently, he’s working on a TV pilot and is trying to get versions of Vex distributed in other cities.
“Mort Todd is a member of a very special gang of independent, creative, artistic entrepreneurial folks whom I recognize instantly due to the fact that I myself am a charter member,” said nationally known Maine humorist Tim Sample, who writes a column for Vex. “Folks in our gang see opportunity where others see an empty canvas. The fact that nobody else has attempted something strikes us as all the more reason why we should give it a try.”
Trying to describe exactly what it is Todd does for a living is not an easy thing to do. Even for Todd himself.
“A lot of people when they first meet me ask, ‘What do you do?’ and my response is kind of, ‘Geesh, depends on the time of day’,” Todd said.
“I like entertaining people, amusing people, telling stories. Whatever I do, the main intent is to amuse and entertain. I guess I started with comics as a kid, because that was the most immediate way for me to do that.”
WHY NOT MAINE?
Todd grew up in Yarmouth, where his grandfather ran a printing business. He was fascinated by TV and comics at a young age, and can recite random TV credits (“The Dick Van Dyke Show” was made by Desilu Productions) and obscure Maine comics (“Ricky and Debbie in Sardineland”) in the blink of an eye.
He read comics and drew constantly, and by the time he was 12, he had convinced his father to take him to New York, where he got a meeting with an art director at DC.
“The guy told me I’d never work in comics, but (about) 10 years later, he was asking me for a job,” Todd said.
After graduating from Yarmouth High School, Todd moved to New York, where he took classes at Parsons School of Design, among other places. He was selling his art and writing to various publications. He did some writing for the “Superman” comic at DC, created album cover art, and sold a screenplay to German television, so he gradually gave up on school.
Eventually, Todd’s name was suggested by other comic writers and artists for the job of editor at the humor magazine Cracked, which had been around since the late ’50s but was often overshadowed by the better-known Mad.
“It was kind of crazy. Here I was at 23, and I could call up any artist I liked and have them do something for the magazine,” said Todd, who was at Cracked from about 1985 to 1990. “I got to hire Steve Ditko (co-creator of ‘Spider-Man’), so that was pretty cool.”
At Cracked, and later at Marvel — where he was editor of a line of comics based on rock stars — Todd hired another native Mainer, Charles E. Hall.
Hall said one of the things that made Todd stand out in the New York comic world was the way he treated the artists, writers and other creators.
“Usually, when you work for hire, you lose your art. But Mort’s policy was that an artist gets to keep his art, and he made sure artists were well paid,” said Hall, who still lives in New York.
At Marvel, Todd got to meet stars such as Mick Jagger and Rob Zombie and oversee comics about reggae legend Bob Marley and Alice Cooper.
Since leaving Marvel around 1995, Todd has been working on his own and on various projects, including a documentary film on photo comic books, which use actual photographs of people instead of original art. They were big everywhere but in the United States, Todd laments.
Todd still has family in Maine and visited here a lot, so at some point, he decided that because the work he does can be done anywhere with a computer, why not do it back in Maine?
So he moved back.
And started to stir things up.
GRIEF FROM VEGANS
Todd’s first public action to gain him notoriety in Portland was the local TV commercial he made for Nosh Kitchen Bar this past spring. It begins with a narrator explaining that a group of the city’s “top vegetarians” had been invited to try Nosh, followed by the image of a disheveled man ordering a meatless burger.
“What they didn’t know,” the narrator explains, “is that we substituted their vegan burgers with Nosh’s celebrated beef and pork burgers.”
After one bite of the meaty burger, the “vegetarian” is suddenly seen wearing a leisure suit and a substantial toupee. The burger bite has apparently changed him forever.
“Make me another. And after that, I’m gonna get a job and I’m gonna be a productive member of society,” the converted vegetarian says.
While most local TV commercials are either easy to ignore or very direct (“The Furniture Superstore! The Furniture Superstore!”), the Nosh commercial stirred up plenty of online controversy. Vegans and vegetarians claimed it was offensive. Others said it was simply obnoxious.
“I’m a vegan, and I can take a joke. What offended me the most about (the Nosh TV ad) was that it wasn’t funny,” said Josh Valentine, 37, a marketing consultant from Windham. “There was such ignorance portrayed about non-meat eaters.”
“Yeah, I got some grief from vegans, but it was a joke,” said Todd, who explained that the commercial was a twist on old Folgers coffee commercials, where instant joe is substituted for fine restaurant coffee. “People said we were glorifying meat. But it wasn’t a documentary or anything.”
A couple of months ago, Todd launched Vex, his idea of a humor magazine for the 21st century. It was something he had been thinking of since he was at Cracked in the 1980s.
The 16-page weekly has strips drawn by artist friends, as well as a version of “Speed Racer” drawn and written by Todd. (He says because he knows so many people in the comic industry, he just called someone up and negotiated for the rights.)
The paper also has opinion pieces, editorials, the column by Sample, listings for arts and entertainment and local ads.
In the Aug. 22 edition, Todd wrote a lengthy opinion piece (under the pseudonym Lew G. Rant) criticizing people who were opposing a proposed ballroom addition to the Eastland Park Hotel, because it could mean the potential loss of a public plaza between the hotel and Congress Street. He argued that developing the plaza would bring money and jobs to the city, while keeping it open as a plaza was inviting unruly folks and the homeless.
The piece ended with a suggestion that if the development plan is foiled, the city might consider changing its slogan to “Bums Over Bucks.”
Although Todd wrote the piece under a pseudonym, he later admitted that he was the author. His office is in the State Theatre building located across the street from the plaza, and he says he routinely witnesses disturbances there.
Although Vex is free and not exactly a household brand, the editorial rankled some folks so much that they printed a long anonymous response and clandestinely inserted it into copies of Vex. They stuck a label on copies saying: “Warning: This lame publication now includes added content from those who appreciate public space.” Copies of the paper were also taken from their normal places of distribution, Todd said.
“It was semi-satirical, but the point was, here’s a business that wants to spend millions, and everybody says, ‘No, save the public space,’ ” Todd said. “I just wanted to offer a different opinion on this, but some people don’t want that. I guess it’s nice to be recognized for my efforts.”
Todd responded to the altering of Vex with a long editorial in the Sept. 5 edition and devoted most of the front page to the episode, including the headline: “Activists Hate Diversity.” In his follow-up editorial, Todd wrote about and ran a picture of Rob Korobkin, an organizer with Occupy Maine and a supporter of the group “Save Congress Square” who admitted to writing the piece that was inserted into Vex.
A war of words on Facebook then ensued.
Korobkin calls Todd’s editorial about the public plaza “hateful and offensive.” Although he admits to writing the essay, he says he did not agree with those (he wouldn’t name anyone) who stuck labels on Todd’s newspaper, and does not “condone” the action.
Korobkin said he thought his essay would be inserted in a way that left Vex intact, and that he’s been “shocked” at the way the episode has played out.
“I’ve been really surprised at how few people see Mr. Todd’s original work as offensive,” Korobkin said. “(The editorial) attacked poor people who don’t have housing, and that’s apparently just a ‘difference of opinion.’ “
People who know Todd say it’s not surprising his creative efforts have an edge — an edge that sometimes is a little sharp for some people.
“Mort’s got edgy ideas, and he likes to stir up controversy, to get attention. Some people online compared us to Nazis for (the Nosh restaurant commercial),” said Tom Barr, a co-owner of Nosh and Taco Escobarr. “Mort thought stirring things up would be a positive for us, and we’ve been constantly busy since that ad.”
Barr was so impressed with Todd’s work, in fact, he has since become Todd’s partner in his media company, Station A.
Up next for Todd are his tentative plans to get Vex distributed in other cities — with content specific to those places wrapped around the comics.
He’s also working on a TV project that would be sort of a crime show, based in Maine. But he doesn’t want to say too much about that yet.
The one thing we can guess about the TV show — if it gets on the air — is that it will have an edge.
Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at: