Al Jaffee has been a Mad man for 55 years, practically since the beginning. Hired originally by the magazine's brilliant but mercurial founder Harvey Kurtzman, Jaffee followed when Kurtzman left to launch a series of inspired, but commercially doomed periodicals designed to compete with Mad. In 1958, Jaffee rejoined Mad as a freelancer under Kurtzman's replacement, Al Feldstein. Mad was becoming a cultural (or counter-cultural) icon, and Jaffee's inventive and cheerfully acerbic cartoons and articles were a major factor. In 1964 he created the magazine's signature back cover "fold-in," and his "Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions" have fueled several generations of young American weisenheimers. Written by his longtime friend Mary-Lou Weisman, the new Al Jaffee's Mad Life (HarperCollins) book is a biography but also part auto-bio graphic novel: Jaffee contributed numerous cartoons and comics to illustrate scenes from his life.
Jaffee's childhood was dictated by the sort of upside-down logic that later characterized his Mad work. While millions of Eastern European immigrants were streaming into America, Jaffee's mother decided she missed her Lithuanian shtetl and dragged Al and has three brothers away from their father and "back to the 19th century," as he describes it. He spent the next six years in a sort of Fiddler-on-the-Roof-meets-Huck-Finn childhood, stealing apples from neighbor's orchards, scrounging scraps of wood to make his own toys, and learning to draw the characters from the American Sunday funny pages his father faithfully mailed. Jaffee's father finally rescued his sons as Hitler was rising to power, and brought them back to New York. Feeling like an immigrant in his own country, Al bounced from one relative's couch to another before finding his calling at the High School of Music and Art, where his peers included Kurtzman, Feldstein, and future Mad cartoonist Will Elder.
At 89, Jaffee still contributes a fold-in to every issue of Mad. He currently has a show of his originals at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in SoHo (through January 30), and a complete, boxed-set collection of the fold-ins is due out next year. I interviewed Jaffee at his Manhattan studio, where he asked the first question.
So what are you working on, Dan?
It's a huge project, a global history of comics - Japanese, European, American comics - and how the different histories weave together. I know several people in the business of writing about comics. One of them is David Hajdu. He wrote The Ten-Cent Plague.
That had to do with (anti-comics crusader Fredric) Wertham? Yes, it has to do with that era of comic books' early days, when comics were accused of creating juvenile delinquency and every other bad thing you can imagine. That children didn't learn to read because they were burying themselves in these visual things. And of course the opposite is true. A lot of kids learned to read because they were eager to get from panel to panel. I did too, when I grew up in Lithuania. I lived there a total of six years from the age of six to 12 and never went to school, but I had my father send me American funny papers, the Sunday papers and the daily strips. He cut out all the strips and I would get a roll like that [holds his hands apart] and my brother Harry and I would spend all winter reading these comics, and learning how to read, learning how to write.