Interview: Al Jaffee [unabridged]

By DAN MAZUR  |  November 18, 2010

Did they have indigenous comics in Lithuania? No. There were things that were passed around like Max and Moritz, on which I think the Katzenjammer Kids were based. We loved the Katzenjammer Kids, of course. Kids would love strips like that because they are naughty mischievous children. Deep down all kids want to be mischievous, I think anyway. Deep down that's what I continue to want to be. So that's the only one that I ever saw there. But the winters were so harsh in the shtetl we lived in ,which was way up north, in fact the town was known as the Siberia of Lithuania, even in Lithuania it was Siberia! Winter would settle in the beginning of October and it wouldn't leave until April 30. So you spent a lot of time either going sledding and freezing to death, or indoors trying to find things to do. So with these comics my brother Harry and I on our own invented the big little books. After reading them several dozen times — comic strips at that time followed a specific grid, and they were all full-page things, not like today when they squeeze five and six strips into a page. So you would get Little Orphan Annie in a whole page and it would be divided into 12 equal panels. So we would sacrifice what we didn't care for on the other side of the page. And cut them up and sew them together and have these little books, and they would fascinate the little Jewish friends we had, who couldn't read English, but they could enjoy the pictures. It wasn't dangerous at all.

And not only learning to read, I still feel that just from reading Superman and Batman — not to mention Mad — the information the writers put in there just to tell stories — there was a lot of history and culture. A lot of the general knowledge that I have has little roots in those comic book stories. Absolutely. One that was very popular was Buck Rodgers. We were into space travel in the 1920s — I mean I was reading it then. Seeing rocket ships — never dreaming of course that anything like that would ever be humanly possible, because even intercontinental air flight was something of the imagination, but yes, I agree with you totally, Dan. The visual-plus-storytelling imaginations of cartoonists tickled the minds of a lot of kids and got them to think about possibilities other than the pragmatic things they were surrounded with. I keep going back to that village, because the village I was living in — I was born in Savannah, Georgia, and I lived there the first six years of my life, I knew what trolleys were, I knew what airplanes were. I was on trains and I went with my father to see barnstorming World War I airplanes. I was familiar with merry-go-rounds and loop-de-loops and all kinds of stuff like that. But kids in Lithuania didn't have a single toy that they didn't make themselves, by cutting some straw together and turning it into a doll or taking a sock. Or cutting off — and I even did this — looking for a really round log and then having someone cut off four slices to make a wagon 'cause you weren't going to find wheels anywhere. Now you can find them in the garbage, 500 of them on any morning in Manhattan

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    Al Jaffee has been a Mad man for 55 years, practically since the beginning.
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