Interview: Al Jaffee [unabridged]

By DAN MAZUR  |  November 18, 2010

But the upshot of the story is that every place he went to pick them up, they were sold out. Voila, he was in business. Of course it didn't take long for the syndicates to realize they're not giving that stuff away anymore, and that's when a lot of Jewish entrepreneurs in New York City and others, non-Jews as well — I think Vin Sullivan was one — they also jumped into it and started looking for artists, desperately looking for artists and writers, which opened up in the Depression a huge field for talented Jewish kids who couldn't get jobs or selling their work to WASP advertising agencies and business of that like Now they didn't face any kind of discrimination It didn't matter if your name was Abramowitz, you could sell your comics strip.

And that's where you came in. You were working in comics before the war or did you start after the war? Before the war.

And when did you decide that you wanted to be a cartoonist. High school? To tell you the truth, in high school I did everything, and I have to say this myself, I was good at everything. Whether it was wood engraving, whether it was etching, oil painting, pastel, my stuff always ended up in the shows. I didn't think I was very special because there were so many other people who I admire and most everybody that I hung around with was equal to me, so I didn't see myself as anything special. But when I graduated in 1940, unbeknownst to me — all I was interested in was to start make making a living, I didn't want to go on with schooling anymore I just wanted to go to work — and I get a letter from the Art Students League that my portfolio had been submitted and I won a scholarship. Which is a very prestigious thing to get, but of course I was either going to enlist or get drafted in the next six months, so I just wrote back and said I can't do it, there's a war on and I'm going to be gone. So I dropped that. But what it did tell me was that hey, maybe I did have something special if I could get a scholarship at the Art Students League. But I made up a cartoon — I mean maybe this is why I wound up in Mad — satire is one thing, lampoon is another thing.

What's the difference between satire and lampooning? What I did was lampooning. I created "Inferior Man." Why? Because Superman was so big in 1940. So I created this scrawny little guy who's an accountant in the daytime, and at nighttime he puts on a cape, even though his socks are held up by garters that are visible and he's in his underwear, and he pretends to be a superhero. And of course I hadn't written a single story with it, I just made the drawing. But y'know, I was a kid and somebody said, Will Eisner has a studio and he's looking for talent, and I said what the hell, I'll go down. And I showed it to him and he said, "I like the way you think. I want you to do this as a filler in my comic book Military Comics." The war is on now, everything is military, and you're going to be in Military Comics. We're going to give him a job in the army. He'll be in the quartermaster corps, handing out clothing, and then at night he fights the Nazis. Well I tried it. I never turn an opportunity down and I never believe that I can't do it, so I gave it a shot, but I saw that it was not going to work.

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    Al Jaffee has been a Mad man for 55 years, practically since the beginning.
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 See all articles by: DAN MAZUR