By most standards, Al Jaffee is one of the great cartoonists of our time. He was a major contributor to “Trump” and “Humbug,” two short-lived humor publications edited by Harvey Kurtzman, whom Jaffee met in high schoo, he wrote and illustrated the syndicated comic “Tall Tales” (collected by Abrams in 2008 in a volume introduced by Stephen Colbert) and was a long time artist for Timely Comics and Atlas Comics, where he worked on many humor comics, including a long run on “Patsy Walker.”
Most people know Jaffee, however, for his over 50 year career as one of the most important members of Mad Magazine’s “usual gang of idiots.” Jaffee has contributed hundreds of comics to the magazine over the decades, but he is best known for creating the magazine’s most endearing feature, the fold-in page. Working entirely by hand, Jaffee continues to create the fold-in and has composed all but three that have appeared in the magazine.
Mary-Lou Weisman is a journalist who met Jaffee when they were neighbors in Provincetown, Massachusetts more than thirty years ago. Weisman is the author of multiple books and has written for “The New York Times,” “The Atlantic Monthly,” “The New Republic” and many other publications. For her, the interest in writing was simply to share the story of her friend’s life, where he lived in Savannah, grew up on a shtetl in Lithuania and escaped to New York City before the Nazi invasion, all before turning thirteen. The two friends spoke with CBR about the HarperCollins published book, which details the amazing story of Jaffee’s life and includes numerous original illustrations.
CBR News: Mr. Jaffee, people who have heard you speak on panels and at conventions have heard some of the stories recounted in the book, but what made you want to set it all down in wiriting?
Al Jaffee: I had no intention of setting it all down. [Mary-Lou Weisman] were friends, and in ordinary conversation, little things would come up. Something about what I did in Europe as a child, for example. That intrigued Mary-Lou and she did a short piece which was published in an art magazine a couple of years ago. James Sturm read that piece and said, “You’ve got to tell the whole story.” He was interested in the Jewish communities of Europe that no longer exist. That’s how it came about.
It was Mary-Lou who went to work on it and went to work on me. I suppose if Mary-Lou hadn’t started this and someone like James Sturm came to me and said, “You really ought to do a graphic novel about your life,” I might have, because graphic novels are so popular now. It was much easier for me to work with Mary-Lou because she asked the right questions and I was able to dig deep into my memory and come up with the answers. Some of the answers I probably wouldn’t have come up with on my own.
Mary-Lou, I know you did a lot of research into what happened in Lithuania and what happened to Mr. Jaffee’s mother, who unlike the rest of the family, did not escape before the Nazis invaded.
Mary-Lou Weisman: Initially, that was terra incognita to me. Al has an extraordinary ability to recall, maybe not what he did yesterday, but what he did in 1927, he’s really sharp on. One of the things that became obvious to me is I needed to learn about this little town, this shtetl, of three thousand people that he had lived in for six years. He was transported from a middle class Twentieth century life in Savannah to a shtetl life, barely in the Nineteenth century, in Northeastern Lithuania. I needed to research that. I needed to try to find ships manifests of the comings and goings to check on Al’s memory.
Then, I needed to find out something that Al has been reluctant to find out all of his life, which was the fate of his mother, who refused to be rescued by her husband. She turned down the opportunity two times. Al had never wanted to delve into that. Al’s youngest brother was not rescued until just weeks before the Nazis moved into Zarasai and killed every Jew in the place. Al knew that his brother had been rescued, but he didn’t know how. Through the web, we were actually able to find the ships manifest on which his brother is listed.
Do you talk or think about your childhood much, Al?
Jaffee: No, I don’t. Very early on, when I realized that I was going to have a very difficult experience, being uprooted from my life in Savannah with my whole family, and I was going to be shipped off to who knows where with my mother and brothers and leave my father behind – at that point, I realized that this family was being torn apart and I had to make, not a conscious decision, but I think it was a subconscious decision, that I have to survive day to day and just surmount anything that’s coming my way. I was only six years old when I felt this very strongly. It happened in the railroad station in Hamburg, where my brothers were running all over the place and my mother was nowhere to be seen. It was at first a very frightening experience, but I think out of it came a survival instinct which has served me throughout my life. I really don’t look back. I remember. There’s a momentary twinge, a feeling of loss and pain, but moving on became my mantra. I know it’s a cliche now, politically and otherwise, but in my case it was the only way I could deal with whatever misfortune came my way. And a lot did come my way, but I managed to overcome them.
Weisman: I think that, just to add to that, this is how he survived. We talk a lot of psycho-babble about abandonment and child abuse and your inner child and all the stuff that is the vocabulary of our time. Al doesn’t think that way. Al reports his life anecdotally. We’re talking about a life that is filled with trauma, separation anxiety and all that stuff, but that’s not how Al sees it. Al sees it as just something to get through and keep moving.
One of the things he explained to me early on was a phrase that is common in cartooning, “the plausible impossible,” which is a kind of stretching of reality. I think it was coined by Walt Disney. When Bugs Bunny leaps over a chasm and it’s an impossible leap, way too wide a leap, he’s able to do it by keeping his little legs running in mid-air. Al was giving me an education in cartooning and in some of the techniques he used. The minute he said that to me, I knew that’s a metaphor for how Al survived. He just never looked down. If Bugs Bunny never looked down and kept his feet moving, he could get across the chasm. If Al Jaffee just kept moving, he could get past one nightmare after another. And he did.
It’s interesting you say it like that, because many of the great comedians, comic film stars and humor writers had tragic and traumatic childhoods and young adulthoods, but they managed to process those experiences very differently than most of us do or could.
Jaffee: I couldn’t agree with you more. Their survival mechanism was humor. In many cases, tinged with tragedy. I think humor played a very large role in my life because ultimately all of our experiences start to be ridiculous in the framework of the millennia that the world exists. Everybody has good days and bad days and horrible days, but there’s also something very funny about our battles with these things. I was able to see the humor in my own ridiculous life. It made it very easy for me to see the humor in the ridiculous posturing of politicians and religious figures who tell you to do one thing and they do the opposite. I have always viewed my life, and everybody else’s, with a tinge of humor and ridicule.
Weisman: I think that one of the keys that distinguishes Al from other comic/tragic humorists is that Al is really a satirist. The fact that he was taken from his home, plunked down without language – people were speaking Lithuanian, people were speaking Yiddish – he’s six years old, plopped down into the nineteenth century. Then he gets picked up when he’s twelve and plunked back down into New York where he’s now speaking his native tongue with a Yiddish accent. He’s put in the third grade because he’s been unschooled. That kind of, to use the psycho-babble term, displacement, has had a permanent effect on him, and it’s both good and bad. It has made him a man without a country. He’s never ever, ever at home anywhere. Not really. He’s not comfortable, ever. As a result of that, he sees what we all see through a very different lens. He’s kind of our man from Mars. Given his artistic talent, you could almost run a film of the story of his life backwards and realize, of course, this would make a talented artist and an intelligent man into a satirist.
I think an interesting aspect of the book is tracing this satirical, anti-adult sense of the world through Al’s life. It’s a sensibility that is the sensibility of “Mad Magazine.”
Weisman: I think that is why the book is aptly named “Al Jaffee’s Mad Life.” It was his mad life that led him to “Mad Magazine.”
Jaffee: Not to belabor the point, but I think the thing that makes me laugh is hypocrisy. My God, you cannot pick up a newspaper or turn on a show without hearing tons of it. People are not honest. There are wonderful people, wonderful teachers and wonderful parents and all of that, but you can’t just assume that parents are wonderful. Parents abuse children. You can’t assume that salesmen are honest or that religious figures are honorable. The excuse that’s given by society generally is that it’s one rotten apple. Well, from my point of view, and all of these years that I’ve lived and observed, there are a lot of rotten apples. That gives me fodder for pointing up the nonsense and the foibles and the ridiculousness of our daily lives. Someone might say that that’s a bitter way to look at things, but I don’t look at it bitterly. I have fun with it.
Your childhood had a lot of sadness, but it also sounds like you had a lot of fun and a lot of freedom with a very Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn kind of childhood.
Jaffee: Yes, there was that. As a matter of fact, Mary-Lou and I touched on that yesterday. After dwelling for a long time on all the downsides of my life, it just suddenly came out of me, “Wait a minute, I don’t remember it always being a bad time!” The summers were wonderful in Lithuania. You could go swimming and go boating. The shtetl was surrounded by lakes and we spent lots and lots of time in the water, but there was an undercurrent. You were always being warned, almost like in a fairy tale, we would be constantly reminded that you go into the wrong area, a non-Jewish area, you’re likely to get hit with a rock or otherwise abused. We were aware of that behind the scenes problem, but being little kids, you don’t think about those things all the time. You think about jumping into the water or making a fishing pole.
My brother Harry and I were very inventive. This was a town that had nothing for sale for children. I mean, life was hard for everybody. We remembered American toys and we would build little cars and airplanes. All kinds of things which fascinated the local kids. In winter, there was a lot of sleigh riding and adventuring in the deep snow and stuff like that. So there were good times.
Weisman: One of the ways that the bad was transformed into good, really because children are so adaptable, is that Al was often neglected by his mother. The neglect took the form of failing to feed him. He and his next youngest brother, Harry, a fascinating man, would steal fruit from the orchards around town. In order to do that and not be torn to bits by the dogs that were guarding the orchards, he and his brother would invent fruit-stealing devices. It’s this inventiveness, this necessity mothering invention that can also be seen as the very beginning of “Al Jaffee’s Mad Inventions.”
So much of your work doesn’t rely on words. How much of that do you think was because, for so much of your childhood, you dealt with the challenge of moving between countries and languages.
Jaffee: The main reason why I do a lot of wordless humor is that I think of drawing as a language. If you want absolute proof of that, check out Sergio Aragones’ work in “Mad,” which has been going on for forty or fifty years and hardly ever has a word in it, but tells complete stories. I feel I can do that, too. I broadened my approach to the work and did lots of different things, but Sergio and I are on the same page when it comes to telling stories with pictures as our language. I love the challenge of that, because to me, it’s the ultimate artistic expression. I think fine artists feel the same way when they make a painting and hang it in a museum. They hope that it speaks to the people who come to see it. Some of it, of course, I feel is total goobledygook that no one can understand, but a lot of it speaks to a lot of us.
That’s the only explanation I can give for why I do wordless humor. I do a lot of it in “Mad” as ancillary business. I’ll have a scene in which the script explains what’s in the captions and stuff like that, but then I’ll throw in a lot of stuff on the side or in the background that I feel, or hope, enhances the experience. Another person who did that a lot was my good old friend Will Elder, one of the original artists in “Mad Magazine.” He would just fill every panel with funny stuff going on that’s on the side, but always had some connection to the main thrust of the story. I don’t know if I’m explaining this sensibly, but I guess I’ll stick to the fact that I feel cartooning is a language, with or without words.
A few years ago, you received the Reuben of the Year Award from the National Cartoonists Society for your body of work, one of a handful of “Mad Magazine” artists who have been so honored with Sergio Aragones and Mort Drucker having received it previously. What did such an award mean to you?
Jaffee: It would be wrong for me to say anything other than it’s a wonderful thing to happen, but philosophically, I’m not a great believer in awards. As a means of telling somebody your work is admired, I suppose it’s fine. I certainly am very proud that my fellow cartoonists chose me for the award that year, and it does mean a lot to me that people I admire in my business felt like giving it to me, but I still have to go back and say your work is your reward. The appreciation that people show by buying your books or magazines or wherever your work appears, that’s the award.
I wanted to ask about two people you met in school who have been a big part of your life and career – Will Elder, another great cartoonist who worked at “Mad” whom you mentioned earlier, and Harvey Kurtzman.
Jaffee: Yes. Will and I met in junior high school and remained very very close friends. He was closer to me than my brothers were. We were very competitive. We were constantly arguing about who could draw a cartoon funnier or better, but it was a feeling of great love and affection that we had for each other. I regret that he’s not around anymore because he was very talented and a very nice person.
Harvey Kurtzman. The word genius is something that I dislike because people you admire become geniuses; people that you don’t admire, don’t become geniuses. I think Harvey comes as close to being a genius in our business [as possible]. Harvey was a very bright, very intelligent guy, but he was particularly adept at creating things in the business of publishing. He was a terrific editor. I loved working with Harvey. He was the toughest editor I ever worked for. If Harvey looked at something and said, “I think it needs to be changed,” even though you worked on it for two days, he made you see why it needed to be changed. I will always have the highest regard for Harvey Kurtzman.
This “Mad Life” of yours, both the book and your own life – I know that you don’t look back, but I’m curious how you feel about it and what you’ve accomplished.
Jaffee: Well, I feel that I have no disappointments. Oh, it would have been nice to have become a billionaire just from my writing and drawing. There are lots of things that, if I could write the script for my life, I would change, but have I had a happy life? On the whole, yes. Have there been tragedies? Yes, there have been tragedies. But it’s been a full life and I’m still enjoying it. If I look back on some of the times that weren’t so great, now they don’t look that bad, because I’m past it. I’m on to something else. The thing is, you either live in despondency and relive all the bad stuff that happened to you, or you look forward to the next cupcake.
What can we expect to see from you in the next issue of “Mad?”
Jaffee: In the next issue, you’re going to see a fold-in. I can’t give away what the fold-in is about. From “Mad” you will also see, in a few months, a four volume box set of all the fold-ins that I have done, up to the point of publication. That’s well over 400 fold-ins. I don’t own it, “Mad” owns it, so I’m not plugging it to make a profit for me. I think that the interesting thing about 45 years of fold-ins is that if read carefully, it’s sort of a timeline of 45 years of our lives done in a funny, tricky way. That’s about all that I can claim for it.
Mary-Lou, I’m curious – do you have any final thoughts on Mr. Jaffee’s life and career?
Weisman: He is [“Mad] Magazine’s” oldest and most prodigious contributor. He was there from nearly the word “Go.” This experience of working with Al has been very special to me, because I started out being interested in this amazing page-turner of a life story and I ended up learning a great deal about “Mad Magazine” and the enormous influence it had, just a tremendous influence on American culture. I began to have great respect, not just for the man and his life, but for the magazine. When I tell people what I’m doing, everybody knows about “Mad.” Everybody knows Al. I guess my final words on the subject are, [readers] think they’re going to be reading a book about Al Jaffee’s career at “Mad,” and they are, but they’re also going to be reading a story of one of the maddest lives I’ve ever heard about. It’s really a potent book full of surprises for its readers. It certainly was for me.