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“MAD” Artist Al Jaffee Celebrates Turning 95 Years Young

by  in Comic News Comment
“MAD” Artist Al Jaffee Celebrates Turning 95 Years Young

Al Jaffee, longtime “MAD Magazine” contributor and multiple award-winning cartoonist, turned 95 years old in March.

To mark his birthday, friends and colleagues gathered to celebrate at New York restaurant Sardi’s. There were tributes from Mad Editor in Chief John Ficarra, Art Director Sam Viviano and others. Sergio Aragones, Stan Lee and Dan DiDio couldn’t be there, but through filmed tributes Aragones’ respect and admiration for Jaffee came through loud and clear, while Lee joked that everywhere he goes people talk about Jafee’s old Timely comic, “Ziggy Pig and Silly Seal.”

Jaffee is a man who has received just about every award a cartoonist can receive, including the Reuben Award from the National Cartoonists Society, but that night he received two additional honors. A representative from Guinness World Records certified him with “the longest career as a comics artist,” having worked continuously since December 1942. And if that weren’t enough, Mayor Bill de Blasio declared March 30 “Al Jaffee Day” in New York City.

Before the festivities began, Mr. Jaffee sat down and spoke with CBR News. He apologized for his cold, but it was clear that he was thrilled and touched by the evening’s events. He told us “MAD Magazine” was always “like a family” to him, and it was clear that he still feels that way about his friends and colleagues.

CBR News: First of all, Mr. Jaffee, happy birthday.

Al Jaffee: Thank you.

Do you feel 95?

If it weren’t for this cold, I would say, “No way.” I walk everywhere, I work five or six days a week, and I still get plenty of ideas. I won’t live long enough to get to all the ideas that I’ve put into files. I think it’s very important to work, to have something important to do, when you’re old. Just sitting around watching television or rocking on a porch is just inviting the grim reaper sooner.

You’re not interested in retiring, you’re keeping busy.

You atrophy. You need to keep your mind active. I like to walk, so my wife and I will go have lunch five blocks away so we take a little bit of a walk. When the weather’s nice, we walk farther, but the wintertime is a little rough on old people.

When you started working at “MAD” years ago, could you see yourself doing this job decades and hundreds of issues later?

That’s an interesting question, because it goes to whether I even thought “MAD” would last more than five years. I thought it was a fad. Listen, I created a number of comic books that don’t exist anymore. Harvey Kurtzman, who created “MAD,” was really a very, very special guy. He was a special talent. I wasn’t always crazy about everything he did, but the one thing for sure is that he would do something that no one else had done. He was just constantly creative — which was also his downfall. Someone like [Hugh] Hefner would come along and blow in his ear. He’d follow Hefner because Hefner would say, “You’re working for that little cockamamie ‘MAD Magazine’ and it’s on black and white newsprint, cheapest stuff around. Come to work for me and we’ll create a magazine like ‘Playboy,’ with full color on every page.” Harvey couldn’t resist that.

Harvey wasn’t a guy to sit on his laurels. He could have stayed with Bill Gaines until now. However, I don’t know if “MAD” would have thrived under him. Certain creative people like Harvey get bored. The interesting part is a new invention, and then it’s just labor, slogging magazine to magazine to magazine. He might have given it up no matter what, because he always had a new idea. I learned a lot from Harvey, and we were very good friends. He wanted me to come to work for “MAD” at the beginning, but he couldn’t pay me what I was making at Stan Lee’s place. Stan was a great guy, and I didn’t want to leave Stan.

Speaking of keeping busy, what are you working on now?

Right now, it’s a form of retirement in which I just do the fold-ins and occasional special thing if I get an idea. I don’t wear myself out. I’m satisfied with the fold-ins and I also do fold-ins outside of “MAD” — not for magazines, but for advertising and non-competitive stuff.

I’m sure that back in the day when most contributors lived in New York City, you would get together a lot more. You used to have parties or go on vacation together. An event like this where everyone can get together probably doesn’t happen as much anymore.

The trips were fantastic. I loved every one of them. Gaines took us to places that I would never be able to go to — none of us would be able to go to. African Safari, Tahiti, Russia. He loved to travel, and his wife didn’t, so he figured out how to do it by inventing a bonus for his contributors. I think he had a much better time with the gang than he would have if his wife wanted to go on a safari. It was very exciting for all of us.

Gaines also threw a very big Christmas party, either in a restaurant or in his apartment. Now when I say apartment, we’re talking about a three-bedroom apartment in a luxury building on Lexington Avenue. The mirror image apartment of his came on the market, and he either bought it or rented it. When he threw a Christmas party, he had it all catered, and they were really spectacular parties. The best part was, he walked from contributor to contributor and handed them an envelope. Later, when you got a chance to look inside, there was your annual bonus. For a lot of people it paid their mortgage off. It wasn’t a great fortune, but it could be two or three thousand dollars — and I’m talking twenty-five, thirty, forty years ago.

You know the phrase — used very often for business purposes — “we’re like a family.” Most of the time that’s bullshit, but in Gaines’ case, it really was like a family. He told the editors, “I want you to keep every one of our guys busy. Don’t tell me that somebody’s come in with something a little bit better than this guy does. If somebody comes in and he’s so much better than everybody, hire him, but I’m not replacing Wally Wood or Jack Davis or Will Elder or any of the people that have been part of my family.” He was a good guy that way.

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