Before accepting a full-time gig at Harvey Kurtzman’s Mad Magazine, Al Jaffee kicked around the comics industry, writing anything his editors would throw at him, from funny animal books, to “teenage material,” to army comics, to crime books. The artist even dabbled a bit in the superhero genre—albeit with a distinctly Jaffeean take on the subject
It was his boss at Timely—a young editor by the name of Stan Lee—who assigned Jaffee work on a title called Super Rabbit. Under the artist’s control, the superhero was transformed into something different than the rest of the books on the market. The costumed lagomorph became a hero with problems—normal, everyday problems.
It was a decision, perhaps, that would have an impact on Stan Lee’s later success (if only subconsciously), as Timely became Marvel and the editor churned out book after book of venerable heroes, decidedly real world counterparts to the supermen who dominated the industry.
In this second part of our interview with Jaffee, we delve into the artist’s pre-Mad work and discuss how the early world of comic books shaped the artist’s later successes in the industry.
I know it’s hard for a lot of artists to give up a sense of autonomy—to have to do work by committee. Was it ever difficult having to answer to editors?
No, it never is, because Mad has had crackerjack people. The editors that they have now are tops. They anticipate my problems. They’re not going to throw something at me that is utterly impossible, you know. They have a very good sense of what’s practical and what’s not, and we just have a terrific working relationship and have had for many years now, and I love working with them, because they’re just really good at it. And I think they like working with me because I view my role as the problem solver. Editors like to work with people who can take the thing and go with it, and I’ve been able to do that, so I solve their problems, they solve mine.
I assume it was a little different when you first started in the comics industry—when you were working with Timely ad publishers of that ilk. What was the creative pipeline like, back then?
Well, my relationships with editors with all stripes have always been very good because it’s easier to work with editors if you’re a writer/artist. If you can write, because editors have a lot of problems on their mind, because they’re not just working with me or one other guy. They’re working with a dozen other people or more, and they just want the problem solved. When I first started with Stan Lee, my first assignment—we didn’t know each other from anything, I just came in with my portfolio—he threw a script at me and said, “if you can do this, we’ll work together.” I took the script and interpreted it. It was called Swat Car Squad. I didn’t create it—somebody wrote it and I did the artwork on it. When I turned it in, he was very happy and he said, “can you write it and draw it?” I said, “sure.”
The next script I wrote and drew and handed it to him, and he said, “okay, from now on, you just do it and don’t even show me the script. Just write it and draw it.” And so, in essence, he got rid of a problem. He got rid of the problem of finding a writer to hand something to an artist who would have to interpret the writing correctly. All of that is wiped out, when the artist writes his own stuff. So, my relationship with Stan Lee continued on that way for my entire relationship with him. He never saw a script of mine. All he said was, “do a six page story, do a five page story.” And I would just write it, draw it, ink it, hand it in for lettering, and that would be the last time I heard of it. And I think it’s a mutually excellent relationship, when the editor can rely on a writer/artist, so he can pay attention to other problems that don’t solve themselves so easily. So, it’s been a good situation for me throughout my career because I just didn’t have any problems. I didn’t have any rejections, I didn’t have any editors sitting over my shoulder. Everything ran very smoothly.
Did you get the sense that with Stan Lee it was like that with the other writer/artists? Or was your relationship something of a special case?
Well, I’m not familiar with how many writer/artists he had. When I worked for him, as an associate editor, there were artist/writers like Morris Weiss, who was doing a number of comic books. He packaged the entire comic book. He would write it, he would draw it, and I think even letter it. He delivered it to me when I was the associate editor. He worked the same way that I always worked with Stan Lee. He didn’t have any editorial supervision. He just did it and turned it in. there must have been others as well, but I don’t think that that was the way it was with the superheroes.
Stan Lee really supervised the superhero scripts very closely, because Stan is a very good writer in his own right, and he knew how he wanted the stories and the characters developed, and he wasn’t going to let anyone go off course. It was easier in the humor department and the teenage material. I did Patsy Walker for many years, and the first time that Stan saw the material was when he saw the whole book. So we trusted each other and that worked very well. I’m sure he had that relationship with other people, but I didn’t work in the office. I was freelance after my associate editorship ended.
You did do a superhero book—a very unique take on the genre called Super Rabbit.
How did that title come about? Was it an attempt to create your own superhero?
Stan Lee handed it to me as he handed a lot of things to me. I guess I had established that relationship on the first thing, Swat Car Squad, and from that point on, he would say to me, “create some characters and write it.” That’s what happened with Silly Seal and Ziggy Pig and Fertie the Fox and so many others. And then when the writer/artist who was doing Super Rabbit—I don’t exactly know who that was—he called me in and he said, “how would you like to write and draw this thing?” And I said, “sure, great.”
From the beginning, I just realized that I couldn’t do a rabbit as a superhero. It’s ridiculous. So it’s got to be a rabbit who has problems. So, right from the beginning, I just started writing stories where he was a second-rate superhero. He had just ordinary problems. That’s why I sort of tie it into what Stan started doing with superheroes, later on. Although I’m not taking any credit away from Stan Lee. He’s perfectly creative in his own right, and I have absolute faith the fact that he was not influenced by Super Rabbit. He probably didn’t even remember Super Rabbit when he did his superhero stuff. But it was just a very funny coincidence that I did have Super Rabbit have ordinary problems like human beings have, and being a superhero was not something that he was very successful at.
So when you look at Spider-man or the Fantastic Four, you see a little bit of Super Rabbit in there?
Well, in a way I do. I think it sort of makes me feel things come full circle. The writers of superhero material—Captain America and the Human Torch and the Submariner—were very straight. They took this stuff very seriously. They were fighting the war and they were fighting Nazis and fighting the Communists and all of these menaces, but they weren’t kidding around. The only jokes they’d have would be something like, “take that, you half-assed…thing…”
Taglines, yeah. And hitting five people with the same punch. But not much, other than these little throwaway bits of humor. and then Stan, to his credit, turned things around and he I think he turned the industry around by making superheroes more a part of our world than just from some distant planet. And he combined superheroes with human traits and I think that people could identify with that stuff more easily.
Could you see yourself having written those more serious superhero books, had things turned out differently, if you would have stayed on with Timely as it became Marvel?
Well I must confess that I think I could have written superhero material. Stan even assigned me a straight writing job on one of this detective books. I forget what the title was, but I did a sort off Bonnie and Clyde thing. I wrote it and I drew it. I felt very comfortable with it. I feel that writing is writing. If you have to do a serious thing, you do a serious thing. If you have to do something that’s funny, you do something that’s funny. I’m not going to say that I would have had a hugely successful career as a superhero writer. I really don’t know. When you get into these things, you get familiar with the problems of the craft and you start to get used to it.
I really don’t think it would have been difficult for me, but I like drawing and I can’t draw straight stuff. Even teenage drawing was difficult for me, but I did it well enough so that the books sold well. That’s all I know. The drawing might not have been so great, but it did the job. I think most of us, at the end of our lives would like to start over again and see how things would have gone if we had gone in another direction, but we don’t get that chance.
[Concluded in Part Three]