Al Jaffee might have turned 88 last week, but the artist shows no sign of stopping. Since 1964, he has appeared in nearly every issue of Mad Magazine, having pioneered some of that publication’s most-beloved and longest lasting features, including the Fold-in and Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions. To say that Jaffee has been a major influence in modern American gag writing seems like a gross understatement. Along with early Mad peers like Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, and Jack Davis, Jaffee pratically invented the stuff.
In this third and final part of our interview with the artist, we dive back into Jaffee’s early career, from his first days with Mad, to the creation of the humor magazines Trump and Humbug—and beyond.
For the past 60 years, you haven’t really done much “serious” work. It seems safe to say that humor is definitely your passion.
Humor was a passion for me—satire, definitely. I just love poking pins in overblown balloons. There’s so much crap being disseminated when you listen to politicians and Madison Avenue-types and ambitious businessmen. All of the hype that goes into showbusiness and almost everything—everything’s ripe for being brought down to earth. It’s fun to do that, but I like to believe that I’m not mean spirited about it. I think when you get heavy-handed in humor, I don’t think it works as well. There’s a recent cartoon that I haven’t seen but have heard about that seemed to imply that Obama was a chimpanzee, I think that it starts to be ineffective. There could have been many other ways to do it that could have been effective.
You mentioned earlier that there aren’t as many humor magazines as there once were, but it seems that, in a political, socio-economic sense, we need that manner of satire more than ever.
Well, I think my view of that is that it’s been that way throughout history and it will always be that way. You’re always going to have somebody who’s power hungry, who is corrupt, who is self-serving and who is powerful—and who is trying to take advantage of ordinary people who are simply trying to get by. This is a role that newspapers had played throughout history when it’s a free press. They can point out this stuff. So I really hate to see magazines and newspapers go down because they’ve done a wonderful job in a free society of trying to point out these power hungry people trying to take advantage of the rest of us. But I think maybe the Internet will take over that job. There’s a lot of stuff there, and they’re doing it. I don’t think there’s anything unique on in our society right now that hasn’t been going on in the history of society and will probably go on for the rest of eternity.
Getting back to your early work for a moment, something that strikes me as interesting is the fact that you began your career as a comic artist and then joined the Mad team as soon as they moved away from comics.
Well, you know, my so-called career has been one of fortuitious accidents. People seem to come to me and make offers to me just at the time that I need them. I had no idea that Harvey Kurtzman, when he was doing Mad, would have any interest in working with me. But he did come to me. At first I said, “no,” because I didn’t think I’d be able to make as good a living as I was making with Timely Comics, but certain things happened and I was able to leave Timely Comics and join Mad, briefly. Then Harvey was no longer with Mad, so I went to him with Trump and then Humbug, then back to Mad. I think most of these things happened without any effort on my part. And that’s true, when I look back on it, I think after my first trip with my portfolio to see Will Eisner, while he was doing The Spirit and other comics, after I showed that to him and he hired me to do Inferior Man, that was the last time I ever showed anyone my portfolio. And that was in 1940.
The Mad job seems especially fortuitous. You knew Kurtzman fairly early on.
I didn’t know him well. I knew of him, mostly. He was a freshman in my high school when I was a senior. I became aware of him because his teachers put up drawings that he was making that were very, very amusing. I remember one in particular. He did a huge crowd scene of a class boat trip up the Hudson River. The school used to have an annual boat trip as kind of a reward for the kids. And Kurtzman, as a freshman, went on this boat ride and then did a wonderful drawing of it, and it was posted on the bulletin board. And then a classmate of mine came up to me and said, “you’d better look out, because there’s this freshman kid who’s terrific.” Because I known as one of the top cartoonists in the school, along with Will Elder. Willie and I were both seniors, and we went to look at this drawing by Kurtzman and it really was very impressive. And that’s the last I heard of him until I was an editor at Timely and Kurtzman was bringing in his comic page called, Hey Look.
It was wonderful and every time Kurtzman came in with Hey Look—and I didn’t really know him at the time, I knew of him—all of us would jump up and go look at it. It was a treat. We felt that way very seldom because most of the work that was coming in was just routine jobs that everyone had to do. You weren’t going to get excited over a new Human Torch or a new Mighty Mouse, or whatever. But Harvey Kurtzman’s stuff was so unique that we all ran over to see what the latest page was. A couple of years ago I saw a book of his stuff and it still holds up.
Is that the Fantagraphics book?
Yeah, I think that had a lot of it. And I had another book of Hey Look—I have no idea where it is now, because every time I’ve had to move, I had to get rid of stuff. So I didn’t get to know Harvey as much as he knew about me. He went to work with Will Elder and later Jack Davis and John Severin. And I heard through the grapevine that, ever since high school, he wanted to get Will Elder and me to work with him on any idea he could come up with. So it turned out that way.
Was that part of the original success of your teaming, that everyone came from the same place and had similar sensibilities?
Yeah, I think that had a lot to do with it. the main thing, of course, is that Harvey Kurtzman had a great eye and a great ear. He focused on the people and the work very intensely and he would file it in the back of his mind. He would see just some little thing that we did and he would file that away and say, “someday I’ve got to hire that guy.” He had that kind of a feel. And he worked very hard to make it come true and it did come true. We all came together, eventually, and even put out our own magazine, Humbug, which will live again in a two book set.
One final question, pertaining to comics.
I know that you moved to the United States at a fairly young age. Do you remember the first comic book you ever read?
Yeas, I do remember. It was 1933 and I was in a small village, living with relatives—the name was South Fallsburg, in upstate New York. I was sitting on a bench in front of a candy store, and then suddenly my eyes opened like saucers, because I saw something Famous Funnies. By coincidence, it was created by Bill Gaines’s father. There’s a long story attached to that and there’s some argument about whether Bill Gaines created it or Harry Donenfeld, of DC Comics was the originator, or somebody else. But, to the best of my knowledge, Max Gaines got the idea of putting Sunday funnies into a small 64-page magazine. And these would be reprints of the Sunday funnies, which is why they were called Famous Funnies. And he experimented by putting them in candy stores and then going back later in the day and then finding out later in the day that wherever he left them, they were sold out, immediately. That’s my impression of how the comic book industry got going.
So your first comic book was probably the first comic book, ever.
That’s my impression. I couldn’t afford to buy it for $0.10, so I read it at the store.