Interview: Al Jaffee Pt. 3 [of 3]

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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.

[Part One]

[Part Two]
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Interview: Al Jaffee Pt. 2 [of 3]

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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.

[Part One]

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Interview: Al Jaffee Pt. 1 [of 3]

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“I was trying shut the radio off and had type flying in the air,” Al Jaffee laughs, taking the call off of speakerphone. He’s in the middle of fold-in at the moment—“engrossed” as he happily puts it. It is, of course, exactly what one would expect the artist to be working on at 5:30 PM on a Wednesday night—or, really, any time, for that matter. Since 1964, the artist has created, by his estimation, more than 400 of the things, which have graced the back cover of all but three issues of Mad Magazine over the course of the past 45 years.

At 87, Jaffee’s speaks of himself in the same self-deprecating tones his fans have come to know and expect from his work, a sense of modesty that hardly betrays his position as one of the most beloved humor cartoonists of the past half-century.  The artist is quick with joke for nearly every topic we broach during our discussion, though the one that inadvertently kicks off the interview hits a little too close to home—the death rattle of the American publishing industry.

In late January of this year, it was announced that Mad, America’s premier humor magazine, will become a quarterly, after 55 years as a monthly publication. It is, of course, a sign of the times, if ever their were one, a sign that the magazine is continuing to struggle at the hands of newer forms of media, seven years after finally caving and including advertisements in its printed form. It’s also a sign, Jaffee adds, half jokingly, that “humor is dying.”

Pop cultural bemoaning aside (though, honestly, who can blame the guy?), Jaffee proves himself once again to be the consummate storyteller, a man with a fantastic yarn for nearly every question one might toss at him, from his days attending classes at The High School of Music & Art in New York alongside future Mad staffers Harvey Kurtzman, Al Feldstein, and Will Elder; to his time spent as an artist/writer for Stan Lee at Timely Comics; to creation of some of Mad’s most enduring features. Few have seen as much of the industry as Al Jaffee an even fewer can tell its story quite so well.

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