Al Jaffee’s MAD retirement

Alex Dueben reflects on the career and legacy of Al Jaffee, ‘one of the great living cartoonists.’

Last week saw the release of MAD Magazine #14, a special issue which marked the retirement of Al Jaffee. 

For a long time, Jaffee has been one of the great living cartoonists. He’s the recipient of many awards, including the Reuben Award and the Eisner Award. His career stretches back to 1942, and in that time, Jaffee has worked for Esquire and Playboy, and he was a longtime artist, writer and editor at Timely, where he worked on Patsy Walker and created comics like Ziggy Pig and Silly Seal. He contributed to Harvey Kurtzman’s acclaimed but short-lived publications Trump and Humbug. From 1957-1963, Jaffee made the syndicated strip Tall Tales, a collection of which was published by Abrams in 2008. 

He is, however, best known as one of the people synonymous with MAD Magazine.

Jaffee made his career being funny, but his life was marked by a number of tragedies. In the book Al Jaffee’s Mad Life, written by Jaffee’s friend, the writer Mary-Lou Weisman, she details Jaffee’s childhood in the United States before his mother uprooted him and his brothers to return to what is now Lithuania. Jaffee grew up there before his father brought him and his brothers to the United States, shortly before the Nazi invasion. His mother was still in the country when the Germans invaded, and the entire village was massacred.

In New York Jaffee attended the High School of Music and Art, where he met Will Elder, another great cartoonist, who Jaffee described as closer to him than his brothers. And Jaffee’s skill as an artist and his sensibility as a humorist began to take shape. Indeed in the biography, Weisman argues that the sensibility and and tone of MAD Magazine, before it even began, was Al Jaffee’s sensibility and tone.

Al Jaffee with his Reuben Award

Generations grew up reading Jaffee’s “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions,” “Mad Inventions” and other work, but Jaffee’s great contribution to MAD – and arguably, to human civilization – is the fold-in. 

Jaffee has related in multiple interviews over the years how the idea started as a joke, mocking the fold outs that could be found in everything from Playboy to National Geographic, and he went on to make hundreds of them, with the fold-in running in nearly every issue of the magazine between 1964 and 2019. 

When I was young, I was fascinated by the fold-in. Even then the gag wasn’t what interested me, but I was amazed by the mind that could make two images that fit together in this way. As an adult, I’m even more in awe of it. Cartooning is a language, but the thinking required to envision the fold-in and how it works is something else. Learning how Jaffee works – starting with the final image and then working backwards – makes it even more impressive. This is the kind of mind that could craft those inventions in MAD, which, unlike Rube Goldberg’s, weren’t funny because they were over the top, but were the product of someone who looked at the world and was able to pull it apart and rearrange it in a way that was both absurd and perfectly reasonable.

I’ve talked with Jaffee a few times over the years. I interviewed him and Weisman when the biography was published in 2010, and had the chance to meet both. In 2016 I got to sit down with Jaffee at Sardi’s, before his 95th birthday party. At the event, the mayor named March 30 “Al Jaffee Day” in New York City, and the Guinness Book of World Records certified Jaffee as having the longest career as a comic artist, having worked continuously since 1942. 

When I spoke with Jaffee 10 years ago, I asked how he felt looking back on his life, having spent the previous few years collaborating on this book. I remain struck by his answer all these years later:

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.

Al Jaffee. In conversation with the author, 2010.

Jaffee had a unique vision of the world. He saw that people said one thing but meant another, said one thing and did another. He saw the world around him as absurd and random, literally put together in one way that could just as easily be put together in other ways. In philosophy, absurdism is the idea that the universe has no meaning and yet people assign meaning to things. Jaffee, though, saw these things as something to satire, to mock. He wasn’t a nihilist. He believed in family and friendship, in work and laughter, in families we find and build.

This is why so much of his work has not aged. Because his worldview, his values, have not aged much. We live in a moment full of such leaders, full of such people, and in many ways, the ability to see through the nonsense, to mock those that behave holier than thou, is more important than ever.

MAD Magazine has been cited time and again as one of the great cultural influences on postwar America. And yet, their monthly exposure of hypocrisy and mockery did not cause advertising or politicians to become more honest. It has not prevented people from falling for lies. But what we can learn from Jaffee’s life and work is resilience. A refusal to listen to those lies, to find comfort in absurdity. To see the world around us as something that we could rearrange and play with and build anew.

Al Jaffee is retiring at the age of 99. I hope that he and his wife have many more years together, and that those years to come will be as rich and happy as ever. 

But Al Jaffee will never die. 

Whenever Trevor Noah or Samantha Bee or Jimmy Kimmel mock the president in a way that makes him flinch – look in their eyes: Al Jaffee is there. Wherever someone mocks their lazy boss for yelling about worker productivity – Al Jaffee is there. Wherever a child calls out their parents for hypocrisy – you can see Al Jaffee in the glint of their eyes.

It’s hard not to see this as the final issue of MAD Magazine. DC relaunched it in 2018, with new numbering, but then quickly lost interest and fired editors, and now it’s a bimonthly publication that reprints older work. The new material in this issue is the first from MAD in a while. And it may well be the last. Which makes this an especially sad occasion. 

“What, me worry?”

Sergio Aragones pays tribute to Al Jaffee

Jaffee has lived his life trying to avoid worry – even when there was plenty to worry about. My brief sketch of his biography doesn’t do his life justice, but there have been times when moving forward was the only option. When to push ahead was an act of courage. To crack a joke about it was an act of bravery and optimism. That lesson, and that example, is as true today as it ever was. 

Enjoy your retirement, sir.

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