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The Life Of An Amazing Cartoonist

DETROIT – When I say Mad Magazine to you images of outlandish caricatures and insane scenarios come to mind. Maybe some of us have not visited this landscape since we were in grade school. I never questioned where any of these insane comics came from. Instead of overthinking it I immersed myself in sophomoric comedic joy. That is why I was ecstatic when I was gifted, “Al Jaffee’s Mad Life” by Mary Lou Weisman. This is the authoritative, in depth look at one of the greatest cartoonists in the 20th century. This is the life of humorous cartoon pioneer Al Jaffee.

The life of Al Jaffee is an epic one. Many of us do not know anything about him outside of Mad Magazine’s famous end cover “Fold-In”. This feature has become synonymous with Mad and has become its trademark much in the same vein as the Playboy Centerfold. This feature first appeared in 1955 and has been a staple throughout the life of the magazine. But beyond the hilarious comedic insight lies a tale of tragedy, loss, and an appreciation for the American spirit.

The Mad Life Shapes The Artist

Al Jaffee was born in Savannah, Georgia as a Catholic. His mother was Jewish and followed things to tradition. In fact, when Jaffee was born she had organized the nuns to cover all the crosses in the hospital room and light the candles on a Friday night. In 1927, his mother Mildred took young Al and his three brothers back to her native Lithuania at a time when Antisemitism was at an all time high. Things were increasingly wrong and hostile and she loaded up her family leaving Al’s father in the states. They ended up living in Lithuania for six years.

The culture shock was immediate as you can imagine. Al and his brothers, (one being an infant) were hustled through the busy Hamburg train station. The feeling of loss and overwhelm was almost too much to bear. Once he ended up in a shtetl he really felt like an outcast. Here he experienced American culture through the eyes of a European. Al went to the movies and saw Charlie Chaplin on the big screen in which he found violent and frightening. Trying to get a handle on what life was all about he did the typical child thing and explore what was possible. One of these episodes involved him jumping off a house to see if he could fly. He successfully knocked out his front teeth. Cartoon violence lessons were learned and Al retreated to his cartoon drawings.

Al Jaffe would scribble cartoons on the insides of books. He wasn’t discriminate about where he doodled. He even illustrated Maggie and Jiggs inside of the Book of Genesis. Nothing was off bounds. Drawing cartoons seemed to win favor with the local village kids. Morris Jaffee, (Al’s father) had introduced cartooning to his boys by bringing home the Sunday funnies. Morris also furthered his kids interest in comics by drawing them perfectly. He also took a great deal of interest in his boys by introducing them to all things American and that included taking them out to get a hot dog. The idea of eating pork must of horrified his Kosher wife. Now his father was gone. He was left back in America after an angry tear filled goodbye that left its traumatizing effect on Jaffee the rest of his life.There are tears of a clown in this revealing book. People who have worked close with Jaffee for decades have noted there was something very sad about him. Al will talk about it but you have to pull it out of him.

Al and his brothers were shuffled off to his grandfathers house in the village. This humble little settlement was like something out of a fairy tale book and it was very poor. There were farms that grew wheat and flax and a simple mill that was powered by water. The home where the family now called home had a dirt floor. There was an outhouse in the backyard and it was like going back in time. Al was in fist fights with the locals and the transition was a rough one. How can anyone assimilate into a life like that after living in America? This was going to be a constant struggle and the strangeness of it never really went away. There is a story in here about the accidental discovery of a cemetery. Apparently village was putting in a new road and they discovered a mass grave from World War 1. The bones of multiple skeletons were propped up along the newly dug road while it was being completed. There seemed to be some sort of madness everywhere Al Jaffee went. This shaped his views on cartoons. There never seemed to be a shortage of the outrageous and the unexpected.

The rest of the village stories are interesting to read. They tell of scraps, brawls and fighting and every day living. Every boy has stories like this to tell but this is unique. There are signs of innovation along the way as Jaffee begins to create his own projects. Some of these include a unique flying sled that comes complete with a homemade bi-wing attachment. The idea here is that once the sled jumps a hill it is supposed to be jettisoned into flight. This is an genius idea of course if it really worked. The big takeaway here is that he always was attracted to the fantastic. This comes at a contrast of his local colleagues who were at best crude and brutish.

Morris Jaffee eventually comes home to rescue his boys. He gathers three of the brothers and boards them on a train. Al’s mother Mildred is given ample notice about the big departure back to America but is running late. By the time she gets there the big train station gate is closed and she is left standing on the platform in tears. This was the last time Al would ever see his mother again. This image is etched into his mind forever. Nazi presence began to become a mainstay and eventually their destruction would enter the peaceful shtutl. A Nazi order was carried through called AKTION and with it came the murder of 4,000 Jews in just one day. Today, she is burried in some unmarked grave in a field.

Back In America The Madness Continues

Once the boys moved back to America there was another transition. How to assimilate into the United States and be just like everyone else. But by this point what is the exact definition of normal? Would we ever be sane again? The Jaffee family moved to the Bronx and the next chapter of their lives would continue without their mother. Al, was somewhat, was a country bumpkin being introduced to big New York city living. Him and his brothers took it upon themselves to make lunch with perilous results. This included heating up a can of pork and beans in a pot. It would have helped of course if they opened up the can before plopping it into the pot! The can was heated up to some insane temperature and then the can exploded all over the counter top and ceiling not to mention the floor.

The transition was going to be a rough one but one of learning. Al continues his love for cartoons and illustration and sets up shop in his new home. From here he creates impressive jet airplane illustrations. The artwork is so good that he is able to sell them to a department store. He creates an assembly line of artist kids to contribute to the final product. Then there are tales of his art school days which are very revealing. It is here that he is allowed to flourish and become a great humorist. Al finds companionship with fellow artists and cartoonists and it is a time of growth.

Al gets work with Playboy Magazine and starts getting high end paid work. He is even invited to hang out with publisher Hugh Heffner at the Playboy Mansion. His cartoons are a hit with the hip crowd and has new outlets to showcase his work. This might be where the idea for the “Fold In” came from. This was a feature on the back inside cover of every issues of Mad Magazine. It starts with a topical event that is relevant to the times. When you fold the inside cover into a Z pattern another image starts to emerge. Even the words on the top statement transform into another message. It is a comedic take on current events. But this is a very tricky thing to put together when you think about it. The drawings below have to also transform into another image. It is ingenuous when you think about it. There is a lot thought and consideration into its creation.

Mad Magazine is Al Jaffee’s home and has been since 1955. He has worked along with some of the best of the best in his industry including Don Martin, Mort Drucker, and Sergio Aragones. They have enjoyed decades of fantastic, outrageous, and innovative comedy for years. They have inspired other comedy magazines but nothing comes close to the original. This is a very insightful book and it tells a very unique story about the growth of an artist. I recommend it for anyone who has a sincere desire to learn more about this iconic magazine.



Al Jaffee Mad Life | Mad Magazine | Biography | Mad Magzine Artists |Don Martin | Cartoonists and Mad Magzine | World War II| New Releases and Best Sellers | Al Jaffee | Mary-Lou Weisman | Hot Metro Finds

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