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Friday, March 17, 2023 

Artist Al Jaffee of MAD magazine fame is now 102 years old

New York's Vulture section published a 2008 interview with Al Jaffee, famous for his satirical illustrations in the now defunct MAD magazine, about his past career in parody, including the famous fold-in illustrations from the inner back covers of the monthly installments:
Originally intended as a onetime parody of Playboy’s foldouts, Jaffee’s recurring feature, which appeared in MAD from 1964 until its demise in 2019, became almost as recognized and imitated as Alfred E. Neuman’s gap-toothed grin. Located on the magazine’s inside back cover, it featured a drawing that, when folded vertically and inward, revealed a hidden picture and a surprise joke. But what made the “Fold-in” so brilliant wasn’t merely the concept. Deceptively simple and seemingly innocuous, it was a cache of subversive satire. Judging from some of the references over the years, Jaffee had always trusted the intelligence of his audience, even when they were no more than pre- or just-pubescent kids looking for a quick laugh before bedtime or during math class. How else to explain the very adult punch lines like “Soaring Profits in Medical Prescriptions” or “Hiding the Homeless Problem”? Or the gag in which an American bald eagle transforms into another, perhaps even more popular cultural icon: the Big Mac?
It was one of the cleverest features they ever thought of, and he was right to trust in people's intellects to understand the concept. Today's PC-indoctrinated crowd, unfortunately, wouldn't.
Today, Jaffee turns 102, and to commemorate, I’m publishing for the first time online an extended version of the interview I conducted with him in 2008, before it was cut down for inclusion in my book. Jaffee is a link to another time, another world, when humor magazine writers and illustrators were stars and sometimes even household names. More importantly, Al is a genius and a mensch and deserves to be honored on this most celebratory of days.
Definitely. I don't know of that many artists and writers from the past century who reached over 100, so Jaffee's lucky he got that far. Here's some details of how he'd worked in comics before turning to MAD more officially:
What was your first comic-book sale? How old were you?

I was 20. I went to see Will Eisner, who was the creator of a comic strip called “The Spirit,” which was beautifully drawn and very creative. The opening splash pages were all so brilliantly conceived. In the comics field, we all admired this strip tremendously. Will was a genius. He just did beautiful work.

I had created a parody of Superman called “Inferior Man,” and I wanted to show it to Will. It seems so naïve now, but it seemed like the right thing to do at the time.

Was this the first parody of Superman? This would have been what, the early ’40s? Superman had only been around a few years at that point.

At that time, there was another character who was called Stuporman — it was published by DC Comics. I don’t know if mine was the first Superman takeoff, but it really doesn’t matter. I came up with mine independently. Since then, I’ve seen a million takeoffs, but, at that time, there weren’t many. When I brought this idea to Will, I had no idea whether I was doing something stupid or not. But Will, who was only a few years older than I was, was already very successful. He hired me on the spot to do “Inferior Man” as a filler for his comic books.
I vaguely remember MAD used "Stuporman" for a parody of the Lois & Clark TV series from 1993-97, starring Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher, and they probably used it earlier too. I have no idea if Jaffee is misremembering, but I do appreciate what he's got to say about Eisner, because I'm convinced very few modern leftist creators would be willing to say the same, based on his quasi-conservative politics.
To have made a major sale at the age of 20 must have been very exciting. Not to mention a real boost to your career.

It was, certainly. But whenever I read news reports or stories about that time, or I hear people talking about it, one element that’s usually left out is the realistic atmosphere. Our families had either just come out of the Depression or were still in the Depression. No one opened the gate and said, “Depression over!” You had a lot of baggage, and some of that was trying to figure out how to become self-sustaining and not have to rely on your parents. So with the comic-book field, the buzz was, “There’s work.” You can get so much money per page. All you have to do is write and draw cartoons. I was making three times as much as my father was making as a postal worker.

You were working only on your “Inferior Man” comics?

No, I was also making extra money doing some penciling for a cartoonist who worked for Timely Comics, which later became Marvel Comics. After a while, though, I realized that I was being exploited. I was being paid eight dollars a week. So I became disillusioned and skipped the middleman and went to work directly for Timely Comics.

Stan Lee, later the creator of Spider-Man, had just become the editor at Timely. He was about 17 years old, maybe 18, and I went to see him at his office
. He looked at a few of my samples, then handed me a script called Squat Car Squad and said, “Let’s see what you can do with that. Go illustrate it.” When I brought it back, he said, “I don’t have any more scripts for you to illustrate, but why don’t you keep writing and drawing this one?” So I did a lot of Squat Car Squad, which was a simple comic about two policemen. But I had a great time with it.

Did you work on any other characters at Timely?

After the war, I wrote and illustrated a teen character named Patsy Walker. I did this for about five years. I didn’t create this character — a woman by the name of Ruth Atkinson did — but I worked on it. The American public goes through cycles, and the cycle at that time was teenage humor.

The idealized version of that carefree teen life wasn’t the sort of lifestyle you and the other comic artists were leading, I take it?

That’s absolutely correct. We were coming out of an economic depression and then war. Many of us were starting to get married and have families. So things were changing. But we were living fantasy lives through our work. We were creating these worlds, in the comics, that we wished our childhoods could have been.
And a sharp difference from today is that they were doing it foremost for entertainment value, and in real life, unlike today, you had a lot more respect for marriage between man and woman, husband and wife, along with child-bearing. Also notice Jaffee took the time to remind everyone that a woman was behind the creation of Patsy Walker, in her original incarnations, and it's impressive he was able to meet Lee early in his career and get a job from him. As for humor, unfortunately, there's something that's becoming lost upon modern PC generations who care more about the horror genre than the humor genre, which they regrettably now consider little more than an offense. Jaffee also told the following in the original interview about fellow cartoonist Dave Berg:
Do you think Dave Berg’s inner battle later expressed itself in his strip “The Lighter Side Of …”?

It came out in a lot of the things he did. He had a very moralistic personality. I mean, he moralized all the time. And his gags were very suburban middle-class America. Plus, he was very religious. He wrote a book called My Friend God. And, of course, if you write a book like that, you just know that the MAD staff is going to make fun of you. We would ask him questions like, “Dave, when did you and God become such good friends? Did you go to college together, or what?”
This is quite a difference from modern times, where many creators are totally secular, and have no true respect for Judeo-Christianity, or even Buddhism, yet when Islam is the issue, that they won't slight.
What are your thoughts on the future for comic-book illustrators? For a humor writer, one would assume there will always be television or the movies. But illustrating for a comic book like MAD seems so specific a talent. Do you think it will survive?

I think there are going to be some drastic changes as far as commercial artists are concerned. Even as you were speaking, I was picturing getting up in the morning and a favorite comic strip is on a panel and it rolls by and it’s animated. No longer will it be “Peanuts” with four panels and static little figures. Now it will feature characters walking or kicking a football right in front of you — all on a sheet of something that is no bigger than a page. All of that is bound to come. Truthfully, I don’t know what we’re going to gain or what we’re going to lose. Of course, you both gain and lose from the advance of knowledge and technology. But humor, I don’t think any race of people can survive without it.
There definitely have been all sorts of changes, and not for the better, as far as humor is concerned, if you consider how it's been dumbed down for the sake of the perpetually offended SJWs. Even MAD themselves may have finally succumbed in the end to PC mentality, which precipitated its demise. There's only so much being lost to social justice propaganda nowadays, and while Jaffee's respect for animation as a medium is admirable, that too is becoming a lost art, maybe even well before it could be considered a valid art form. Let's also remember that for many years, very few USA-Canadian animators tried establishing a marketplace for adults, and in the recent decade, it's only considered useful for left-wing political indoctrination.

Jaffee did a lot of good for cartooning in his time as a satirist. And that's why it's sad there's unlikely to be many in the future who'll appreciate his contributions.

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  • I'm Avi Green
  • From Jerusalem, Israel
  • I was born in Pennsylvania in 1974, and moved to Israel in 1983. I also enjoyed reading a lot of comics when I was young, the first being Fantastic Four. I maintain a strong belief in the public's right to knowledge and accuracy in facts. I like to think of myself as a conservative-style version of Clark Kent. I don't expect to be perfect at the job, but I do my best.
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