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Jewcy Interviews: Al Jaffee

As someone who grew up reading MAD magazine, the name of Al Jaffee was an omnipresent one. His work as a writer and artist spanned multiple styles and established a sharp, satirical style that left no appropriate target unsullied. Much of Mary-Lou Weisman’s new biography of Jaffee, Al Jaffee’s Mad Life, focuses on the evolution of his sensibility.

Jaffee’s childhood involved moving back and forth from the United States to Lithuania, and those experiences, along with a progressively more fragmented family life, form the core of this book. Later chapters trace Jaffee’s emergence as a writer and artist, and serves as a pocket history of twentieth-century comics; the likes of Will Elder, Stan Lee, and Sergio Aragones all make appearances. Al Jaffee’s Mad Life abounds with examples of its subject’s work, from older material reprinted to new illustrations tracing Jaffee’s life. From longer strips to single-panel works to Jaffee’s ubiquitous fold-ins, one leaves this book with a good sense of the depth of its subject’s work. And I’m happy to report that Jaffee’s illustration of a retching jackal — one of the pieces reprinted in here — remains a deadpan comedic masterpiece.


At what point did you begin work on the illustrations for Al Jaffee’s Mad Life? I began work on the illustrations for Al Jaffee’s Mad Life after reading Mary-Lou’s proposal for the book and her first chapter. They established clearly in my mind the atmosphere I needed to create pictures that would blend with Mary-Lou’s writing style.

Did you approach these illustrations differently from your other work?

My usual work involves humor and satire which is not what the biography is about. There is humor in some of the illustrations but the book is more poignant than knee-slapping. The biography contains several reprints of your work, from the fifties on through until today; do you feel that someone reading the book would have a good sense of your body of work from them?

Some of the humor in my early work might go over today’s readers’ heads. Subtlety is sublime in satire but it doesn’t age well. Ridiculing a pompous politician by having him sit on his top hat wouldn’t fly at all today. Is there one particular piece, longer or shorter, of which you’re proudest?

The one piece in the book that brought back many memories was the illustration of the town square. This was the liveliest place in town, especially on market day when people from surrounding farms and villages came in to sell a great many products. Is there anyone whose comics work do you follow these days?

There are so many wonderful new, young comics artists today it would be impossible to single one out from among all of them. I know this is a cop out but I do love them all. –MARY-LOU WEISMAN–

Before working on Al Jaffee’s Mad Life, what had your background in comics and cartoons been?

I had virtually none. I don’t remember ever reading MAD. I spent my adolescence reading Archie Comics, trying to figure out whether I was nice Betty or snarky Veronica. Turns out I was a little of both. Who do you see as the audience for this book: readers already familiar with Jaffee’s work, or people looking for an introduction?

For both, as well as for people who never heard of Al Jaffee. This is a book for anyone who relishes a remarkable, true life, survival story. The book’s title, Al Jaffee’s Mad Life is a pun. Jaffee fans will learn about Al’s career at MAD, but even those who think they know the man will be amazed by the perversely mad life that led him to MAD. The reprinted art inside the book covers a large portion of Jaffee’s career; what was the process like for selecting them?

Al and I went over the manuscript together and decided together which anecdotes or situations would best lend themselves to illustration. When it came to the chapters on MAD, we used a similar approach. We matched the art that best exemplified the full range of his talents as narrated in the manuscript. In the acknowledgments for this book, you thank James Sturm for suggesting that you expand on an earlier profile of Jaffee. In working on this book, were there any of his contemporaries whose lives also interested you for similar treatment?

No. But I am a big fan of James Sturm’s latest graphic novel, Market Day. More generally, how do you feel about the current state of comics scholarship?

I’m not the right person to answer this question. The only comics expertise I can claim is the understanding of and appreciation for the work of Al Jaffee.

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