Al Jaffee is most famous as one of Mad Magazine's "usual gang of idiots". Since his debut in 1955 he is their longest-running contributor, with only a brief interval between 1957-1958 when he worked elsewhere. His two best-known comics series, 'Mad's Fold-In' (1964) and 'Snappy Answers To Stupid Questions' (1965) are the oldest still-appearing features in Mad, only behind their monthly film and TV parodies. Jaffee is not only older (1921) than any of the other Mad regulars still alive today – namely Mort Drucker (1929), Paul Coker (1929) and Sergio Aragonés (1937) - but still works for the publication even to this very day! Showing no sign of resting on his laurels, Jaffee's career spans over 75 years, of which more than 60 spent for Mad. This makes him the comic artist with the longest active career ever! In 2016 this feat even landed him a spot in the Guinness Book of Records.
Abraham Jaffee was born in 1921 in Savannah, Georgia, as the son of a department manager of Jewish-Lithuanian descent. His mother didn't adapt well to life in the USA. Homesick, she took her sons on a vacation to Lithuania in 1927 and decided to stay there. It was a severe traumatic experience for Jaffee. Life in sunny and modern Savannah had been sweet, but suddenly he was dropped into a cold, poor and very rural village called Zarasi where nobody spoke English. He was victim of antisemitism, bullying and even parental neglect, as his mother would often lock her children up so she could pray without being bothered. Unfortunately she sometimes plain forgot that her kids were unable to eat or go to the bathroom during that time. Despite all odds Jaffee gradually learned to cope with his new environment. To everyone's surprise his father arrived in Zarasai one year later and picked his sons up, back to the USA. The days of paradise didn't exactly return, though. He had lost his business and moved the family to a different town. After spending a year in the US, Jaffee was once again taken out of his comfort zone when his mother returned and took them back to Zarasai! It wasn't until 1933 - four years later (!) - before Jaffee's father was finally able to return three of his four sons back to their actual native country. The youngest stayed in Zarasai until 1940, moving back to America right before Hitler invaded Lithuania during World War Two.
Amidst this parental tug of war, Jaffee had two escapist activities. He enjoyed picked up rubbish and turning it into toys. This inventiveness later came in handy when he designed similar wacky gadgets for Mad. His other favorite pastime were comics. Among his earliest graphic influences were Milton Caniff, Rube Goldberg, Otto Soglow, Noel Sickles, Alex Raymond and Harold Foster. Jaffee even specifically asked his father to send him the "funny papers" while he was stuck in Lithuania, because "otherwise he would never speak to him again". Cartooning also proved to be an outlet during the days of the Great Depression. Jaffee's father worked as a part-time postal officer at Grand Central Terminal in New York City and was so poor that he had to send two of his sons to foster parents. Only Al was allowed to live with him. To cut costs they shared the same bed. Severely depressed by this situation, Jaffee found a goal in life when he studied at the local High School of Music & Art. There he met many of his future colleagues, including John Severin, Al Feldstein, Will Elder and Harvey Kurtzman. In 1941 he debuted as a comics artist and writer for Quality Comics through Ed Cronin's packaging service, where he created the superhero parody 'Inferior Man' for Military Comics. Jaffee originally made this character a cowardly accountant. Anytime Inferior Man saw danger about he quickly ran into a telephone booth to get out of his super uniform and put his accountant's suit back on. Elder liked the character, but convinced Jaffee to turn him into a soldier instead. Knowing less about army life than accountancy, Jaffee terminated 'Inferior Man' after only a few gags. In 1943, Al Stahl drew new stories with 'Inferior Man' for Feature Comics.
After fulfilling his military service in 1942 Jaffee joined Timely Comics (nowadays Marvel Comics) where he drew various funny animal comics like 'Super Rabbit' (1943-1952) and 'Ziggy Pig and Silly Seal' (1942-1947). The latter duo were his own creations, but artists like Joe Calcagno, Harvey Eisenberg, Al Fago, Al Grenet and Mike Sekowsky also drew stories about them. Ziggy was a straight character, while Silly was his bumbling sidekick. They often had humoristic adventures pitched against their nemesis Toughy Cat. Jaffee also drew comics about the female superheroine 'Patsy Walker' (1944), until he passed the pencil to Al Hartley in 1949. Two of his colleagues in these days were future comics legends Dave Berg and Stan Lee.
In 1952 Harvey Kurtzman edited a revolutionary satirical comics magazine, Mad Magazine. Jaffee liked these type of comics more than the quaint work he did before and got in touch with his former schoolmate. He joined Mad from their 25th issue (September 1955) on, mostly writing articles and comics illustrated by Jack Davis. In 1956 Kurtzman left Mad over creative differences and founded his own satirical magazines, like Trump (1957) and Humbug (1957-1958). Jaffee initially joined Kurtzman, but as these publications went defunct he quickly returned to his former employee. The experience wasn't a waste of time, though, as Jaffee had the opportunity to use the material he published in Trump and Humbug for his resumé. Jaffee returned to Mad from its 43th issue (December 1956) on and stayed with the magazine for more than half a century. In the early days Jaffee was predominantly a comics writer. It wasn't until he came up with his iconic Fold-In that he started illustrating more. Mad's Fold-in was originally a parody of the fold-out posters found in many magazines at the time, from Life Magazine to Hugh Hefner's Playboy. In typical Mad fashion the traditional action was reversed: rather than fold a picture out Jaffee made a drawing where one had to fold the drawing in. Each illustration featured an image with a question written in the caption underneath. When the left side and right side of this image are folded in the answer becomes visible. The concept was so original that Jaffee initially feared that editors Al Feldstein and William M. Gaines would veto it, because it cramples the paper. Both turned out to be enthusiastic, however, with Gaines liking the prospect because "readers would buy two issues at once, with one to fold and another to save".
The first fold-in appeared in issue #86 (April 1964). Its "secret" satirical messages added to Mad's subversive public image and thus became a tradition. Nearly every issue has featured a fold-in since, always appearing on the penultimate page. The early fold-ins were all published in black-and-white, until issue #119 (June 1968) gave it the exclusive honour of being the only feature - besides the cartoons on the back cover - to appear in colour. This prestigious feat diminished somewhat in 2001 when Mad switched over from being a black-and-white magazine to a fully-fledged colour publication. Only six issues have not featured a fold-in, because Jaffee had his hands full with designing the back cover instead. In issue #521 (June 2013) a reprint was used, because Jaffee's new fold-in happened to refer to mass shootings, which could have co-incided (it eventually didn't) with a public trial about the 2012 shootings in a film theater during the premier of the new Batman movie 'The Dark Knight Rises'.
Jaffee drew and painted each fold-in by hand. From the 1990s on he started using a computer, but only to help him previsualize the typography. The drawings themselves he could plan out fine. While the concept is already complex enough, Jaffee has occasionally experimented with different types of fold-ins. In issue #88 (July 1964) he made one with a diagonal design, rather than a vertical one. The 214th issue (March 1980) featured one where the inside and outside back covers could be held up to the light, creating yet another image. Only once did a fold-in generate controversy, when he ridiculed televangelists and several supermarkets in Michigan refused to carry that particular issue. Jaffee's fold-ins were compiled in 'Fold This Book!' (1997), which had a foreword by Charles M. Schulz, and the more extensive 'The Mad Fold-In Collection: 1964-2010' (2011).
The second most famous comic strip by Jaffee is the less regular appearing 'Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions', which debuted in issue #98 (October 1965). It features characters asking questions where the answers are already obvious. Instead of giving them a straight answer, other characters come up with three different sarcastic, unusual and witty replies per question. It has been suggested that Jaffee might have been inspired by Rube Goldberg's 'Foolish Questions' gag cartoon, but Jaffee has stated he never saw it until years later. Instead he got the idea when he was working in his house and his son kept asking where "mummy" was? Jaffee usually didn't know, so he just invented crazy explanations to annoy him back. As Jaffee went through a divorce in the late 1960s the 'Snappy Answers' series provided him with the perfect outlet for his frustrations. Over the years he made countless new episodes using different settings. A steady stream of paperback collections made it his most generally available work.
Jaffee also made various parody advertisements and photo collages for Mad. Several of his comics and humoristic articles feature wacky inventions and gadgets, explained in step-by-step procedures. Jaffee had a knack for making these absurd ideas look technically possible. In fact, some of them were actually put into practice many decades later, including the telephone redial and address books (1961), snowboarding (1965), the computer spell-checker (1967), peelable stamps, multi-blade razors (1979) and graffiti-proof surfaces (1982). In 1966 Jaffee thought up a self-extinguishing cigarette, which was invented by Charles J. Cohn in 1973 who was kind enough to credit Jaffee in his patent. Jaffee only made one film parody, 'Bullit' (issue #127, June 1969), for which he wrote the story, while Mort Drucker stood in for the drawings. His resumé only counts two TV parodies either. The first was 'ABC TV's Wide World of Sports' (April 1966, issue #102) for which he provided the script, while George Woodbridge did the illustrations. The second was a spoof of 'American Gladiators' (issue #315, June 1992), drawn by Jaffee but scripted by Dick DeBartolo and written by Andrew J. Schwartzberg. And in his entire career he only illustrated one magazine cover, namely the one of Mad issue #199 (June 1978).
Jaffee created one short-lived gag cartoon series for Mad, 'Hawks & Doves' (1970-1972), which only ran from issue #137 to #148. The gags dealt with a strict military officer, Major Hawks and his subordinate Private Doves. To Hawks' anger Doves keeps scribbling and make peace signs all over the military base. The one-page gags were done in pantomime and usually appeared on the back cover, so they could be printed in colour.
Outside Mad, Jaffee also made the pantomime comic 'Tall Tales' (1957-1963) which was syndicated in more than 100 newspapers, both in the USA and abroad. At the insistance of the head of their syndicate he was forced to put text and speech balloons in, which made their success in several non-English newspapers far more limited. For McNaught Syndicate he drew the newspaper comics 'Debbie Deere' (1966-1969) and 'Jason' (1971-1974). He also illustrated the humorous adventure comic 'The Shpy' (1984) in The Moshiach Times. One of Jaffee's younger brothers, Harry Jaffee, collaborated with him between 1970-1977, doing some backgrounds and lettering.
Jaffee won the 2008 Reuben Award for "Cartoonist of the Year". He was inducted in the Will Eisner of Fame in 2013, the same year he donated his archives to Columbia University in New York City. In 2014 he was inducted in the Society of Illustrators' Hall of Fame. His work has received praise from comics legends like Charles M. Schulz, Arnold Roth and Gary Larson and was a huge influence on Dave Cooper, Ivan Brunetti and Mike Wartella. References to either his fold-ins or 'Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions' can be found in Matt Groening's 'The Simpsons', particularly the episodes 'Marge in Chains' (1993), 'Team Homer' (1996) and 'The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson" (1997), and in Beck's music video 'Girl' (2005).
For those interested in his life, Mary-Lou Weisman's biography 'Al Jaffee's Mad Life' (2010), is a must-read. Jaffee also created autobiographical illustrations for this book.