Monday, February 9, 2009

Al Jaffee's Amazing Fold-In Life

I was walking down Park Avenue last week, and every corner was occupied by Hasid Jews in black suits and dark hats. They come out this time of the year, because I think it’s in the Bible, and they come up to you and say ‘Are you Jewish?’ I just wanted to say, and here’s a guy standing there so obviously a Hassidic Jew, ‘Yes, how about you?’

There’s a mixture of mischief and wisdom behind Al Jaffee’s blue eyes, a satyr-like grin on his bearded face. It’s an October morning in his East Side studio, a studio apartment converted for his work, and next door to his actual apartment.

An in-progress Mad Fold-In sits on his modest and clean art table, as the flanking walls are all covered by framed comic strips and art, including early samples of Jaffee’s 1950s strip Tall Tales. A desktop computer sits on a table running alongside the right wall, a sign of Jaffee’s tech-savvy familiarity. The bookcase to the left, right as you enter, is topped off with the rocket sculpture from a Mad Magazine feature, “If Kids Designed Their Own Xmas Toys” from 1963. It’s a cardboard rocket that once hosed a clay figure of a man with his “water and coka coler dispesir”, amongst other accessories.

“The little clay man that I had inside fell out somewhere,” Jaffee admits. “He fell to Earth.”
Now in his late eighties, Jaffee still produces the Fold-Ins for Mad, a cap on his already-extensive career. Mostly known for his contributions to William Gaines’ infamous satire rag, Jaffee also claims years at Timely Comics in the 1940s (the company that became the contemporary Marvel Comics), the successful single-panel strip Tall Tales, and the witty Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions. He’s wearing a long-sleeved polo shirt and a pair of faded light blue jeans, giving a feeling of watchfulness towards the world around him, and an aura of clever gentleness to him, akin to his self-caricature that garnered Mad’s pages for four decades.

Jaffee was born in Savannah, Georgia, and moved to Lithuania at age six. His family stayed until 1933, when Hitler’s rise to power encouraged the Jaffees to move stateside again.
“It was an interesting little town, and was beautiful and surrounded almost entirely by water,” Jaffee recalls. “It had just one bridge that went to the main land of Lithuania. It was known as the Switzerland of Lithuania, because it was a resort area. In fact, during the Tsarist times, people would go to this village on their vacations, because of the water, boats, and all the picnicking. My grandfather had a beautiful boat that was built, which had an umbrella in the middle, and we’d go out. It was a rowboat, but large, and about as long as this studio. We took a picnic lunch and sat in the boat, and my uncle would row. It was a lovely town, and my experience was sort of checkered: parts of it were beautiful and parts weren’t so good.”

Going from the suburban Savannah to the quiet Lithuanian village, and then to New York was a shock to Jaffee’s system. Like many artists, he turned to his cartooning as a release.

“When we came to New York, we lived in the Bronx and it was very difficult to adjust. I think I used my artwork, and I’ve spoken to other cartoonists who found that being able to draw funny cartoons was a lifesaver in some instances. Bullies became my friends, and just to watch me draw on the sidewalk with a piece of chalk. There are always local bullies and gangs, especially in poor neighborhoods, and especially when one block was Jewish, the next was Irish, and the next Italian. You dared to walk down those blocks on the way to school and were scared to death. Being able to draw pictures softened it a little bit.”

Then, that impish looks comes on his face, and he breaks into story mode:

“I’m so used to being involved in drawing and knowing so many people that do it, that I don’t see the magic of it,” Jaffee admits. “If you reflect and think about it, I’m sitting down and suddenly there’s a whole big illustration of people that appears. I’m astounded when I see magicians work; even though I know they’re all tricks. You can imagine what someone thinks when they see someone drawing freehand and it’s not a trick. It’s very impressive.

“I remember my friend Howie Schnieder. He was a bully as a kid, because he was stronger and bigger, and kids brought others over for him to fight. He was a macho guy, even as an adult. He tells the story that up to a certain age, he could beat everybody up. He was the cock on the walk, and then they started to grow bigger than he did.

"He started drawing very quickly to keep the revenge from occurring.”

Another of his childhood friends, Will Elder, also went to the High School of Music and Art and formed his habits as a cartoonist, pushing and prodding him to become better in a brotherly pissing contest. The two careers would eventually converge but, by 1940, Jaffee broke into the fledgling comic book industry with his satirical fill-in character Inferior Man, while at Will Eisner’s studio, for Quality Comics. Buried in a box accessible to Jaffee in his studio, is the original sample of the nebbish parody of Superman.

Told in one to two page increments, Courtney Fudd, the Inferior Man, is the quartermaster at Fort Bang, handing out boxers and uniforms to the troops. Little do any of them suspect, but he dons a tank top with an IM emblem on the chest, and striped boxer shorts, to become Inferior Man! With an amazing mind, Fudd in his first adventure, injects the large Green Terror (a balding and skinny man with a scimitar and a large diaper), with Sissy Serum, that makes him into a “gentle, light-hearted creature”.

Courtney, the Inferior Man, even makes the Brooklyn Bridge invisible in one adventure, and then tries to sell it to the highest bidder. After Adolf Hitler turns it down, he then tries a Jewish merchant, but is kicked out on his ass. The absent-minded Professor Stuffbrain, his nose buried in a book, walks across the invisible bridge and, pretty soon, all the inhabitants of “the land of Brooklyn” are going across the invisible bridge as well.

The thing that impresses me the most about Jaffee is his ability to tell a story, both anecdotally and in comics form, his humor shining out when he breaks into a story of his time at Timely Comics, the precursor for today’s Marvel, where he drew strips like Super Rabbit, that often involved funny animals fighting Hitler. Starting as a freelancer before the war, Jaffee returned as a bullpenner post-war, the twisted sense of humor that later served him well on Mad Magazine emerging in prankish ways:
“I sat next to a radiator and, in the winter, the radiator would get very, very hot. Mike Sekowsky and I came up with the idea of getting a jar and, on the jartop I put two metal tubes. Mike went to a model-making store and got 50’ of hose. One end of the hose went over one of those nipples, and the other part came out and went to a bicycle pump. We filled a jar with Limburger cheese and underneath Ed Wianarski’s desk, where there was a steel partition. We stayed late one night and drilled a hole into the next room, where Al Sulman, an editor, and his assistants sat in an editorial office where writers came in to be interviewed for Timely Comics.

“Al Sulman was a little bit of a martinette. He would be given an assignment by one of the various honchos that were there at the time. [Publisher] Martin Goodman had a bunch of people who did his thing, so they’d periodically be sent around to shape us up and see who was working. They were spies in that way…

“They were checking up on us, and we were pissed off about it, so we ran the hose from right under Sulman’s desk. Then, Mike Sekowsky would take a walk and see who was in there and would signal me. The cheese was cooking on the radiator, and I had the pump and would give it a couple. Mike came back and sat down, and we just waited. Sulman, who had been interviewing somebody, would come in and say ‘This guy is flatulent. He came here to be interviewed, and all he did was fart. It stank up the place.’

“Then he went back to his office and we didn’t do it for a day or two. Then, when Sulman was alone, we gave it a few plunges. And Judy comes into our office and says ‘That awful Al Sulman.’ It was funny. We didn’t pursue it much further, but we had our fun with that device.”
Some of the funniest gags are the ones that are about to happen, such as waiting for an editor to react to Limburger cheese being pumped into his office. After a brief stint at Mad Magazine in 1955 with editor Harvey Kurtzman, then the short-lived humor mags Trump and Humbug, Jaffee put that implied humor to good use with his daily comic strip Tall Tales in 1958.
Drawn in a vertically-elongated form, Tall Tales’ strength lie in waiting for the punchline to happen, or seeing the disastrous and funny effects of the punchline that came and went before the strip’s narrative start.
Noah stands on the Ark, floating amongst the flood, and sadly realizing he’s the only animal without a mate. A man parachutes towards a cactus. A chorus of crickets ramp up, waiting for that right moment when a tired man goes to bed.
It’s a happy tension that gives the strips a humorous whammy and showcases Jaffee’s penchant for narrative brevity.
He returned to Mad’s pages around the same time, all while living on Long Island with his first wife. Jaffee came up with the idea for Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions while still married: the strip’s form follows one character answering the other’s obvious question with one of a handful of “snappy” and quick-witted answers.

“Snappy answers are not natural to me,” Jaffee admits with a laugh. “I’m afraid of insulting people, I think they’re going to hit me…It’s a way of letting off steam in the printed page. The reason it was so popular is that everyone, at some point in their life, wants to say something like that but they can’t.”

Living in Long Island, his marriage crumbling towards the mid-‘60s, one can understand how Snappy Answers may have been therapeutic for Jaffee, and just might have become an outlet for “letting off steam”. Packaging Snappy in the fashion of Mad co-cartoonist Don Martin’s cartoons, the first two trade paperbacks, small digest-sized paperbacks that became dogeared by eager Mad readers, sold around two and a half million copies. It spawned seven follow-up books.
At the age of 45, in 1967, Al Jaffee and his wife divorced, and he left Long Island to return to the streets and buildings of New York City, reinventing himself while entering middle age.
“The Mad people rallied around me,” Jaffee recalls. “In fact, Bill Gaines offered me a free workspace in the art department, where I worked for a bout a year and a half. I was freelance, but working directly with the Mad crew, and was available to them for any projects. I had an excellent relationship to them all there. I was right where the action was so, if they needed anything like an extra page, I would come up with a bunch of ideas. I did my freelance there, including several children’s joke books for Western Publishing. I had free reign of the office there, and went to lunch with the office staff, and was socially involved with them.”

Aside from personally, his professional life picked up where he could contact publishers at a moment’s notice. Or, as he put it: “You wouldn’t likely be taking a train out to Long Island.”

I have to make a confession: I’m really just a journeyman. I make a living. I don’t look to legacies, and I don’t see long-term value. I never saw long-term value to any of my work. I think I feel the way a newspaper journalist feels, that it’s just for today or tomorrow, and then I forget about it. I never thought I’d create anything that anyone would remember.
I would just try to do the best job each day. I know it sounds simplistic, but that was the attitude I had. Now, it’s pointed out to me.

Jaffee made his indelible and longest-lasting mark on pop culture, drawing a Snidley Whiplash moustache on with a magic marker, when he came up with the Mad “Fold-In”. Printed on the inside back cover, the Fold-In, printed in black and white, was a twist on the full-color fold-outs of the higher class magazines like Life.

The Fold-In is an image that, when folded over and into itself forms a different image, answering a satirical question relating to politics or pop culture. The first one featured Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, soon followed by presidential candidates Rockefeller and Goldwater merging to form an image of Richard Nixon.

“I’d be remiss if I didn’t give the Mad editors credit,” Jaffee modestly admits. “They sometimes come up with ideas and give me premises to work with. Between the art director and editor, we hammer something out. It takes time.”

Jaffee still does the Fold-Ins the old fashioned way, by hand, doing thumbnails on a four-up page of rectangles, representing the entire Fold-In and the final product. The final result is actually the first conception by Jaffee: he comes up with the punchline (or final image) first, and then plans the rest in before transferring it to the final artboard for drawing and painting. Even in his later ‘80s, even with hands that are starting to shake, Al Jaffee’s artwork shows that he still hasn’t left his “prime”.

And the Fold-Ins prospered, coming out month after month, year after year, poking fun at politicians or movie starlets. Before anyone knew it, the hundreds of Fold-Ins created a timeline of American history, political satire, and entertainment. Picking up an old Mad, dog-eared and smelling of mothballs, always results in a visual time capsule on the inside back cover.

The Fold-Ins are the only standbys of Mad’s great period. The magazine is now owned by Time Warner AOL, and even has an entire office in the same building as DC Comics. Where publisher William Gaines published it as a black and white newsprint magazine without any ads (to remain objective), Mad is now a glossy full-color treatment with mainstream ads. It was just announced that the monthly newsstand stalwart is now going quarterly.

“It’s a bit different than it was before,” Jaffee notes of his home magazine. “The black and white magazine was a cheap newsprint magazine that could be rebellious and nip at the heels of the full color fancy magazines…Now, of course, Mad has had a complete turn from a caterpillar to a butterfly. It has all the fancy production because digital color production is cheap now. So, Mad has to go to full color, and it takes the edge off its rebelliousness.

“It doesn’t look like the cheap little magazine, but a bit more like part of the establishment, in my opinion. I think it could be much more competitive if you’re different than the rest, but if you’re kind of the same, it’s rougher. I think Mad’s competition is out there on TV, but Mad is still trying.

“By and large, they have very good artists and writers, and that the quality is better than it ever was.”

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