As you’ve probably heard, legendary cartoonist Al Jaffee passed away on Monday April 10th, 2023, just a few weeks after his 102nd birthday.
Al was a virtuoso artist who left behind an astounding body of work. But as anyone who knew him could tell you, he was also one of the kindest, most gracious people in the comic book industry. And he was a good friend.
In a previous blog post, I talked about Al – his career in general, his work for MAD Magazine in particular, and what he meant to me personally.
But I think it’s also important to mention that, even though he was 102 years old when he passed away, it still felt like he was gone too soon. I think I’d convinced myself that if he made it to 102 years old, there was no reason he couldn’t make it to 103 years old. Or 104. Or 120. I’m not kidding. If anyone could beat the odds, it was Al.
Unfortunately, though, he turned out to be a mere mortal.
Last year, when I called Al on his 101st birthday, he said, “When you live a long time, you outlive a lot of your friends. It’s so nice to hear from one of them that’s still alive.”
I’m sorry, what was that? “It’s so nice to hear from one of them that’s still alive”? That’s a solid joke. There he was at age 101, still making quips. He still had it.
As a cartoonist for MAD, Al showed the world just how hilarious and inventive a cartoon could be. He could draw funny – I mean really funny – which is not an easy thing to do. He had a genuinely unique comedic voice. He inspired generations of cartoonists, comedians, and comedy writers. He gave us the MAD Fold-In, Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions, Hawks and Doves (a Vietnam-era comic strip that ran in MAD during the early 1970s), and countless MAD inventions.
And as if that wasn’t enough, he also co-created Ziggy Pig and Silly Seal. (Google it.)
It’s a cliché to say that someone made the world a richer place with their presence. But just because it’s a cliché, that doesn’t make it any less true. And in Al’s case, it certainly was true.
I feel lucky and privileged to have known him.
Let me tell you a story about how Al Jaffee changed my life. One day, when I was a kid – maybe 9 or 10 years old – my parents were visiting some friends who had a son about my age. I don’t remember the son’s name. Let’s just call him “Son X.” My parents’ friends told me to wait for Son X in his room, because he’d be home soon and I should say hello to him. I went up to Son X’s room and I saw these massive long boxes full of comic books. I took the lid off of one long box, and inside there were all of these back issues of MAD Magazine. Looking through one of them, I found a humor piece, written and illustrated by Al Jaffee, called “If Kids Designed Their Own Xmas Toys.” Looking at that humor piece melted my brain.
That’s not hyperbole. (Well, okay, it is. But you know what I mean.) See, I was a kid who was constantly drawing cartoons. And in those days, I was always thinking about the fact that when you’re a young child, you have no real grasp of concepts like composition, anatomy, perspective, or foreshortening, and so all of your drawings look…uh, well, they look like a kid drew them. I spent a massive amount of time trying to break out of that “draw like a kid” phase and finally draw like an adult. In “If Kids Designed Their Own Xmas Toys,” Al plays with that very premise, that very thing I’d been thinking about. “If Kids Designed…” shows what a doll would look like if it was designed by a 5 year old (stick figure arms and legs, googly eyes, springs for hair, a shapeless, awkward-looking dress). And he shows what a rocket would look like if it were designed by a 9 year old (the rocket looks flat and asymmetrical, the fins jut out at odd angles, the nosecone is crooked). It was like Al had reached into my brain, found out what I was obsessed with, and made a MAD humor piece about it.
But here’s the thing: Al actually built models of these “Xmas toys” that were supposedly designed by kids. Then he took photos of the toys, and those photos appear in “If Kids Designed Their Own Xmas Toys.” He really wanted to sell the idea that actual kids designed these toys!
When I first saw “If Kids Designed…,” it awakened something in me. It was the first time I thought, “Hey, I think I might want to write or draw something for MAD Magazine someday.” After all, I was an aspiring cartoonist and comedy writer. MAD seemed like a humor magazine that was tailor made for me specifically. And it was all because I happened upon an Al Jaffee humor piece that spoke to me on a gut level.
Years later, when I started writing humor pieces for MAD, I tried to write as many of them as possible that required actual models to be built, just like the models I saw in that “If Kids Designed…” article.
And on one particular day, a few years into my career at MAD, I was talking to Al in his studio and getting ready to interview him for my award-winning nonfiction book, From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books. I told him about “If Kids Designed Their Own Xmas Toys,” and what it meant to me. And he said, “Well, I’ve got the models of those ‘toys’ up on the top of that shelf, if you want to see them.” And he pointed to the very top of a bookshelf. There they were: the doll with the googly eyes, the lopsided rocket, all of them. He took the doll down and handed it to me so that I could hold it.
So there I was, holding the doll which made me want to be a MAD writer in the first place. It was quite a moment. (For me, anyway. Probably not for Al.)
My point is, that’s the kind of person Al was: He inspired people. He changed their lives. And most importantly, he let you hold the doll with the googly eyes.
It’s Batman Day! So I’m going to share a Batman story. Or more accurately, a story ABOUT a Batman story. See, I wrote a Batman children’s book called Swamped by Croc, which was published by Penguin Random House in January of this year. In Swamped by Croc,* Killer Croc robs a bank and escapes into the sewers. Batman chases him, and this leads to an epic showdown in the swamp, right in front of Killer Croc’s ramshackle house. But if you look at the last two pages of the story, you’ll see a yacht floating in the bog not far from Croc’s abode. Why is that boat there? Who does it belong to?
Well, in early drafts of the manuscript, the following words were written on the hull of the yacht: “Property of Bruce Wayne.” ** Yup, this was originally going to be Bruce Wayne’s yacht! The idea was going to be that Croc had stolen it at some point in the past, and as Batman apprehends Croc and tries to retrieve the money from the bank heist, he would acknowledge that his reptilian foe has his missing boat. This was going to be the final page of text:
“You’re going to Arkham, and this money’s going back to the bank,” the Caped Crusader said. Then he chuckled and added, “And this boat’s going back to its rightful owner.”
Anyway, that was supposed to add a nice little wrinkle at the end of the story; not only does Batman defeat Croc and intercept the money the venomous villain has stolen from the bank, the Dark Knight accidentally stumbles upon something Croc stole from him personally.
But in the final version of the book, there are no words written on the hull of the yacht. Why not? Well, there was just no room for verbiage or signage anywhere on that boat. Nothing that the reader would be able to see or make out with any clarity, anyway. The yacht was too far in the background for that. So the idea that the boat belonged to Bruce Wayne had to be dropped. And I changed the text on the final page of the book. Now, this is what it said on that page:
“The money’s going back to the bank,” said the Caped Crusader. “And the Gotham City Swamp is going to be a much safer place while you’re in jail.”
And please don’t misunderstand. I’m not complaining that the final page had to be changed. I think it was necessary in this case. I’m really happy with the final version of the book, even though the yacht is relegated to just a random piece of scenery in the background. Sometimes, that happens when you’re telling a story. You don’t always have the room for every little plot twist or ironic touch you originally wanted to include. And that’s okay, as long as the really important story beats and character moments make it into the narrative. In the end, the yacht belonging to Bruce Wayne is not that important to the telling of this tale. It’s a relatively minor detail, so it’s something I could live without.
Besides, Bruce Wayne’s so rich, if one of his yachts went missing, I don’t even know if he’d notice!
* I should mention that Swamped by Croc is not the first Batman children’s book I wrote. That would be Harley at Bat, which was also published by Penguin Random House.
** The idea that the hull of the yacht is emblazoned with the words “Property of Bruce Wayne” is not something that ever appeared in the text for this book. Instead, it appeared in the manuscript’s art notes, which are the notes I always include alongside the text as instructions for what the illustrators should draw on each page of the story. The art notes for a book are like the stage directions or scene descriptions in a stage play or screenplay. They’re also like the art notes that appear in every panel of a comic book script.