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.
Hopefully, if you’re reading this, you know who Al Jaffee is. Just in case you don’t, Al’s a legendary cartoonist, who’s probably most famous for his work at MAD Magazine, where he created several long-running features, most notably the “MAD Fold-Ins,” and “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions.” He’s also sometimes known as the “MAD Inventor,” because in some of the humor pieces he’s written and illustrated for MAD, he’s devised fictional inventions, often showing the reader cutaway views of the inner workings of those fictional inventions, which are so well thought out that they look like they could function in real life. Al’s one of those cartoonists who’s well known not only in the comic book world, but also in the comedy world, because his work is so genuinely hilarious. Over the past few decades, he’s even amassed a few celebrity fans, like Stephen Colbert, Whoopi Goldberg, and Neil Patrick Harris.
Thirteen days ago, on Monday March 13th, 2023, I called up Al to wish him a happy birthday. He had just turned 102 years old.
I’ve known Al for a very long time. We met way back when I was an intern at MAD Magazine, during the summer between my freshman and sophomore year at NYU. Some time later, after I began writing humor pieces for MAD Magazine, I’d see Al at MAD events like the annual holiday party at the Society of Illustrators. Or I’d see him around the MAD offices when I was there for a pitch meeting, and he was dropping off some artwork.
I got to know Al well enough that when I began working on a three-part series of magazine articles on the history of Jews in the comic book industry – the articles which directly led to my award-winning nonfiction book From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books – I asked Al if I could interview him. Once he answered in the affirmative, I was able to tell other people that he said yes. So when I approached Will Eisner about being interviewed for the series, Will said, “Who else you got?” I told him I interviewed Al Jaffee, and that was enough to convince Will to let me interview him. And once I had a Q and A with Will locked and loaded, that was all the street cred I needed to get an interview with Stan Lee for the series. And once I had Stan Lee on tape, that convinced another legendary comic book creator (I think it was Jerry Robinson) to let me interview him. And so it went. In other words, Al Jaffee was that first domino that made all the other dominoes fall. The fact that I had interviewed him gave me a sort of legitimacy I wouldn’t have otherwise had. Then when I was actually working on From Krakow to Krypton in earnest, I was able to contact all of those same people and re-interview them, just because I’d interviewed them for the magazine articles. Which I was only able to do because of Al. I mean, look. I would’ve written those articles even if Al had said no to an interview. I even would’ve written From Krakow to Krypton if he’d said no. But I don’t know if that book would’ve been as good as it was without Al’s involvement. So I owe him quite a bit.
In 2010, Danny Fingeroth and I curated an exhibit on Al Jaffee at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, otherwise known as MoCCA. This was back when MoCCA was an actual bricks and mortar museum. The exhibit was called “Is This The Al Jaffee Art Exhibit?” (Which is a stupid question, deserving of a snappy answer.) Here’s a picture of Al, Sam Viviano, and myself, from a 2012 MoCCA panel discussion about Al’s career. (The other two panelists, not visible in the photo, were Arnold Roth, and moderator Danny Fingeroth.*)
Back in 2020, Al announced his retirement. He was 99 years old at the time, and he’d been a professional cartoonist since 1942.** It must be surreal to view things from his perspective. He’s seen the comic book business evolve from a tiny industry considered unworthy of even the faintest glimmer of artistic appreciation to a respected storytelling medium which has also had an enormous influence on television, movies, prose fiction, and video games. And Al started out when the medium was less than a decade old.
As of right now, Al is one of the last living cartoonists from the so-called Golden Age of the comic book industry. In fact, according to Guinness World Records, Al has had a longer career than any other artist in comic book history.
And he’s earned the right to take it easy for a while. When I called him this year on his birthday, he waxed philosophical. “We have a fear of growing old…because [we’re afraid that] it’ll take away opportunities from us,” he noted. But Al said that for him, the reverse has been true; in recent years, he’s seen a whole new set of opportunities open up. I don’t think he meant professional opportunities – I think that Al’s happy being retired. He meant opportunities to simply be mindful of the present moment and enjoy life.
Which, honestly, is a great way to spend one’s golden years.
* Yes, I know, technically, a moderator is not a panelist. Please give it a rest. Your fondness for nitpicking is giving me a migraine.
** According to some sources – like Lambiek – Al began his career in the comic book industry in 1941. And according to other sources, like Guinness World Records and The Comics Journal, he started in 1942. But I’ve done some research on this and haven’t come to a conclusive answer as to when exactly Al started working in the industry. I don’t think Al even remembers the exact year. I was just going through the transcripts from my interviews with him, and he doesn’t mention an exact year. So I’m just going to err on the side of caution and say that at the time of his retirement, Al had been working in the comic book business since at least 1942.
Recently, I was a guest on the Sequential Crush podcast, hosted by author and comics historian Jacque Nodell. We talked about my writing career, my creative influences, and more. I had a fantastic time talking to Jacque, and I hope you enjoy listening to the episode!
Here’s Jacque’s description of the episode, from the Sequential Crush site:
“Join me for the first Sequential Crush podcast interview with writer Arie Kaplan. Arie has written for it all — TV, comics, magazines, and books, and he doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. Arie shares how he broke into pop culture writing, how he made a move from intern to professional, and he divulges his inspirations, faves, and dream projects.”