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.