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Mad Magazine's Al Jaffee

Is Al Jaffee, creator of Mad magazine's "Fold-In" and "Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions," one of America's most beloved cartoonists? No, he's actually one of America's most beloved car tuner-uppers. No, he's actually one of America's most beloved guys who writes and draws funny pictures. No, you're confusing him with that Middle Eastern cartoonist, Al-Jaffee.

Danny Fingeroth and Al JaffeeAh, my. He has only himself to blame. Until his "Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions" started its decades-long run in Mad and in eight original paperbacks, with Jaffee winning a National Cartoonists Society award for the feature in 1975, sarcasm may as well have never been invented. And inevitably, these and other such accomplishments have taken the 88-year-old humorist down the sordid road of talks, book signings and lectures at such seedy venues as Columbia University's Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies. There, at the college's Schermerhorn Hall on Dec. 9, 2009, he appeared with host/moderator Danny Fingeroth – himself an author, comics historian, comic-book writer and a former editor of Marvel Comics' Spider-Man line – in an interview and Q&A to coincide with the release of Tall Tales (Abrams Books), a collection of 120 examples of Jaffee's 1957-1963, vertically printed comic strip syndicated out of the New York Herald Tribune.

Jaffee was born March 13, 1921, and after a peripatetic childhood wound up in the first graduating class of New York City's High School of Music & Art. Breaking into comic books in the early 1940s, he soon found himself working under editor Stan Lee at Timely Comics and Atlas Comics, the '40s and '50s precursors, respectively, of Marvel Comics. There he created the funny-animal feature "Ziggy Pig," which he soon paired with his "Silly Seal" to form the Abbott & Costello of anthropomorphic duos. Leafing through the Summer 1946 issue of All Surprise Comics one audience-member has brought, he supplies a little-known bit of comics history: "See that 'SL-166'?" he notes of a tiny inventory number attached to the first panel of a "Silly and Ziggy" story he hadn't done himself. "That means Stan Lee wrote it" during a time when creator credits weren't routinely given in comics. (The respected comics historian Michael J. Vassallo, without the benefit of having been at Timely, says the SL prefix appears in the inventory number of some of Timely's "Hey Look" one-pagers that were written and drawn by future legend Harvey Kurtzman. But the SL prefix appears on only 15 of Kurtzman's 130 pieces for Timely, and editor-in-chief Lee would have had the prerogative, if he had chosen, to write some material for freelancer Kurtzman to illustrate.)  

Jaffee debuted in the satirical Mad in 1955, soon after it had transitioned from color comic book to black-and-white magazine. When founding editor Kurtzman left to start-up the short-lived humor glossy Trump, Jaffee went with him. After a second, similar venture, Humbug, failed, Jaffee again approached Mad, where eventually, in addition to his many other contributions, he created the Fold-In in 1964. That venerable feature of the inside back cover continues to appear to this day.

Jaffee's connection to the late Kurtzman also continues to this day: At the Columbia event, Charles Kochman, executive editor of the Abrams imprint Abrams ComicArts, presented Jaffee with comicdom's Harvey Awards. Jaffee had been unable to attend the October ceremony, in which he was honored in absentia as 2009's Best Cartoonist, and was also bestowed a Special Award for Humor in Comics.

Pretty snappy, that. No question.

* * *

Danny Fingeroth: You were born in 1921 and raised in Savannah, Ga., Lithuania, and The Bronx. How'd you end up spending the first two years of your life in Savannah?

Al Jaffee: Well, it started by being born there. (audience laughs) I only spent six years there when my mother became nostalgic for the small-town Europe where she grew up and she decided to take us – me and my three younger brothers – on a trip to visit her family. I think it was supposed to be a short visit but it turned out to be something like six years. So I became a reverse immigrant when I came back to America, and that's how I inflicted myself on the rest of you.

You spend six years in Lithuania. What did you do there?

Well, it was an education in its own right. It was a very, very crowded village, and I just learned all the things you learn in a small town: how to make things, how to fish, how to make your own fishing pole and your own fishing line. It was really an exciting way of life, but I yearned to come back to America. Savannah was my home from the time I was born until I was six, and I really loved Savannah. I did the best I could in Lithuania, but in 1933, when Hitler became chancellor of Germany, my father came and sort of forcibly took most of us back; my mother did not come back.

How'd you end up coming to the Bronx instead of back to Georgia?

My father was a manager of a department store in Savannah, but he lost his job because of the family problems he was having; he was preoccupied with rescuing [the remaining family] from Europe. So the only thing he could do was come back to New York, where he had once worked in the Post Office, and he managed to get a job in the Post Office.

Did you have trouble catching up in school?

I did. I was 12 years old when I returned and I was put in the third grade. …After six years in Europe and with no one speaking English except my family I started to pick up local [Lithuanian-Jewish] accents. I tried to emulate the children of the Bronx but I don't know how successful I was. The only way I could integrate myself into their good graces was by drawing pictures on the sidewalk with chalk – Mickey Mouse and Little Orphan Annie and stuff like that. That did save me, being able to draw, because the bullies stopped being bullies when they started to admire what I was doing.

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