I am not one to be star-struck. The fact that New York is one of the most celebrity-laden cities on earth is not one of the reasons I moved here. But when I met Al Jaffee tonight in Brooklyn, I found myself gushy and blabbering!
I was raised a white Catholic girl in a little burg called Bluff Siding, WI, population 200. I was one of seven families literally on the side of the bluff. This is in the 70s, pre-internet, pre-anything. I was this girl who loved the paranormal, and dinosaurs, and egyptology, and i felt utterly alone and misunderstood. Until I discovered MAD magazine! (and UFO magazines, but that’s another post). MAD magazine told me about popular culture, and Al Jaffee told me about sarcasm! And yiddish! I was the only girl in the tri-state radius using Yiddish words like “blech” and “feh!” I bought all the “snappy answers to stupid questions” books, but it was his smart articles and accompanying drawings that hooked me. There was always something secret going on in the corners, or in the background. If there were babies, they were always swallowing something evil in the background, or tormenting some animal. I thought his fold-ins were the least entertaining of his art. And his humor was SMART.
All this came flooding back to me when I read on some “free New York” website that Al Jaffee was going to be speaking at some synagogue in Brooklyn THAT NIGHT! So I rearranged my schedule and tootled on down there. I realized that this was the first time I’d been EXCITED to go meet someone “famous.” Charlene’s internal dialogue: *OMG i might get to ASK HIM QUESTIONS!!! *OMG I WONDER IF I CAN GET A PICTURE WITH HIM!*
So anyway I get on down to Brooklyn and I’m LOCKED OUT of the synagogue! When this has happened in the past, I would just head on to something else. But this was DIFFERENT, dammit! I walked around to all the doors. LOCKED. I started buzzing buzzers. I had just pulled my iPhone out of my pocket to start calling all the numbers on the synagogue website when a nice man across the street motioned me over – the meeting had been moved!
I got a seat in the synagogue basement and THERE HE WAS! My, he was old! The Al Jaffee self-portrait I had remembered from childhood was of a middle-aged jewish man with curly hair and pointy beard. I came in mid-way of a story of his childhood in Lithuania (stories of which will be included in a book on his life coming out in 2010). He’s an excellent storyteller. (*Charlene’s internal dialogue: wonder if he’d consider speaking at the Moth?)
Here are some of the topics he touched upon:
On early life in Lithuania: Hearing stories from the elders was very much a part of life. There was a Jewish character (I don’t know Yiddish so I’d mangle the name) but they would tell stories about the foolish things he’d do. For example, this character had a pen-knife. In those days pen-knives were very hard to come by, so he thought he’d plant the pen-knife so others would grow!
His childhood in New York: He was childhood friends with other artists, like Will Elder, whom he’d known since they were both 12. They had attended a special arts school (High School of Music and Art) which was visited by the well-loved New York Major Fiorello LaGuardia. He imitated LaGuardia’s sing-song voice saying, “OH MY LITTLE GIRLS AND BOYS,” and said that LaGuardia was a “sweet and wonderful man.” (Note: I just watched the PBS New York documentary with a big section about LaGuardia – he was a bigge- than-life force that rebuilt New York after the Great Depression!)
On being a generalist: Jaffee said he was an anomaly in the cartoon industry. In those days, there was a group of pencilers, and a group of inkers. The pencilers couldn’t ink, and the inkers couldn’t draw. He did it all: he wrote, he penciled, he inked, and he lettered. But not everyone thought he was good at it; Al Feldstein, (editor of MAD after Harvey Kurtzman left), said, “Al, if you didn’t write this funny stuff I’d never hire you as an artist.”
On the early comics industry: He said the comics industry was started by Jews. In fact, Bill Gaines (publisher of MAD magazine) father started the first comics. He was a print salesman. He’d go around to all the newspapers and ask if he could have the comics after they’d run in the Sunday edition. Then he’d reprint them into little magazines and sell them as “Famous Funnies” for 10 cents in the candy stores. He told the owners that he’d take back any issues that didn’t sell, but there were never any left! It didn’t take long before the big publishers caught on to this! Jews like Joe Siegel and Schuster started Superman. There was a lot of anti-semitism in those days in the publishing and art world, and was hard for Jews to get work. Comics gave a lot of them jobs.
On working for Wil Eisner: Right out of high school, Jaffee was looking for any kind of drawing or illustration work. Superman was big back then, and he got the “half-baked” idea to draw “Inferior Man,” a wimpy little man, accountant by day, caped- crusader wannabe who had to wear garters to keep his socks up. He presented it to Eisner, who surprisingly said he could use it as one-page “filler” for his Military Comics. Jaffee made $10 a week.
On working for Stan Lee: after Jaffee got fired from one publication, Stan Lee sent him freelance work. Jaffee drew something called “Super Rabbit” and Stan Lee liked it well enough to assign him “Patsy Walker,” which Jaffee said he didn’t think he was very good at, not knowing how to draw girls, or fashion. Lee said, “You’ll draw it or ELSE,” so he did. Jaffee said one thing he knew he could do was write good stories.
HUMBUG and Harvey Kurtzman: Harvey Kurtzman, the “Pied Piper,” came with his “siren song” to Jaffee and other illustrators/cartoonist to work for/invest in his project called HUMBUG. It only lasted eleven issues and nobody got paid! However, i just saw it for sale on Amazon! Jaffee said it’s worth checking out.
On the origin of the fold-in: Jaffee came to work at MAD magazine in 1957, then edited by Al Feldstein. He had noticed that all the glossy magazines like National Geographic, Playboy and Life had these fancy fold-outs to showcase beautiful pictures or diagrams. He thought, “what about a fold-IN?” So he came up with a fold in of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. He took it to Feldstein and said, “there are two reasons you’re not going to buy this,” (self-depricatingly says “i’m the world’s worst salesman”) 1) it’s silly, and 2) it mutilates the magazine.” But Feldstein took it to Bill Gaines, who liked it!
On MAD, Harvey Kurtzman and Bill Gaines: Harvey Kurtzman started MAD Magazine, but Bill Gaines came in later. They had a difference of opinion on how they wanted to run the magazine. Kurtzman wanted to improve the quality of the magazine by bringing in better talent (i.e. Illustrators whom they’d have to pay more) but Gaines had more of a “comic book” mentality – he didn’t want any “stars,” and he didn’t want to pay much.
I spoke up and thanked him for making me not feel like an isolated WIERDO back in Wisconsin, and asked if he ever feels he should get credit for inventions before their time he parodied in MAD. Like the “steering wheel breathalizer.” Or this dog pooh epoxy. He laughed and said no, but he’s always delighted when someone lets him know about one. Like a guy from Austria who sent him a magazine article about a ferris-wheel car parking device (I’ve also seen them in Japan!)
I tackled him again on the way offstage and asked him a few more things –
- Who does he like to read/find funny? (the New Yorker) I asked if he liked Roz Chast, but when I compared him to her he said “oh NO, she’s MUCH more sophisticated than I am!”
- What’s with all the pointy footed people? Answer: “I think I wanted everyone to be ballerinas, to bounce.”
- And do you draw for fun? Answer: “Does a bus driver driver after he’s done with work?”
Oh also, he’s next in line to have an anthology published (Don Martin got to be first).
And Sergio Aragones’ wife is also named Charlene, although Joyce Jaffee (his wife) said that he pronounces it CHAR-lene.
One more starstruck detail. I was chatting with Al and Joyce and they asked what I did for a living. I said, *giggle* I do geeky web stuff, build websites for people, and write. They said they didn’t have a website, and perhaps they should get my card. SQUEEEEE. I WOULD TOTALLY DO AL JAFFEE’S WEBSITE FOR FREE but my good friend Chris says that I need to be professional and even charge Al Jaffee.