Columbia Libraries Acquire Archives of Mad Magazine Cartoonist Al Jaffee
Age has hardly slowed the legendary cartoonist Al Jaffee. At 92, with the still sonorous voice of a radio announcer, he continues to freelance for Mad magazine, where he has worked for 58 years, creating such iconic features as “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions” and, most notably, the Mad fold-in.
Jaffee’s wit is as sly and razor-sharp as ever. He signs his emails “MADly Al J,” considers 13 his lucky number, and has taped a startling, life-size image of a grinning capuchin monkey smack dab in the middle of the mirror in his studio.
Now, Jaffee and his wife Joyce have donated his archives to Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library, and those who grew up on his subversive, entertaining comics can enjoy and study the remarkable output of his 70-year career. The acquisition also marks the latest step in the University’s support for research, teaching and learning with comics and graphic novels. Since 2005, librarian Karen Green has been making new acquisitions to inspire scholarly inquiry as well as courses such as “The American Graphic Novel.”
“I feel privileged and honored to have my work added to Columbia’s collections,” said Jaffee. “Keeping my work here is my way of giving something back to the city in appreciation for all that was given to me. New York sheltered me when I arrived, educated me and has given me everything that I’ve had ever since.”
After a chaotic childhood that began in Savannah, Ga., and included repeated journeys between New York City and a shtetl in his mother’s native Lithuania, Jaffee settled in the city in 1933. He was in the first class of the new High School of Music & Art, founded by Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia in 1936. “I felt like the luckiest person in the world,” said Jaffee about the West Harlem school. “About the only thing I had going for me was my ability to draw. From the time I could pick up a pencil as a little child, I copied the Sunday funnies. But I never sketched or painted. So when I got to Music & Art and was surrounded by all these talented artists, I was in awe of them.”
It was there, he said, that his distinctive satirical take on life began to take shape, fueled by debates in civics, English and art classes. His schoolmates included other future cartoonists such as Will Elder, Harvey Kurtzman and Al Feldstein. “There are so many of us who came out of Music & Art who would have been called anti-establishment at that time,” said Jaffee. “We were rebels and we found that the best way to express this rebellious streak was by drawing cartoons that exposed the inanities of society in a humorous fashion.”
Finding a job after graduation, however, was no easy task at the tail end of the Depression. ”The comic book business, which began here in New York, was a savior,” said Jaffe. “They didn’t care whether you were white, black or Jewish. All they cared about was whether you could create Superman or Batman.”
Jaffee created the character Inferior Man for cartoonist and entrepreneur Will Eisner, The Spirit creator whose book-length comic "A Contract with God" is considered the first graphic novel. He also produced comic books for Stan Lee, former president and chairman of Marvel Comics, in the 1940s. And his Tall Tales comic strip had a six-year run in the New York Herald Tribune.
But his trademark questioning of authority found its fullest expression in his work for "Mad," where he created the fold-in. An optical trick question, the fold-in is an elaborate full-page drawing that when folded reveals the simple, funny visual answer. Jaffee, whose fold-ins turn 50 next year, became Mad’s chief designer of intricate gadgets and gimmicks and created countless cartoons that poked fun at such Jaffee pet peeves as planned obsolescence.
“Al Jaffee has always done two things at once,” said David Hajdu, an associate professor of journalism at Columbia and author of "The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America." “He is a first-rate comic gagman and a fine social critic; both jobs are precious and rarely companionable. How important is his archive? Only Jaffee could come up with a snappy answer to that stupid question.”
The archives will arrive at Columbia in several stages. The first phase, arriving this month, will include magazine artwork, notebooks, fan mail, photographs and biographical materials used for Mary-Lou Weisman’s 2011 biography, "Al Jaffee’s Mad Life."
“It would be difficult to find anyone born in this country after 1950 who hasn’t been affected in some way by 'Mad,' and Al Jaffee’s work has been the most consistent feature of the magazine for half a century,” said Green. “These archives reveal the range of Jaffee’s work beyond what most people know of him, as well as the nature of his process, both of which are critical to researchers.”
Sam Viviano, "Mad" art director and a longtime colleague of Jaffee’s, summed it up when he said, “Jaffee’s many contributions to comic books, the funny papers, magazines and advertising add up to a monumental critical analysis of American society.”