The pages of Mad Magazine have been graced by some of the greatest cartoonists of all time. You have the likes of Sergio Aragones, Mort Drucker, Tom Richmond, Don Martin, Harvey Kurtzman, and Antonio Prohias, to name a few. However, one artist transcends them all for his long tenure, inventive cartooning, and massive volume of work. That’s Al Jaffee, who sadly passed away last week aged 102.
I’m bringing back the long-dormant Creator Spotlight to celebrate his life and work. Read on to find out why Jaffee was one of the best, along with some examples of his art and discover reading recommendations if you want to see more.
While this piece celebrates Jaffee’s work, it won’t be an in-depth obituary or retrospective. There have been plenty of those published already. Instead, it’s an introduction to his work and will point you in the right direction if you want to discover more.
Al Jaffee began his cartooning career in 1941 when the legendary Will Eisner gave him a chance in the pages of Military Comics. From there, he bounced around to several humour comics for Timely Comics (now known as Marvel Comics) and others. However, Jaffee is most famous for his long tenure on Mad Magazine, becoming what they affectionally refer to themselves as the Usual Gang of Idiots. He contributed to the legendary magazine, with sharp satire and wit, from 1955 all the way up until 2020, when he retired at the age of 99. This also gave him the world record for longest career for a cartoonist.
Jaffee didn’t stick to one visual style during his long tenure at Mad Magazine. While he preferred rounded lines and shapes, he implemented that through many different aesthetics and tools. Sometimes he implemented rougher strokes, such as in the Hawks and Doves strips. Other times, his work was fully painted, applying more depth and colour range. Jaffee used each style to adapt to the strip, best serving the theme of the comic or gag.
The legendary cartoonist also used the physicality of the magazine as part of his work. This is most evident in the fold-ins, which require the reader to fold the back cover to reveal a punchline. Jaffee created the feature and crafted hundreds of them over decades. It became so synonymous with Mad Magazine that it would be hard to imagine the magazine without it.
Below is a small selection of Al Jaffee’s work from throughout the decades to give you a better understanding.
Al Jaffee reading recommendations
Has the above gallery wanting you seeking out more of Jaffee’s work? Here a few things that I recommend reading.
Mad Magazine Fold-Ins
As I mentioned, Jaffee did all kinds of cartooning for Mad Magazine. However, he’s best known for the fold-ins on the inside back cover. For those unfamiliar, It would feature a scene accompanied by some text down the bottom. When the reader folded the image, with the first third and the last third joining at the borders, it would create a brand new image (made up of existing elements) that was also the punchline.
The fold-in was inspired by the fold-out pages that had become popular in many magazines by 1964 – especially the famous Playboy Centrefold. With that in mind, Jaffee’s idea was to invert the concept. While it wasn’t well received by editors at the time, it has since gone on to be one of the defining factors of Mad Magazine.
Jaffee would often use these fold-ins to comment on hundreds of topics. Sometimes these would be light things, like sports. It would become an outlet for political statements about politicians (Richard Nixon was targeted multiple times) or serious topics like the Vietnam War or gun control. When asked by Vulture about the political slant to the fold-ins, he said “…sometimes it became an outlet. It’s a strange duck. One picture turns into another picture. But you have to say something. You can’t just have an illustration. It’s better to make a comment about the world around us.”
Want to read some of Al Jaffee’s fold-ins? You can find out which ones Jaffee did with the excellent Doug Gilford’s Mad Cover Site. This should help inform which back issues you should track down. Alternatively, some of Jaffe’s fold-in have been collected in books such as 1997’s Mad: Fold This Book and The Mad Fold-In Collection: 1964-2010 box set.
Tall Tales was a short-lived single-panel strip published in newspapers between 1957 and 1963. Its presentation made it stand out, towering over conventional squares and landscapes with a vertical format. Jaffee used these unique dimensions to tell a range of wordless gags. Often the height would be part of the gag, such as this kite-themed strip. Other strips used it to show the passage of movement, forcing your eyes up or down the panel to tell a joke.
Jaffee also did a multiple-panel Sunday strip for Tall Tales. These strips, still having elongated panels, are fun but don’t play around with form and space like the dailies. Instead, these strips end up being closer to conventional comic strips.
Abrams collected many of the daily strips in a single collection. You can view additional strips, including the Sunday editions, in their original art format on the Heritage Auctions website.
Snappy Answers To Stupid Questions
After the fold-in, Snappy Answers To Stupid Questions is Jaffee’s next famous contribution to Mad Magazine. This single-panel strip would set up a scenario where someone would ask a question so stupid that it should be obvious. In return, a character would respond with a range of sarcastic answers.
Jaffee would open the strip to audience participation by including a blank dialogue space. Here, readers could come up with their own snappy answers. For many would-be comedians, I like to think that the strip helped refine their zingers. Even if your answers were not that great, they’ve got to be better than Homer Simpson’s.
Check out Doug Gilford’s Mad Cover Site to find out which issues of Mad Magazine contained Jaffee’s Snappy Answers To Stupid Questions. Alternatively, Jaffee produced several original collections of popular strips which are easily found and affordable.