Sometimes I get to meet legends with this job. Today may be April Fools Day, but this past Wednesday in New York City was the height of March Mad-ness, when the usual gang of idiots gathered to wish one their own, Al Jaffee, a happy 95th birthday.
Held at Sardi’s restaurant in Manhattan (y’know, the one with all the caricatures on the wall), the party celebrated the life and work of MAD Magazine’s longest-running contributor, and the man behind the famous Fold-In and “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions.”
Jaffee, born Mach 13, 1921, was honored with a proclamation from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, naming him “the world’s oldest adolescent” and deeming March 30, 2016, Al Jaffee Day. He was also presented with a certificate from the Guinness Book of World Records for having the longest career as a comics artist, 73 years, for his work spanning December 1942 through the April 2016 issue of MAD.
For his part, Jaffee joked his was glad he stuck around to get it since “being 95 is no laughing matter.”
Those in attendance included Jaffee’s wife, Joyce, MAD Editor-in-Chief John Ficarra, MAD art director Sam Viviano, former Marvel Comics editor and author Danny Fingeroth, cartoonist Tom Richmond, and more from the local comics and comedy scene. There was also a video tribute featuring Stan Lee, Dan DiDio, co-publisher of DC Comics, and Groo and MAD cartoonist Sergio Aragones,
Lee, who worked with Jaffee at Marvel precursors Atlas and Timely Comics, poked a little fun in his message about the legacy of the artist’s characters Ziggy Pig and Silly Seal. He then added, sincerely, Jaffee was one of the cleverest, nicest guys he’d known.
“How we lost you to MAD, I’ll never know!” Lee added.
Jaffee was also presented with a letter from President of DC Entertainment, Diane Nelson, and an original piece of art that was recently discovered in a box at the offices of MAD publisher DC Comics. It was apparently the second installment of Jaffee’s “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions,” and he joked, “it will not go on eBay.”
Ficarra characterized Jaffee as someone who “never stopped working, playing, socializing, traveling.”
Reflecting on his career, Jaffee told me he remembered seeing the original Superman, Batman and Captain America comics in the late 1930s and early 40s, but wasn’t necessarily a big fan of those books.
“I said what can I learn from it, what can I steal from it,” he said. “And by steal, I mean, how can I incorporate such great work and ideas. I found out soon enough I was no Jack Kirby.”
While working at Timely, he said he realized there were certain things he was good at. Once he decided to become a professional artist, he said he regarded himself as a journeyman cartoonist, and added making fun of things was, and is, funny to him. And that was a talent he employed when working on a character like Super Rabbit, which Stan Lee insisted he take over, in the early ’40s.
“It would be very difficult, in my view, to make something funny out of Flash Gordon by Alex Raymond, or Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant; these things were instead like drawing lessons because the artwork was so magnificent...even as a kid, I felt they should be hanging in a museum.”
“The people I associated myself with were Rube Goldberg or the guy who did The Katzenjammer Kids; the humor stuff. But I was forced by Stan Lee to take over Patsy Walker, which was not cartoony. It was semi-realistic, but I found myself enjoying that enormously.”
Jaffee shared with me that he and Lee had a falling out over the latter’s ill-timed joke during the Atlas Comics years. He said Stan was always making jokes, but the one that broke their connection came after Jaffee had pulled an all-nighter, and the editor heaped too much comical praise on artist Al Hartley’s Patsy Walker work. Jaffee said he told the editor, “Well, then, let Hartley have the book.”
By the time he’d returned to his home in Long Island, he said Lee had called multiple times to apologize, and while Jaffee said he believed him, he felt it was the moment to move on. As it happens, that meant moving on to MAD, Trump, and Humbug magazines with Harvey Kurtzman.
But Jaffee said he still has a wonderful memory of his association with Stan Lee because of their shared mutual respect. Jaffee added that Lee was always pushing him to take on new challenges.
“When I first got to know him, he said to create an animal strip, and I said I didn’t know how to draw animated-type animals because I hadn’t worked for Walt Disney like Vince Fago and so many others did. He said, ‘You do it,’ and I did, and Ziggy Pig and Silly Seal became a pretty good selling comic book...when he asked me to take over Patsy Walker, I said, ‘I don’t know anything about teenage girls, and don’t even think I ever dated one,’ so I had to turn him down, and he said, ‘No, you won’t turn me down; you can do it.’”
“He always said that to me, and I always did.”
Jaffee said he even protested when Lee made him an associate editor at Timely Comics, but Lee told him, “You will be an editor, and you will be a great editor.”
“I would even dare to say, if someone like Stan Lee had said to me, I want you to take over Batman, I think I would have worked night and day for as long as I had to to start drawing Batman the way Bob Kane did.”
While he has yet to tackle Batman, Jaffee is a hero in his own right in the comics world. He said he still has many projects to accomplish. And no surprise – since, in 60 years, the longest-running MAD contributor has been present in nearly every one -- his work can be seen even in the latest issue of MAD, which he proudly displayed to me for a photo.
At 95, Jaffee is one of those guys who can’t help but inspire, and humble. And it was an honor to join the March MAD-man and his usual gang at the birthday party, and to share some of his cake – which, of course, was fold-in.