Al Jaffee (born Abraham Jaffee March 13, 1921) was a childhood hero of mine. Though Jaffee hasn’t been featured as a graphic medicine creator on this website, he has produced numerous graphic medicine single panel cartoons through his Fold-Ins and other medical-related contributions to Mad magazine. I met his creations through the many books of his that I read when I was a kid (with my most recent purchase in March 2023 of Ghastly Jokes (1976, Grosset & Dunlap) and through Mad magazine. He appeared in practically every issue of Mad from Aug-Sep 1955—Issue 25 assessing whether it’s “Science or Skill” to manage a baseball team with Jack Davis providing the illustrations and Jaffee the writer—through August 2020. He was both writer and artist, sometimes independently and sometimes combined in the same article. Issue 25 was the first issue after Mad changed from a comic book format to a magazine format to avoid the Comic Code Authority. Harvey Kurtzman was editor of Mad at that time. Al Jaffee appears 984 times from Aug-Sep 1955 – Dec 1998 (time period covered by Totally Mad 7 cd set). He also wrote at least 80 books according to goodreads.com. His most recent was his biography Al Jaffee’s Mad Life (itbooks, imprint of HarperCollins, 2010) by Mary-Lou Weisman and Illustrated by Jaffee. Art Spiegelman blurbed about Jaffee’s bio “… the inventor of the Mad Fold-In offers us a panoramic fold-out: … a vast tableau of survival, trauma, and family dysfunction … from tears born of laughter to laughter born from tears.”
Some Jaffee Books
Because of Jaffee’s death, I’m rereading his biography. From that biography: “Al was separated from his father, abandoned and abused by his mother, uprooted from his home in Savannah, Georgia, reared for almost six years in a Lithuanian shtetl, and returned to America—all by the time he was twelve years old. [page 1]” About his travels to Lithuania at age six—left unattended at a Hamburg Germany train station with his three younger brothers, “It was chaos,” Al remembers. “It is a moment that is as clear to me today as it was then. I realized I must not rely on this woman [his mother] for my survival. … Either we [he and his three brothers] are all going to get killed, or those of us who stay alert are going to survive, because she doesn’t know what she’s doing. I realized she was irresponsible. … I knew I was on my own” (page 5). To Jaffee’s credit, he recognizes that his mother was frazzled from birthing four boys in six years—with Jaffee being particularly rambunctious. Jaffee was the oldest with brothers David, Bernard and Harry. This biography is a work of graphic medicine.
But before his mother Mildred left for Zarasai Lithuania, we learn that Jaffee was enamored with his father, Morris—also from Lithuania—and his father’s pen. His father had the amazing artistic skill that he could exactly mimic the drawings from the Sunday comics. Morris would read the comics to his kids. Jaffee recalls wanting his father’s fancy Parker pen; that pen in his father’s hands would reproduce any comic character in the style of their creator. Alas, Morris said Jaffee would get the pen someday, when he was old enough. I’m sure his father’s skill and the tantalizing prospect of someday inheriting that pen, helped spark Jaffee’s comic’s enthusiasm. At school and home, Jaffee would fill book margins—including to her chagrin his mother’s bible—with comic strip characters.
Al Jaffee received his art education at New York’s High School of Music and Art (along with other EC Comics and Mad Alums John Severin, Al Feldstein, and Harvey Kurtzman); from The Mad World of William M Gaines (MWoWMG, page 84n) by Frank Jacobs, 1972, Lyle Stuart Publisher.
Al Jaffee’s first Mad appearance, Sep-Aug 1955
About working with Harvey Kurtzman, Jaffee said, “I’d work five days on a piece and I’d take it up to Harvey’s house … he’d phone me and give the most minute, soul-searching critique you can imagine, down to the tiniest, scratchiest line … [MWoWMG, 125]” For a time, Al Jaffee joined Kurtzman—after Kurtzman left Mad under strained circumstances—at Trump magazine, which was published by Hugh Hefner. When Trump folded after two issues, Kurtzman started a satirical magazine called Humbug which lasted eleven issues from August 1957 to August 1958. Humbug was reprinted by Fantagraphics in February 2008. Soon after Humbug folded Jaffee returned to Mad and didn’t leave until he retired (MWoWMG, 131). Jaffee started the Mad Fold-In in 1964 (first appearing in the April issue) as Jacobs wrote, “as a ‘cheap, economy-minded’ version of the ambitious fold-outs featured in Playboy and Life. Jaffee’s Fold-In has since graced virtually every inside back cover and is, to my mind, Mad’s most singularly appealing regular feature. ” Except the outside covers, the rest of Mad was in black and white, so the Fold-Ins began being done in color in 1968. I enjoyed solving the Fold-In puzzle without actually folding in the page; even as a kid I didn’t want to damage my Mad magazines. In 1997 a collection of Fold-Ins, called Mad Fold This Book: A Ridiculous Collection of Fold-Ins (Warner Treasures) was published. This collection included an explanation of how Jaffee created the Fold-Ins. Jaffee considered ending he feature, especially since color images made them much harder to create, “but when [William M Gaines, Mad’s publisher] informed [Jaffee] that … the rate of pay for full color art was three times that of black-and-white art, Jaffee had second thoughts about giving up the feature [from introduction to Fold This Book].” Fold This Book provides 261 miniature Fold-Ins on the inside front and back covers and the contents provides forty-eight large version Fold-Ins with solutions. His last Fold-In appeared August 2020 though he drew that Fold-In back in 2014 (“to be saved until his retirement,” from Aug 2020, page 57). August 2020’s Mad was called the Special Al Jaffee Issue! It was a retrospective to his over 60-year career at Mad, and he was featured throughout that issue. He probably did over 500 Fold-Ins, assuming about ten per year. I provide a couple medical-related Fold-Ins below. Note that the Fold-In features a question in the upper left corner, while the unfolded image might lead you astray from the answer that the folded in version provides.
From Mad Special 124 Oct 1997, almost prophetic to our current political dialogue
From Mad Special 120 Apr 1997; he also wrote and illustrated an article on devices to make one quit smoking (“Some Mad Devices for Safer Smoking,” Issue 91, Dec 1964, pages 4-7).
One of my favorite articles of his was called “Mad Investigates the Sordid Business of Gambling” which he wrote (Issue 71, Jun 1962, 5-10) and was illustrated by Wallace Wood. In particular, I was studying the description of “Doctored Dice” and when I caught the joke, I laughed and laughed and laughed.
From Mad Issue 71, Jun 1962, pg. 9
Here’s a humorous Fold-In from Mad Special 126 in Jan 1998 which seemed to announce the ending of the Fold-In feature and included a saddened, maddened or anxiety-ridden Jaffee self-portrait.
Note: No Fold-Ins were damaged in the making of this homage to Al Jaffee.
One of Jaffee’s creations in a Mad Special from 1971 was the subject of a lawsuit: a satirical American flag. I won’t repeat the image here, because the satire will likely be lost. Even at that time, I understood it was a call for equality and upset at hypocrisy, but not the American Federation of Police whose executive director (Gerald Arenberg) filed suit against Mad. The suit’s goal was to ban that issue of Mad. Regardless, the suit was dropped because the Mad Special was long off the newsstands by the time the lawsuit made its way to court. This topic is covered, along with a letter from Gaines to Arenberg on pages 217-219 of MWoWMG.
Jaffee’s also famous for Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions (a successor to Rube Goldberg’s Foolish Questions (1909 – 1919) but with much more sense-making humor and without the racism and misogyny) and often allowing the reader through fill-it-in-yourself word balloons to provide their own snappy comeback.
Al Jaffee won many awards over his lifetime, including two Reuben’s one in1973 for the Fold-Ins and another in 2007 for Outstanding Cartoonist and The Fold-In won a Special Features Award from the National Cartoonist Society in 1975.
Finally, I’ll almost conclude with a paragraph from my October 15, 2019 review of Drawing Blood, an exhibition at Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum, and curated by Jared Gardner. That conclusion discussed the following Jaffee undated comic image (which wasn’t shown in the Drawing Blood exhibition review).
“I’ll close with Al Jaffee (March 13, 1921 – ), a superb and honored cartoonist, in the Humor or Gag part of Drawing Blood exhibition. No detailed curation is provided for Jaffee’s one page comic, perhaps from the 1970s, which was of a Waiting Room with 10 patients sitting across a large coffee table between them and, at the front of the room, a cross-armed gatekeeper sits at a desk between two doors labeled “Examining Room” with the wingless doctor caduceus symbol to the left and “Paying Room” to the right. The Paying Room door has the doctor symbol with only one snake forming a dollar sign with the staff. Those waiting include a person with head covered in bandages reading, a man with a Rip van Winkle beard (grown while waiting?), another vomiting bones, and a hooded skeleton. The coffee table is covered with comic magazines like Humbug (Jaffee was among its writer/artists) and Judge and brochures: “How to go into hock to pay medical bills,” “How to sell possessions to pay medical bills,” “How to beg to pay medical bills,” “How to borrow to pay medical,” and “How to steal to pay medical …”. There are a few spider webs connecting waiting persons to nearby plants. According to Guinness Book of World Records Jaffee has the longest continuous career of published comics for 73 years 3 months upon his 95th birthday in 2016 www.Guinnessworldrecords.com since December 1942. Jaffee was a 60+ year contributor to Mad magazine with his classic Fold-Ins and snappy answers to stupid questions among many others.”
Since Jaffee officially retired in 2020, his Guinness World Record for cartooning was 77 years give or take a few months. Al Jaffee died April 10, 2023.
Someday soon at the Graphic Medicine website, I hope to unfold a review of Al Jaffee’s Mad Life …
Can you explain the “Doctored Dice” joke, I don’t get it!
Kevin Wolf says
Jaffee was almost a magician with misdirection. Does that help?