Redrawing the New York-Comics Relationship

Subjective Ramblings and Peripheral Thoughts from the Edges of a Comics Studies Project

Book Review: Mary-Lou Weisman’s “Al Jaffee’s Mad Life: A Biography”

Al Jaffee is a cartoonist and humorist most known for his inventive MAD Magazine “fold-ins” and “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions.” As such, he is a man who has brought much joy to many people for decades and someone who has had a far from negligible influence on modern popular culture. Thus, while journalist Mary-Lou Weisman’s 2010 Al Jaffee’s Mad Life: A Biographyis a book that came out of nowhere for me, my reading it was a given after it started staring at me from a discount table in a bookstore.

More than half of the book is taken up by recounting Jaffee’s childhood, which was spent first in Savannah, but was soon interrupted by two longer stays in his mother’s home country of Lithuania. The stories about how these stays came about, how they ended, and how the lack of family cohesion after most of the Jaffees came to New York shaped Al Jaffee’s life are interesting and often sad. The same can be said about most parts of his later life. Reading about the last time he saw his mother or how separation after returning to the US broke up a close relationship with one of his brothers is rough. There are, of course, also moments that bring warm feelings to the surface. The book also goes into some detail about how Jaffee came up with his ideas and where his inventiveness had its start, and discusses at some length the roots of his ambivalent relationship with Judaism. Perhaps some readers would have appreciated more detail when the story gets to the MAD years, since this period is arguably somewhat sparsely recounted, but, for me, the book delivers a gripping life-story that is well worth the read.

As with so many comics-creator and cartoonist biographies, other familiar names make cameos, and Jaffee’s Mad Life is no different. From Will Elder and Harvey Kurtzman – other legendary MADmen – to Stan Lee, the cast of characters is as colorful as many other similar books. And adding an innovative touch, the book is not only illustrated by samples of Jaffee’s work, but also by snapshots of the stories told drawn by the man himself.

If you want to know more about the man who came up with the fold-in, this book does not disappoint.

 

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