The VICE Guide to Al Jaffee
Al being photographed for our Table of Contents by photo editor Patrick O’Dell
Al has been drawing comics for so long his hands wobble. He was there before comics were cool and he’ll be there long after they’re not. Actually no he won’t. He’ll be dead. Oh well, his work will live on forever and we were honored to be able to sit in his studio in midtown and pick his brain until it was sick of talking to us.
VICE: You were a zero when we discovered you last month.
Al Jaffee: I think that’s maybe being a little too generous to me.
You’d only been drawing for half a century. You were a rookie, a kid.
Yeah, and it’s about time that I got a break.
But seriously folks, what do you think of the issue?
I thought it was a great issue. I come from a different age and I think all the cartoonists are great in their own way, in their own style. Of course, they are dealing with the current audience, which is much less self-censoring, and they sort of deal with, not so much the mainstream but a different kind of audience than the one I’ve had to deal with all these years. I mean you couldn’t do that kind of stuff in MAD obviously.
Did any of it make you uncomfortable?
None of it made me uncomfortable. The only thing I couldn’t quite relate to from my own experience was that some of the things didn’t have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They were just sort of a stream of consciousness and ended at the arse-end of the page. That wasn’t many of them though. Most of them had very distinct points of view, and I thought the drawing was very good. I particularly like Johnny Ryan, and well, you know, I don’t want to single people out or leave people out, but I looked at all the cartoons and the styles go from A to Z. I enjoyed Johnny Ryan’s little story about Edward Gorey, whom I admired.
Gorey was great.
Yes he was.
He had that magic thing that Crumb has and Dave Cooper has where they can build up the gray of the page by cross-hatching and little details that few people can do. Most just add big blocks of black to the page in order to fill up the page. [note to non-cartoon types: a good comics page has about 50% black and 50% white. If you can’t cross hatch you’re forced to have a big black fridge in the background or whatever].
I’m a great admirer of Bob Crumb’s, whom I’ve met and talked with. He paid me a great compliment on one of my jobs in Humbug Magazine, which also contained tons and tons of crosshatch. But Bob Crumb then was very young—we met 45 years ago.
So how did that work. You worked at MAD for a bit, and then left to do Humbug and then you came back?
Yeah. Actually, my career at that time was sort of tied to Harvey Kurtzman. What happened was Harvey was the editor, and he approached me and asked me if I’d like to do some work for MAD. I was in comic books at that time, doing teenage comics which I really wasn’t crazy about, so I jumped at the chance. I called up Harvey and I said, “Harvey, I’m coming onboard,” and he says. “I just quit.” So now I’m high and dry because I’d just told Stan Lee that I wasn’t going to do teenage stuff anymore.
This was like Archie Andrews Where Are You? kind of stuff, right?
Yeah, It was like Archie. The title of my future was Patsy Walker—so on top of my discomfort about teenage material, this was about girls, and about the clothing they wore and all that kind of stuff. I even had to do a feature of styles that were sent in by girls and try to make them look professional. It was really not a labor of love, but I did the best I could and I needed the money, so it worked out OK.
How old were you back then?
I was in my late 20s. Prior to that I was doing animal stuff, like Super Rabbit, and Ziggy Pig & Silly Seal. This was all for Stan Lee’s comics, which at that time was Timely Comics and then became Marvel. I had a terrific relationship with Stan Lee—I don’t know what kind of relationship he had with me, but I thought it was symbiotic. He just let me write the stuff and draw the stuff, and he never even looked at it. He just trusted me. So we worked quite well together, and the magazines sold well, so that was OK.
Whenever I hear about you guys back in the 50s living in Manhattan, it just seems like you couldn’t do that today—you couldn’t move to the Upper West Side or Midtown and say, “I’d like to be a cartoonist, please,” and sit at a desk drawing all day.
No you couldn’t that, although I didn’t live in Manhattan at that time. I lived on Long Island and commuted when I actually worked at Timely Comics. Then things changed and I went freelance, and I still worked out on the island and delivered my work.
So your rent was cheap out there.
Well, it wasn’t the rent, you know. It was pretty close to the end of World War II, and there was this rush to buy homes and have children, so we went out and bought homes and grew lawns and threw our kids into the lawns and didn’t worry about them. It was only after my kids were grown and my wife and I separated that I came to Manhattan. But that was a long time ago too—that was in 1967.
So the wife you’re married to now isn’t your first wife.
But you’ve still been married like a hundred years or something.
Next year we celebrate 30 years.
Does she read comics?
No, she’s Phi Beta Kappa and a very well educated and bright woman. She ran a clinic for senior citizens here in Manhattan among other things.
So what would you do if you came to bed one night and there she was with the bed-light on, reading Weirdo?
Well, she’s very open-minded. She’s seen it all and she’s read Vice and wasn’t surprised or shocked.
Did she like the Comics Issue?
Yes, though not as much as I did, you know, because she’s not as knowledgeable about art styles. She grew up in a more academic world than the world I grew up in. But we’ve talked about it, and she’s asked me a lot of questions, so she knows a hell of a lot more now than she did before we got married.
|Mad #1 cover by Kurtzman||
Kurtzman’s “Little Annie Fanny” from Playboy
Back to Harvey Kurtzman. He’s dead now but those covers he used to do back when MAD was sort of that small zine-size were stunning. The way he would draw women, with those stiletto heels—I remember being a young kid and having strange feelings in my loins about all the women he would draw. I guess that’s why they used him in Playboy so much.
Well, Harvey was a very, very talented guy. He taught cartooning at School of Visual Arts. He created things—he was very inventive. And he loved the genre and the work, and he also did very serious things. He did war comics during the Vietnam War for EC Comics.
Oh yeah, he could do really realist stuff too.
Yes he could, and he wrote these stories and brought some very new concepts into the writing and layout and dramatic effects in comic books. I wasn’t into that kind of stuff so I wasn’t following it that closely, but from what I’ve seen sense it’s clear that Harvey was sort of a genius at this business and deserves a lot of respect.
He was around before the Comic Book Code. Wasn’t MAD one of the first comics to have to adhere to the Code? That weird stamp?
Bill Gaines, who published the magazines that Harvey worked for, and Al Feldstein, who was the editor, they had a line called EC. They did Tales from the Crypt, and all that; legendary stuff. They’re collector’s items. These guys took the whole comic book business in a different direction and wound up before a congressional committee.
And this was well before all the San Francisco, beatnik R. Crumb guys, right?
Yep. Bill Gaines, the publisher of EC Comics and later MAD (he became the publisher of MAD after all his comics had been banned and he practically went out of business), he went before this committee and testified, and they held up one of his comic books in which a severed head was being held aloft with blood dripping out of the neck. The whole country was shocked by this, and Bill tried to explain, but it just didn’t work. And that’s when the Comics Code had to come in, because all the other publishers were being threatened with being put out of business. So they jumped in and created the Code, and it was a form of censorship that really came close to destroying the whole industry. There was very little that was daring that you could still do. Every story had to go to a censorship committee.
And these people weren’t in the comics industry, they were just regular shitheads-
They were just censors. I mean, I was in a safe area, but even my comics had to carry the Code. I was doing these stories about who was going to take whom to the prom, so nobody got very frightened by that, but the guys that were doing straight stuff—I mean, if you’re doing superheroes, you want to have a little bit of violence. How the hell can you be such a superhero when you go around and tap people on the shoulder and tell them to move over?
Just save buses falling off the edge of a cliff and put them back on the road.
That’s about all you got.
But it didn’t last too long did it? I mean, after that you had the whole San Francisco movement, Zap and all that stuff.
Well, the San Francisco movement and Zap and Crumb and all them, they became the alternate business. I don’t think the censors were able to get into that because of the First Amendment. They weren’t going to run around and challenge every little guy that’s putting out 5,000 copies of a comic book. What they were really after were the big guys, who were putting out 40 to 50 titles a month, running 100 to 300,000 copies every issue. Those are the guys that they could get after.
So would you say that the Comics Code stuff kind of started alternative comics?
I think so. One thing follows another.
Where was MAD in all this, did they have to follow the Code?
The only thing that they didn’t go after was MAD, cause MAD didn’t have any violence or sex in it—it had satire, and it’s pretty hard to go after satire. The early MADs were, if you look at them now, fairly tame. They made fun of advertisements and did funny articles about what to do with leftover paperclips—it wasn’t harmful. The main thing that these censors hung their whole theory on was that a psychiatrist by the name of Frederick Wortham claimed that comic books caused juvenile delinquency. And at that time juvenile delinquency was a front-page story, because the newspapers loved to do pieces about kids doing bad things. You know, kids are still doing those bad things today.
But now they’re blaming video games. Now it’s Grand Theft Auto that’s making them do it.
Right, and also things like the halftime shows of football games and clothing dysfunctions. It’s always something.
Well the beauty of it now is that there’s so many different media that if you criticize one you have to criticize them all, and it just becomes too much of a burden. If you censor video games, then you have to go after comics, you have to go after movies, you have to go after TV shows downloaded on iPods and bit torrents. So I think the courts just say, “Aw fuck it. I don’t want to get involved.”
Ultimately, it all leads back to the money. If namby-pamby stuff stops selling, the big, mainstream producers, the big moneymakers, the Sony Corporations, General Electric, you name it, they all have to get into some part of the game. And once they get into the game, they’re the guys that pay Congress, so Congress isn’t about to go after these guys for that. Nobody likes to stop the money stream.
Let’s get back to MAD. There was an era in the 70s where you would have this “sung to the tune of—“ some Broadway thing from the 50s, and here we are in Canada or Ohio or wherever saying, “Uh, I’m not familiar with Broadway, I’m eight.” Or they had Dave Berg talking about when a punk shows up to pick up your daughter on a date and how horrible that is, and I remember thinking. “I can’t relate to this. I don’t even have a sister.”
Well, MAD never did any real demographics under Bill Gaines, but our impression was that the readership was like teenagers. Bright youngsters maybe, eight and nine years old got into it,
—and they didn’t know the Broadway show maybe, but it had some funny pictures. And as time went by and they started to pick up on some of this stuff, I think there was a sense of discovery, like, “Gee, I know something my pals don’t know.” But I don’t think there were a whole lot of eight- and nine-year-old readers. I think it was something more in the neighborhood of 13 to 14. You’re right about the Broadway songs, though.
|Star Wars parody written by Frank Jacobs and drawn by Mort Drucker|
Who was the guy who did all those?
Frank Jacobs. He did them all and he was brilliant. But they were adult—there’s no question about it. They were adult, and I think some of the young kids, as they grew older, they might have become more familiar with the satiric aspect of it when performers on early television started to do these songs.
Nah. Frank Jacobs and Dave Berg ostracized us. They wrote for themselves and it was like we weren’t invited to the joke.
I think maybe you’re right in some respects, but in others—like Dave Berg would essentially do things that were happening to families. It was like going to the dentist, or going to the prom, the kind of things that suburban families were involved in.
The beauty of your stuff is that a bright eight-year-old can enjoy it and so can an adult. The inventions, for example. Some of those inventions ended up getting invented, didn’t they?
Some did. One thing I drew was a Ferris wheel for parking automobiles, and years later somebody sent me a picture of a car park Ferris wheel in Austria. Then I had an ashtray that when you put a cigarette on it would suck the smoke into it.
I’ve seen one of those.
Some of these things, though, I can’t swear that we weren’t working on it at the same time. I’m doing the article, while the inventor is somewhere tinkering with this thing.
But for the Ferris wheel MAD is mentioned in the patent.
Yes it was. I also did an article called “Ego Builders,” and I can’t remember all the things in it, but the thing I do remember was a phony telephone that you could take in your car, and you push a button and it rings and you make believe you’re talking on it to impress other people on the street. And this is before cell phones. So I didn’t invent the cell phone, but I drew it.
Another person that was great like that was Don Martin. He was an amazing goof.
Don Martin was brilliantly zany, and a terrific guy personally. He didn’t start out to be a cartoonist—he came to MAD with serious work and they converted him.
Wait, what kind of sentence is that? He came to MAD with serious work?
More realistic artwork, not cartoony. Illustration. At least that’s what I was told—I never saw it.
But he has such a distinct style, I can’t imagine him doing anything except big, cylindrical idiot-heads.
Well, I think he wanted to work for MAD, so he designed a style for it. It’d be interesting to dig up the whole story on that. It may be in Maria Reidelbach’s book, but I’m not sure. After so many years of dealing with this stuff, it’s hard to compartmentalize it.
|Al watches The Colbert Report on his computer|
What was the story with The Colbert Report? You were away in the Hamptons or somewhere when you saw it?
Joyce and I were on an airplane on my birthday, coming back from Mexico. We were kind of tired and jetlagged (even though there’s only a one-hour difference), so we got into bed and said, “Ah, let’s turn on The Colbert Report and try to fall asleep,” cause we were all jazzed up from this long, 12-hour day. And when the Colbert Report was about to end, I got the remote to click it off, and Steven Colbert stands up with a MAD Magazine. So both of us said, “Hey, wait, let’s see this,” and what followed, it blew our minds. I mean, how did this come about? A birthday cake, made into a fold-in, celebrating my birthday?
And what was it he said? Our movie here cuts it off… “He taught us that inflation is—“
That inflation is obesity. It was something about inflation and then it folds into a very fat person, eating. At least I think it was eating. Anyway, it was a big surprise and it was just great, and I sent him a thank-you drawing.
|The aforementioned thank you drawing|
Bet you couldn’t get to sleep after that.
It was tough. Believe me, we were sitting there goggle-eyed and not knowing what to make of it. Then we figured, “Uhp, MAD must have supplied all the information.” The next day I called up MAD and—actually, as a matter of fact they contacted me first and asked me if I knew about it. I said, “No, did you?’ and they said no. So nobody knew about it. I was just overwhelmed, because who knew that you had fans from television shows?
It is great and everything, but it’s a long time coming.
I’m enjoying it thoroughly.
Wait, more questions: how’d you get into cartooning?
I think most of the cartoonists you have in your magazine will probably tell you the same story. They started wanting to draw cartoons when they were crawling around in their diapers. It’s just something you find you can do, and then you notice and start reading other peoples’ cartoons and you go, “Oh wow. This stuff is great. I’d love to do this.” I was literally spending all day Sunday when I was a little kid with the Sunday funnies on the floor, just going panel to panel to panel and then back again and looking for every detail. I just loved it. My brother Harry and I both did that, and we both became artists. He became a fine artist, and I became a lousy artist.
|A painting by Al’s brother Harry|
And you’re grandkids are into painting too, aren’t they?
Some of them are, but most of them can but are not interested.
So it’s genetic.
I guess it is. There are worse genetic traits.
|Al sketching out this month’s cover|
Okay next topic: wobbly hands. Surgeons have to stop after they’re 60 cause they can’t keep their hands perfectly still anymore, and you look at Charles Schultz’s late stuff and he got pretty wiggly toward the end.
He and I were at a party, and we wound up signing autographs right next to each other. We were the two wobblies. I think we lent each other moral support, cause it was obvious that both our hands shook.
But I’m looking at the cover right now, I don’t see wobbly lines. Well, I guess I do but it looks on purpose.
You know something? In every line of work people run into problems, and we don’t find out about all of them. But what they do is they compensate. You become creative and inventive in another way and invent solutions to your problems. So far what’s been working very well for me is I hold one hand with the other to steady it.
Like you have to wrap your hand all the way around the other one?
No, it’s gotten to the point where it’s almost psychological—I put a finger on my pen, and it just sort of steadies it. It’s been working for a couple of years now, and when that stops working I’ll find some other solution. But I’ll tell you something that you lose, that I regret. The best word I can come up with is you lose flourish. You can’t take a pen and make a sweeping when you’re holding hands with yourself. So I had to create a different style—it’s sort of a jerky style of line, but I try to introduce character into it. The little jumps and jogs tell a little story of their own. If you have a sense of design, you make it become a part of the design, and sometimes it adds something to it. Smooth lines—I mean, you can do that with instruments, with French curves—which I also use if I have to do something like a commercial product as part of my work. Like say an automobile. Automobiles have perfect lines, and if you try to do that freehand even a guy with a steady hand is going to get a little bumpy here and there.
So when you make a drawing you draw on tracing paper, then you cut it out, then you tape it to the board you want, and then when you’ve decided on the composition you trace each component via carbon paper onto the illustration board.
|The rough tracing paper layout Al did before committing his Vice contribution to illustration board|
If you would just spend ten minutes learning Photoshop, you could just draw something, scan it, and then you could change the size or the composition and you would save three steps.
A lot of the guys in production at MAD and a lot of the artists—the younger ones—they do that, and they do it really beautifully. I’ve thought about it, and I think, anyone should be able to do a fold-in using a computer. I don’t even know why they need me. Some of the guys up in the production department probably try to make me feel good by saying they like the look of a hand-drawn thing.
See Al do his own fold-in starring “The Closet” by R Kelly
Well, there is something to that. I think people who don’t even know they’re looking at hand-drawn things—like when you see lettering and all the Es aren’t the same—I think there’s something in their subconscious that says, “Oh, this was man-made.”
I believe that’s true, and lettering is a very good example. I’ve seen some things where the lettering really looks good, and I always check by picking two Es or two Ts to see if they’re Xerox copies of each other. And if they are, I don’t like it anymore, cause I used to know master letterers years and years ago. A friend of mine who used to be called in by the top department stores, he’d go into Saks Fifth Avenue and they’d show him the ad and he would sit down and put “Christmas Sale,” but it would be done in his style of lettering and it would just look beautiful. Maybe computers can do that, but when all the Es and all the Ts look alike, I think even people who don’t know anything about lettering begin to realize that they’re looking at something mechanical. Of course, it’s not enough for someone to care about, cause if they’re looking at something that says $24.95, they’re not going to worry.
|Al explains the pin holes he uses to line up the various parts of a fold-in|
So you don’t want to change the archaic way you do things. You’re happy with the way it works out. Is there anything about your 66-year career you would change if you could?
I don’t really have any regrets. I think I’ve been so lucky that I wish my kind of luck on every budding cartoonist. I have never been hassled—I’ve had to fix work here or there, I’ve had to make changes—it’s been a very comfortable way to live. I got paid for doing things that I enjoyed doing without terrible anxiety. So I look back on it, if you can call it a career, and it’s really been great.
Wait, don’t go. Let’s go back to those early days. Harvey Kurtzman said “Come to MAD” and you quit your job because you were bored but Harvey had already left?
No, I didn’t go to MAD right away. Harvey said to me, “I left MAD. I can’t tell you everything now, but in about two weeks I’ll call you and you’ll be OK. Don’t worry.” And two weeks later he called to tell me that he and a number of other people who’d worked with him at MAD were going to start a magazine for Hugh Hefner, which we called Trump. It was going to be a very slick version of what Harvey’s idea of MAD had been, and we put out two issues—actually we made three, but the third issue didn’t get published. That was great fun, and Hefner was great to work for, but for a variety of reasons that I don’t even really know the details of, Hefner could no longer put the magazine out. So after that, we all put our money into a magazine called Humbug, and we went broke. But we put out a beautiful little magazine.
Do you have any old copies of it? Those guys must be worth a mint.
I gave most of them away, but I think I have one complete set. And we just got back our original artwork from Humbug.
Yeah. It was being stored by Harvey’s family, and they just gave it back to us.
Maybe it’s just cause I’m a comics nerd, but this whole story sounds like Indiana Jones to me—I can hear trumpets in the background.
Well, everybody’s life is interesting, and I guess mine is too.
Interview by GAVIN McINNES
More shots of Al’s studio here