Mad magazine has been satirizing and parodying popular culture, movies, songs and everyday life for decades, and talented writer and illustrator Al Jaffe has been a major part of the magazine’s success. His outlooks on life, his poking fun at subjects that we often take way too seriously, caused me and countless others to want to purchase as many issues of Mad as we could get our hands on, the day they hit the stores. Mad magazine (and television shows like the Smothers Brothers Hour) helped me realize that the “truth” spoken by politicians on the news or the “truth” told to us by our teachers, parents or advertisers trying to sell us something, wasn’t necessarily the real truth - or at least not the entire truth.
Reading about Al Jaffee’s remarkable life and the travails he faced on his way to becoming one of Mad magazine’s top freelancers and American humorists impressed me even more. Jaffee’s friend Mary-Lou Weisman digs into Jaffee’s art, his career, and how he attained his status as a cartoonist among cartoonists, admired by such diverse peers as Peanuts’ Charles Schulz, Marvel founder Stan “The Man” Lee, and another talented writer/illustrator at Mad, Sergio Aragones. When even other cartoonists recognize your talent and contribution to cartooning, you know you’re pretty damn good.
Though Jaffee enjoyed drawing cartoons from a fairly early age, it took several long years for him to become an “overnight success.” This biography of his life spans Jaffee’s life from the Old World to the New and back again. It looks at the dysfunctional but loving family he was raised in, and how he was forced to face prejudiced people and a mother who uprooted him and his siblings from a relatively peaceful and tranquil life in Savannah, Georgia, moving them “to a shtetl in Lithuania, a nineteenth-century world of kerosene lamps, outhouses, physical abuse, and near starvation.” His years in Lithuania, his rescue by his father, being taken back again by his mother and eventually rescued again by his father had a profound effect on his early life.
He never really fit in in Zarasai, Lithuania, where he had to contend with a gruff grandfather, very cold winters, lice, bedbugs, stinking outhouses, bullies, and his family’s second-class citizen status because they were Jewish. It also took him quite a while to come close to fitting in all that well in America when he returned as a twelve-year-old. His hand-cobbled shoes and Yiddish accent marked him to his schoolmates as a “greenhorn.”
Despite the strictness of religious life in Zarasai and the added prohibitions that the Jews there placed upon themselves (like not working on Sundays, no driving of horses, no cooking or lighting kerosene lamps, etc.), one good thing came out of his years there: his adolescent sense of humor that would be embraced by the editorial staff of Mad magazine and its readers. As the author writes:
In spite of or perhaps because of these dreary, oppressive conditions, it was in
Zarasai that Al solidified his particular brand of humor - adolescent. Adults
were his targets. Satire would be his weapon.
Because he was around adults who seemed to be hypocritical or told him things that often contradicted each other or were patently nonsensical, he states in the biography that
“I developed my own brand of anti-adultism. At an early age, I set out to prove that adults were full of shit. I’m still doing that now, at the age of eighty-nine. I think like an adolescent.” Making fun of adults, the author says, was Al’s form of “revenge.”
Things started to look up for him when he became a member of the first class attending New York City’s High School of Music and Art. This part of his earlier life in particular is fascinating, when he began to grow as an artist and to consider being a cartoonist a possible career choice. When Al and his friend Willie Elder were seniors there, Harvey Kurtzman (who also later worked at Mad) “would win a place in the freshman class, setting the scene for a cartooning collaboration that thirteen years later would be Mad magazine.”
Al Jaffee's Mad Life by Mary-Lou Weisman is a touching, poignant, often laugh-out-loud funny biography of one of Mad magazine’s top cartoonists. From his years in Lithuania with his siblings and his mother to his life in Georgia and his early career writing for people like Will Eisner and Stan Lee, to his years as a freelancer for Mad, he somehow managed to keep his sense of humor intact and express it through marvelous cartoons that influenced the lives of millions of readers in incalculable ways. As a bonus, the book is lavishly illustrated with more than seventy of Al Jaffee’s cartoons. If you loved reading Mad magazine growing up, or are a fan of cartooning in general, or just enjoy reading excellent biographies, add this book to your reading list.