This Day in Jewish History

1921: Mad Cartoonist Al Jaffee Is Born

Jaffee worked with legendary cartoonists of his day and introduced some of Mad magazine's most enduring features.

Cory Doctorow

Today is the 93rd birthday of the comic artist Al Jaffee, whose work has appeared in nearly every issue of Mad magazine since 1958. Jaffee is the man behind the satirical magazine’s long-running “Fold-In” feature and legendary “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions” column.

He was born Abraham Jaffee on March 13, 1921, in Savannah, Georgia. His parents, Morris Jaffee and the former Mildred Gordon, moved south from New York after Morris was hired by a Jewish merchant in Savannah to manage his pawnshop. Both parents were born in Zarasai, a village in Lithuania, from which they emigrated, separately, some years earlier.

Whereas Morris loved his new home, Mildred longed to be back in Zarasai and was especially unhappy in Georgia. Religiously devout, when each of her four sons were born, she insisted on covering up the crucifixes hanging on the walls of her hospital’s maternity ward. Finally, when "Abe" (he only changed his name to Al in the 1940s, when he encountered anti-Jewish sentiment in the U.S. Army) was 6, Mildred Jaffee, accompanied by her four young sons, returned to Lithuania. For most of the next six years, Abe and his brothers lived in the very poor and very foreign Zarasai, sustained culturally and emotionally, he has said, by the newspaper comic strips their father sent over regularly from home.

Wikimedia Commons

In 1933, as Hitler was coming to power in Germany and anti-Semitism was rising in Lithuania, Mildred allowed Morris to take their three oldest children back to New York, where he was now living. She stayed in Zarasai with the youngest, whose father only succeeded in rescuing him in 1940, shortly before the village’s Jewish population — including, apparently, Mildred — was deported by the Germans.

After returning to New York, Abraham Jaffee was accepted to the first class of the High School of Music and Art, where classmates included future Mad colleagues Harvey Kurtzman, Al Feldstein and Will Elder. That was followed by army service, parts of which he spent as an art instructor and later doing graphic-art work in the Pentagon.

Jaffee began making his way into comics work in the late 1940s and early 1950s, taking commissions from pioneers like Will Eisner and Stan Lee. One of his early projects was a sort of anti-Superman he called “Inferior Man,” who worked as an accountant by day and fought crime at night.

Mad was founded by Harvey Kurtzman in 1952, and Jaffee first appeared in it in 1955. A year later, he followed Kurtzman when he founded a rival publication, Trump, for Hugh Hefner. When that failed, he joined Kurtzman at another short-live magazine called Humbug. Finally, he returned to Mad, by then edited by Al Feldstein, in 1958, and has been a regular contributor there ever since.

The Fold-In was Jaffee’s budget-magazine answer to Playboy or National Geographic’s fold-outs — with the twist that when the reader folded over the inside back cover as instructed, he saw a new image that poked fun at somebody.

The idea for the “Snappy Answers” column, he told an interviewer in 2010, came to him after an incident many decades ago, when he was balanced high on a ladder during a rainstorm, fixing an antenna that was falling off the roof of his Long Island home. He was scared of heights, and when his son, he recalled, “who I think must have been 10 at the time, says ‘Where’s mom?’ And I’m distraught up there, and I said, ‘I have killed her and I’m stuffing her down the chimney.’”

Since in 1984, Jaffee, who is not religiously observant, has also drawn (at least through 2010) a regular column, called “The Shpy,” for the Chabad children’s magazine Tzivos Hashem. Last year, the 92-year-old artist announced he would donate his artistic archive to Columbia University.