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Al Jaffee's Mad Life: A Biography Hardcover – September 28, 2010
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“Al Jaffee’s Mad Life lays bare in harrowing yet often riotous detail how a Southern boy, twice uprooted by his mother to Lithuanian shtetls on the eve of World War II, grew up to become a tireless satirist for some of America’s cheekier magazines.” (New York Times)
“I’ve been privileged to know many brilliant cartoonists, but the incredibly creative, supremely talented Al Jaffee is right up there at the top of the list.” (Stan Lee)
“When I am among other cartoonists talking about the giants in our field, one of the first names that comes to the conversation is Al Jaffee and we all agree, He is a cartoonists cartoonist!” (Sergio Aragones)
From the Back Cover
Jaffee’s inventive work has enlivened the pages of MAD since 1955. To date he has pickled three generations of American kids in the brine of satire, and continues to bring millions of childhoods to untimely ends with the knowledge that parents are hypocrites, teachers are dummies, politicians are liars, and life isn’t fair.
Jaffee’s work for MAD has made him a cultural icon, but the compelling and at times bizarre story of his life has yet to be told. A synopsis of Jaffee’s formative years alone reads like a comic strip of traumatic cliff-hangers with cartoons by Jaffee and captions by Freud. Six-year-old Jaffee was separated from his father, uprooted from his home in Savannah, Georgia, and transplanted by his mother to a shtetl in Lithuania, a nineteenth-century world of kerosene lamps, outhouses, physical abuse, and near starvation. He would be rescued by his father, returned to America, taken yet again by his mother back to the shtetl, andonce again rescued by his father, even as Hitler was on the march.
When he finally settled back in America as a twelve-year-old wearing cobbled shoes and speaking his native English with a Yiddish accent, schoolmates called him “greenhorn.” He struggled with challenges at least as great as those he had met in Europe. His luck changed, however, when he was chosen to be amember of the first class to attend New York City’s High School of Music and Art. There his artistic ability saved him.
He would go on to forge relationships with Stan Lee, Harvey Kurtzman, and Will Elder, launching a career that would bring him to MAD magazine. There he found himself at the forefront of a movement that would change the face of humor and cartooning in America.
A cliff-hanger of a life deserves a page-turner of a biography, and that is what Mary-Lou Weisman and Al Jaffee have delivered.
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I still remember the names of many of the contributors. Don Martin, Sergio Aragones, Frank Jacobs, Dick DeBartello, and who could forget Dave Berg's "The Lighter Side Of..."? My favorite, though was Al Jaffee. Nobody could make me break down into hysterics better then Jaffee. If you were a casual reader, Jaffee was the one the contribute the back cover "fold-ins" as well as the immortal "Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions". Never knowing that much about the comings and goings of the magazine, I was eager to read this biography that came out only a couple of years ago.
Although this was a very well written and interesting look at the man's life, it sadly fell short of my expectations. What I was really wanting, was the majority of this book to be about the goings on at MAD Magazine. This book actually covers very little of that frame of Jaffee's life. It's about 90% "pre-MAD" and 10% MAD. Of the "Pre-MAD" portion, most of that deals with Jaffee's childhood. It's a very interesting (and a bit sad) childhood. Growing up in a Jewish family in rural Georgia in a fairly well-to-to home, Jaffee's eccentric mother, for whatever reason, takes Al and his little brothers away from their father rather abruptly to move to the "old country" of Lithuania. Lithuania, according to Jaffee, was about a "century behind". The situation was rather tough, yet Al and his clan managed the best they could. Still, there were a lot of trials and tribulations in a very strict Orthodox Jewish family, and you can easily see where Jaffee gets his warped sense of humor.
So without going into too much detail, only the last chapter or so deals with his tenure at MAD, and to be blunt, it isn't very interesting. You learn a few snippets, but not really that much. To be fair, though, there probably isn't that many interesting things that happened behind the production of the magazine, so the author can't really write about things that never happened. An example of the eventlessness: Supposedly most of the writers and artists didn't even work at the MAD office. They simply did their work from home, and got paid on a "per page" basis when they submitted their work. It seems as though it was a grim existence, and the humor at MAD probably surfaced much more on the pages in the magazine than it did behind the scenes.
So it was a nice, well-done story about a man that many probably aren't that familiar with. if you're a fan, it's worth the purchase. It's not too long either, and Jaffee even illustrates much of the book giving the reader a nice, visual description of the escapades.
Several years ago, there was a CD-ROM collection of every MAD magazine made up until the late 1990s. I'll still have it and view/read it from time to time. It would be great if such a retrospective could be released in a similar fashion of all of Jaffee's "solo" material. There was a lot, and it was all great!