Al Jaffee, the trailblazing and culture-bending cartoonist for Mad magazine, has died. He was 102.
Jaffee, who celebrated his birthday March 13, died Monday in a Manhattan hospital of multisystem organ failure, his granddaughter Fani Thomson told The New York Times.
Jaffee was known for a number of Mad’s trademark features, including Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions, Spy vs. Spy and the “fold-in,” the drawing that ran on the back inside cover of every issue and could be revealed by folding the page vertically and inward.
Mad launched in 1952 at the height of anti-communist fervor and Jaffee arrived as a contributor three years later. When he retired in 2020 at age 99, he was the magazine’s longest-tenured contributor, though he always worked freelance and never was on staff.
“No one knew that Mad was going to go on for 50 or 60 years. I figured, ‘All right, I’ll do the best I can with Mad for as long as it lasts,’” Jaffee told Mother Jones in 2010. “When you live from freelance check to freelance check, your mind is always on, ‘What’s the next piece I’m going to write, or draw, that’ll pay this month’s rent?’”
Jaffee began pursuing comics after graduating high school in 1940, and at age 20 he made his first sale to future industry titan Will Eisner, who bought his parody of Superman called Inferior Man. He went on to work for soon-to-be Marvel legend Stan Lee at Timely Comics, a forerunner of Marvel Comics.
Abraham Jaffee was born in 1921 in Atlanta and spent part of his childhood in his parents’ native Zarasai, Lithuania, where his mother brought him and his siblings when he was 6. During those years, his father remained in America and sent Jaffee American cartoon strips, stirring his interest in the medium.
Jaffee returned to America in 1933 to live with his dad and spent the rest of his formative years in Far Rockaway, New York. His mother is believed to have died during World War II, along with much of Zarasai’s Jewish population.
Jaffee began going by Al during World War II as a way to shield himself from antisemitism, with the cartoonist noting that his Army buddies refused to call him Abe. It was while in the service that his art got him noticed by a fellow soldier, whose brother-in-law was a major and pulled some strings to get him an assignment as an art instructor at a rehab center in Coral Gables, Florida. He later worked at the Pentagon, making pamphlets and posters for the war effort.
At Mad, he was also known for the anti-war cartoons Hawks & Doves, which he drew during the Vietnam War. His work loomed large, with comedy stars such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert among his devotees.
“I had two jobs all my life,” Jaffee told the Times upon his retirement. “One of them was to make a living. The second one was to entertain. I hope to some extent that I succeeded.”
Jaffee was married to Joyce Revenson from 1977 until her death in 2020. He is survived by his children, Richard and Deborah, from his first marriage to Ruth Ahlquist. Other survivors include two stepdaughters, Tracey and Jody; five grandchildren; a step-granddaughter; and three great-grandchildren.
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