Al Jaffee of Mad Magazine Passes at 102 (A Note on his work, Jewishness, and the Schlemiel Character)

Al Jaffee – who was at the inception of Mad Magazine in 1952, and returned in 1964 and stayed until it folded in 2019 – died today, at the age of 102.

Known primarily for his “fold-in” for Mad Magazine, in his last interview, for New York Magazine’s Culture blog, Vulture, he talks about his Jewish roots in Lithuania, and much else. Apparently, he was raised in an observant home and, like many Jews he took to humor. He saw all things oddly, including his own Jewishness:

But you weren’t born in Lithuania?
No, I was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1921. But both of my parents were from Lithuania. My mother was very religious, and she wanted to go back to a place where she felt comfortable. She moved back, and brought me and my three brothers with her. This was in 1927.

How did those six years in Lithuania affect your comic sensibility?
My father remained in America through those six years, and I made him promise to send me American comic strips. Every few months or so, my brothers and I would receive a package of rolled-up Sunday color comics and daily comics. We would just sit there and read them for days and days. My brother Harry, who was also artistic, would take these Sunday comic pages, and we’d cut them up and turn them into little books. We would provide our own dialogue, maybe with a Lithuanian joke or two

Most of the comics we received were humorous. Some were adventurous, in the “Little Orphan Annie” mold. There was no TV or radio, so that was pretty much it for us. But I would see humor in everything, even in the religious practices, which didn’t quite register with me.

I found religion sort of funny. There was something that just didn’t make sense about not being able to play ball or not being able to walk too far on the Sabbath. These very strict religious prohibitions against any kind of enjoyment just struck me as being very old-fashioned and strange. Maybe I was bringing my Savannah influence with me; I don’t know. I was sort of straddling these two cultures: the New World and the Old World.

He also discusses humor in relation to anti-Semitism and saw it – like Charlie Chaplin and others – as ridiculous:

It is also really telling that one of his first ideas to come into the comic scene was to do a parody of Superman. It is fascinating because, as Hannah Arendt argues in her seminal essay on the schlemiel, “The Jew as Pariah,” that Charlie Chaplin had failed to laugh Hitler out of office with his film, The Great Dictator (1940); and for that reason, the schlemiel, as an American icon (as found in Chaplin) was displaced, according to Arendt, by Superman.

Jaffee parodied that displacement:

What was your first comic-book sale? How old were you?

I was 20. I went to see Will Eisner, who was the creator of a comic strip called “The Spirit,” which was beautifully drawn and very creative. The opening splash pages were all so brilliantly conceived. In the comics field, we all admired this strip tremendously. Will was a genius. He just did beautiful work.

I had created a parody of Superman called “Inferior Man,” and I wanted to show it to Will. It seems so naïve now, but it seemed like the right thing to do at the time.

Was this the first parody of Superman? This would have been what, the early ’40s? Superman had only been around a few years at that point.

At that time, there was another character who was called Stuporman — it was published by DC Comics. I don’t know if mine was the first Superman takeoff, but it really doesn’t matter. I came up with mine independently. Since then, I’ve seen a million takeoffs, but, at that time, there weren’t many. When I brought this idea to Will, I had no idea whether I was doing something stupid or not. But Will, who was only a few years older than I was, was already very successful. He hired me on the spot to do “Inferior Man” as a filler for his comic books.

Several years later, Jaffee was asked to create a character for the Chabad Lubavitch’s kids magazine under Tzivos Hashem. He took the task.

In its colorful pages, Al Jaffee reinvented a character called “the Shpy.” Part-fumbling secret agent and part-Torah scholar, “the Shpy,” clad in a trench coat with his hat pulled over his eyes and an attaché case filled with every conceivable gadget, is tasked with doing battle against the Yetzer Hora, the evil inclination.

This character has – without a doubt – some schlemiel characteristics in the way he is playfully portrayed. The Lubavitcher Rebbe commented to Rabbi Pape – whose magazine this character appeared in – about Jaffe’s caricatures:

“We used to send the cover of every issue to the Rebbe,” recalls Pape. “He would look it over and make suggestions—such as making sure girls were represented on every cover.” Other comments from the Rebbe included his belief that caricatures should be avoided in the magazine. In a note to the editors, the Rebbe wrote, “It’s not fitting that people should be drawn with unnaturally oversized bodies and cartoonishly large noses, even though that style is common in comics.” To do so, the Rebbe noted, was a “huge educational mistake.”

“When it came to the cartoonish elements that the Rebbe wanted us to avoid,” says Pape, “I don’t think he wanted children to laugh at how others looked. He was sensitive to those with various defining traits or disabilities and wanted art to reflect that sensitivity.”

Whether it is Inferior Man, Stuporman or Shpy, Jaffe wanted to create a parody of the superhero that was in line with the schlemiel character and its comical adventures in the world. To be sure, the schlemiel character is a Jewish response to the hero. The schlemiel is self-deprecating and, as Ruth Wisse puts it, wins an “ironic victory.”

He may not be superman, but he has the sincerity of Gimpel or Rabbi Nachaman’s humble simpleton who, like many a Jew, finds humor everywhere. Comedy is more in tune with Judaism than tragedy. After all, the Jewish tradition teaches us that the best ending is a divine comedy (albeit, not in Dante’s sense).

The schlemiel stayed with Jaffee, so to speak, throughout his career and marks his mission in life to make people laugh at the powerful and take joy in the power of comedy. In defiance of Arendt’s Superman prediction, the schlemiel lived on in his work.

May his memory be for a blessing!

3 thoughts on “Al Jaffee of Mad Magazine Passes at 102 (A Note on his work, Jewishness, and the Schlemiel Character)

  1. An absolute blessing in our house. My uncle used to buy MAD mag and then pass it to us pre teens. I learnt about USA, humour, satire, politics, pop culture I was too young to consume for myself, via MAD. Used to pore over those intricate fold- outs and wonder how you’d ever come up with something so clever. Extraordinary talent. Lovely to read the story. And put it into the philosophical context it deserves. Thanks.

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