Al Jaffee is the world’s longest-working comic artist. And he has just retired at the age of 99 years.
Al Jaffee worked at the satirical Mad magazine for 65 years, drawing comics and creating the back-page Fold-In. His career at Mad began in 1955 and will end after his June 2020 retirement announcement. Throughout it all, his work as a caricature artist has been a labour of love.
“The difference between Al Jaffee and every other cartoonist is that no matter how genius they are, they typically have a specific area of excellence,” said Sergio Aragones of Mad magazine, “and Jaffee, on the other hand, excels in many areas, as writer and artist. From superheroes to funny animals, nobody has done what he has done: take every branch of cartooning and make it better.”
Abraham Jaffee was born on 13 March 1921 in Savannah, Georgia, the oldest of four children, all sons. His father Morris and his mother Mildred immigrated to America from Lithuania, but his mother kept returning to her homeland—often with the boys—and eventually remained there. Abraham never saw his mother again after the second World War. He credits his father for his love of comics, which began with Dick Tracyand Little Orphan Annie.
Abraham took the name Alvin Jaffe during the war, and then Allan Jaffee, which was inevitably shortened to Al. He began his career in 1941 at the age of twenty as a cartoonist for Timely Comics, Atlas Comics and Marvel Comics, and continuously since 1942. In 2016, the Guiness World Records awarded him the title of longest career as a comic artist, and New York mayor Bill de Blasio declared 30 March as Al Jaffee Day—not after his birth date, but at least after his birth month.
Al Jaffee will be most noted for his back-page Fold-In, which was his satire of the fold-out commonly seen in magazines such as Life, Playboy, and National Geographic. His popular Fold-In, started in 1964, is a single image and a question. When the page is folded inward, the image and words reveal a hidden answer, generally a political, social, or cultural satire. So, over his lifetime at Mad magazine, he created nearly 500 Fold-Ins.
All his work was done by hand. He only used a computer for the Fold-Ins to design and finalize the folded image. Mad magazine’s art director Sam Viviano said, “I think part of the brilliance of the Fold-Ins is lost on the younger generation who are so used to Photoshop and being able to do stuff like that on a computer.”
Mad magazine’s caricature artist Tom Richmond said Jaffee deserves the spotlight. Richmond thinks Jaffee is the ideal blend “of genius writing, razor-sharp wit, seemingly endless creativity and ideas and brilliant art.” He also thinks Jaffee’s work is underappreciated. “Among cartoonists or people who really know about the art form,” Richmond said, “he’s Zeus among the lesser gods.”
Jaffee said his comic artistry never seemed like hard work to him because he loved what he did. “I guess I’m childish in a way,” he said. “I’m living the life I wanted all along, which was to make people think and laugh.”