It just might be one of the longest freelance gigs in magazine publishing history. Cartoonist Al Jaffee has contributed to MAD Magazine, the satirical mainstay, since its beginnings, and is marking the 50th anniversary of not only creating but illustrating its most iconic feature.
“Like all so-called independent contractors, you get up in the morning and you say to yourself ‘How am I gonna pay the mortgage this month? I better come up with an idea,'” said Jaffee, 92.
That idea was born when Jaffee saw fold-outs in magazines such as National Geographic and Life and, in typical MAD fashion, decided to do the opposite, creating the fold-in. A single image appears on the inside back cover along with a question. The reader folds the page in to reveal another image and the answer to the question. Thinking it was a “one-shot” gag, Jaffee was surprised when his editor demanded a fold-in for the next issue and it quickly became a regular feature.
“When we're successful, it's a funny take on a serious subject,” explained Jaffee. “When we fail is when we preach.”
It takes quite a lot of mental and artistic gymnastics for each fold-in. Jaffee still creates each by hand – “I enjoy dipping a brush into paint and putting it onto an illustration board” -- without any computer assistance. Jaffee said that MAD’s editorial staff will offer him subject matter in order to stay current – a Kardashian, for example – and he will start thinking of the question. He begins with a small sketch of stick figures or objects. He then creates another sketch dividing the complete image and figures out how to integrate a complete drawing in the center where the side panels become irrelevant.
“Let's say, for the sake of argument, I've got half a face on this side, half a face on that side,” said Jaffe. “And I'm gonna do something about a horticultural exhibit of flowers. Then I have to figure out how can I make flowers go into this face, and roses will turn into lips, and bluebells will turn into eyes. And then, it starts to take on a life of its own.”
Jaffee continued, “It's the nature of creative work that as you go along, little bits and pieces become visible to you and you start picturing them. It's almost like the brain is a Google searching tool where you're looking at one thing over here and your brain is searching for things that look like that, that you can integrate with it.”
Watch Al Jaffee in the video above as he reveals the fold-in MAD wouldn't run
Jaffee also originated another long-running feature: “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions.” Before his half-century at MAD, he worked alongside Stan Lee at the company which became Marvel Comics. In fact, it was comics which were a bright spot during six harsh years of his childhood when his mother took him and his siblings from Savannah, Georgia, to Zarasai, a small town in Lithuania. Enduring constant hunger and bedbugs, Jaffee said those years “twisted my mind forever after that.” He and his brother Harry spent the long winters doing artwork, including drawing all the American comics like Mickey Mouse. Inspiration came from their father’s regular shipments from the U.S.: rolled-up newspapers featuring their favorite comics.
“On cold winter nights, we were on the floor reading these comics over and over again,” recalled Jaffee. “And after we had read them to the point of wearing the ink off, we cut them up into small squares and made little books out of them. It kept us current with the American idiom and helped us learn to read and write English 'cause we were very young.”
Now, so many decades later, comics and illustrating have not only become his lifelong career but have kept him working because he chooses to.
“I'm way beyond retirement age,” said Jaffee. “I'm some 30 years beyond retirement age. Why do I keep working? It gives me pleasure. And I get pleasure also in knowing that I give pleasure. I give pleasure to my readers.”
ABC News' Brian Fudge contributed to this episode.