Monday, October 8, 2012

Al Jaffee's Mad Life

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Al Jaffee's Mad Life (It Books, 2010).

When writer Mary-Lou Weisman got together with the celebrated Mad cartoonist Al Jaffee to tell his quite weird and wonderful story, I wonder whether she had any idea how remarkable it really was. The book is only 220-odd pages, and we don't even get to his wartime comics until 140 pages in. Typically, I admit, I tend to skim past the long discussions of childhood in order to get to the good stuff quicker, but the story of his childhood turned out to be the absolutely riveting part.

Jaffee spent his childhood being uprooted and ferried back and forth several times from the United States to a shtetl in Lithuania. He and his brother were finally brought back to America, for good, in the late 1930s - Lithuanian shtetls being no place for anybody to be as Hitler's army started marching through eastern Europe - and when his mother refused to leave, that was the last he saw of her.

His memoir of life in Zarasai is so detailed and so full of imagery that it proves completely captivating. This sort of first-hand recounting is really appealing to amateur historians like me and probably completely essential to academics. University libraries should have this book in stock for this alone. It's so interesting that the rest of the material, about Jaffee's work on Humbug, Help and Mad, while fun, simply isn't quite as engaging. Working with Harvey Kurtzman I've read about; strange European religious communes like this, not so much.

Jaffee's famous fold-ins, and his "Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions," along with his peculiar syndicated comic strip, Tall Tales all proved to be very popular, and Weisman did a great job interviewing Jaffee's cartooning peers and writers about comics to get a sense of how appreciated and loved he and his work are. It's a really fun story, and certainly recommended for anybody who's studying these great comics.

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