Monday, June 23, 2008

Short post, tall tales.

Monday cartoon day.

It all started with Mad.

Everything you see in this blog is a result of my discovery of Al Feldstein's Mad when I was about 15 years old. I had always loved and read comics from a very young age, but Mad's mad artists reached me in a completely different way. The satirical humor reinforced my hidden feelings that that world was not just a happy place. The social and political references hinted to a world on the other side of the ocean that was much more exciting than the social paradise of my home county. I was already following American television (which was rebroadcast over here in the original language with subtitles instead of dubbing) and I loved reading the spoofs of those shows. And the smart humor with cleverness finding an excuse for anti-social comment, silliness and general rudeness. I quickly tried to get hold of all the issues I could find, first buying (and one time even stealing) the pockets and soon after that getting back issues from Lambiek (still the oldest and best stocked comics store in the Netherlands and possibly the world). After I discovered the Kurtzman years through the pockets, all bets were off. I had to have every issue... a goal I reached about ten years ago.

Much has been written about Mad, but very little attention has gone to the artists that made up Al Feldstein's crew. In America Harvey Kurtzman's years were much more influential, groundbreaking, inspirational, etc. After he left, the magazine became so popular, that is seemed unnecessary to pay homage to the individual artists who made it all up. There was Larry Siegal's book about Bill Gaines and there have been several magazines devoted to the middle years... but no one has sat down with Mort Drucker, Angelo Torres, Bill Clark, Jack Rickard, George Woodbridge, Paul Coker, Jack Davis, Don Martin or any of Mad's Maddest Bunch to discuss the intimate details of creating their masterpieces from issue to issue. And the same goes double for the writers. Dick deBartolo wrote an autobiography, but that's about it. Maybe they all were feeling so secure in their work, that they didn't need the attention. Or maybe their bosses at Mad had dictated that no one would get attention on his own. I would have loved to sit with any of them to discuss specific details with them. There isn't a single page Frank Miller created in his career that hasn't been analyzed and discussed, but no academic attention has been paid to the skill and pure genius that was displayed every eight weeks in Mad.

One of the most skillful, intelligent and funniest artists in Mad was Al Jaffee. There may be people who do not particularly care for his style or the artificiality of his line, but for pure inventiveness and anti-social humor few people were his equal. He is best know for two regular features he created for Mad, the fold-in and his Snappy Answers To Stupid Questions, but he did a lot more than that. He wrote a clever new article for almost every issue of Mad. Many of those he illustrated himself, but sometimes he worked for and with others as well. The concepts he devised for these features were often just as ingenious as the two that made him famous. David Letterman has acknowledged that the humor of his NBC Show more often than not came from Mad (which a comparison between the book of that show and early issues of Mad confirms), but he is not the only one. A thorough review of all those concepts Al Jaffee (and others, like Jack Menselsohn) created reappeared at many places in American culture. Because of it's frequency and endurance Mad magazine was both the focal point of all the humor that was created before it and the starting point of much that came after it.

One of the sad things about the fact that many of these artists were never properly interviewed, is that any career they had before joining Mad remained often undiscussed. Bill Clark's years in advertisement (or where he learned to adept his style as well as he did) is still a mystery to me. Mort Drucker, George Woodbridge and Angelo Torres all had a very interesting start as comic strip artists, which was never discussed. An Al Jaffee had not one, but two careers before he joined Mad.

His first career was as a writer and artist for funny animal and teen girl books. After the war he started on Timely's then popular range of funny animal books. In the late forties funny animals gave way to teen humor and Jaffee found himself writing and drawing Patsy Walker's adventures for the next ten years or so. In the end, he got so experienced at it, that editor Stan Lee let him run his own books. When comic sales dropped near the end of the fifties, everyone in the industry tried to get out and find a better job. Some artists went into advertising, others took the change to jump ahead to their ultimate dream - a newspaper strip of their own. Al Jaffee completely reinvented himself by going back to his gag cartoon roots and selling a daily panel strip for The Herald Tribune Syndicate called Tall Tales. This strip was sold through the same agent and syndicate as Arnold Roth's Poor Arnold's Almanac (another cartoon based feature, be it Sunday only). So there clearly was some sort of connection there. The correspondence of their syndicate is being kept at Ohio State University and I hope some day to go through all of it, to unlock any secrets that are to be found in there. The biggest secret being, how Al Jaffee after all these years of girlie strips knew he would be good at creating a daily silent gag panel in the specific format he had chosen. Tall Tales' main selling point was, that it was three times as long as it was wide. This takes a special kind of jokes and Al Jaffee turned out to be very good at them.

Most of the Tall Tales material was later repackaged in Al Jaffee's many Mad pockets. He also created a character for the series, called (then or later) Willie Weirdie. No one has ever noticed this, but to me Willie Weirdie seems to be a caricature of the young Bill Elder. Just like Elder, Willie Weirdie was an almost sadistic practical joker. Many stories of Bill Elder's practical jokes have become legend in the industry, the most famous being the one about when he made his face pale with chalk and hung himself in a school locker to be found by a devastated teacher. When he started putting his zaniness into his Mad work, he calmed down, but it seems as if Al Jaffee took over his anti-social class clown personality for Willie Weirdie and all of his Mad work.

Tall Tales will now be republished by Abrahms. The 128 page hardcover edition will be available on August 20th 2008 and Amazon is already taking pre-orders. The format used for this book is the same as the one (and only) official collection in 1960, whose battered covers of my copy can be seen above. This means, the book will only cover the daily version of the strip (and only 128 pages of it as well). There is a foreword by Stephen Colbert, who is an Al Jaffee fan (having had him as a guest on his show), but there is no further editorial effort. You will find a lot of editorial material (as well as unused drawings, sketches and other interesting stuff) in the also upcoming re edition of Humbug. I have gone on here long enough, so I won't go on about that (Harvey Kurtzman's second post-Mad effort - and probably his best) other than saying that the beautiful slipcover was drawn especially for this edition. Jaffee was a contributor to Humbug before joing Al Feldstein's Mad and it's a major part in his late fifties transformance from cartoonist to satirist.

Well, I've gone on long enough... let's get to the pictures. I have always been a big fan of Tall Tales (which reads like an early version of Sergio Aragones' Marginal Tales in the later Mad) but I had never seen the Sunday version. Recently, I got hold of two samples and I was stunned by their quality. There's something about that half page Sunday format that makes it work really well for me. I can only hope one day Al Jaffee will get his own art book (along the lines of Bill Elder's Mad Playboy Of Art), which I would be more than happy to write. Al Jaffee is in his eighties, but still working. He contributes new Fold-Out pages to Mad about eight times a year and I have heard it said that he plans to be the oldest working artist since Hirschfield. That would mean we still have twenty years of great gags to go. One can only hope.

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