Tuesday, March 16, 2010

King Con Panel: Al Jaffee and Peter Kuper

Words: Christopher Irving . Pictures: Seth Kushner

The following transcript is from the Mad Magazine panel with Al Jaffee and Peter Kuper, held at the King Con at the Brooklyn Lyceum on November 7, 2009.

CHRISTOPHER IRVING: In honor of Mr. Jaffee’s Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions, we’ve decided to name the panel Stupid Questions for Two Mad Men. Also, in honor to Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions, I will periodically ask Mr. Jaffee a stupid question and see just how snappy the answer is.

    Very quickly, and I’ll make the intros, because I’m not the one you need to be hearing now: these two are much more interesting. Mad started as a comic book by editor Harvey Kurtzman and publisher William Gaines in 1952 by EC Comics, also publishers of the infamous Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror, and Weird Science. Long story short, when the Comics Code censorship board was enforced shortly after, Mad became a black and white magazine so that it wouldn’t be under the boot heels of the oppressive Comics Code.
    Let’s first introduce Mr. Al Jaffee, who was born in Savannah, Georgia and then moved to Lithuania shortly after. In 1933, his family moved to New York to escape the rise of Hitler?

AL JAFFEE: In 1933, Hitler became Chancellor of Germany and things did not look good for certain kinds of people in Europe. My father was very wise and brought us back here. I can’t tell you that I escaped the Holocaust, because the Holocaust didn’t really happen until Poland was invaded in 1939. A lot of the people that we knew in Lithuania in 1933 said ‘This guy’s crazy and he won’t get far.’

[Microphone feedback]

AJ: I think he’s alive! (Laughter)

CI: When you moved to the Bronx in 1933, you met future Mad collaborator Will Elder. What can you tell us about Will?

AJ: Willie and I fell in together because we were in a Junior High School in the Bronx. The only thing the two of us were interested in were drawing funny cartoons and academics were boring as far as we were concerned. I didn’t know Willie at the time, but at one point someone came into my arithmetic class and said ‘You have to go upstairs and take a test.’
    When I got up there, sitting in front of me was this scrawny little guy who eventually turned out to be Willie Elder. They handed out paper and pencil and said ‘Draw something’. We had no idea what it was for, and there were about fifty kids. At the end of the thing, they told everybody that they could leave, except for Will Elder and Al Jaffee. We stayed behind and – certain things etch in your memory – Willie turned to me and said in, I think the thickest Bronx accent I’ve ever heard: ‘I think they’re gonna send us to art school!’ (Laughter)
    I had no idea, but he was sort of prescient. In fact, Mayor LaGuardia (the mayor of New York at the time) did create the High School of Music and Art in 1936. That was the first class, and the one that Willie and I got into. The rest is history.

CI: I hear that Will was a bit of a prankster.

AJ: Will was a very, very funny man. Everything you may have seen in his cartoons that he did for Mad, for Help magazine, for Humbug, Trump, Playboy, and Little Annie Fannie – he acted out the characters he eventually drew. He was crazy about the Marx Brothers, The Three Stooges, and he could do their entire movie scripts. I’d be sitting there rolling on the floor because he would do these things. He was a very funny guy, and it showed in his work. Beside that, Willie was an absolute artist – with paint, oil, or watercolor – and he was really one of the most talented people I ever knew. He couldn’t write, that’s the one drawback, and so he needed someone like Harvey Kurtzman to become his partner, and the two of them were a great mix.

CI: Actually, before we started, Peter and Mr. Jaffee were discussing Harvey Kurtzman. It was interesting stuff.

PETER KUPER: I was talking about how, reading Humbug, Harvey Kurtzman would have artists redraw things and have them redo the work.

AJ: I admired Harvey. I thought that he came up with concepts that were just so creative. Because I admired him, I followed him. I have an ego of my own, but I put it aside when I worked with Harvey. I would do a drawing, whether it was for Mad or a sequence for Little Annie Fannie, and would bring three or four pages to him. He’d say ‘Leave it with me, and I’ll get it back to you.’ I brought him the pencils and I needed his approval so I could proceed with the coloring. A couple days later, he’d call me and say ‘Al, it’s ready to pick up.’
    I’d go there and I’d see a sheet of tracing paper over each page, and every single item on that page would be changed: if people were facing to the left, he’d trace them to be facing right. It wasn’t arbitrary; he had good reasons for doing all of this. Sometimes he exaggerated a little bit with changing people’s faces one way or another, but he perfected it. If the car I drew was not quite a Rolls Royce, he’d put in all the details because authenticity was very important to him.
All the drawings that I’d drawn were useless because the overlay sheet were practically all new drawings. I’d have to go back and try to swipe his on a new piece of illustration board, and then I could ink it and color it. I tolerated that because, as I said before, he was usually right. There were, however, occasions, where I thought he took the humor out of it. When you correct exaggeration that goes into a figure, and you make it more anatomically correct, something gets lost.

CI: You were with Mad for a bit in 1955, then followed Harvey to Trump and Humbug, and then circled back and worked for Gaines. It was 1958 that you started Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions. What gave you the idea for Snappy Answers? (Laughter)

Do you give snappy answers periodically?

AJ: I do not give people snappy answers because I value my eyes and nose. (Laughter)
You come off as a wiseguy; you’re going to get something handed to you.
    Originally, the way Snappy Answers started (some of you may have heard it, so I won’t dwell on it too long): I have a desperate fear of heights, and I lived in suburbia in a two-story house. The wind knocked my TV antenna down – a million of you may be too young to remember what a TV antenna is – and I had to climb up an extension ladder and tie the antenna back. I’m standing there on the top of this ladder, sort of terrified, trying to put the screws back into this band that went around the chimney. I hear footsteps behind me on the ladder, and the footsteps come closer, and it’s my son. He says ‘Where’s Mom?”
    I said ‘I killed her and I’m stuffing her down the chimney.’ (Laughter)
    I then heard the footsteps retreat rapidly. My son was sixteen years old and hasn’t spoken to me since that time. You see, if you do give snappy answers, be careful. (Laughter)
    This experiment gave me an idea, and I started writing down a few of them and I brought them in to Mad. Al Feldstein, who was the editor of Mad at that time, liked them and said ‘Go ahead and do three pages of them.’ I made up situations that were common: I remember one was a guy who had driven her car into a tree, and a bystander says ‘Have an accident?’ and the guy goes ‘No thank you, I’ve already had one.’
    They weren’t particularly brilliant, but they got the thing going. Then they asked me to do another one. Eventually, I got brave and went up to Bill Gaines and went ‘You know, Don Martin has a paperback book, and I thought that I could do one on Snappy Answers. I got the go ahead and wound up doing eight Snappy Answer books. It turned out to be lucrative, after a while. 

CI: On to Peter. Peter, you grew up on Mad, like many cartoonists. What are your memories of Mr. Jaffee’s work?

PK: I remember the details in the background and that he would put all these things into the drawings that didn’t have to be there necessarily. It just blew my mind that there was an adult behind drawing these things, and that I was finding them, but he’s in his studio somewhere and he’s doing these details? There were things like a bone on the floor, and it struck me ‘I have to do that, and want to be an adult drawing cartoons with bones on the floor and maybe then kids will find them in the drawings.’

CI: Have you become that adult yet?

PK: I’m still deciding what to do when I grow up. I loved that kind of work, and the Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions were brilliant, and I thought the answers hit the right spot. I still can’t fully decipher how you can put those fold-ins together so well, even though I have the book where you talk about how to do it.

AJ: Let’s talk about me. (Jokingly) But let’s get back to you.

PK: The truth is, the reason why I’m sitting up here is to get a better view of Al, and am much more interested in what he has to say. I’m so thankful to Mad and to the work that you and the other creators did. That set me on a road that was the meeting of humor and politics, and also making fun of everything. The fact that there was a cover making fun of Nixon on one, and then there would be one making fun of hippies next. What are they supposed to be? Left wing or right wing: you never picked a wing.
    That set a whole bunch of things in motion that I am deeply grateful for, thank you.

AJ: What you’re doing for Spy Vs. Spy: I’m astounded at how good of creative it is. It’s limiting and something you can’t wander all over the field with: you have to stick to the basic premise and keep inventing new ways to surprise. Yours achieves that beautifully, and I’m a great admirer.

CI: It’s very uplifting here. Great!
    The fold-ins were started in 1964, and Peter brought up a good point: how do you do it? You have a large image on the back cover, and you fold it in, and the punch line to the joke is the resulting image. How do you go about coming up with these ideas?

AJ: I have to be honest; recently the idea has been provided by the staff of Mad. They want to stay current with the popular culture, and an old fogey like me is not going to know who some 18 year-old singer is. The staff is much younger than I am, and they keep me up with these things. They call me up and say ‘We’d like to do something with Lindsay Lohan, and this is the idea we have and thought we might go with’.
I take it from there and get the general drift about what they’d want to say with this actress and what she’s involved with, and come up with something that will work in two pictures: the first one, and the surprise picture at the end. I do a few sketches and a few ideas, and fold a piece of paper until I have something in my mind that will work.

CI: Which picture do you come up with first: the folded, or unfolded?

AJ: The first picture has to be the answer. You come up with the answer and, the way I do it, which is simple, is that I take a narrow piece of paper, which is about half a fold-in, and scratch the answer in. Then I unfold it and move it apart, and it’s in four sections: the left side and the right side. I look in the middle and say ‘Only an idiot could figure out how to fill this in,’ and I make myself that idiot. I sit there and try to imagine how I can do a picture of Lindsay Lohan in a certain circumstance, with the two things on the side somehow coalescing with what’s in the middle. I just sweat it out, and I’m lucky that I’ve been able to do it so far. It works.

PK: Apropos of that, one that that perpetually amazes me, as more time goes by in my own career, is that sticking around (showing up is half the story), and being able to stay a cartoonist throughout all the twists and turns of things like Trump and Humbug. Having a stake in this field is one of the great challenges, to be able to stay there while the ground is unstable beneath your feet. Do you hit points where you start looking out for a different career, or do you find yourself coming up with a different idea of what to do, or are there rough patches?

AJ: Oh, sure, everybody does. I thought my career and my life was over when I was working for Stan Lee at Timely Comics, through half of the war. In 1945 I got a job there and in 1950 they fired the whole staff. I had just bought a house on Long Island and got married with two children, and sat around wondering where you go from there. People hear about you and remember your work and call you, and it’s an entirely new gig, and you say ‘Yeah, I can do that’ and you reinvent yourself. When you do creative work, I don’t think you can ever get permanent and say ‘This is what I do, and if nobody wants it, to hell with them.’ No! You’re available and you employ all the old burlesques for a while.

PK: That whole Chippendale’s period?

AJ: Yeah, you just have to move on. (Jokingly)

CI: And for you, Peter: When you were handed Spy Vs. Spy, what was the first thing you felt you could bring to the strip?

PK: When they first asked me, my first reaction was to say ‘no’. I didn’t imagine that coming along, and I had done a lot of wordless comics, though. They asked me to just try out for it, and I went ‘Well, what’s the worst that could happen if I just try out? They might not like what I did, and I can go home.’
    When I sat down to do it, I remember what a big strip that it had been, along with Sergio Aragones and the other wordless strips in Mad. It came out rather naturally. I did do it in stencil, because that was the kind of work I’d been doing at that time, and I wanted to follow up that way and make it something that was not trying to just mimic Prohas’ style. That was, fortuitously, what they were looking for. I thought ‘It’ll be a year or two of doing it, and then I’ll shuffle along.’
For some reason or another, when I got to a point where I felt burnt out on it, Mad went color and opened up more possibilities, and then a tanking economy opened up a new set of inspirations. Generally, it has become one of those things where I’m getting in touch with my nine year-old self. A seven year-old approached me and said ‘I love your Spy Vs. Spy! I’ve been reading it since I was a kid!’ (Laughter)
CI: What I find interesting about the two of you – for those of you who may not have read Peter’s work, it’s very socially relevant and political, while Mr. Jaffee’s work in the fold-ins trace the history of America from 1964. You haven’t missed a single one yet, have you? There’s been a Mad Fold-In ever since that first one.

AJ: There were three times they didn’t use it.

CI: Still three times in 45 years is pretty damn good.

PK: There was the Beck video that was a big fold-in. It was an amazing then where the whole video was a fold-in scene. That was a moment where it became timeless again—

AJ: They did a beautiful job.

PK: It was three-dimensional.

[The microphone feeds back several times]

AJ: (Acting as if he’s continuing an interrupted statement)…I don’t have to take a laxative sometimes. (Laughter)
They called me and asked for permission, and I told them that nobody owns the idea of folding things, and go ahead and do it. They can have my blessing. They were tickled pink. What they did was actually build sets that were enormously expensive, for this music video. They gave me credit for it. I admired the way they did it. They had crowds of people who did thing, and it would slowly fold in. Describing the fold-in is pointless, because it’s a visual thing. I think it was wonderful. If you ever get a chance to see it, it’s worth the time.

CI: A lot of people are going to go to Youtube. After this, we’ll go to questions. Unfortunately, we’ll have to wrap pretty soon.
    Peter, tell us about your new book. It’s—
    I’m going to let him pronounce it.

PK: It’s not diarrhea! (Jokingly) [It’s Diario de Oaxaca]
    In 2006, in part to escape the Bush Administration, and in part to expose our daughter to a different culture, we decided to go for a year and stayed for two in this town. We arrived and, it turned out there was a teachers’ strike that blew up, there was a stolen election, an American journalist got killed, and 4,500 students took over the downtown area. I was drawing all of that and kept drawing. It’s a small miracle, but my book got published here.
    It was a great opportunity. I was able to just do whatever.
CI: We have time for a few questions. You, sir…
    The question was when Mad switched to color, and went through other changes, how did it change how you work?

AJ: I think that, if I’m going to be working at Mad longer, it’ll probably be on the computer. They’re working very hard to make a site. I need to make it very clear that I don’t represent Mad, because all of the creative people (writers and artists) are freelancers. We are not privy to the corporate decisions that are made. They don’t take us into their confidence, so I don’t know where the ship is going. I know it’s not sailing in very friendly waters right now, because it’s gone from twelve issues a year to four.
For me, I’ve had a good long career and have enjoyed it, but I do feel for the young people that are still part of Mad, and I hope it survives for their sake. If I understand your question, you want to know how I feel about how Mad has changed through it’s different incarnations; taking advertising was a necessity, as far as I know, for the corporations. Newsstand sales were dropping, the Internet was getting stronger, and young people were moving away from things like magazines. Advertising helps the bottom line.
What would Gaines have done under these circumstances? Who knows? I only know that Bill Gaines liked the cheap, colorless reproduction that Mad had. He was tight with a buck, and he was thoroughly against advertising from an ideological point of view. He felt advertising wouldn’t let us be able to make fun of the advertisers. I don’t think that’s particularly true, because Mad has made fun of products that we advertise. I think the advertisers are making fun of themselves, today, so that wouldn’t hold up.
But Bill’s been dead for over ten years, so who knows what he’s going to do? (Laughter)

CI: Gentleman right back there…He asked the most precedent invention prediction that Mr. Jaffee made. You should tell them about the radiator at Timely, and the cheese, and the jar. It’s an amazing story.

AJ: That would take too long to get into it. The inventions come out of my subconscious, because I really am a frustrated inventor. If I had another life to live, I’d like to invent gadgets of all sorts. The opportunity gave me to come up with inventions where I didn’t have to raise the money to actually make these things work. I didn’t have to advertise it, and I’d just create it on paper and get some laughs on it.
Way, way back, I wrote an article called ‘Ego Boosters”; I had a dummy phone in a car, so you could just pick up the phone to your ear and pretend you’re talking while in the car. This is around 1965, and the strip was preposterous. Now, all of you do it. You might say that was pressing in a strange kind of way. I thought when I said shaving razors were becoming so ridiculous with bells and whistles; I thought it would be ridiculous if there was a razor with more than one blade. (Laughter)

CI: Never happen.

AJ: I also thought, in an article about parking cars in the city: why not a ferris wheel that parks cars? The city of Providence, Rhode Island (two years ago, I think), very seriously considered this. There have been others, but—

PK: Do you have the patent on that?

AJ: No. I never solved the problem, I just created the problem. An ashtray that, when you put your cigarette on the ashtray, a vacuum would suck the smoke in. I had the cheap way out, because I got some cheap laughs out of it. It was a nice lie.

CI: Yes, sir.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Bill Gaines is infamous for his company trips. What is the most memorable one you can share with us?

AJ: Gaines did something that was very clever: he had a staff that was well known by readers: Will Elder, Harvey Kurtzman (originally), Jack Davis, Wally Wood, and later on the rest of us. They didn’t know each other, because everyone was working at home, churning this stuff out, going to the office and turning it in, and then going back home to work on another article or drawing assignment.
Gaines decided one year to take the staff on the trip as an inducement to produce more work. The editor, Al Feldstein, was getting nervous that not enough stuff was getting produced to get a magazine out eight times a year. Gaines said ‘If you do so many pages, you can qualify for going on this magic trip,’ which was very magic in that it was twenty-five guys sitting around in a hotel lobby saying ‘What are you going to do tonight, Joe?’
‘What are you gonna do?’
‘I don’t know, I’ll sit here in the lobby or walk around the hotel.’
    Anyways, it led to other trips that were fun, like an African safari, or a trip to Russia during the Soviet period. We did have a lot of fun, and we went on wonderful trips to Mexico – all over the world – Thailand, Japan…He only intended to take us on that one trip so that we’d get to know each other, but everyone was bugging him after that trip to have a second one. The first one, by the way, was to Haiti, and was when Haiti was still a lovely country, with very poor and wonderful people. We had a marvelous time there. So, he had a second trip, and I think we had about thirty trips.

PK: Was it on the Haiti trip that you went to the one subscriber’s door?

AJ: We learned that Haiti had one guy that subscribed to Mad magazine, so Bill got us all together into the Jeeps that he rented, and said ‘We’re all going to visit this guy.’ (Audience laughs) Bill walks up to him and says ‘How come you didn’t renew your subscription?’ (Audience laughs) So, Bill gave him a subscription. He was really funny.
Then, in Russia, there was a time when the people had no money and didn’t import any good goods from outside; everything was Russian-made, including a disastrous automobile. So, when we walked down the street, people would come up to us and ask ‘Hey, you want fifty rubles for your hat?’ They wanted to buy our clothes.
I did a cartoon to celebrate these strips, and my cartoon were two Russians going up to a Mad guy and offering to buy his clothes, and then a Russian guy saying to Bill: ‘You give me fifty rubles, I’ll give you my clothes.’ Bill was a known slob.

CI: This does it for us. I’d like to Peter and Mr. Jaffee for being up here. (Applause)