Monday, February 7, 2011

“Al Jaffee’s Mad Life: A Biography” - Book Review / Jewish Times

Since the new millennia and the rise of blockbuster movies like “Spiderman”, “Ironman” and “Hulk”, numerous books have been written about the invention of the comic book and how Jews were largely the creative force behind the pop-culture phenomenon. But right alongside, and when the sensation really hit its apex in the 1960s and 70s, MAD Magazine lent an added satirical slant to a cartoon culture and a world seemingly gone mad. It became a must-read for millions.

“Mad Life” is the story of Al Jaffee, the iconic cartoonist and prolific contributor to Mad, who at 89 is still at it (55-years and counting) with the pub. But aside from his zany drawings (he created the famous fold-in) and clever wit, his biography is a fascinating read because it’s so unique.

Born in 1921 in Savannah, GA to Jewish Lithuanian immigrants, his mother longingly up and yanked Al and his three brothers back to Lithuania. Speaking no Yiddish, nor a word of Lithuanian and with no electricity or plumbing, the boys were in culture shock. Then, after a year there, their father rescued them and brought them back to the US, only for them to be taken by mom once again.

But in 1933, with the Nazi threat looming, their father sensed the impending danger and saved them, leaving behind their mother, who no doubt perished in the Holocaust.

But while the lads were away in the old country, their father kept sending young Al and his brothers, cartoon funnies from the Savannah newspaper and the boys would treasure and duplicate them.

This cross-Atlantic linkage had a profound influence on Al’s art and he eventually got accepted to the new High School of Music and Art, where he met up with his future MAD colleagues, Will Elder and Harvey Kurtzman (Kurtzman would be the original mastermind behind MAD.)

The award winning and authorized biographer, Mary-Lou Weisman, writes, “given his artistic gift, Al’s mad childhood seems to have led him inevitably to satire and to MAD.”

Running alongside Weisman’s portrayal, the book is filled with colorful drawings by Al that build on the narrative infusing color and joy into his harsh, madcap life.