A Working Artist
Michael Kupperman: I read several interviews with you to prepare for this. It seems like your responses to everything were still the responses of a working artist. Someone asked you about Mad going quarterly, and I noticed that you said that your income had been lowered because of that, which is very much the response of a working artist. Not someone who’s doing it near retirement age, someone with whom the processes are still very fluid, including the financial ones.
AL Jaffee: I may have regarded being an artist the way somebody who works in a clothing factory regards making T-shirts. You make all the T-shirts and then you get a paycheck at the end of the day and then you go home to your family and you don’t save the T-shirts that you made. So I know art is in a different category and now, of course, I recognize what it should be, should have been, but when I churned out 60-70 pages of comic-book stuff every month, both writing and drawing, and penciling and inking, and sending it away and never seeing it or hearing about it ever again, except when I got a sample of the 10¢ comic book — pretty hard to think of it in terms of something that I needed to save for posterity. It just disappeared into the maw.
Kupperman: Do you think that lack of precious feelings about it enabled you to function better as an artist? To be more realistic about what you were doing?
Jaffee: In retrospect I think that the answer would be yes. And the reason the answer is yes, it occurs to me now, is that it unhindered me. My productivity needs were so great that, the only way that I could not only make a living but get a little bit more out of life than just barely surviving, was productivity. The more pages I could produce, the more I could write out, the more I could draw, because the comic-book industry was insatiable. And if you produced material, you produced payment: I would wind up working very hard to write a lot so that I could get the assignment to draw a lot; so I was in two departments, and one was feeding the other. Each item didn’t pay very much, so if you wanted to improve the quality of your life, you had to produce more and more of it.
It’s almost really like a sweatshop. We were pieceworkers and a pieceworker in a sweatshop gets paid by the T-shirt. And at the end of a day, this poor Chinese guy or woman has produced 500 T-shirts, he can go home and he maybe will be able to buy a television set in six months. And that was the thinking when you were turning out comic-book pages. I didn’t think in terms of becoming a legend, which I never became anyway, but I thought in terms of productivity.
And so when you do that, you don’t place value on it as artwork, you place value on it as production-line work. And I think maybe the art world would regard all the stuff I did as just production-line work, if they saw my old Patsy Walkers and Super Rabbit and Ziggy Pig and Silly Seal and all of those things.
Art, Low and High
Gary Groth: Michael, can you contrast your attitudes as a working artist in 2010 with what Al is describing?
Kupperman: It’s certainly striking a chord with me because I have to get faster. I do have a certain preciousness about my work, I can’t deny it. So I think that probably holds me up as far as speed.
Jaffee: But Michael, fact is, that you grew up in a world in which the comic books were no longer regarded as garbage, they were highly praised.
Jaffee: I mean, [Joe] Shuster and [Jerry] Siegel became heroes, so your experience has been that cartoons — I’m talking about not newspaper cartoons — but cartoons in other media, are not cheap things, that they’re valuable things.
Kupperman: Right, and they’re not going to disappear. Ephemera is not so ephemeral any more, even though these days I feel the quality has gone way down, generally, as far as comics and visual graphics of all kinds.
Jaffee: Well, I think quality has gone down in fine art too.
Kupperman: Yeah. I would agree.
Jaffee: It may be because I work so hard to do my stuff that I might resent somebody who just flings a can of paint against a wall and then cuts it out and puts it on exhibit and gets $50,000 for it. I guess I resent that. But people can call dog poo art, I don’t care, I just won’t buy it.
Kupperman: But it seems to me that it stems from the separation of high and low art. That there was a decision that low art would be functional and would not get the same respect as high art, which would be special and sequestered and the different categories I think has led to what we have now.
Jaffee: You can’t ignore the business end of it. You have galleries that are sitting in posh areas like 57th Street, and other places all over the world, where agents of billionaires are sent to find out what art to buy, not what they like, or even what they understand, but their agent goes and does it. Sure, you’re gonna build up a market for it as a commodity. And I think a lot of the fine-art world consists of commodities. A lot of them are very good, and there are people that are highly creative and are producing things. I’ve gone to a lot of stuff down in the 20s, the art area of Chelsea, and I’ve seen creative things that are really very exciting, and not the kind of stuff that I’d be able to do, and I admire it. But then there’s stuff that I think is just hyped by wealthy galleries, and they have the customers and they create a market and it’s like getting everybody to buy IBM stock; they’re brokers.
Kupperman: Well it seems to me that in both high art and low art these days, there’s a certain amount of stuff that is holding the place of what people want, that, if it resembles a graphic art in the past, or if it resembles the fine art from the past, that people see some qualities in, that that’s enough.
Last Century’s Model
Jaffee: Well, you’re making breakthroughs, your work has a lot of adventure and creativity in it, some of which I don’t understand because I don’t live in your time —
Kupperman: — of course.
Jaffee: But the craftsmanship is superb and the ideas are intelligent; they’re taking off in a direction that 50 years ago would have baffled my colleagues and me. We wouldn’t have the vaguest notion of how to do that. And not only that, but we weren’t allowed to do it.
Kupperman: Well, the time you started out in, at the very beginning, comics didn’t really exist, so there was no model or idea of what they should be yet. It seems to me that maybe I’m romanticizing it a bit, that you and your peers went out and created that without a model.
Jaffee: There was no viable market. The only viable markets that existed for cartooning were magazine gag-cartooning or syndicated comic strips. Syndicated comic strips were like an inheritance that just goes on giving. Breaking into that was like winning the lottery, and it was just as difficult. For one thing, in order to get a new comic strip in, you had to knock an old one out. And in the early day of newspaperdom, knocking an old comic strip out was virtually impossible, because whatever hometown you lived in, you fell in love with your comic strips. It could be Nancy; it could be The Gumps. It could be drawn in the strangest way ever. The Gumps, the guy had no chin, it was just weird. Some was weird, and some was cute like Winnie Winkle. There were many others like them, which I loved and admired. I read them voraciously, but trying to knock out a comic strip like Dick Tracy or Terry and the Pirates, so that you could get in, it was like “You’re dreaming!”
So along comes Bill Gaines’ father. Max Gaines gets an idea how to keep printing presses working — he was a salesman for a printing company — and he goes to the syndicates and he says, “Would you give me permission to use your already-used comic strips, Sunday funnies in color?” And they said, “Go ahead do whatever you want, we never reprint them, they just run once.” So he made a sample comic book, got in his car, drove around to candy stores, dropped off the comic books and told the candy-store owner, “I come back in a couple of hours and if you’ve sold some we’ll split the take, and if you haven’t, I’ll take them back.” And a few hours later, he drove around and they were all gone. The kids just gobbled them up.
And I remember seeing those first: I saw my first comic book when I was only maybe a month or two returned from Europe, it was the summer of 1933. And I was staying with my uncles and aunts over a candy store, and the candy store carried the first comic book, Famous Funnies. It was my first comic book, they had been around for a little while and I just went crazy for it. It was a dream thing. So we were all eager to get into this.
Once the syndicates got wise to this going on, they stopped allowing people to use their old stuff. Or they were selling it to them. And whoever was lucky enough to buy it from the syndicates had a lock on it, so other entrepreneurs said “hey, let’s create our own.”
So the business got going. And all of us who could not get into newspaper comic strips saw an opening and we dived in head first, into this comic-book business, making samples and trying to create new strips. Will Elder created something called Roofus DeBree about a janitor and he would show me these strips and I would say, “Where is this going?”
I thought it was cute and all, but Willy, he was not a talented writer. He was a very talented artist, but he needed Harvey Kurtzman to come along so they could become partners and that worked out very well. I was in all the writing classes in school and the teachers seemed to think I had a lot of talent as a writer, and I should give up art altogether and just study writing. So I was able to write stuff and I was able to sell stuff because I could write. And that opened up a market for us.
Kupperman: So many of those early comic books had a feeling of a fever-dream, just something you can tell that someone made out and drew in just one night.
Jaffee: Yeah, I tried to think of really original stuff, I had a lot of stuff sketched out and I showed it to Willy and to other friends and they said, “Well, there’s something like that in the paper already ... ” like Wash Tubbs is doing adventures in Europe. I tended to lean on my memories of adventures in Europe, and I would do stuff like that.
And then Superman came out, and so I said, “What the hell, I’ll create a superhero thing, but I don’t know how to draw muscles, so I’ll make Inferior-Man.” And he had no muscles whatsoever, and he was just a funny little character.
Kupperman: He was bright red, am I right? Or did he wear a red outfit?
Jaffee: Yeah, he had a red cape, I think. I copied Superman; it was an early attempt at satire. I love satire instinctively for some reason, which is why Harvey Kurtzman eventually wanted me to come work with him along with Willy and others. But I trotted over to Will Eisner, I didn’t even write a story, I just did one drawing of Inferior-Man and some of the monsters he would face, and I showed it to Will Eisner and he hired me on the spot to do fillers for one of his comic books.
Kupperman: And I’ve read you said you never had to show your portfolio again.
Jaffee: I never did. The only thing is, when Will Eisner let me go because his business was changing and the war was looming and he was going to have to go into the Service, he had to find people ... I brought him Alex Kotzky, who was a friend of mine, to take over Spirit while Will went into the service. He knew that Alex Kotzky had a deferment and would not be drafted and so he took over the work on The Spirit and continued it for Will. What I had was all of these Inferior-Man comics that I did for Will and he sent me over to another fellow who was packaging comic strips and I did a couple of Inferior-Man strips for him.
And I took these to Stan Lee. Stan Lee had just taken over from Simon and Kirby, who had created Captain America. They were going on to a better deal somewhere else and Stan Lee was 17 years old and he took over as editor. When I walked in there, he handed me a strip to do. He liked my work and I worked for him for a number of years after that. So I never really carried around a portfolio, I just showed him these Inferior-Man things and he hired me. So no, I never went looking for work. From that point on, the work came to me.
Kupperman: And you really lived through the expansion and then the Golden Age of publishing in the 20th century.
Jaffee: In comic-book publishing, but it moved on. If I hadn’t gone over to Mad, I think I would have probably wound up as some kind of an editor involved in adventure and superheroes and things like that.
Kupperman: I have some friends from The Daily Show and they did that book and they wanted to do a fold-in and I remember the story of how excited they were when they realized they could actually get you to do it.
Jaffee: Yeah, I loved that.
Kupperman: Frankly, I can’t imagine that anyone else could do it.
Jaffee: Well, it was not very difficult, the one I did for them. They told me what they wanted and I did it. I think the thing that I got a kick out of was, last Wednesday, Jeopardy showed a fold-in and the contestants all came up with the word they were looking for, which was “fold-in.” So I realized, I created an English language word.
Kupperman: That’s true.
Jaffee: That’s something.
Kupperman: That is something.
Jaffee: Yeah, I’m proud of that. It schlepped me back to when I first thought of it, because it was just that tiny little moment when I said, “Look at this Playboy and National Geographic and Sports Illustrated with this gatefold thing, fold-outs.” I said, “What could Mad do? How about a fold-in?”
That is as memorable to me as I can make it. So, no one is gonna take that away from my memory and to see people on national television immediately knowing the word fold-in. The New York Times had a fold-in crossword puzzle a couple of months ago. I have a little mark. Not a big one, but a little one.
Kupperman: For people like me, you’re one of the big stars of cartooning that we remember from our childhoods. Someone else was just telling me about visiting the Mad offices when he was 9 and they gave him a necktie and he wore it at his wedding.
Jaffee: Oh my.
Kupperman: These things are very powerful.
Kupperman: Was the idea of the name “fold-in” — was that influenced at all by “sit-in” or “drop-in,” as many “hyphen” in things from the ’60s, or did it come slightly differently?
Jaffee: I would love to claim that — maybe Feldstein is claiming it.
Jaffee: No, I would like to claim anything I can, go for broke. It was a play on “out.” Everything Mad did was the opposite.
Kupperman: It was an inversion.
Jaffee: Inversion. There was a fold-out and I was going to do a fold-in. That’s all it was. They called it a gatefold also; officially they called it a gatefold, but I never heard a human being ever go around saying, “Did you see that Playboy gatefold?” They don’t say that, they say fold-out.
Kupperman: All the fold-ins, you figure out completely with your eyes. I’m not sure what the right term I’m looking for here is. But you calculate the —
Jaffee: I never see it folded until it’s printed.
Kupperman: That’s amazing.
Jaffee: Yeah, but I do tracings… first of all I draw the finished thing on one tracing, then cut it apart like that and shove it over here and say, “What the f*** am I gonna put in the middle here?”
Groth: And you never used a computer for that.
Jaffee: No. It would be easier on the computer, and I’ve seen them on a computer, the finished ones. The New York Times did 23 of them on a computer that you fold with a click of the mouse. It’s still on the Internet if you ever want to see it. They showed a full thing —
Kupperman: You scroll in, right?
Jaffee: Very effective, much more so then when you fold a piece of paper ’cause you’re fumbling away like that.
Groth: But that’s part of the fun of it, though.
Kupperman: Yeah, when you fold a piece of paper, in a way you’re a participant, you’re helping to create this new piece of artwork.
Jaffee: I’ve always felt very strongly about reader-participation things. I loved it when I was a kid: connect-the-dots things and all those puzzle pages. I loved them when I was young. In fact, I did the Mad Book of Magic where I did a lot of those kinds of things in it. So, I think what kept the fold-in going for 45 years is that readers enjoy participating, especially visually; it gives them a chance for a little surprise. If I had the opportunity I would’ve created a lot of things like that with cutouts. There’s so much you can do with paper, paper and drawings.
Kupperman: After my son was born last year, and my world kind of closed in a little, I somewhat reluctantly got a Twitter, and I actually really enjoyed it. And I don’t usually get on there and do updates about what I’m doing or what I’m eating. But I have a number of followers, and we do joke games or play around with jokes. I’ve got all these followers and some are conservatives, some I think are even Tea Partiers, liberals, I’ve got a lot of people of different lifestyles. But it’s fascinating to me to see how pure you can make a joke, how simple you can make a joke. And to what level will people appreciate it, all of them, or some of them or none of them. But how far can a joke travel when it’s aimed at an audience that’s very immediate and is so disparate?
But part of the reason I’m bringing this up is because I mentioned the other day that I met you at the MoCCA convention and the level of excitement from people all over the world was just huge.
Jaffee: With Twitter, the thing that I hear about the Internet all the time is everyone trying to figure out — I mean people have ideas, lots of great ideas, just as you expressed a moment ago. But what I heard up at Mad was, “We’ve got a great Mad magazine for the Internet, but what we can’t figure out is how to get paid.”
So I think a lot of people are having an enormous amount of fun on the Internet with Twitter, and MySpace, and your face, and his face, but the question always arises: How do you make it pay? Because it’s fun to have a hobby, but if you want to turn it into something that you can do full time, it has to pay off.
Kupperman: Well, I think that’s the situation a lot of people are in now, because technology has made it easier than ever before to produce film or music or anything you like and disseminate it all around the world. But how will people get paid? I think that’s the big question.
Jaffee: Yeah, with a magazine, like Mad for example, the only source of income that you can logically think of is advertising. But in Mad’s case, who’s gonna advertise there? The magazine started carrying advertising a few years ago. And what they mostly get is games, you know, Internet games and stuff like that. They did manage to hire me to do four Chrysler fold-in ads. I can’t even see why Chrysler would want to advertise automobiles to a Mad readership.
Groth: Were you sitting in a Chrysler, and displaying it?
Jaffee: No, no, no. It was Chrysler fold-ins, which explains their bankruptcy! [Laughter.]
Groth: I was gonna ask whether there was a cause and effect here.
Jaffee: Well, they were on the way to bankruptcy before I did the fold-ins for them, but I enjoyed it.
Groth: I was gonna suggest a few other corporations you could do advertising for if that were the case.
Jaffee: You wanna bankrupt them? OK, give me a list.
Kupperman: Uhhh, Newscorp. [Laughter.] Let’s start with Newscorp.