Jaffee’s work for MAD has made him a cultural icon, but the compelling and at times bizarre story of his life has yet to be told. A synopsis of Jaffee’s formative years alone reads like a comic strip of traumatic cliff-hangers with cartoons by Jaffee and captions by Freud. Six-year-old Jaffee was separated from his father, uprooted from his home in Savannah, Georgia, and transplanted by his mother to a shtetl in Lithuania, a nineteenth-century world of kerosene lamps, outhouses, physical abuse, and near starvation. He would be rescued by his father, returned to America, taken yet again by his mother back to the shtetl, and once again rescued by his father, even as Hitler was on the march.
When he finally settled back in America as a twelve-year-old wearing cobbled shoes and speaking his native English with a Yiddish accent, schoolmates called him “greenhorn.” He struggled with challenges at least as great as those he had met in Europe. His luck changed, however, when he was chosen to be a member of the first class to attend New York City’s High School of Music and Art. There his artistic ability saved him.
He would go on to forge relationships with Stan Lee, Harvey Kurtzman, and Will Elder, launching a career that would bring him to MAD magazine. There he found himself at the forefront of a movement that would change the face of humor and cartooning in America.
A cliff-hanger of a life deserves a page-turner of a biography, and that is what Mary-Lou Weisman and Al Jaffee have delivered.