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Mad magazine legend Al Jaffee retires at age 99 after a record-breaking career

By Michael Cavna Washington Post

Mad magazine’s iconic back-page Fold-In is about to fold it in. Finito after 56 years. Because Al Jaffee, officially the longest-working comic artist ever, has decided to retire at age 99.

So to mark his farewell, Mad’s “Usual Gang of Idiots” will salute Jaffee with a tribute issue this week. It will be the magazine’s final regular issue to offer new material, including Jaffee’s final Fold-In, 65 years after he made his Mad debut.

“He deserves some spotlight outside our industry,” Mad caricature artist Tom Richmond said of the magazine’s beloved elder statesman, who broke into the business during World War II.

One of the most heartfelt features in the send-off issue will be by Sergio Aragones, a fellow Mad legend who befriended Jaffee in 1962 upon joining the staff. They formed a mutual admiration society – both deeply steeped in the craft of the pantomime cartoon – and were occasional roommates on the Mad staff’s storied annual trips to far-flung vacation spots. In the tribute issue, Aragones features his cartooning idol as a character in a series of wordless strips, titled “A Mad Look at Al Jaffee.”

“The difference between Al Jaffee and every other cartoonist is that no matter how genius they are,” they typically have a specific area of excellence, said Aragones, who calls the elder cartoonist “a soul mate.”

Jaffee, on the other hand, excels in many areas, as writer and artist. From superheroes to funny animals, Aragones says, “nobody has done what he has done: take every branch of cartooning and make it better.”

Jaffee worked continuously beginning with Joker Comics in 1942, according to Guinness World Records, which in 2016 awarded him its title of “longest career as a comic artist.” That same year, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio declared March 30 Al Jaffee Day.

“Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz liked to say that Jaffee could draw anything. But the Mad cartoonist became best known for two staples of the magazine: “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions” and the Mad Fold-In, a format that Jaffee said was a humorous twist on the photo fold-outs then popularized in newsmagazines and Playboy.

The Mad Fold-In consists of a single image and question; when the page is folded inward, the condensed image and wording reveal a “hidden” answer that satirizes politics, pop culture and social trends. Jaffee appreciated the opportunity to be such a free-range humorist, satirizing whatever he found funny.

Rarely missing an issue, Jaffee created more than 500 Fold-In pages. A typical example appeared in the summer of 1972, when the magazine, at its cultural zenith, was reaching millions of monthly readers. During that era’s national conversation over conservation, the Fold-In question asked, “What beloved American animal will never become extinct because of overwhelming support?”; the answer and picture: “Mickey Mouse.”

Peers marvel at the consistent satiric sharpness of Jaffee, who has received the National Cartoonists Society’s Reuben Award and was inducted into the Will Eisner Hall of Fame. “The most remarkable thing about him is he has been doing it at the highest of levels for over seven decades,” Richmond said. “That is more than remarkable – it is literally without comparison.”

Richmond thinks Jaffee is the ideal blend “of genius writing, razor-sharp wit, seemingly endless creativity and ideas and brilliant art,” yet also believes he is underappreciated. “But among cartoonists or people who really know about the art form,” Richmond said, “he’s Zeus among the lesser gods.”

Jaffee said in a 2016 Baltimore Comic-Con session that hardship sharpened his humor. He was born in Savannah, Ga., but life grew rough during the six years of childhood he spent on a shtetl in his mother’s Zarasai – what he called “the Siberia of Lithuania” – with food in short supply and no running waters or toys.

Jaffee said that his father, who was back in America, would send him comic strips, including “Dick Tracy” and “Little Orphan Annie.” Young Jaffee, inspired and making due, learned to draw using a stick in the sand, impressing even the bullying kids in the shtetl. Yet such life also bred his distrust of authority figures, leading to his eagerness to poke a satiric stick in the eye of political and social leaders.

Within a decade, Jaffee would break into comics, working a stint at Timely Comics, the precursor to Marvel. (Meanwhile, his mother stayed back in Lithuania during World War II, and he never saw her again.)

Jaffee, who has drawn for many publications and created syndicated comics, has said it never seemed like hard work because he loved what he did. “I guess I’m childish in a way,” he said. “I’m living the life I wanted all along, which was to make people think and laugh.”

But don’t tell the Mad editors that, he likes to say, or “they’ll stop paying me.”

And fittingly, Jaffee had a snappy answer to The Post’s stupidest question: “Are you proud that your work with Mad endures?”

Jaffee’s smart reply: “I would be stupid to say, ‘No.’ ”

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