I have to admit when it comes to MAD I am not much of a knowledgeable historian. I know the basics, and have learned a lot from reading books like “The MAD World of William M. Gaines” by Frank Jacobs, “Good Days and MAD” by Dick DeBartolo and others, and I’ve learned a lot from some of the long time MAD editors and contributors with whom I have become friends. Still my lack of total MAD knowledge sometimes shows itself when least expected… like a month or so ago when fellow caricaturist Dave “Rock” Cowles sent me this caricature for my Me Gallery. When he asked me what I thought I confessed to having no idea where he got the theme. Turns out this is “Captain Klutz”, a Don Martin character that in my defense never appeared in the magazine but was a creation for the paperback books which I have never seen or read.
Recently I was once again surprised by discovering something about one of the major contributors of MAD that I did not know about… and no it’s not that John Caldwell draws only while wearing women’s underwear… everybody knows that. I knew that several MAD artists tried their hand at doing syndicated comic strips, including Mort Drucker‘s Benchley and Jack Davis‘ Beauregard. What I did not know was that the most successful of syndicated strips done by a MAD artist was called “Tall Tales” by Al Jaffee. Syndicated in over 100 newspapers, the strip ran for 7 years from 1958 to 1965.
Al Jaffee is not one to do anything according to formula or typical format. This long running “Fold In” feature for MAD is a perfect example of his thinking “outside the box”, creating an interactive feature brilliantly designed that involves the reader physically for the gag’s payoff… much to the detriment of the collectible condition of old MAD issues. His “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions” also broke the mold with multiple punchlines for a single cartoon as well as a reader participation feature. It then should come as no surprise that Al’s approach to his strip was unique and innovative.
“Tall Tales” was a vertical format, pantomime strip. This totally broke the mold of the comic strip format, all of which ran horizontal and almost all featured words. In fact, it may have broken it too much. Jaffee credited its middling success with a pantomime format that was easy to sell abroad, but his higher-ups were unsatisfied with the strip’s status: “The head of the syndicate, who was a certifiable idiot, said the reason it was not selling [better] is we gotta put words in it. So they made me put words in it. Immediately lost 28 foreign papers.” (via Wikipedia, from The Comics Journal #225, Fantagraphics Publications, July 2000, pg. 43)
This hardcover book is a 130 page collection of the best of Jaffee’s Tall Tale strips. It’s a great look into the early work of a true comic art genuis. You can buy it for $8.70 (CHEAP!) via Amazon. Highly recommended.
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