For half a century, Al Jaffee has been deceiving MAD Magazine readers. The cartooning legend uses a bag of illustrative tricks to defy expectation and presumption, crafting ingenious two-dimensional riddles with an insatiable creativity that’s only deepened through the decades. The Father of the MAD Magazine Fold-In, Mr. Jaffee transforms one scene into another through a simple series of creases, crafting an ingenious bridge between two concepts, the latter answering a query posed in the former.
Mr. Jaffee’s artistic accomplishments are nothing short of iconic (he also cartooned for the imprints that would become Marvel Comics, by the way). Among many, many accolades, he’s taken home the National Cartoonists Society Advertising and Illustration Award on three different occasions and was inducted into the Will Eisner Hall of Fame last year.
Instead of conducting a formal interview, we invited Mr. Jaffee to explain the thought process behind his favorite Fold-Ins from over the years. He certainly didn’t disappoint. Read on to discover how one of the world’s finest optical satirists creates his magic on a monthly basis.
Al Jaffee: The way it works is pretty much the way all freelance people work. The Richard Nixon Fold-In is the second fold-in. The first one was with Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher and Richard Burton. But the second one was not really supposed to happen, because I brought in the first one as a one-shot funny idea, with no concept whatsoever of it being a continuing feature. After the first one was published, a couple of weeks went by and the editor, Al Feldstein, came to me and said, ‘Alright, where’s the second Fold-In?’ And I said, ‘Al, there is no second Fold-In. This is a one-time gag idea, and a second one would be old hat.’ He said, ‘No no, I like it. The kids like it, the people who read it like it. You gotta give me another one.’
The first one was very simple. The picture didn’t change very much. It was just a matter of someone on the right, when you folded the page, moved over to join people on the left. When Feldstein insisted that I come up with a second one, I realized that you can’t keep doing the same thing over and over again, where something on the right folds over and meets something on the left.
So there happened to be a conflicted election of primaries. Barry Goldwater and Rockefeller were duking it out, and one was an ultraconservative and the other was a regular republican. I came up with the notion, of despite these two guys, who’s really going to get into the fray? I decided that I had to be pictorially and visually interesting; I created Richard Nixon’s face out of things in the background that you didn’t see in the open picture — but when you folded it over, Richard Nixon’s face was very prominent. It was a surprise answer. The message didn’t matter all that much at that point; it was really the pictorial slight of hand. That set the tone for me. Right there and then, I decided the only way this thing can be done is where one picture, after you fold it, turns into a completely different picture. Otherwise, there’s no surprise.
Paste: How did you come up with the concept of forming Nixon’s face out of lamps and coattails and curtains? What came first: the room or the face?
Jaffee: The first thing I did was draw Richard Nixon’s face, not in great detail, just a very rough establishment of where the eyes, nose and mouth would be, and the general shape. I did an exaggerated caricature of Nixon and then I cut it in half, and moved it apart. Once the face was cut in half, it didn’t have the integrity of a face anymore — it was sort of a half of face. Then I looked at what the eyes were like, and I said, ‘what can I make out of the eyes?’ He had these heavy eyebrows. I played around with many things, but I had to keep in mind all the time what the big picture was. So there they (Goldwater and Rockefeller) were up on a stage somewhere, doing a debate, and I thought, ‘What kind of stage prop can I put alongside these guys that would seem natural there?’ I decided that I could make eyes out of the lamps, and as far as the nose was concerned, that could come out of the figures — their clothing. Then I figured the mouth; I could use some sort of table that could give me those two sides. That’s how it all came about. You have to have some kind of visual imagination to see the possibilities. I had to concentrate on stuff that looked natural on a stage.
Jaffee: I sort of went into shock when the publisher of MAD came up to me one day and said, ‘How would you like to do the Fold-In in color.’ I said, ‘Oh Bill, I’m having enough trouble doing it in black and white, and now you’re going to throw color at me.’ The thing being in black and white, if you want to match up things that are on the left with things that are on the right, a wall on the left can be grey, and a wall on the right can be grey. But if you have a scene where in color, the wall on the left is pink, and the wall on the right is green, it just increases the challenge. So, when I came up with the Elvis Presley idea, I was impressed with the fact that Presley had all these Las Vegas-inspired costumes that were very colorful. They were part of his persona. And even down south where he lived in his mansion, I kept reading about closets full of glittering clothing.
It struck me that while there was a lot of talk about exotic species being preserved, and the environmentalists were at work, I thought, ‘What colorful creature would we not want to see go extinct?’ And I thought, ‘We don’t want to see beautiful butterflies go extinct, but at the same time, we don’t want to see Elvis Presley go extinct. So how about if I combine the two of them?’
The surprise is there, I think; no one can see Elvis Presley in it. At least, I don’t think so. I would say this: If I were doing this today, I would hide Presley a lot better than I did then. You know, you do it and you learn. [laughs]
Jaffee: This particular Fold-In says, ‘What potential health threat has been linked to the nation’s pig population?’ We do try to stay as close as we can to things that are happening. Things that are newsworthy. At this particular time when I did this Fold-In, the Swine Flu was a worldwide topic. The threat of Swine Flu, which swept through Asia, and was threatening to come here — in fact, we did all get inoculated. I thought to myself, I’ve got to do something about Swine Flu. Then it occurred to me, well, overeating is just as dangerous as Swine Flu.
The thing about this particular Fold-In that I’m most proud of, and fellow artists tend to be admiring of it, too, is that it contains a lot of elements. The answer, this picture of swine being fed, actually folds into three different objects: pancakes, sausage and fried eggs. It was quite challenging to pull this off. To get three distinct objects to come out of a single Fold-In…it was tricky, but it did come off pretty well, if I say so myself.
Paste: You’ve done these fold-ins for 50 years. What’s your favorite thus far?
Al Jaffee: I think my favorite is the one we just spoke about: the Swine Flu Commentary. The enormous, visual challenge that I face: there’s bacon in it, too. I forgot about it! There’s so much stuff hidden in it. From a point-of-view on trickiness, and misdirection, I think it’s one of the most successful ones that I’ve done.