I consider myself an Anglophile. I have an inherent fascination with English life, from its customs to its colloquialisms. I like listening to BBC Radio. My pop culture preferences warmly embrace The Beatles, ELP, Pink Floyd, and all things Python. I'm charmed by E.F. Benson's Lucia novels and captivated by Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. I have ancestral ties to Cornwall (my maternal grandfather was born and raised in Truro). Nothing would please me more than to spend a lengthy sabbatical exploring Britain. Yet for all my natural interest in England, I cannot muster so much as a dollop of enthusiasm for today's royal wedding.
Apparently that puts me in good standing with two-thirds of the British population, the demographic block identified by pollsters as those who will not be watching the ceremony. According to CBS News, half of the United Kingdom claims to be "actively uninterested" in the whole affair, and I share their passionate apathy. The relentless news coverage is bad enough here; I can only imagine how unavoidable it must be in England.
Al Jaffee is 89 years old. It is likely that you have seen his work, even if his name is unfamiliar to you. The 2008 Reuben Awards Cartoonist of the Year has been steadily contributing to MAD magazine for over half a century now, most notably as the creator of the MAD Fold-In, a regular feature on the inside back cover that delivers its interactive punchline when the page is folded over to reveal a hidden image. MAD fans will recall the acid wit that permeated his recurring Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions. Aficionados recognize his sophomoric humor and the precise draftsmanship with which he presented a long series of wild yet seemingly practical inventions. Jaffee has influenced and inspired generations of creative people.
That's enough of a legacy to warrant a serious biography, yet it is the convoluted backstory of this innovative cartoonist that is the focus of Al Jaffee's Mad Life, released last week by HarperCollins imprint ItBooks. More than two-thirds of Mary-Lou Weisman's 226-page portrait elapses before Jaffee submits his first article to MAD, and the remainder places his professional achievements within the context of his haunting, inescapable past. For Weisman, the key to Jaffee's success can be found by examining the tenacious self-reliance he developed during his earliest years.
Oh, the many pleasant hours I spent plucking junk from its spring-loaded jaw!
We are in full summer mode here in the Hunt household, and perhaps there is no greater indication of our seasonal relaxation than the fact that we have just sacrificed four consecutive evenings to view the entire Jaws tetralogy. This is what can happen when you have time on your hands and the ability to stream Netflix offerings on your TV. It all started innocently enough on Sunday evening, the first of several nights that our eldest daughter was away at camp, thus reducing the number of family members needed for unanimous entertainment option agreement to three. Somehow the availability of Jaws for streaming came up, and it struck each of us as a fun viewing choice for different reasons. My wife remembered seeing it many years ago. Our youngest daughter had heard about it and was intrigued. And me? I came within a shark's tooth of seeing Jaws at a drive-in in the summer of '77.
It is easy now to forget just how big a pop culture phenomenon Jaws became after its 1975 release. The movie allegedly deterred impressionable viewers from enjoying the beach. It was memorably lampooned in the famous "Landshark" sketches of Saturday Night Live, an effects-laden sendup called "Jowls" on The Carol Burnett Show, and a classic Mort Drucker/Larry Siegel movie parody in MAD magazine. Among the merchandising tie-ins was an Ideal Jaws game that featured a G-rated version of the Freudian movie poster on its box (minus the naked woman swimming above the advancing shark). I owned the game, which consisted of a hollow plastic shark with a hinged jaw, upon which an assorted of marine detritus was balanced. Players used a small hook to retrieve the items, until at last the weight of the remaining pieces no longer counterbalanced the tensile strength of attached rubber bands, whereupon the jaws suddenly snapped shut. I thought the game was great.
A couple summers later I was asked by a friend to accompany her family and some other kids to a drive-in showing of Jaws. I was incensed when my mother firmly declined the invitation on the grounds that the movie was too disturbing for anyone my age.
What was it about these trading cards that made them so irresistible?
I grew up calling them Monster Cards, although that is merely a generic description. Collectors often refer to them as You'll Die Laughing cards. That is also incorrect. For many years, the proper name for this bizarre series eluded me, as I had discarded the colorful wax paper pack wrappers shortly after every purchase, and I was only five at the time. In fact, the fabled Topps collectibles were marketed as Creature Feature in 1973 with an initial run of 62 trading cards, followed shortly thereafter with a second series of 66. The images on those cards are still familiar to me all these years later.
The Creature Feature gimmick was as elementary as its target demographic. Black and white stills from old Universal Pictures horror films were given ridiculous dialogue captions. The reverse, printed in purple ink on gray card stock, featured a fanciful illustration of jovial monsters gathered around a tombstone, upon which was inscribed a terribly corny joke. Despite the heading You'll Die Laughing, it's unlikely that the lame attempts at humor provoked so much as a mild snort, let alone a lethal guffaw.