It was like going back to the 19th century, Jaffee told me Saturday, while I moderated his spotlight session at Baltimore Comic-Con, where he was inducted into the Harvey Awards’ Hall of Fame.
Young Al spent the better part of the next six years in Zarasai, the “Siberia of Lithuania.” There was no running water, a shortage of food (he stole produce) — and no toys. On Saturday, Jaffee contrasted that experience with life back in Georgia, where his father worked in retail, and on Saturdays, Al and his brothers had the run of a department store’s toy section.
It was while in Lithuania, though, that Jaffee learned to make do. He would salvage for parts to make tools or a fishing rod. And because his father back in America would send newspaper comic strips to Zarasai, and because Al had a knack for cartooning, he was inspired to draw comics in the ground using a stick.
What Jaffee developed was a sense of innovation blended with a distrust of adult authority, all channeled into cartooning — a rare art in the shtetl that proved popular, and won over even the bullies. All that seems an ideal combination, of course, for Jaffee’s future career as a cartoonist for MAD magazine, where he has drawn unique “fold-in” back pages and wacky inventions for more than a half-century. (This past March, on Jaffee’s 95th birthday, he was recognized by Guinness World Records as the “longest working cartoonist” in comics history.)
“Necessity really is the mother of invention,” Jaffee said during his session.
“So if you’d stayed in Savannah,” I replied to Mr. Jaffee, “you’d be selling insurance now instead?”
Jaffee’s father would eventually bring his boys back to America to live for good, while the mother stayed behind in Lithuania during World War II, and was never seen again. I believe that what Jaffee experienced, with all the hardships and unspeakable loss, had a profound impact on his ability to think against the grain, learn to adapt and change course till he created paths no one else had popularly tried.
It is a powerful thing to know both abundance and sudden lack of abundance as a child. And it is that very suddenness that can startle you into reacting with an uncommon sense of urgency and adaptability and innovation.
Not far from the Convention Center in Baltimore is Johns Hopkins University, where Meng Zhu has worked as an assistant professor with an expertise in consumer behavior.
In a recent Journal of Consumer Research study, Zhu and co-author Ravi Mehta of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign wrote: “Contrary to popular belief, abundant resources may have a negative effect on creativity.” They continued: “We found that scarcity forces consumers to think beyond the traditional function of a given product and enhances creativity.”
Beyond that, I believe — as a lifelong artist — that sometimes an ideal for sparking creativity is close to what Al Jaffee experienced: That shocking realm where you have been exposed to the possible, only to have obstacles suddenly block the path of traditional thinking.
Mr. Jaffee, at 95, is still an incredibly adroit lateral thinker. The creative mousetrap that is his steely mind still springs quick and sharp.
Some instincts are forged so strong early in life, they are practically central to the marrow of the man.