Book Review—Al Jaffee’s “Tall Tales”
A member of the Online Film Critics Society, Peter writes for Twitch, the Financial Times, and Rue Morgue. A contributing editor at Metro magazine, and a columnist on blockbuster movies for Screen Education, he also blogs on pop culture at School Library Journal: http://blogs.slj.com/connect-the-pop/. Get too-frequent updates about comics, books, movies, and TV via Twitter: @Peter_GutierrezView all articles by Peter Gutiérrez
As Stephen Colbert writes in his brief intro, this collection “proves that not only has Al [Jaffee] always been funny, he’s always been disturbed…”
Disturbed in a coolly clever, 1950s, Ernie Kovacs-kind-of-way, that is. Most of us know Jaffee from his work in MAD Magazine, where he invented the “Fold-In” and to which he still contributes. Well, Tall Tales is a best-of compilation of a syndicated strip that Jaffee produced for the New York Herald Tribune in his pre-MAD days. As is often the case, commercial considerations fueled artistic innovation: trying to break into the newspaper business, he realized that he’d have a better shot if he didn’t compete head-to-head over real estate with existing strips.
His solution, which itself might be an apt subject for one of his gags, was to go vertical. That way an editor could slot Tall Tales anywhere a column happened to be available.
But that’s not the only aesthetic risk Jaffee took; he also decided to go wordless in the days before this was considered neat and quirky and a sign of superior visual storytelling: it was just considered weird.
Between them, these two creative decisions—to forego balloons and captions in a single panel seven inches high and an inch wide—spurred him to create some of the most inspired gag cartoons I’ve ever seen.
Jaffee frequently chose subjects that lent themselves to verticality such as flamingo legs, a high-wire act, skyscrapers, mountains, etc. As one might expect, often the humor is derived from some aspect inherent to these situations or contexts. But what caught me totally off-guard is the extent to which three-dimensionality is heightened in these Tall Tales: the disparity between foreground and background is so exaggerated that there’s a real depth to the action.
Indeed, Jaffee uses such high-angle compositions brilliantly, telling visual stories that would be hard (or simply less elegant) to convey in other ways.
Yet what’s most fun about Tall Tales is how their simplicity masks their sophistication. After a while I caught on that they were designed to elicit double-takes or even triple-takes. You look at any given panel and at first there doesn’t seem to be much “happening” because the joke doesn’t instantly leap out at you. This is true partly because there’s no text to guide you but also partly because Jaffee’s wryness leads him to deliver broad jokes in ways that are diabolically subtle. Later, after I went back and read Jaffee’s preface, I realized that such effects were far from accidental:
“…our eyes can’t take in the entire area at once. As readers we have a tendency to look at the strongest focal point first and then the secondary area. This dynamic allowed me to place the set-up for the joke in the first-glance area and pull the punch line with the second glance.”
Granted, sometimes the strips are just plain goofy. But sometimes they're more thoughtful and striking than one expects from a gag—more along the lines of a New Yorker cover than a New Yorker cartoon. One that comes to mind shows a boy flying a kite in a narrow alley between two high-rises, the string a perfectly taut—and impossibly straight—line stretching up from the urban shadows toward the sunlight.
All in all, Tall Tales represent the kind of art that can put a ten-year-old in stitches yet also leave an adult appreciating the considerable skill and talent involved. Only very rarely are there gags that could conceivably be rendered in a more typical format, which makes Jaffee’s achievement even more impressive: over several years he produced some 2,200 of these strips, out of which only 120 are reproduced in this handsomely slim volume from Abrams.So that naturally leaves me with a question: where’s Tall Tales 2 already?
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