On Creativity

The Hyperloop Alpha

The director of the Iron Man movies, John Favreau, compares Elon Musk to Iron Man

When Elon Musk announced his concept of the Hyperloop Alpha around this time last year, the reaction in the press was something like total astonishment.  He was disappointed in California’s approval of a bullet train that was one of the “highest cost per mile,” and “slowest” in the world.  In one sweeping gesture, Mr. Musk had completely discarded the entire history of ground transportation engineering, and had delivered a vision of the future.  The press was agog.  Bloomberg BusinessWeek described him as a combination of Bill Gates, Howard Hughes, John D. Rockefeller, and Steve Jobs all rolled into one! (phew)!  His friend John Favreau, the director of Iron Man, said that Musk was the real Tony Stark.  

We were in the presence of a Marvel Comics ubermensch, whose creative genius was a gift to modern society.  Or perhaps the wind had whipped the pages of Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead and Howard Rourk himself had stepped forth, with miraculous pre-existing blueprints inscribed in his soul, ready to do battle with our dull mediocrity.  I’m sure Musk would not eschew comparisons between himself and the namesake of his car company, Nikola Tesla.


So we were simultaneously enthralled with two questions- the first was about the nature of creativity (was Elon Musk truly a 21st-century creative genius? Where did his ideas come from?) and, incidentally, (and more practically) we wanted to know, would the Hyperloop actually work?

The Thrust SSC, the only ground vehicle to break the sound barrier. The design objective is achieved through the increase of force.

It was engineering from another plane; from another dimension entirely.  On the Tesla blog, Musk casually laid out some of the issues accompanying the technology.  You know, the little things that you have to adapt to when dealing with any technological innovation, such as, say, ground-level sonic booms.  We imagine Musk politely yawning behind his hand while discussing this irritation, unimpressed by vehicles such as the ThrustSSC, one of the few ground vehicles in history to break the sound barrier.  

Even the look of the hyperloop concept drawings seems other-planar, especially when compared to the schematics of the ThrustSSC.  The ThrustSSC is saturated with testosterone.  It is essentially just two gigantic jet turbines attached to a pilot pod that looks a lot like an enclosed bicycle.  It is a behemoth, a sledgehammer of force.

The drawings of the Hyperloop Alpha, by contrast, are elegant and organic.  It has sweeping, delicate curves, and looks something like a flower bud, or maybe a minnow. Or a federation vehicle from Star Trek.

Hyperloop Alpha concept drawings have a feminine, organic aesthetic– a total refutation of the aesthetic of the Thrust SSC. The hyperloop solves the problem of speed with systematic insight rather than power.
organic, feminine design in a Star Trek vehicle

And Star Trek engineering principles (limitless output of energy derived from non-proportional sources-i.e. dilithium crystals) seemed to apply to the Hyperloop as well.  It would smoothly accelerate to speeds beyond 800 miles per hour, but would be entirely powered by integrated solar panels.  In fact, the solar panels would gather energy in excess of the demands of the system.  The excess could buttress the hyperextended California electrical grid.  After construction costs, the Hyperloop would not only be cost-neutral to run, it would OUTPUT energy.

Dilithium Crystals from Star Trek
Dilithium Crystals from Star Trek – one example of an infinite energy source that defies the laws of thermodynamics.
Iron Man's arc reactor, another infinite energy source that short-cuts the laws of thermodynamics. In the hyperloop design we see an emphasis on balancing forces (the air intake becomes thrust) and calibration of efficiency on a microscopic level. The design is so perfectly balanced that it appears to be the product of a sci-fi limitless energy source.
Iron Man’s arc reactor, another infinite energy source that short-cuts the laws of thermodynamics. In the hyperloop design we see an emphasis on balancing forces (the air intake becomes thrust) and calibration of efficiency on a microscopic level. The design is so perfectly balanced that it appears to be the product of a sci-fi limitless energy source.

The Hyperloop builds on Maglev engineering pioneered in Japanese bullet trains. Essentially, magnetic repulsion allows the train to float above the rails.  The magnetic field can be moved along the track electrically, and the train follows it.  This is magnetic impulsion.  Any kid with a couple of ceramic magnets can come up with the base impulse of the idea after a few moments.  When you feel the magnets repelling each other, you immediately want to find a way to keep the floating magnet in place, just hanging there.  

An aerodynamic Japanese MagLev train
An aerodynamic Japanese MagLev train
A simple diagram of MagLev propulsion technology
A simple diagram of MagLev propulsion technology

Musk’s innovation, his complete rupture with existing bullet train technology, was the introduction of pneumatic propulsion.  In addition to using the existing magnetic levitation and impulsion technology, the Hyperloop is powered by air.  The bullet train is enclosed in a steel tube, creating a limited volume of air.  Magnetic impulsion is used to get the passenger capsule up to speed, and then pneumatic propulsion takes over.   Each passenger compartment has a giant turbofan on the front (an air intake) and air outputs on the sides and back.  The capsules essentially “lift off,” within the tube substituting a cushion of air for the initial MagLev impulse. The 800 mph speed is achieved by moving the set volume of air from one side of the capsule to the other.  When the capsule is at speed it tends to remain at speed, because the air intake is gulping more air and the output is providing more thrust.  The whole system is nearly frictionless, the train rides first on Magnetic Levitation and then on the air cushion.  The Hyperloop uses far less power than MagLev impulsion alone, because it only requires impulsion at the beginning and the end of the trip, for acceleration and deceleration. For most of the trip, the capsule is pulled/pushed along by pneumatic thrust.  Of course every kid has experience with pneumatic propulsion- because every kid has fired a spitwad through a straw.

It turns out the solution is stunningly simple!  Of course it would work.  The Hyperloop wasn’t descending upon us from the future like Iron-Man with his freaky infinite energy sources at all.  As a matter of fact, the Hyperloop was mining discarded ideas from the past.  It was not radical, untested technology, in fact it was relying on a technology that had been undergoing refinement for almost 200 years.  You have probably used pneumatic propulsion yourself- You know, when you go to the drive-thru at the bank to make a deposit, and one of those plastic capsules drops down through a lucite tube with a pen and a deposit slip in it?  


Jules Verne’s visionary novel, Paris in the Twentieth Century. Don’t let the comparison to Michael Chrichton dissuade you, it is definitely worth the read!

Pneumatic transport technology was invented in 1836.  It captured the collective imagination of the techno-utopians of the 19th century.  The potential for the technology was nearly limitless – imagine automated mail delivery, massive underground pneumatic networks that delivered packages right to your house from a central station.  What if you could pack something up, drop it into a pneumatic transport capsule, and have your friend on the other side of town receive it in a minute or two?  

City projects in the mid 19th century created just such pneumatic networks.  There was a citywide pneumatic post system in London by 1866 which functioned through the 1980’s, and if you are ever lucky enough to go to Prague and tour the old post office (as I have) you can see the pneumatic post (installed in 1886) which delivered mail to the entire city until it was damaged in a flood in 2003.  Rumor has it that one of the pneumatic lines in London was big enough for a person to fit inside the capsule, and that some daredevils attempted the ride.

It’s true.  In the 1860’s every tech-minded person knew that Pneumatic Propulsion Trains, like the Hyperloop Alpha of 2013, were the future of public transportation.  

Jules Verne’s 1863 novel, Paris in the Twentieth Century, describes a pneumatic propulsion train inside of an enclosed steel tube in which air pressure moves a giant disk, which is stabilized and attached to the train with “electromagnetic force.” Verne’s system would ride on a cushion of air and it would be capable of speeds exceeding 1000 kmh, just beyond the sound barrier.  Verne wrote a very good description of a MagLev pneumatic propulsion train. Essentially, Verne’s novel describes the Hyperloop with many of the same engineering details Elon Musk used in 2013, exactly 150 years later.  

So what am I trying to say here?  That Elon Musk isn’t a Randian Prometheus to be worshipped as a god among mortals?  That he isn’t Tony Stark? (I desperately want SOMEONE to become Iron Man, by the way) That he isn’t a genius?  That he plagiarized the idea of the Hyperloop from a 150-year-old public domain science fiction novel?  None of these, he may well be the reincarnation of Tesla-that would be great!  But all of this egoism obfuscates the true nature of creativity.  

This is my argument:  Creativity isn’t some bolt-from-the-blue magic, it isn’t the “specialness” of ubermensches that are different from everyone else.  It is just work; it’s the work of sensitizing yourself to ideas in their simplest and most outrageous forms, and communicating those ideas.  Creativity never happens in isolation, it happens in network, when people interact.  

A employee at the pneumatic post in Prague sending letters all over the city.

After the successful pneumatic post of the 1860’s why didn’t people move on to build the Hyperloop 150 years ago?   It was because the context was wrong. Everyone liked the idea, but no one made it.  Internal combustion engines advanced, and addressed the immediate transportation crisis (the great horse manure crisis of 1894).  

There was no more social impetus behind pneumatic travel; the niche had been filled.  But now, a century and a half has gone by, and our fascination with combustion-based travel is waning.  We are faced with new environmental concerns and dwindling oil resources.  

Societal space is starting to open up once more and we are ready to consider pneumatic transportation again- as long as it is presented to us as beautiful, organic and star-trekky (the same way that the Model-T was presented at the dawn of the 20th century).

I’m not saying Elon Musk isn’t a genius.  I’m just saying he watches Star Trek and plays with magnets.  He most likely shoots spit wads.  I’m sure he’s definitely read Jules Verne.  And that’s the true nature of genius, to play, to enquire, to pick up a dog-eared sci-fi paperback from a garage sale and take it seriously.  To build up ideas others discard or trivialize. To communicate and antagonize.

Shoot more spitwads!

Don’t be convinced by the cinema archetypes, creativity is not the provenance of creepazoids with weird hair hallucinating patterns and theories, possessed by some other-human power beyond you and I. It is something that all of us do every day, when you get dressed in the morning and when you cook breakfast.  Every life has a creative arc, maybe it’s poetry, or baking, or parenting, or maybe for some of us it’s MagLev pneumatic propulsion transport systems. The point is to build your arc with integrity, with energy and discipline, to give it your all and to take it seriously and finally, to share it.  Don’t let it slip through your fingers, and don’t let it go unseen, because that’s lame and selfish.  All creative practice is interconnected, and your contributions, and the contributions of Jules Verne, and Jack Kirby (the creator of Iron Man) are just as important as those of Elon Musk’s.  And what’s more, they are all connected.  They form a broader fabric, and we are all a part of it.

The Levitron, a simple toy that effectively demonstrates the principles of MagLev technology.
The Levitron, a simple toy that effectively demonstrates the principles of MagLev technology.

Al Jaffee at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art

A retrospective of the artist’s work

*Portrait by Drew Friedman

When Al Jaffee walks into the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in SoHo, the room suddenly comes alive. Admirers of the eighty-nine-year-old artist fall into orbit around him, asking for autographs. He obliges the clambering fans by handing out bookplates with his logo – a self-portrait as the “Mad Inventor” in which his hair spells out his name in cursive script. Mad magazine, once a cultural anomaly, now has an inter-generational legacy, manifested by the parents and children who surround Jaffee with equally intense ardor.

Click the image to buy the book!
aljaffemad lifeThe show at MoCCA wryly titled “Is this the Al Jaffee exhibit?” spans decades. It was curated by Danny Fingeroth and Arie Kaplan. The core of the exhibition is a new series of illustrations Mr. Jaffee made for his biography, Al Jaffee’s Mad Life, which was written by Mary-Lou Weisman and released in September 2010. Mr. Jaffee had come to MoCCA with a large folio of his new, autobiographical illustrations and asked, “Will you show these?” The museum was honored and overwhelmed by the prospect of a last minute show by one of comic’s elder statesman, and had scrambled to get the exhibit together quickly, so that it would be contemporaneous with the release of the book. MoCCA raised the money for matting and framing Mr. Jaffee’s illustrations on Kickstarter.com, a social networking website which allows its members to donate small sums to fund creative proposals.

The show will surprise many Mad aficionados familiar with Jaffee’s most famous visual invention, the fold-in. Viewers are used to laughing at Jaffe’s visual jokes, but are stunned at the intricacy and detail of the original paintings. When faced with the unreduced original, viewers to the museum stand mesmerized by the detail and forget to laugh at they joke. They stare dumfounded as they begin to understand the many hours of labor invested in the image–suddenly comprehending it as a work of art.

Al Jaffee’s career has spanned the entire history of comics, and his work has inspired multiple generations of illustrators. Comics luminaries such as Art Spiegelman and Robert Crumb, credited with elevating comics into the realm of art and literature, both cite Mad magazine as their initial inspiration. Spiegelman, in his recent graphic autobiography, Breakdowns, recall’s Mad’s impact in the 50’s: “I studied Mad the way some kids studied the Talmud!”

Ziggy Pig and Silly Seal
Ziggy Pig and Silly Seal

Jaffee’s start in comics, in the 1940’s, coincided with the very beginning of the medium–the golden age of comics, although Jaffee eschewed the golden age craze of the super-hero. Jaffee was drawn to humor. While working for Stan Lee at Timely Comics (which would become Marvel) in the 1940’s, Jaffee created Ziggy Pig and Silly Seal as well as Super Rabbit. These characters emulated slapstick cartoons and are not well remembered today, but nonetheless they participated in the zeitgeist of the 40’s along with Superman and Captain America by fighting Nazis. Ziggy Pig and Silly Seal didn’t have super powers, so instead they improvised ersatz weapons out of absurd materials; Ziggy Pig once carved a machine gun out of ice that shot snowballs. Super Rabbit’s arch nemesis was a pig with a Hitler mustache named “Super Nazi.” Super Rabbit’s battles against Super Nazi were pure entertainment in the spirit of the times, they didn’t reach the level of incisive cultural criticism Jaffee would later become known for at Mad.

In the 1940’s super-hero comics were a lucrative industry, but Jaffee was already a concerted humorist. Rather than create the next Superman, he lampooned the whole concept with his Inferior Man, a super-hero who’s only power was his ineptitude. Jaffee’s devotion to humor left him on the outside of the super-hero craze of the golden age of comics. While cartoonists such as Jack Kirby would become celebrated as creative artists, Jaffe ended up working the grind of Timely’s romance line. He ended up on the comic Patsy Walker, a teen romance comic along the lines of a steamier Archie, which paid well but demanded intense hours and afforded little creative freedom.

Jaffee’s turning point came when he finally quit Patsy Walker to follow Harvey Kurtzman into humor illustration. Kurtzman and Jaffee had known each other since high school–they had both been students in the first year of La Guardia’s special high school of music and art. Kurtzman had been the founding editor of Mad in 1952, but by 1956, when Jaffee was finally fed up with Patsy Walker, Kurtzman was leaving Mad. Hugh Hefner had hired Kurtzman to start a competing humor magazine called Trump. Jaffee followed Kurtzman to Trump, but the venture would prove to be short lived–Trump folded after only two issues. Kurtzman and Jaffee would move on to the artist-owned Humbug but that magazine, although critically acclaimed, folded after 11 issues as well. The entire run of Humbug was reprinted in a two-volume hardcover set by Fantagraphics in 2009.

Finally, after Humbug folded in 1958, Jaffee arrived at Mad with no other commitments, and found the stability that would allow his inventive humor to flourish. Although he had made one-shot contributions to Mad under Kurtzman’s editorship, this was the first time he could devote himself to humor features without worrying about the magazine folding. There his features included Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions, where dull inquiries were treated to multiple choice ridicule, Al Jaffee’s Mad Inventions, and of course, the fold-In.

Just a few of Jaffee's mad inventions
Just a few of Jaffee’s mad inventions

Although Jaffee’s Mad Inventions were always satirically excessive, they were also always functional. Jaffee happens to be an excellent mechanical engineer, a skill he developed building toys from discarded materials as a child. In fact, many of Jaffee’s inventions have been manufactured. The smokeless ashtray, which uses a fan to suck in cigarette smoke, was a Mad Invention before it was a real product. So was the multi-bladed disposable razor. One of Jaffee’s wildest inventions, a Ferris wheel parking garage, first appeared in Mad in 1977. It was formally proposed as a parking solution for the city of Providence, Rhode Island, in 2008.

A Fold-in transforming high art into the Peanuts characters, asks the question: “Which modern artist is most successfully communicating with his audience?” Answer: Charles M. Shulz

Jaffe is best known for the fold-in. The first fold-in appeared in the April 1964 issue of Mad, since then Jaffee’s fold-ins have appeared in over 400 issues of Mad. The fold-in is Mad’s longest running feature, and in fact it represents one of the longest running features by a single contributor in any magazine. Jaffee created the fold-in as an irreverent response to the fold-out. Glossy magazines of the sixties, such as Life, National Geographic, Sports Illustrated and Playboy all had fold-outs as special features. Jaffee’s fold-in, rather than dramatically expanding the view, mutilated the magazine, and made the image smaller.

Many of the fold-ins cross from pure humor into sharp cultural criticism along the lines of Jonathan Swift. One notable example from 1971 comments on the plight of veterans returning from Vietnam. The caption asks “What deadly mission are more and more servicemen voluntarily going on?” The image shows a group of soldiers in a firefight. When the page is folded, it becomes a hypodermic needle and the answer to the question appears: “drug trips.”

With the release of Al Jaffee’s Mad Life this past September, many long-time fans of his artwork were stunned by the heart-wrenching story of his childhood. Ms. Weisman had been a long-time friend of Mr. Jaffee’s, and the story unfolded through conversation. Jaffee described their interaction to the audience at MoCCA:

“I think she was able to bring out of me memories that I had kind of long forgotten or moved on with …my childhood in the book is not filled with joy, but it’s filled with a lot of life.”

Jaffee created an entirely new series of illustrations for the book and found his drawing style changing as he worked. As he shared with the audience:

“I somehow automatically shifted into a style that I didn’t plan on and that I never used before, and it just seemed to be self-directed. After I finished all of them I looked back and said ‘How did I get into that mood of drawing?’”

Jaffee’s artistic ability, and his humor were born of adversity; drawing was a survival skill he had learned growing up. Jaffee was born in Savannah Georgia in 1921, but when he was six years old, in 1927, his mother Mildred, unhappy with American modernity, brought him and his three brothers, Harry, David and Bernard, back to the Lithuanian shtetl of her birth –a village named Zarasai. Confronting bullies and the hardship of shtetl life, Jaffee’s humor became a sophisticated defense.

Zarasai in 1864


Jeziarosy. Езяросы (1864)” by Konstanty Przykorski (?) – Tygodnik Ilustrowany. Nr 270, 26.11.1864. S. 440.. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

While Fingeroth couldn’t find a photograph of Zarasai, he did find a 1920’s photograph of a similar Lithuanian town, with a horse pulling a cart down a cobbled street. Jaffee laughs at the photograph and addresses the audience:

“This town looks luxurious by comparison. You see the horse in the middle? This town [Zarasai] had a dinosaur. I left a Savannah that had indoor plumbing and wound up facing outhouses. It was a terrible experience, but on the other hand I learned a lot there. I learned to be very self-sufficient. I learned to entertain people with my drawing, to ingratiate myself to kids who thought my drawings were absolute magic. So I thought, what the hell, I’ll go on doing this for the rest of my life. The rest of it, this tedious story, is in the book.”

During Al’s 6 years in Zarasai, his father, Morris Jaffee, desperately tried to remain connected to his family, sending money every month which his mother donated nearly entirely in missions of tzedakah, an outward show of piety which left the four Jaffee boys constantly on the brink of starvation. Three-year old Bernard contracted spinal meningitis, leaving him both deaf and mute.

Al learned Yiddish fluently and, constantly hungry, became an accomplished thief. One of his first mad inventions was a device for stealing fruit, a long branch with a hook and a basket fixed on one end. His father had taught him to draw comics from the newspapers in Savannah, and periodically he would send packages of comics from the papers to Lithuania. Al’s drawing skill evolved as he copied the comics his father sent and illustrated the stories he studied in cheder. His drawing of Moses on top of mount Sinai was the first thing that struck him as funny. He had rubbed the watercolor with candle wax to make it shiny, and his younger brother David asked: “It’s so slippery. Won’t Moses slide down the mountain?”

As Hitler ascended to power, in 1933, Al’s father Morris liquidated his assets (destroying his career in the process) and borrowed money from relatives to find Al and his brothers in Lithuania and bring them back to New York. His mother refused to return to America, and stayed behind with her youngest child, David. David Jaffee escaped to New York in 1940 at age 13 under mysterious circumstances. Although no one knows the exact details of how David was saved or by whom, it is likely that their uncle Harry financed and arranged the trip, hiring a young polish man to serve as “kidnapper” and escort for the boy, as he traveled from Zarasai to Antwerp where he boarded the ship Westerland, bound for New York by way of England.

Even in 1940, as Nazi incursion into Lithuania seemed imminent, and partisan anti-Semitic sentiment asserted itself, Mildred Jaffee clung to the shtetl. Her fate is not known, but she was most likely killed by the Einsatzgruppen or by bloodthirsty Lithuanian partisans –her neighbors–in Zarasai in 1941. By the end of the war, the Jewish population of Lithuania had been annihilated almost completely. Years later, on a Mad company trip to Eastern Europe, Jaffee had no interest in detouring slightly to see Zarasai again.

In 1935, Jaffee was one of the students selected for the first class of Fiorello LaGuardia’s School of Music and Art, a moment that changed his life. Jaffee’s classmates in the first year of LaGuardia’s progressive school would become the core of Mad Magazine: Harvey Kurtzman was already planning a humor magazine then, and Will Elder, another important Mad artist, also attended that year. In fact, Elder and Jaffee were going to the same public school when art tests were administered to find gifted students for the program. Jaffee’s drawing for the test was a picture of Zarasai’s central square. When Jaffee and Elder were sent to the principal’s office after the test, they assumed they were in serious trouble. As Jaffe told the story for the audience:

“Usually when you were sent to the principal’s office in that day, before the enlightenment, you were to be flogged or burned at the stake. You were in trouble, some kind of trouble. Drawing without a license, I guess. We sat there and Willy turned to me and said ‘ya know, I tink dey’re gonna send us to art school!’ He had this very thick Bronx accent, and I had a very thick European accent at that time, so I said, ‘Mavybe your wright!’

Jaffe renders both accents perfectly, and the audience erupts with laughter.

To the right of Fingeroth and Jaffee on the panel at MoCCA are the artists Tom Bunk and Peter Kuper. Throughout the presentation, Jaffee continually tries to divert attention their way, with questions like “So, what has Peter been working on lately?” but he is, inescapably, the subject of the museum’s retrospective.

Garbage Pail Kids –Tom Bunk

Bunk is a German artist born in 1945 who worked on Garbage Pail Kids with Art Spiegelman in the 80’s and became a Mad cartoonist in the 90’s. Jaffee’s work influenced his illustration, even as he was coming of age as an artist in Hamburg.
He describes the influence of the fold-in to the audience:

“I was influenced by his sense of humor, his themes, also the way his figures moved like ballerinas. Mostly he affected my work because when my work appeared on the cover of Mad …when they folded the cover for Al’s fold-in, my artwork would be ruined as well.”

Ceci nest pas une comic –Peter Kuper


Peter Kuper, who is known for the political graphic magazine he co-founded in 1979, World War 3, as well as his comic adaptation of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, describes how Jaffee’s meticulous detail inspired him as a young artist:

“I remember looking at a beautifully rendered halftone comic that Al had done and there were these details on the floor –a little bone [for instance]. The idea that there were adults out there in the world spending all this extra energy in their work –the idea that you could grow up to do that, adding your own bones on the floor so to speak, was a revelation.”

Elaine’s by Jaffee and Kurtzman, for Esquire

One wall of drawings and paintings at the MoCCA exhibit gained a special significance in early December. Elaine Kaufman, the famous New York restaurateur, died on December 4th. Elaine’s is a writer’s hangout¬, and Kaufman was known for supporting journalists in the form of long tabs they never had to pay. Consequently, her restaurant became a meeting place for the New York intelligentsia where no one would be asked for autographs. On any given day during the 70’s at Elaine’s, one might find Norman Mailer, Woody Allen, and Abbie Hoffman in conversation. Esquire magazine hired Al Jaffee and Harvey Kurtzman to do an illustration for an article about Elaine’s. Jaffee and Kurtzman were by then longtime collaborators, and Kurtzman was notorious for his perfectionism and meticulous editing. Jaffe’s initial sketch had shown caricatures of writers crowding together in the small restaurant, talking animatedly. Kurtzman used direct visual editing–he placed a sheet of vellum over a drawing and redrew the parts he wanted changed. After Kurtzman edited the first drawing, he told Jaffee, “Make them all into penguins! They all crowd into that place like a bunch of penguins!” After many revisions, Jaffee produced penguins that looked like Abbie Hoffman, Norman Mailer, and Elaine Kaufman herself. Jaffee’s drawings and Kurtzman’s revisions had yielded an entire wall of intermediate drawings¬, but Kurtzman still wasn’t satisfied. Jaffee recalls working with the demanding Kurtzman:

“He started attaching photos of penguins to the drawings and writing notes on penguin anatomy. I felt like I was going to penguin college!”

The final painting reveals the investment of the many revisions. It is excruciatingly detailed and disarmingly funny. After the illustration was printed, Al recalls stopping in to Elaine’s and overhearing the patrons exclaim, “Someone made us all into penguins!”

A separate space at the museum is devoted entirely to the new illustrations Jaffee created for Weisman’s biography. Viewers remark on the style shift: “The drawings are much more open,” one woman says in passing. The figures are composed of clean, open lines, there are none of the convoluted details, the bones on the floor, that Jaffee is famous for. Instead of disguising a hidden image, these images reveal. One of Jaffee’s illustrations for the book was of the Zarasai town square, the real Zarasai town square, filled with cattle and children playing. This drawing, made by the 89 year old artist and published this year, must be nearly identical to Jaffee’s drawing of 1935, the drawing of Zarasai which won him a spot in the first class of La Guardia’s School of Music and Art when he was 14 years old.

Al Jaffee's drawing of Zarasai
Al Jaffee’s drawing of Zarasai

Orphans of the Harp

orphans of the harp

Uptown 110th street stop. Followed her into the park. She walked across to Harlem Meer. She sits on a fallen stone in the shadow of Fort Clinton near the footpath and begins to play. Her case open to collect coins. I am watching from the shade, a stand of trees growing near the lake. White trunks, black wire branches, wind shaking cascades of yellow leaves down around me.
Her face is expressionless as she plays, her hands a blur over the fretboard of the dark red guitar. I have never heard such music, nor have I heard a guitar played in such a fashion. She is pulling articulate notes from the fretboard even as her other hand strums the chords. Dissonance, cacophony, agony, yet deep within the structure there is harmony. An unearthly resonance. It sounds like a human voice. Her face is stone.
A crowd gathers around the prodigy. They relinquish their money in a trance state, filling her case with coins and bills. I am watching a stray cat prowl through the aspens, hunting. Silver-gray, like an overcast sky at dawn. Its eyes are silver too. It twines around my legs as I write. It has lost its master.
The cat prowls through the long grass towards the musician. It is right next to her, slinking along the edge of the stone she sits on. She doesn’t notice; she is lost in the structure of her music. It moves with purpose. Its silver eyes trained on her. Its head dances about, its gaze following her hands fluttering along the fretboard. Like a bird. The girl has not seen it. The cat creeps closer. Now it reveals its long-needle fangs and hisses, extends its claws, and slashes her bare leg beneath her white dress. She cries out in pain, and breaks a string. The cat leaps away, and brushes past me as it runs through the rushes on the edge of Harlem Meer. She pulls the pin from the guitar with her fingers and winds the broken string tenderly in her hand. Only after she has tended to her instrument does she notice the scratches. She sets the guitar back in the silver case and touches her leg. The scratch is deep, her pale fingers are smeared with blood. The cat has gone. Her strange rigidity has softened. Her hand trembles, dark red over marble skin. She glances around, as though waking up, surprised by her surroundings. She folds her leg onto her knee and wipes at the blood with the hem of her immaculate white dress. Blood blossoms on the fabric like dahlias growing through the snow. She pulls the red glasses off and I see her strange pink irises. She is wall-eyed. Her head arched back, I can hear her breathing, even from my hiding place in the aspen copse. She closes her eyes; she is drenched in sunlight. The yellow heart-shaped aspen leaves fall onto my journal as I write.

Oh sweet girl, full of woe, dry your tears, I love you so.

She heard her sister cry out from her bedroom on the second floor, a heart-rending shriek.

“Zil! Zil!” she wailed.

Zilpah ran up the grand curving stair to her sister’s room. She eased the door open to see Shek sitting up in bed, a cutout of silver moonlight illuminating her dark silhouette.

“It’s mama, Zil!” she wailed. “I saw her; I saw her in my dream. She tried to take me back. She told me to get up and walk back home.”

“We are home, Shek.” Zilpah whispered. “We don’t live there anymore.”

Zilpah smoothed her sister’s hair and held her. Her small body was rigid in her arms. Gradually, she soothed her and she relaxed and laid back down on the bed. Zilpah tucked the covers around her and sang to her tunelessly.

“The sun is setting, the sun is rising, the days and nights are never-ending. Oh sweet girl, full of woe, dry your tears, I love you so.”

“Is that true Zil?” Shek gasped, “That the days—that the days will never end?”

“Yes, love.” she answered. “Hashem had to make the days before he could create the world. Each day creates the world again.”

“How did He make the days Zil?”

Zilpah’s voice fell into a gentle, poetic cadence.

Once there were no days or nights, and the world was gray and unformed. God had not created any living thing, He had not created anything at all. He was uncertain that it would be right to create. Chaos held its own deep beauty. It whorled in patterns of infinite complexity. He loved the Chaos; loved the way that unformed matter flowed and changed. But the shifting pattern consumed Him, and He could not separate Himself from it. In the midst of the Chaos He could not understand what He was. There was no limit to God, no room for anything to exist but God, and God was Chaos. For all its infinite possibility, it was always the same. There were no events, no objects, nothing to perceive apart from the infinite pattern.

So God decided he would begin to create. In order to do that He had to withdraw. He had to transcribe limits around himself to make room for other things to exist. So He wrote a circle around Himself and resolved not to leave it. He was separate from the Chaos then, and was filled with a great despair that he could no longer experience its beauty. But even as he longed to look upon it again he found that without it he had a new freedom. He could structure his thoughts, he knew his own mind and will. Suddenly He realized that Darkness was one half of a duality. If there was darkness there could also be light. Now there was something outside of Himself that he could see, but He had no senses. He created eyes so he could see, ears so He could hear, and a voice so He could speak.

“Let there be light.” He said, and the words gathered their own power. They began to glow before Him, and they collapsed into a single point, infinitely small, with no breadth or width. But even a single point of light is enough to move through the Darkness, because Darkness has no material of its own. The point collapsed on itself and the force reversed, and the light began to grow, exploding outward through the universe, revealing the surface of the Chaos.

God saw, suddenly illuminated, the creatures of Chaos, dark shadows against the light. The chaos had despaired when God had withdrawn. The Chaos had freely shaped the mind of God, and now that God was separate it screamed in sudden agony at the abandonment. It screamed at the realization of its own formlessness, and began to structure itself. They were beings of the infinite pattern that had wrenched themselves free from the unstructured gray sea. And when God shed light upon them, they were terrified, revealed in their vulnerability. They fled from Him, dissolved back into the gray Chaos, or burned in the light. As He watched, God saw that the light and the darkness begin to flow back together, the universe began reverting into Chaos again. God knew that He had to set the light into motion in order to counteract the entropy, So he pulled the darkness and the light apart again and gathered the light into sun and moon and stars, and set them spinning in a great wheel. Now the light and darkness moved together, and formed the music of days and nights. And that music will never ever end.


Shek was sleeping lightly, she tossed in bed and held on tighter.

“Zil,” she muttered in her sleep.

“Yes, love?”

“What happened to the creatures—that formed themselves from the Chaos?”

“They vanished, Shek. They were divided into light and darkness.”

“Zil,” Shek whispered,”Will the music ever stop?”

“No sweetheart. It will go on and on. On and on forever.”

She let go with a heavy sigh and fell into a deep sleep.