An introduction for the legendary Jules Feiffer takes the form of a long list, illustrating a career that doesn’t simply date back decades, but covers numerous fields as well. Feiffer is perhaps best known as the Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist who worked for “The Village Voice” for more than four decades and was the “New York Times'” first editorial cartoonist. His career in comics began as a teen when he began working for the legendary Will Eisner. Feiffer would go onto write many “Spirit” stories and would contribute his own stories to the Sunday paper insert. Feiffer is also the author of “The Great Comic Book Heroes,” a 1965 book that celebrated Golden Age superhero comics.
In addition to writing and illustrating many children’s books, among them the 1961 classic “The Phantom Tollbooth” which was written by his good friend Norton Juster and “Which Puppy?” written by Feiffer’s daughter Kate, which was published last year, Feiffer is also the author of two novels. He’s the award winning playwright of “Little Murders” and “The White House Murder Case” among others, and has written screenplays for “Popeye,” “I Want To Go Home” and “Carnal Knowledge,” the last of which garnered him an Academy Award nomination.
Feiffer also holds a place as one of the most important comedic voices to emerge in the 1950’s, part of a movement that included Lenny Bruce, Bob Newhart and Nichols and May, all of whom contributed towards the reshaping of American humor. And all of this says nothing of his role as one of the most important and influential cartoonists of the postwar era.
Feiffer’s newly released memoir, “Backing Into Forward: A Memoir” from Random House, reveals the deep ambition he’s always had, the epigraph of the book reading, “Do not let your judges define you.” For Feiffer, that sums up not only his life but what he hopes that people take away from it. “Many of us go through life letting others tell us who and what we are,” he said, “particularly when we’re young. That keeps us from doing things that perhaps we were meant to do.”
CBR News: What led you to write a memoir, and why now?
Jules Feiffer: I’m eighty-one. If not now, when? [Laughs]
Was it a challenge in terms of deciding what to include and what not to? You mentioned in the afterward, for example, that your wife didn’t want to be in it.
It’s like any piece of craft. You can ask that question of a play or of a cartoon. You learn what you need to put in and you also learn, even more importantly, what you need to take out. And after a while, you basically let the work itself dictate to you what it should be. What it wants to be. The work takes over. The story you’re telling takes over and it becomes very much a straight line. You just have to follow the flow. Even though everything in it you’re telling is the truth, there are any number of other truths that could have gone in but didn’t go in. And there are any number of different stories that might have worked or might not have. So, so much of it is a part of making these judgements and going over them and over them and over them. I must have revised this book six or seven times before we got to the form its in now, and always with the goal of making it look almost accidental. I mean, the whole tone of it and the writing is to make it seem as if I just sat down and started saying this stuff to myself, but there’s a lot of effort required for that.
Was the rewriting process more about the structure, or was it just a question of revision?
No, the rewriting process was more in line with making the prose more vivid and more expressive and connecting to the reader viscerally as opposed to simply summarizing an experience.
It’s touched on in your book but never discussed explicitly, how the Army affected your career and your ambitions. You entered the Army wanting to be a cartoonist, but you left wanting to be a very different cartoonist with a different voice and sensibility.
I came out as a different cartoonist at a different age. McCarthyism was taking root at the time that I was drafted and came to full flower in the time I was in the Army. That was the suppression of dissent, particularly if you were a liberal or on the left, so we’re in a position of fighting enemies of freedom while we’re denying ourselves freedom. The irony and injustice of that struck me so strongly, particularly as a young man. When you’re young, you want to have a say. I was being told that since my particular say was out of fashion, I better shut up about it or I wouldn’t get a job or have a career and I could get into trouble. All of that moved me in the direction of getting into trouble.
Right after your time in the Army, you created “Munro” and “Boom,” and then in the late seventies there was “Tantrum,” but otherwise you haven’t done much of what we now call graphic novels.
My interest moved more towards theater. I loved doing “Tantrum,” which I realized, to my surprise, was going to be a one shot, because I wanted to write plays. I wanted to have people on stage, and I wanted to have them talk and confront each other and deal with each other in a way that you couldn’t in a comic strip. Or in what we now call a graphic novel. That simply was where my interests lay. I wanted to leave my cartooning to the six to ten panel form that I was doing every week, and the occasional longer piece. Because of the subject matter I wanted to cover, I had to work in a different form. How in the world could I have done “Carnal Knowledge” as a graphic novel? Or “Little Murders” as a graphic novel? It wouldn’t have had nearly the effect that either piece had.
One of things I found most fascinating in your memoir were your memories of Hugh Hefner and his insight as editor and reader of comics.
That’s a surprise to everyone. He was the most sensitive and persuasive cartoon editor that I have ever dealt with. Always friendly, always on your side, and as I say in the book, never trying to convert me to the “Playboy” angle or point of view.
You’ve found those attributes rare amongst editors and publications, then?
I think that answers that question!
Virtually nonexistent. Except at “[The Village] Voice” in the early years. The “Voice” is now an editorial paper the way that everything else is. You have to please the “Voice” editors instead of yourself, but Hefner, like the “Voic”e editors when I was starting out, was most interested in me getting out my own point of view, not theirs.
How were the “Voice” editors helpful in terms of helping you find your voice at the beginning?
They opened their space to me and said, “Do what you want.” That’s plenty of help. In those years nobody did that. Today nobody does, really.
To be fair, they also didn’t pay you, either.
No, they didn’t pay. But for me that was not the point. The point wasn’t to make a living, the point was to express myself. I figured, as I say in the book, that given a shot at expressing myself, everything else would fall into place. It turns out I was right about that.
As I was reading up about your career in preparation for this conversation, I came across someone who described you as a liberal cartoonist…
I never thought of myself as a liberal cartoonist.
Neither do I. I’m curious how you think of your politics?
I thought of myself as a radical. A political radical on the left. A left liberal, perhaps, but I was as critical of liberals [as conservatives], if you read the strips. Liberals were the people who told Martin Luther King Jr. not to move so fast. Liberals called King, in the early years of the Civil Rights Movement, an extremist, and they were concerned about him and that he was hurting the cause of his people. White liberals thought they understood what was better for the blacks than King and the members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. I was not that kind of liberal. Those liberals became my target.
The comment struck me because, you may be left of center, but your voice has been more contrarian, an opposition position born out of Howard Zinn’s famous line, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”
The opposition came naturally. The years of the Civil Rights Movement coincided with the years of Vietnam, which was another liberal war. It was the liberals who got us into Vietnam. They were also the intellectuals. The Bundys and the Rostows. Not to mention the most intellectual of them all, Henry Kissinger, later on. I thought that we were, in David Halberstam’s phrase, at the mercy of the best and the brightest, and this is what they gave us. Why do they expect us to sit still for it? In those years, they did. This is when people still trusted government. It’s hard to remember anymore. They said, listen to your betters. Listen to the experts. The experts knew, you don’t. You’re in the streets protesting because you don’t really know what’s going on. We know better. Well, it turns out the protestors knew better and the protestors were right.
You spent some time working for Will Eisner – did you remain on friendly terms with him once that point of your career was finished?
We had an acquaintance with each other. He was by that time up in Florida. He was living in White Plains for a while. A couple times a year we’d have dinner or lunch. We didn’t see much of each other, but were always on good terms.
What was it like working in the Eisner studio?
Like I say in the book, it was a very friendly, collegial atmosphere, all aimed at doing the best work possible. It was clear to those of us assisting Eisner that what he was doing was unique in comics. We had the admiration for him and awe of him that one would have for a man of his ability, and at the same time we had the same critical attitude one always has to one’s boss. So we were not loathe to talk behind his back, put him down, make fun of him, but at the same time, we had enormous respect for him.
You wrote in the book about so many of the people you worked with and on so many different projects, but I was disappointed that you didn’t write about working with Alain Resnais on the film “I Want To Go Home.”
That’s just one of the stories, as I say in the back, I just never got around to. It’s a wonderful story. Maybe some year I’ll write it. He was a sweet and marvelous man. The movie didn’t turn out that well, but the experience of working with him was quite wonderful. He loved comics, he was always generous to me and I had a great time.
Fantagraphics has been reprinting your work, lately. What did you think of them and how involved are you in putting the collections together? Do you go back and reread everything?
No, I don’t. I was most pleased with the ten year collection, “The Explainers.” I think that was the most successful of all of them. It’s the intention to continue. I haven’t made up my mind whether it will or not. I’d like to see them go that way, but I still haven’t looked at everything in that book. I’ve lived that past and I’ve worked in that past and I love a lot of the stuff in that past, but I have no need to go back to it with the intensity and time you would have to in order to read that book. I’ve got things I still want to do and that would take away from that time.
So, you don’t reread or revisit your work, for the most part?
Not that often, no. Most of my old stuff I don’t look at.
If I can have a vote, I would love to see the rest of the “Voice” strips…
I would love to see them done, too. As long as I don’t have to work on them. It could not possibly be one of my priorities. I’m eighty-one. I only have a limited amount of years to go and I would rather deal with my future than my past.
Along that line, we’re in a golden age of reprints, and you write in the book about the comics you grew up with and loved. Is there anything you’ve really enjoyed or rediscovered recently through the new proliferation of classic comics collections?
The reprints of the Walt and Skeezix books were a revelation to me, because when I was a kid, I found those daily strips rather boring. They were much too grown up for me, and now in my adult years I find that he was writing a novel, and it’s remarkably subtle in nuance and extraordinary work. The Sunday pages are unrivaled in their pictoral beauty.
I know that Fantagraphics is reprinting Roy Crane’s “Captain Easy” starting this year.
I think that’s great. All of the cartoonists of a certain age know him as a master. I certainly do. In particular in the daily strips that Crane paid the most attention to. He gave up the Sunday page to Les Turner, who was very good and drew like Crane, but he wasn’t Roy Crane.
I know you’re working on many books right now, including a new one with Norton Juster. Can you tell us anything about that?
It’s called “The Odious Ogre.” It’s about to go to press, and I think it’s probably the best piece of children’s illustration I’ve done so far and I’m very pleased that I did it for Norton. That was purely by accident. I had a great time. It’s only in recent years that I started illustrating other people’s work. Mostly my daughter Kate. I just did another book with her that Candlewick press is putting out.
Your last book with her, “Which Puppy?,” was done in what seemed like record time.
That was because Paula Wiseman, the editor and publisher, said, “We must have this book finished before the first hundred days are up.” Which meant I had to have the art done by the end of January. I learned this at the beginning of January. [Laughs] I went to my summer house on Martha’s Vineyard, which is technically heated, but not really. I turned up the heat, put on the oven, wore heavy clothes and started working away. The library gave me every picture book they had on dogs so I could start learning how to draw all these different varieties of dogs. [I was] only five miles from my daughter Kate, who was very helpful running errands and doing all the stuff for me that needed to be done so I could get the book done. It was a great experience. A lot of fun, but I was cold.
What else are you in the midst of that you can talk about?
I’ve written my first childrens picture book in a long time, which hasn’t been accepted yet, so I can’t talk about it. I have another idea for a book about humor during the Great Depression that I’m pulling together. I want to write another play. I have endless deadlines. It’s a very busy time. It’s great deal of fun to around these times. I’m teaching on a regular basis at Stony Brook Southampton every week, a class called Humor and Truth, which is a great delight for me.
So, did your Depression-era humor project start with your Humor and Truth class?
It began at Dartmouth last summer. They gave me a fellowship and I was teaching twice a week, a class that I designed called Graphic Humor in the Twentieth Century. One of the classes that got one of the biggest responses was the humor of the Depression years. I expanded that talk at Chicago’s Humanities festival last September, got a wonderful response and figured I’d better do a book on this.
I would be remiss if in the course of our conversation I didn’t ask where you think we stand politically as a country right now?
I voted quite enthusiastically for Obama. A lot of people got fed up the first year, but it’s his first year. He passed the health care bill, which I think is quite remarkable. Clinton thought he was surrounded by enemies and suffered a lot of self-inflicted wounds, but Obama really is surrounded by enemies called the Republican party, who are further and further to the right and further and further ridiculous. We’ll see how he does. But I am a great admirer and I have hope.
In times like these, I suppose that’s all any of us can do.
And to keep renewing that hope. There is so much sniping going on. These twenty-four hour news cycles give us less news of an interesting and different quality than they give us the same stories with the same panels of pundits who are generally as wrong now as they were during Vietnam. And like all pundits, the more wrong you are, the more promoted in your job you get.
You did a great piece for “The Village Voice” after the 2008 election – do you have plans on doing anything more for the “Voice?”
I never know. If an idea hits me, I will. [Laughs] I’m not the kind to work with a plan. Schedules are very few. I have no sense of organization. Never had any structure and discipline is a stranger to me, so it’s created many problems in my life. But it’s the only way I know how to work.
It’s worked out well, though!
It’s worked out well, but sloppily. And I trust in it.