An Interview with Jules Feiffer
Baby boomers had a habit of falling in love with satirists a few years older than themselves who disliked the counter-culture. When Woody Allen poked fun at “Just Like a Woman” in Annie Hall his audience forgot they loved Bob Dylan for a few moments. Robert Crumb preferred quiet blues to rock n’ roll though he is most famous for his cover of Big Brother and the Holding Company’s Cheap Thrills. Jules Feiffer was of a similar make, but his satire went well beyond a dislike for Dylan. He was deeply critical of the sexual revolution well before it began in strips he wrote for the Village Voice in ’50s and, when it was well underway, in his screenplay for Mike Nichols’s Carnal Knowledge (1971). He spent more energy attacking his white liberal neighbors for their complacency during the civil rights movement than Southern bigots for their brutality. He was terrified of the bomb. Stanley Kubrick in Dr. Strangelove saved his cruelest jokes for George C. Scott’s psychopathic General Buck Turgidson or Peter Sellars’s neutered president. But Feiffer, in his comic story “Boom!” (1959), focused as much on a populace that was disturbingly complicit in ensuring its own nuclear annihilation as on the demons with power.
Feiffer’s long career began with an apprenticeship to Will Eisner in the late ’40s. A celebrated comic story, “Munro,” (1959), about a four-year-old drafted into the army, was adapted into an Academy-Award-winning short. He illustrated Norton Juster’s beloved children’s book The Phantom Tollbooth (1961). The Man in the Ceiling (1993), which marked the beginning of a prolific phase as a children’s book author, tells the story of a boy who dreams of being a comic book writer. The Great Comic Book Heroes (1965), which was commissioned by E.L. Doctorow at Dial Press, was one of the first major studies of superheroes. Quentin Tarantino cribbed some of his meditations on Superman in Kill Bill Vol. 2. (Feiffer never saw the film and says he had no idea his work had been used.) He wrote a couple of plays that were directed by Alan Arkin. In 1956, Feiffer started writing a weekly strip in the Village Voice called “Feiffer” that would last through more than four decades. Last year, Fantagraphics released Explainers, the first of four books that will collect its entire run. He’s completed a memoir, Backing into Forward, due out next year.
Feiffer turned 80 in January. He was born in the Bronx and, except for a few summers on Martha’s Vineyard, has lived in New York his whole life. He keeps a spacious apartment on the Upper West Side; his studio is decorated with vintage comic strips and catches a partial view of the Hudson River. His oldest daughter Kate, 44, is a children’s book author herself. Her new book, Which Puppy?, was illustrated by her father. His middle daughter Halley, 24, is an actress who appeared in the film The Squid and the Whale. His youngest daughter, Julie, 14, was the focus for his book A Room with a Zoo (2005). He has a small brown one-eyed dog and a friendly black-and-white cat who kept us company for part of our interview on March 23. We began by talking about the Village Voice’s decision to discontinue publishing syndicated cartoons.
If you were starting out today do you know where you would have ended up?
I don’t have a clue, but I would have ended up somewhere. Young people have access to lots of forms that never existed before, as you know certainly better than I. There might not be any money in there, but there wasn’t any money when I started out either. I didn’t get paid for my work in the Voice for the first eight years of its publication. And only when Playboy came around and put me on a monthly account did I make any money. And that was $500 a month, which you can’t live on really. But that was the first money I ever made as a cartoonist.
When you were apprenticing to Will Eisner you didn’t get paid?
Well, he paid me $20 a week. He began with $10 a week. And then twenty.
But he didn’t pay you extra for the “Clifford” strip [which ran at the back of The Spirit comic books].
No, the “Clifford” strip was a bonus. He was doing me a favor. He didn’t offer to pay. Eisner had many virtues and brilliances, but, as he readily admitted, he was not free-spending with his money.
So it was a true apprenticeship.
Oh, absolutely. I went there. I’ve just written a memoir. This is all in there. I went to Eisner. I showed him my samples which he thought had no promise at all. And only when I started talking about his work and it was clear that I knew everything he had done, from the first thing that he had ever printed, that he got interested in me. He had men in the inner office working on The Spirit. There was a penciller named John Spranger and a letterer named Sam Rosen. All of these were good guys. All of [them] were very professional. And none of them had any interest in Eisner at all. This was just a job. And they actually thought Will’s stuff was rather old-fashioned. They just considered him old hat. And I considered him a great artist. And so essentially he hired me as a groupie. And then [he] had to find things that I could do and it turned out I couldn’t do anything. All the things I thought I could do I did terribly. This craft that I loved and was going to devote my life to -- [under] the terms I was interested in it [of] comic books and newspaper strips -- and having a brush line which used thick and thin with great facility… I couldn’t do that then and I can’t do that now. I was in love with a skill that it turned out I had no vocation for.
But there’s a self-portrait you did at 15 that appears in your Collected Works that shows a particular professionalism.
But my professionalism comes out of a different kind of line and a different kind of approach. That slick brush line. In… Eisner’s own work, it lacked the slickness, but had a fluidity and facility that gave it a dimension that most of these guys liked. I couldn’t even approximate [that]. I couldn’t even get close to it. This book here [points to Which Puppy?] is the first time I picked up a brush in 50 years because I was so spooked by my inability to do a comic book brush line.
There’s been a revival of Eisner’s work recently with Frank Miller’s film.
Did you see it?
I did. I didn’t like it. Did you see it?
I didn’t see it. I couldn’t imagine Frank Miller, who is remarkable in all sorts of ways, being the man to do The Spirit. His work has never shown the humor or the style or the irony or the wit or the lightness of touch.
Is he too aggressive in his violence?
It’s the general outlook. Will used the violence as a means to an end. When he did it he did it brilliantly. But he was much more interested in storytelling. And he talked about storytelling a lot. It was just a very different kind of sensibility.
You wrote some of the Spirit stories.
I wrote most of them from 1947 I guess to ’50. I guess I wrote them all. Not all of them, but most of them. I didn’t draw them. I laid them out, which means they were either followed or not followed. The process was that I would write them on paper, stationary. [I don’t know] if Will, after awhile, looked at that. And then I would transfer that to the finished pages. And do my own layouts and the dialogue. He’d go over it, he’d re-write, and he’d certainly re-lay it out. And then we’d go back and forth and sometimes we were in agreement and sometimes we weren’t. You can guess who won the disagreements. I was not even 20 yet and he showed an amazing generosity which I must say by the time I left I had forgotten about completely and was resentful whenever he changed my work.
But you didn’t make a career of superheroes. You wrote the critical book called The Great Comic Book Heroes and then The Man in the Ceiling which played with the idea of being a superhero writer. Did you consciously give up on that fantasy?
Well, you’re leaving out the army. The army was a transitional phase for me. It changed the direction of my life entirely and what I was interested in entirely. When I went into the army I was interested in emerging with a career like Al Capp’s [author of "Li’l Abner"]. Satirical in that vein. Or Crockett Johnson. Satirical in the way that “Barnaby” was. Or, in particular, Walt Kelly [author of “Pogo”] which I was madly in love with at the time. And that was my idea of the sort of career I wanted. And I fashioned what I hoped would be syndicated daily strips which I wrote and began to draw samples of and even submitted to syndicates but got nowhere. And they were gentle fantasies, mildly satirical. And there have been many examples of that kind of humor since. But nobody was doing it when I started out. And nobody wanted it when I started out. And it was okay. It probably would have developed into something good, but nobody wanted it. And so, getting no encouragement and no sales, I fastened on what I started to do in the army. I did “Munro” when I was still in the army. I did it as an outlet for the rage I felt and the loss of identity I felt being in the military, which is not uncommon when you are a soldier. Except in my case I never got over it and never forgave them. It loosened a rage in me that never surfaced before.
Were there particular moments in the military that enraged you that you remember?
Yes. January 1951 to January 1953. Those were the moments. Everyday I was enraged. Everyday I hated it. So much so that when they tried to promote me just as an automatic gesture to getting out, to raise your pay scale so you could get more, I refused to accept the raise in rank from private to Pfc.
When you were writing “Munro”in the army at what time of day were you able to do your work?
Well, when I was in the army doing “Munro” I had an office job in something called the Civilian Corps publication center, which was a civilian-run operation which employed GIs, run in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, during the heyday of McCarthyism. And the McCarthy committee came through not knowing that they had this nest of vipers in their midst. Because I looked very young, very boyish and very harmless. At the same time, I was writing this subversive attack on the military.
So you wrote this at your desk?
Yes, yes. With the full support of the man who supervised me, who was this illustrator who had a career that never took off in magazine illustration and this was his way of supporting the family. And his name was Perc Couse, who looked like a very daunting, formidable man. He had a deep voice and scary, but he turned out to be a very warm, lovely, generous-hearted fellow who thought I and another GI there named Harvey Dinnerstein were much too talented to waste our time on army stuff. So he let Harvey paint and he let me do my subversive satire. And I’m not sure he understood what I was doing, but after the war he certainly did. After we were out, he took great pride, because we remained great friends until his death. He took great pride in that work and great interest in my subsequent career. He and his family.
Do you feel that by doing comics which didn’t have much respect in the mainstream you were able to say what you wished to say?
There was no way of doing what I was doing in the mainstream. The mainstream was not interested in anyone with my opinions and certainly anyone working in the form I did. No one was working in the form I was working in at that time except me. I made up that form to fit the direction I was moving in. I didn’t know what I was doing. I knew what I had to do. I knew I needed an outlet for my political rage and I knew that in this time -- but it’s true of any time -- in this particular time of suppression, I had to be entertaining. I had to be funny. It couldn’t be a polemic. It couldn’t be, as one sees in alternative forms today, confessional moralizing. It had to in a sense be disguised as something else in order to make the point I wanted to make and also fit the talents that I had begun to learn at Will Eisner’s. So at the start -- and “Munro” was the start -- I started fooling with a form which was essentially narrative and long, and such things generally weren’t published. And it told what were considered subversive stories at the time if someone really got the point. And so I knew I was entering foolishly in terms of making a living, or in terms of a potential career, this field with no outlets at all. There was no books publisher, there were no comics publishers. There were no newspapers. And I tried all over. By the time I was trying this I had tried the more conventional routes. I had tried very hard to be a hack. I had tried very hard to have a traditional career. No one was interested in me doing that. When I went for broke I wasn’t risking anything. Nobody wanted me. Nobody wanted me respectable.
When you were going into the army you wanted to be a comic strip writer.
I grew up deeply in love as I am to this day with old newspaper comic strips. Going back to [Frank King’s] “Gasoline Alley” and E.C. Segar’s “Popeye” and Cliff Sterrett’s “Polly and Her Pals.” These are forms which when you look at today are as glorious now as they were then. And as artful. Maybe more so in comparison with what’s around today with the newspaper strip. The Sunday page used to have one strip on a page and now it has eight. And so that’s what I love. That’s what I wanted to do. These were my heroes. If I had been born, say, a generation earlier that’s probably what I would have ended up doing.
When you were growing up the form was artful and beautiful, but the strips were also rougher.
I was born in 1929. So the form itself was 35 years old when I was born. So it was still an emerging form in ’34, ’35 when I became aware of this stuff. It was still figuring out what it was and practicing. And the adventure strip had begun just a few years before with Roy Crane and “Wash Tubbs.”
But do you feel that comics today have become much slicker and look like they’ve been done by computer even when they actually haven’t been? Do you feel divorced from that?
I feel thoroughly divorced. What’s become interesting is the alternative forms, the graphic novels, which is a term I hate. Craig Thompson’s work in Blankets. Dan Clowes’s work. Art Spiegelman, of course. I’ve just gotten an extraordinary piece of work by David Small, who is a children’s writer. [He] has just done his first graphic novel and it’s called Stitches, which comes out next year. It’s a work of beauty. Just quite remarkable. This is stuff on a level that didn’t exist in the great years of the comic strips, newspaper strips. These are personal statements, but done in a form that’s based on the old tradition of a combination of newspaper strip and comic book. The storytelling techniques come right out of old comic books and come right out of movies.
Your strip in the Voice handled sex pretty blatantly for the ’50s. Huey and Bernard [two frequent characters in the strip] were the prototypes for Jonathan [the raffish Jack Nicholson character] and Sandy [the weak Art Garfunkel character] in Carnal Knowledge.
Yeah, that was never conscious. At the time I did it, I used to resent that comparison. I realize now that, of course, I couldn’t have done one without the other. Jonathan was never really Huey. He was more of a combination of Bernard and Huey. But the Garfunkel character was very much Bernard.
I know people who have seen Carnal Knowledge and are shocked to know you are the one who wrote it. The high tragic moment of the film is when the Ann-Margret character attempts suicide. I don’t know if it’s the way you wrote it or the way Mike Nichols directed it, but the camera follows Jonathan frantically running around his apartment, helpless and not knowing what to do.
“It’s not going to work, Bobbie.” Yeah.
You never have a moment like that in any of your comic strips or any of your long-form comic storytelling.
And I wouldn’t today. You might certainly see that in the graphic novels of someone else. Carnal Knowledge was first a play. We translated it into a screenplay because that’s what Mike wanted to do. What interested me in theater was that it allowed me and gave me a way to move in directions that, as far as I could see, the comic strip didn’t allow, didn’t call for. Other people have done that with comics, but that was not my interest in comics. It became my interest in theater. And before Carnal Knowledge there was Little Murders (1967),which explored things in our culture and dealt with them at a level of seriousness and prescience that I had never touched in a comic strip. I used theater for something else. Grown Ups (1982) -- I don’t know if you know that play -- is a very savage play. And in many ways more savage than Carnal Knowledge.
Your attitudes to sex and intimacy in Carnal Knowledge are similar to those that we see in your strip from the ’50s onwards. You seem to have a certain rage against the sexual revolution before it even got started.
Well, the point of the film, based on my life and my observation, was that -- and I still think is permanent -- is that heterosexual men didn’t like women. They liked sex. They liked pussy. But they didn’t like the conversation afterwards. They didn’t like the commitment. They didn’t like what women expected of them. They didn’t like the fetters. They wanted their freedom. While women wanted commitment. And by freedom they usually meant freedom to be miserable. I thought this had to be documented and nobody had ever done it. And that’s why the film struck such a chord, because as in the strips where I dealt with sex in the ’50s -- and also the politics too -- but particularly the sex, I was saying things that everyone knew but no one had ever recorded. Except for, about the same time as me, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, which is why we got along so well. What Nichols and May were doing in their sketches, in the clubs, and later television was essentially what I was trying to do in the comic strip.
“The Lonely Machine” was published in Playboy. But you were so against everything that Hugh Hefner stood for in that magazine.
Well, apparently. But Hefner was terrific about it. [He didn’t] try to shape me to the demands of his publication as every publication except for the Voice generally did. Whether you were working for Esquire or Harper’s or the Atlantic or the New Yorker they wanted you to be like them, with their sensibility. Hefner, when he sent me back notes, he sent me back richly-detailed notes, panel-by-panel breakdowns of what he liked and what he didn’t like. And it was never to change my point-of-view to his or to the magazine’s. But it was to make my argument stronger by strengthening what he thought was a weakness. And in many cases he was right.
Do you remember any particular case where he was right?
No, I can’t, but when he was wrong he let me have my way. Or when I thought he was wrong.
I interviewed Ted Rall a few years ago and from things he said I got the sense that he really appreciated having a platform of three cartoons a week which allowed him to say what he wanted to say about the Bush administration. Do you feel with everything that was going on in the last eight years that you had lost a platform by not writing your strip in the Voice?
It seems so transparent… Nobody was doing any Vietnam cartoons before I did. If you look at Explainers and you look at the civil rights stuff, to this day, there’s no work like that on race. It still isn’t as radical as the stuff in that book. And because of what I was doing on Vietnam, I helped recruit other cartoonists because nobody was doing it. But by the time Bush was president there was a whole generation of cartoonists, who were. Was I going to be stronger than Tom Toles? Was I going to be more vicious than Pat Oliphant? It didn’t seem that I was necessarily called for. I don’t have the arrogance to want to pretend that I’m out there and ahead of anybody else. But I wouldn’t have been and I couldn’t have been in this case. And there were other areas I wanted to work in. But there was certainly nothing I could say that would break new ground in regards to George W. Bush. I don’t think Ted Rall did.
You have a strip in the book on the history of the stereotype of the Yellow Peril [from being an evil Chinese stereotype before World War II, to a Japanese stereotype during, to a communist Chinese stereotype afterwards, to a Vietnamese-Chinese amalgam afterwards]. During World War II, there were several extremely racist portrayals of the Japanese.
Comics were very racist.
Did you recognize that at the time when you were a kid reading them?
It’s a good question. And I guess the answer would be yes I did and it didn’t particularly bother me. It bothered me more about blacks and racism. The big liver-lipped Negroes as they were portrayed in comics or, for that matter, movies [as with] Mantan Moreland. That clear racism bothered me. But there was very little sensitivity toward Chinese and none toward Japanese, who were buck-toothed and drooling out of the corners of their mouths. Or if you look at The Claw [a popular super-villain in Lev Gleason Publications]. He was this giant Oriental. I loved that strip. And I knew how racist it was, but I loved it anyway. But by the time Vietnam came along, this weird combination of my love for and part-time scholarship in regard to comics, and my interest in American history, particularly in the 20th century… these two things came together quite easily and it was easy to make these comparisons. The thing that drew attention to my cartoons was that most cartoonists at the time, with some exceptions, were just calling these shots as they saw them, week-by-week, or day-by-day, doing five a week. I was working actually from a more left perspective based on a radical analysis of U.S. history and, particularly from the mid-19th century on, from the Industrial Revolution on. And so I was putting them in a context while others were just calling individual shots.
You did one strip that showed a Klansman shaking the hands of a Black Power savage [which led to a whole piece discussing the racism of that image and the sources of that in previous images]. Was that referencing a particular cartoon at the time?
No. Cartoonists love that cartoon. Doug Marlette in particular was a fan of that cartoon. It was about how, not just cartoonists, but editorialists, were dealing with race in this country. The New York Times among others. Martin Luther King was considered an extremist. And his demonstrations were endangering the many white friends that the emerging civil rights movement had. That’s why most of my cartoons on race deal with attacks on white liberals. It was easy to go after the bigots. And I do that too from time to time. I mean, the open bigots. But it was the white liberals who were not being dealt with. So I felt it was important to do that. And there was a book published years ago called Feiffer on Civil Rights with Bayard Rustin, who was the organizer of the March on Washington, [writing] the introduction just talking at length about that.
To go back a bit, it’s curious to me that you hated the army so much. The people I know who feel that way tend to be people who’ve actually seen combat.
I could imagine the combat and I could imagine it happening to me. (laughs)
Was it the suggestion of this violence happening around you that you couldn’t actually see?
No, it was the mindless authority. From the time I was a kid and I would ask for explanations from my mother and she said, “because.” That world of people who could say “because” and get away with it -- starting with my mother and ending with George W. Bush -- has driven me crazy. And nobody did it better and more harmfully than the United States Army where you saw mindless authority run amok and proudly run amok. And smugly run amok. If my work is about anything at the beginning it is this counter-attack on mindless authority. It’s in “Munro,” the first piece of work. It’s in “Boom!” And it’s stretched over the years. And it’s in one guise or another in children’s books.
Did the impulse to write children’s books come from having young kids that you wanted to write something for?
I spoke about this before. But the real reason for doing anything is so mixed up in one’s psyche. But [I had] two kids at the time that I started this and now I have three. And having read to all of my children and having made up stories for all of them and drawn stories for all of them. Of course this was a world I knew something about, was interested in, loved some stuff, hated other things, never particularly thought of writing in this form. I had illustrated The Phantom Tollbooth many years earlier but that was because Norton Juster was my roommate in Brooklyn. It was long before I had children and I never thought of doing another one. And then a good and very old friend Ed Sorel said he had an idea for a kid’s book about a kid who loved old movies. But he didn’t want to write it. He told me the idea, I thought it was a lovely idea. And he wanted to illustrate it. And would I write it. And then as I started to write it we basically had many differences about what the book would be and really couldn’t get along on it at all. And finally he surprised me by saying that he was going to write it himself which pissed me off because… I had put in a lot of time in it by this time. So I said you do your book and I’ll do my book and my book will be better than your book. So basically it was spite that got me into the children’s book field. So Ed’s book was about a kid who loved old movies and it became a beautiful but not very well-written book called The Saturday Kid. But it’s a gorgeous looking book. So I said I couldn’t do a book about a kid who likes old movies. Ed’s got that. And then thinking about all the other things it became obvious that it was about a kid who loves comics and a kid who drew comics. And that’s how The Man in the Ceiling came about.
Do you sense that you have a more optimistic streak in your children’s books?
I don’t think it’s more optimistic. It’s more playful. There’s always been a more playful side to me that I would say my work, my cartoons, and certainly the theater with few exceptions, didn’t allow for. There’s one play called Knock Knock (1976), which is very playful. There are elements of playfulness in a few of the others, particularly Alan Arkin in the way he staged The White House Murder Case (1970). It was wildly funny and playful. But it was a very dark piece and certainly didn’t come out of the playfulness. Kids’ books allowed me to let out what my children and my friends saw but my readers and my theater audiences never got a look at which was this other side of me. What I loved about it, in addition, was it allowed me to go back to my roots and take off from the Sunday supplements I loved as a kid. Because books like Meanwhile… (1997) and books like The House Across the Street (2002) are basically cribbed from the Sunday comics that I read as a kid.
You’re reverting back to infancy in old age.
I’m going back to my major influences at six or seven.
It’s almost like a strip you did in Explainers about the progression of culture, in which a man talks about loving comics as a child, [then movies, novels, poetry, opera,] and then finally comics again.
Yeah, except the difference is there I dismissed these child-like things as childish and now I think many of these child-like things are infinitely sophisticated and elegant. Who’s more elegant than Winsor McCay [author of “Little Nemo in Slumberland”]? What is more elegant than a Sunday page by Frank King? Or Cliff Sterrett? When I look at that stuff it remains a joy to look at and it remains a challenge for me to find my own way of expressing myself in their tradition.