Bookforum talks with Jules Feiffer

A twentieth-century cultural icon, Jules Feiffer started publishing his regular comic strip Sick, Sick, Sick—later known simply as Feiffer—in the Village Voice in 1956. (It was collected with the fantastic title Sick, Sick, Sick: A Guide to Non-Confident Living in 1958.) Feiffer broke into the comics world in the 1940s as an assistant and later a writer for the famed cartoonist Will Eisner. Feiffer’s strip, which ran for 42 years, came to define the exuberant political ethos of the Voice and opened the door for the existence of alternative comics. He became a public intellectual; ranging across the arts, with the capacity to be both amusing and devastating, Feiffer wrote nonfiction, novels, plays, screenplays (Carnal Knowledge, directed by Mike Nichols, starred a young Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel), and an early format graphic novel (Tantrum, in 1979, about a man in his forties who wills himself back into being a baby). His witty memoir Backing into Forward, published in 2010, opens with his Bronx childhood: Feiffer rejects his mother’s kugel on page one. He is currently completing a long original graphic novel titled Kill My Mother—a title that would have also suited his pull-no-punches memoir.

Feiffer continues to reinvent the medium, teaching himself in his eighties, by his own account, new features of comics storytelling. He was kind enough to let me descend upon him in early July at his house in Southampton, where he showed me finished pages from Kill My Mother, which will be published next year by W.W. Norton.

Bookforum: What other people have won an Academy Award, an Obie Award, and a Pulitzer Prize? That’s hitting all the bases.

Jules Feiffer: What I’ve found is that if it was a form that I loved as a kid, by the time I was 11 or 12, I could learn how to do it. Anything after that I couldn’t do. I loved theater, I loved movies, I loved old-time radio and radio dramas, and of course I loved comics.

I had made my bones at the Village Voice [as a cartoonist], and had become successful and famous. It was the thing that gave me the courage to become more dangerous. By the mid-’60s, when I was very accepted, I thought I was getting too accepted. I thought that I was becoming like a dry martini; I was too comfortable to be with in my rebellion. I was not being understood the way I wanted to. And that ended with Kennedy being assassinated, and I got the idea for Little Murders (1967), which is what launched me into theater.

Bookforum: It seems to me like you invented the whole idiom of what people would call “alternative cartooning” or “independent cartooning” or “literary cartooning.” Tell me how that started.

Jules Feiffer: Well it probably started because of Will Eisner. When I worked for him, we’d talk endlessly about how comics is an artform. Which he, in his later years, claimed he believed, but in fact he didn’t—he scoffed at it.

Bookforum: Really?

Jules Feiffer: Well, what brought him back to life is I wrote about him in The Great Comic Book Heroes [in 1965]. I loved doing that book. But that was the idea of the editor of the book, a man named Edgar Doctorow.

At the time Doctorow edited my book [for Dial Press], he had just finished his novel Welcome to Hard Times; I remember we talked about it. And he really guided me. When he didn’t like what I was doing, he would tell me and be so precise that it was impossible not to agree with him, and I would go and rewrite. He was terrific to work with.

I moved into writing plays, and writing novels, and in the end doing a couple of movies—but the movies were just either to make money, or, with Carnal Knowledge (1971) and Little Murders (1971), to finish something that I started. Carnal Knowledge I think is the best thing I’ve ever done in any form.

Bookforum: The range of directors that have worked on your projects in the movies is incredible.

Jules Feiffer: Alan Arkin, who directed Little Murders, and Robert Altman, who’s a genius but a pain in the ass.

Bookforum: How?

Jules Feiffer: He didn’t go for scripts. He used the script to raise the money to shoot whatever film he wanted to. He wanted to do it all. When we had a choreographer on Popeye, he just ignored the choreographer and he directed the dancing, which is why it was so awful. And he was in competition with Robin Williams, which is why Robin doesn’t come off stronger on the screen than he did.

And yet he made an interesting film! And a lot of that film works. I was lucky to work with wonderful people. I also did a film with Alan Resnais.

Bookforum: That’s what I meant about the range!

Jules Feiffer: It seems like heady stuff, and of course it was heady. But primarily, it was work I was interested in and work I loved and work that was challenging, and problems that had to be solved, and how to make something better, and how you get it right, not in the first place or second, third, or fifteenth place.

What you learn when you work with first-rate people, whether it’s Mike Nichols or Arkin, is that they are, invariably, except for Altman, less temperamental and less difficult than second-rate people, who always make a problem. The first-rate people are never defensive. And they are quite willing and happy to blame themselves when things get fucked up.

When Nichols was producing my play Grown Ups (1981), it wasn’t working in previews. Mike thought I should cut a specific scene that I thought was very important. But I have total respect for Mike. And I knew if I argued with him, it would get contentious, and he would be convinced he was right, and I would be convinced I was right. So I cut it. And what I thought was, once he sees it on the stage with the cuts in, he will know. He saw it with the cuts in, he came back and he said, “You were right, put it back in.”

Bookforum: Good strategy—I’m taking notes!

Jules Feiffer: It was never about his ego. He didn’t have to be right—the work had to be right.

Bookforum: Did you feel that way about Eisner?

Jules Feiffer: Yes. Well, Eisner was a mixed bag, because he was a cartoonist when comic books were in very bad order. The notion today that comic books have outlasted the newspaper comic strip, which was a glorious form when Eisner was a boy, and when I was a boy... I mean, the newspaper strip was an exalted form.

Eisner, who in some ways was very much the boss, was often not the boss at all. When he and I had conversations, they were real exchanges. He was smart, and he seemed to respect me. I was with him for three or four years, 17 to about 21. And I was a snotty kid. I was a Jewish wiseguy from the Bronx. Not necessarily respectful, although in awe of him. I didn’t know how to behave in any other way. I cannot believe some of the things I said to him.

Bookforum: Like what?

Jules Feiffer: Well, the way I got to ghostwrite his strip The Spirit. I had read The Spirit from the very beginning, from the time I was a little boy. And I thought, after Eisner got out of the Army in ’46 and resumed the strip, that the artwork blossomed. But I thought the stories were falling off. And Eisner himself was losing interest. He wanted to be an entrepreneur.

Bookforum: An entrepreneur in what way?

Jules Feiffer: He wanted to be a magazine publisher. He put out a magazine called American Angler, about fishermen. He put out a sports magazine. Henry Luce was his idea.

Bookforum: He wanted an empire?

Jules Feiffer: Well, he was a snob about the comics. He had no currency, no clout, as a cartoonist. No one took him seriously. And he wrote about having a conversation with somebody at a party, and it was an interesting conversation, the guy asked what he did and he told him, and the guy walked away.

Bookforum: These are the stories that you hear about in some ambient sense, but I’ve actually never heard about when they actually happened.

Jules Feiffer: Yes, and if they did happen, who knows. Or whether it happened quite that way. But he was very sensitive and defensive. So he was very proud of the work he did in the Army, because it was for the Defense Department. And I hated that work, because it was for the Defense Department.

But as I read The Spirit it seemed to me the art was great and the stories were just getting ... not very interesting. And being a schmucky kid, I said to him, “You used to be such a better writer, why don’t you go back to being the good writer you used to be?” [Laughter] And instead of being outraged, which he had every right to be, and firing me, which he had every right to do, he said, “Well, if you think you can do better, why don’t you write one?” So I went home and overnight wrote one. I laid it out in pen—a seven-page Spirit story. And he said, “This is better. We’re gonna do it.” And from that point on, either on my own or collaborating with him on ideas, I was primarily the writer.

I couldn’t believe the level of generosity and, as a snotty Jewish kid from the Bronx at that age, I couldn’t help but take advantage of it and abuse it.

Bookforum: So when did Eisner switch over to thinking about comics as an artform?

Jules Feiffer: Well, he began emerging again as a result of The Great Comic Book Heroes. New York magazine hired him to write a Spirit story.

Bookforum: Was he grateful to you?

Jules Feiffer: No, because by that time I was more famous than he was.

Bookforum: Wasn’t he also a schmucky Jewish kid from the Bronx?

Jules Feiffer: Yes, but he was a schmucky Jewish kid from the Bronx who could draw a lot better than I could. And he simply couldn’t understand how I had gotten this attention. I don’t blame him. So we would be, on the surface, very, very friendly, but he would always give me a shot. He would always say something, I couldn’t draw, this or that. Or that I got lucky—of course I got lucky! But he couldn’t understand why it didn’t happen to him and happened to me. He wanted the acceptance from the grown-ups that I was hanging out with, the literary intellectuals, with the Plimpton crowd and people like that, and with old-time Partisan Review socialists like Dwight Macdonald. These were all my friends. And this was a world he never got into.

Bookforum: It seems like you were the first cartoonist to hang out with the grown-ups, right? Trying to understand the picture of comics in the 20th-century, how did that happen?

Jules Feiffer: I think the answer to your question is yes and no. Have you read the magazine The Masses? Max Eastman began The Masses [in 1911]. And he got John Sloan, and he got George Bellow, and he got this man over here [gesturing to an image on the wall], Robert Minor. And these were socialists and communists. I think all these guys hung out with the writers. Back then, before the first World War, they were opposed to it, and they got put on trial by the government for that. In those years, I think if you were a radical, and you were in opposition to what was happening, you hung out with each other; artists and intellectuals were part of a radical group.

In the '50s, under McCarthyism, where there was great repression, Plimpton formed this umbrella organization, mostly writers of different stripes, where he invited lots of people. One of them was then the new theater critic for the New Yorker, Ken Tynan. Tynan had to come over from England, where he was the most famous theater critic in the country, writing for the London Observer.

Before Tynan came over, when he was still at The Observer, my then-agent, who was an Anglophile, wrote to Tynan and asked him if he would write the introduction to the British edition of my book Sick, Sick, Sick. I had started appearing in England, in the Observer, the very paper that Tynan wrote for. And I had become, actually, at that time, a lot more famous in England. The intellectuals picked me up because it was an intellectual paper. And Tynan wrote this glorious introduction to the book. I didn’t know him; I had never met him.

But when Nichols and May, who were friends, were going to do a one-shot show at Town Hall before they did their Broadway show, I was standing on line to pick up tickets. I had seen Tynan on television, and I heard his voice, and he was in front of me or behind me, whatever. I introduced myself, and he was very, very friendly, and he invited me to dinner with a few friends afterwards, and those few friends were George Plimpton and Peter Matthiessen, and all of these guys who would later become famous as literary intellectuals, and a woman named Judy Sheftel, who later became my wife. So it was Tynan, basically, who brought me into the party.

Bookforum: All sorts of different parties, especially if he introduced you to your wife!

Jules Feiffer: And Plimpton would throw these parties every week or so, and so you met everybody. It was very heady stuff for me, and I was very, very excited about it. Of course, I thought, “But I’m a cartoonist, how can they accept me?” But they did. And I began to accept the fact that I was accepted.

And then I started meeting a lot of other people through other means. It just seemed that what I was doing in the Voice was not like any comic strip they had ever seen. At the Plimpton parties they would deny I did a comic strip. They insisted, these intellectuals, that it was a column, an essay—it couldn’t be a cartoon because cartoons were beneath their contempt. So they had to re-label what I was doing. I’d say, “No, I’m a cartoonist, I do a comic strip.” And they knew I was wrong, because how can they respect it, and how can it mean something to them, if it was a comic strip?

Bookforum: So how did you get the idea for your Voice strip?

Jules Feiffer: The army politicized and radicalized me in a way that, had I not gone into the army, may not have ever happened. So it was pure zeitgeist and pure luck that I came along at the right time to say things that nobody else was saying, to know how to be funny about them and entertaining about them, but to make people listen. By that sleight of hand, you draw them in, you’re not threatening in the beginning, you don’t yell, you make it charming, you make it fun, you draw as little as possible so they don’t get scared by the graphics, and you hit them with the dialogue.

Bookforum: So if you were saying to all the Plimpton people that it was a comic strip and it wasn’t a column, or an essay, did you know that you were inventing a new idiom?

Jules Feiffer: Sure I knew. And of course, I loved that. But I didn’t think that inventing a new idiom was important. I certainly didn’t see Spiegelman in the offing, or Chris Ware or anybody. For me, I was saying things about the country I lived in that were terribly wrong, and I was saying things about relationships that were all screwed up, and I was saying things that nobody else was saying, and I needed to say them.

I wasn’t trying to prove anything, I was just expressing something. Because always, with the politics and the storyline, I had something I had to say. And if I couldn’t say it in a six-panel strip I had to find another form to say it in. That’s why I wrote Little Murders, this play that became a movie. What I saw happening after Kennedy’s assassination was a breakdown of every form of authority that used to be highly respected and iconic. I couldn’t say it in any other form, so I became a playwright. And when the play came out, this is true, of all the people who told me I wasn’t actually a cartoonist—the critic sees the play, and said, “It’s not a play, it’s a Feiffer cartoon.”

Bookforum: You’re getting it from both sides! How much do you think Vietnam and 60s politics influenced comics in general?

Jules Feiffer: I think a lot. I think without Vietnam, without the 60s, without the civil rights movement, without the whole country being torn about – if we lived in a 50s America still, or 40s America, you wouldn’t see this stuff. But already the signs were there. It always interested me: the noir movies, which were GIs coming home and finding their girlfriend betrayed them or their best friend had made a million dollars and run off with the girlfriend—they were full of coming home not to happiness and love—“We won the war!”—but to something dark and brooding, and rough and betrayal and double-crossing. It was already in there in the 40s.

Bookforum: What was it like working for the Voice and working for Playboy at the same time?

Jules Feiffer: The Voice was an extension of myself and I liked the people who I dealt with. Hefner could not have been friendlier and more open, but at the same time I very much condescended to the magazine and I didn’t think the work I was doing was really my best work. Years later, I discovered, when I looked at it...

Bookforum: It was really good.

Jules Feiffer: In fact, it was terrific stuff. But I was such a fucking snob. Hefner let me speak my own point of view, and when he didn’t think it was strong enough, or that I wasn’t getting enough out of the strip when I sent the rough in, he would make suggestions to make it even stronger, even if it was an anti-Playboy point of view. He supported me in making the strip from my point of view rather than his own or the magazine’s.

Bookforum: What about the Voice?

Jules Feiffer: I think the zeitgeist was right. I’d go to publisher after publisher, who would always love the books I was working on, but they’d say, “We can’t market it. Nobody knows who you are. It’s not commercial, what you’re saying. It’s too strong. If you were famous....” Basically they were telling me I had to be James Thurber or Saul Steinberg to be published. And all of these editors had The Village Voice on their desks, which had begun six months or a year earlier. So I started picking up The Voice. I thought, “If I appear in this paper, that’s what these guys read. If they see me in the paper, they’ll think I’m famous and they’ll publish me.” And that’s exactly what happened.

Bookforum: What is Kill My Mother, your graphic novel in progress, about?

Jules Feiffer: It’s not an autobiographical book by any means. The book is in two parts. The first part of the book is 1933. And it’s called “Bay City Blues.” Part two is called “Hooray for Hollywood,” and it starts in the South Pacific, during the war. Then it goes to Hollywood. My character Elsie will fall in love with a movie star, and he with her. They become an important part of the story. Her daughter, who we met ten years earlier, is now a very successful radio comedy writer. The problem is that the guy who the radio show is based on is in the South Pacific and he’s threatening to sue her because she’s using his name. She’s outraged about it and the network biggies say she has to join a USO tour to this island in the South Pacific to get him to sign a release.

It’s a noir. Writing The Spirit was not hard for me to do because I loved Hammett, I loved Chandler, I loved Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep and the movies that came out of it. I must have seen Double Indemnity fifteen times by now.

Bookforum: I own it. On VHS, though.

Jules Feiffer: I do too. But when it comes on Turner Classics, I still watch it. And the same thing with The Maltese Falcon. And they get better.

So I had been teaching at Dartmouth. I had a grant—which was the grant that got me out of my marriage. Because the nine weeks I took there, people were so nice and I got such recognition and I was so happy.

I had a young assistant, who was quite brilliant, and a wonderful artist. I thought “I think I’ll write a graphic novel and she’ll illustrate it. Because she can’t write, but she draws like a dream.” I thought it would center on women, because she was women-centric. And then the more I got into it, the less interested she was. Because it was my story and not hers, and she wanted to do her own work, so she backed out. So finally I had this long book, written in dialogue and text, and panel breakdowns, and I didn’t know who was going to draw. And it was done in a style that was realistic, like Eisner or Caniff-style realistic, and that’s not my style. I thought, “I don’t want to draw this, it will take years out of my life. I want to do other things.” W.W. Norton was interested in the book. I said, “I’ll just draw a couple sample pages to show them what I think it should look like, with somebody else doing it.” So I did the sample pages and they loved them, and I became the artist on the book.

Bookforum: They convinced you?

Jules Feiffer: I thought this is going to kill me within a year, and I’m now in the third year of doing this. But I’ve had more fun doing it than anything I’ve ever done.

Bookforum: How has it been working on it?

Jules Feiffer: It’s all black and white, with tones of blue and yellow. Just as in a movie, I started editing and cutting. Over and over again, the writing became different, because the form, the drawing, decided what the writing should be on the page. Which is what I love about comics—it’s words and pictures. And however perfect it was as text, it changed as soon as I started drawing.

And this is black and white because the movies were black and white. This is influenced by the look that I felt—and it was black and white strips that I loved as a kid, the daily strips. Just talking to you about it, as soon as I start talking about old comics I go mushy inside. I never outgrew.... When I read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, I fell apart.

I remember reading, on a beach chair, a passage about Kavalier or Clay and his feelings about the form. And I began to cry, because it took me back to my first impressions, maybe seven, eight, or nine, of how I felt about comics, and Chabon had caught it.

Bookforum: He did an astonishing job of describing the way comics works.

Jules Feiffer: Chabon told me when we met that when he was in the middle of writing the book, a friend of his called him up and said “Feiffer has a eulogy in the Sunday Times magazine on Jerry Siegel, you better read it.” It’s where I talked about the Jewish roots behind comics. And Chabon said to me, “I could’ve killed you.” (Laughter).

Bookforum: Did he interview you a lot for that book?

Jules Feiffer: No, no, I read the book, I wrote him a fan letter, he wrote me back saying he was a fan of mine. I realize he did homework from The Great Comic Book Heroes all throughout, but he actually quotes me. He does something really ... mischievous. He quotes me as saying something...

Bookforum: In the book?

Jules Feiffer: In Kavalier & Clay! As Jules Feiffer said, and he quotes a quote I never said and wouldn’t have said. He made up a quote for me that I never said, but all through the book there are things, I began to realize, he couldn’t have known without me, that came from The Great Comic Book Heroes.

Bookforum: That’s amazing. And then he attributed something to you that you didn’t actually say, and you weren’t pissed?

Jules Feiffer: No, I thought it was hilarious!

Bookforum: So how do you break down your pages? How do you go about making the composition of the page?

Jules Feiffer: I do a lot of roughs. I do something entirely different when I get to the finished page.

It’s learning how to present it. I didn’t know how to do any of this stuff before I started this book, and I didn’t think in these terms. I thought comic strip is a comic book and you do little panels. And then you get all these ideas about how to present it, how to make it look interesting, how to draw the reader in.

Bookforum: [Looking through original pages from part one of the book] Do you usually work at this size [11” x 17”]?

Jules Feiffer: No! And this is the first airplane I’ve ever drawn in my life. And I never knew how to draw cars. So I had to do endless research—my cartoons never had backgrounds, so I’m doing backgrounds like crazy now.

Bookforum: There’s so much variety, in terms of some of the pages having panels, some of the pages having only one image.

Jules Feiffer: And that’s the whole idea. To give it a rhythm.

Bookforum: And the text appears in all sorts of different places.

Jules Feiffer: And it’s all storytelling. The drawings can’t show themselves off. They have to be connected to everything in the story. They have to build with the story. This whole thing was an education and it continues to be. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing at the time I did it, and it either worked or it didn’t and I’d do it over again. When it would work, I’d know. And when it wouldn’t, I’d know.

Bookforum: How much does your work in theater and your work in film influence the way you tell stories in words and pictures?

Jules Feiffer: I showed this to my daughter, Halley, and she said, “What’s great about this is everything you’ve ever done is in here. It’s your comics, your playwriting, your screenwriting, it’s all in here.” Because the dialogue is not what you see in comics. It’s what you see in theater or a good cable series. It’s real playwriting.

Bookforum: You mean it’s distilled? Condensed?

Jules Feiffer: It’s distilled but it’s the way people talk to each other, and how they go back and forth.

Bookforum: I think people often don’t realize how labor intensive comics is as a form.

Jules Feiffer: Well, particularly with the alternative forms today.

Bookforum: Chris Ware’s Building Stories that just came out took ten years.

Jules Feiffer: Talk about labor-intensive. Little boxes with little dialogue you could hardly read, and all of it is gorgeous. He doesn’t make a false move.

Bookforum: He’s one of these people who is also obsessed with the history of comics.

Jules Feiffer: Well, he got me to pay attention to Frank King. Frank King didn’t mean much to me when I was a kid and reading Gasoline Alley. Then the collection of Sunday pages came out [Sundays With Walt and Skeezix, designed by Ware] and it just blew me away.

And Frank King taught me something about laying out Kill My Mother. I learned from him, as I learned from the movies and Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates, and Eisner—I don’t know if you see Eisner in this, but I do.

Bookforum: I can see it.

Jules Feiffer: What makes me so happy is that I’m now in my 80s and I’ve gone back to what I love the most, more than anything in the world, from the age of five. I’m redefining and reinterpreting it, but it’s the same form, it’s words and pictures. I’m still imitating the people I loved back then, whether it’s Caniff or Eisner or Frank King or others. I’m still learning lessons from them. So it takes me back to my childhood, which I hated, but this is the part of it I loved. It never stops having a meaning to me, because it’s like full circle.

Hillary Chute is the author of Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics (Columbia University Press, 2010). Her book of interviews with cartoonists, Outside the Box, will be published in Spring 2014 by the University of Chicago Press.