Back in the ’50s, Jules Feiffer foresaw a time when the comic strip would be a medium for serious, adult expression. He may yet live to see the day.
Feiffer was born in 1929 in the Bronx section of New York. Growing up in a liberal household, he had to sneak off to friends in Hearst paper or Daily News-reading homes to follow his favorite comic strips. Newspaper comics eventually led him to comic books, and his love for comics translated into a burning desire to be a cartoonist. As a child he drew his own full size comic books which he would then trade with his friends (though they only counted as half a comic because they weren’t “real”). In 1946 he found his first job as a cartoonist as an assistant to his idol, Will Eisner. In 1947 he was granted the back page of the Spirit section for Clifford, a kid strip that prefigures Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes in its charming and sympathetic child’s-eye view of childhood.
In 1951 Feiffer was drafted, and his experience with capricious authority radically changed his point of view about himself and his work. While in the army he began Munro, a satire about a five-year-old boy mistakenly drafted into the army, and the army’s unwillingness to admit a mistake. It would eventually be made into an Academy Award-winning animated film, but at the time there was no place in the publishing industry for it. For the next several years Feiffer worked at uninspiring commercial art jobs while honing his cartooning skills. In 1956 he offered to do a weekly strip for the Village Voice for free. That strip was Sick, Sick, Sick a weekly dissection of popular neuroses, both social and political. Though he received no pay, he hoped to gain notoriety, and he succeeded better than he could have dreamed. It did not pay the rent, however, and before notoriety turned into a salary he did a stint at Terrytoons, then supervised by Gene Deitch, who would later direct the animated version of Munro. While there Feiffer developed Easy Winners, an animated television series about city children that was never produced. Sick, Sick, Sick was picked up by the prestigious London Observer, and in 1958 Playboy offered Feiffer $500 a month to draw comics for them. In 1959 the Hall Syndicate picked up Feiffer’s strip for syndication. During this period “sick humor” had become quite the bete noire to publications like Time and Newsweek, and Feiffer had become tired of the misunderstandings, so the title of the strip became simply Feiffer.
A critic once called Feiffer’s characters “explainers.” Though by no means do all of his strips follow this pattern, the prototypical Feiffer strip features a character—man, woman, boy, girl, or politician—staring point blank at the reader, explaining his dilemmas or justifying his actions, ironically, bitterly, ingenuously, mendaciously, or, as often as not, in a state of confusion. His style has been imitated often but seldom successfully. He became in all probability the most widely read satirist in America. Over the years he has branched out into other media. He has two novels published, Harry the Rat With Women and Ackroyd. In 1965 he wrote The Great Comic Book Heroes, one of the earliest books giving respect for comic book creators. It also helped bring Will Eisner’s work back into the public eye after years of obscurity. He wrote the screenplay for Carnal Knowledge, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Jack Nicholson, Art Garfunkel, Candice Bergen, and Ann-Margret, which became one of the biggest hits of the ‘70s. In 1979 Knopf published Tantrum, a cartoon novel about a 42-year-old man who turns himself into a two-year-old boy. Producer Robert Evans asked him to write the screenplay to the Popeye movie, directed by Robert Altman and starring Robin Williams and Shelly Duvall, which Feiffer made faithful to the original E.C. Segar version of the character.
But his second true love is the theater, and his plays include The White House Murder Case, Little Murders (also filmed), Knock, Knock, Grown-Ups (also staged for video), and Feiffer’s People. As of this writing he has two plays in production, his latest Elliot Loves, in Chicago, and Carnal Knowledge in Houston. His latest screenplay is to be directed by Alain Resnais. His current cartoons are still published weekly in the Village Voice (now for pay) and syndicated by Universal Press. His recent cartoons are collected regularly by UPS’s publishing branch Andrews, McMeel & Parker, the latest being Ronald Reagan in Movie America. Later this year Fantagraphics Books will begin Feiffer: The Collected Works, which will reprint all his cartoons from 1949 to 1982, along with plays, screenplays, magazine articles, and other writings.
GARY GROTH: I was trying to think of some way to organize this interview, so—
JULES FEIFFER: Forget it.
GROTH: Because your career ranges around. I thought at least to give me a coherent state of mind, I might want to start at the beginning and move forward chronologically. I know you grew up in the Bronx.
GROTH: You were a comic book fan when you were a child?
FEIFFER: Yeah. But more newspaper strips. Much more. I felt comics were a good way of collecting newspaper strips I’d missed. As I say in The Great Comic Book Heroes I had to steal newspapers, the Daily News and the Hearst press, from other neighbors’ garbage cans or befriend kids who I didn’t particularly like in order to get their papers. To see Terry and the Pirates, we’d have to get the Daily News, which my family wouldn’t allow in the house. I came from a New Deal Democratic family and they considered Captain Patterson, who ran the News, and Hearst to be anti-Semites and racist and all of those other things. And they weren’t far off the mark by any means.
GROTH: Do you see some sort of an advance between somebody like, for example, a master like Caniff, and someone like Spiegelman, who’s using the form for a much more personal vision?
FEIFFER: I think that Spiegelman goes back to an earlier form of cartooning than Caniff’s. If you look at the old daily newspaper strips, you know, Chicago Tribune comics of the ‘20s and ‘30s, and the work of Harold Gray, and the work of Sidney Smith, it’s more in that tradition. I think it has less to do with Milton’s work than this earlier form of comic writing and drawing.
FEIFFER: Loved it. And I loved Sidney Smith’s work.
GROTH: Do you like Chester Gould?
FEIFFER: I loved the drawing. I thought that Dick Tracy was exciting, but quickly got bored with it.
GROTH: I assume you have to overlook the politics on both Annie and Tracy.
FEIFFER: Oh, I don’t care. It never bothered me one way or the other. Gray’s right-wing politics was far less of a problem for me than Al Capp’s because Gray had right-wing politics, but he wasn’t a mean-spirited man. What was disturbing about Capp’s right-wing politics was that it was done within the context of a rotten guy. He was simply mean, nasty, angry. Angry without generosity of spirit. And I must say, without integrity.
GROTH: Now, could you admire that work in some way, notwithstanding that?
FEIFFER: I admired it in the early days, because I could admire the craft of Li’I Abner back in the ‘40s and ‘50s. The writing and the stylization and the drawing, which is a little stiff, but still I always loved his line. His pen line. And his characters. It was great fun. But it was nasty. Capp was one of my boyhood heroes along with Kelly and Caniff and Eisner, but Capp really got increasingly bitter, and his work changed. As his bitterness took over, the quality of the work declined, and then I simply stopped reading it. I used to save Li’I Abner. They were part of my treasures.
GROTH: I wanted to ask you if you could talk just a little bit about Caniff, because I know you admire him.
FEIFFER: He and Capp were very great friends, and they were card-carrying opposites. Capp as I said was ungenerous, while Caniff was the most generous cartoonist, and one of the most openly kind men I’ve met anywhere. Without being a wimp. You felt that he had real character and real strength, but he was fine in every aspect of the meaning of that word. Just simply a fine man. Very supportive of me from the beginning. But I’m not describing him this way because of that. I’ve seen him with others. He was, that old-fashioned word, a gent. If there ever existed an elder statesman of the cartoon profession, he was its only example that I can think of.
GROTH: And his work?
FEIFFER: I loved Terry. Terry was for me a formative work. It taught me a lot, I adored it, I lived off the storytelling. I never latched onto Steve Canyon in the same way. It didn’t have the same emotional pull for me. And maybe that was because I was hooked on Terry when I was younger and somehow couldn’t make the same attachments because I was too old. Whatever the reasons, I was not that much of a follower of Steve Canyon. The artwork, I felt, was extraordinary, but the storytelling didn’t work for me nearly as well. Same is true for Roy Crane, who I was a great fan of in Wish Tubbs and gave up on Buz Sawyer.
GROTH: Did you like Noel Sickles’ work?
FEIFFER: Yes, just brilliant. But again, not in the same league. A better graphic artist than Caniff, but not a comic artist the way Caniff was. He didn’t put it all together the way that Caniff did.
GROTH: Did Crane and Caniff influence you?
FEIFFER: Oh, Crane very much. Caniff less so. Crane to this day is an influence. He was the true comic artist. I love the way he did characters in action, running around, jumping. And early Caniff stuff is very influenced by Crane. I think everybody, one way or another, for years was influenced by Crane.
GROTH: Were there other high points for you in the early strips?
FEIFFER: Oh, there were a lot, because I adored Abbie an’ Slats, Raeburn van Buren’s strip. The drawing, which I felt was absolutely wonderful, was no influence on me, because it was much more an illustrative style, which I wasn’t interested in, except as a reader. Not in terms of my own work. But it was a beautifully rendered cartoon. It was years before I knew that Al Capp wrote it in the earlier years. And I thought the combination of writing and drawing was simply perfect. I thought it was a perfect comic strip. It was the equivalent, I’ve written about this elsewhere, the equivalent of what Preston Sturges and in a sense Frank Capra were doing in the movies. So there was that. And there others that I liked. Ella Cinders was a strip that I was very fond of, in the ‘40s, and into the ‘50s. I liked the way it was drawn, I liked the storytelling.
GROTH: How big an effect did Pogo have on you?
FEIFFER: Enormous, enormous. Kelly was just like a bolt of lightning to my perceptions. Beginning with his political cartoons in the New York Star, before I was even aware of Pogo. And then Pogo began in the Star and it really knocked me out. He also made me aware of the dangers of being brilliant six days a week with a Sunday page, because I thought that he suffered real burnout after 10 years, and I can understand it. After 10 years or so, I stopped reading Pogo.
GROTH: Were your parents New Deal or were they socialist?
FEIFFER: They were New Deal. My father might have been a closet socialist, but it never came out. From the beginning my older sister and I were always further to the left than my family.
GROTH: Well, can you trace how you think you came to your rather acidic perceptions of American life? Was it your upbringing? School?
FEIFFER: No, I can’t think of anything I ever got out of school, except—well, maybe—
FEIFFER: Yeah. (pause). As I said, my family, one could describe them as New Deal liberals. But they weren’t very political. I mean, they had an automatic politics, an automatic bent. But I grew up in a generally left-wing neighborhood in the Bronx. My sister, in high school, was a member of all sorts of left-wing groups and eventually joined the Communist Party when she was older. And since I was closest to her, a lot of my political formation came in arguing with her, because I was not a communist, I wasn’t a socialist. So we fought a lot. I always lost. Never, ever in those years could you argue with a communist and win. And so I became more and more like Bernard Mergendeiler, where I’d stand up, be knocked down, stand up, be knocked down.
GROTH: This would have been in the ‘40s?
FEIFFER: The ‘40s and ‘50s. Early ‘50s.
GROTH: Communism was fairly discredited by the ‘40s, wouldn’t it have been?
FEIFFER: No, not at all.
GROTH: Stalin’s purges would have been common knowledge by then?
FEIFFER: I’m sure they were common knowledge, but also denied. Or ignored, or explained away. I mean, among the main coterie of New York intellectuals, the people like the Partisan Review crowd, Lionel Trilling, Philip Rahv, others, that’s certainly the case. But the people I knew, first of all, probably never heard of those people, and secondly, thought of anti-communists as the Hearst press. Which automatically…
GROTH: Threw you back into communism.
FEIFFER: Yeah, that’s right.
GROTH: The reason you couldn’t win an argument with a communist was because the ideology went down so well?
FEIFFER: Well, no, the reason you couldn’t was because a lot of what they said about the society was true, in terms of inequality, because they were in the forefront in terms of union organizing. And unions weren’t corrupt in those days, and they were needed and some of the most effective unions were communist-led. Because they were the vanguard down South, working among the poor, and working among blacks, and working among farmers. Because they were—of all things—The Daily Worker was about the first paper to ever suggest that Jackie Robinson should be on the Brooklyn Dodgers, and started that campaign about a year or two before anyone else was in on it. So, there were clear things that they did that were apt and accurate and appropriate. And so one shunted aside this latest devotion to the Soviet Union, to the party line, their abuse of artists in this country who didn’t tow the right line, and their smugness about artists in the Soviet Union who were not tolerated because they were out of favor. So as much as I even at that time understood the contradictions, I couldn’t dismiss them then. I can’t dismiss them now, as people do, as simply an unmitigated evil, because I knew too many things that were fostered because of their organization and because of their passion that might have taken years to build up support otherwise.
GROTH: What would your arguments against communism have been then?
FEIFFER: It was a totalitarian system that adhered to the rigid politics of the Soviet Union. You know, Stalinism. In this day and age, you don’t have to point out what was wrong with Stalinism.
GROTH: Right. So your argument wasn’t the specific programs they were initiating here, so much as the ideological corruption?
FEIFFER: Yeah, and that there was a party line, and that you had to toe it. One reason that, however much I might have agreed with them from time to time on issues, that I never joined the party was because the idea of being a spokesperson for a group, rather than for myself…I mean, to this day, I can’t do that. I was a delegate to the Democratic convention in ‘68, and finally walked to join the crowd on the streets because I couldn’t be even be part of the New York caucus, which was a rather liberal one, and very much against what was going on there and I couldn’t even be part of that group. I can’t be part of a group.
GROTH: Well, it’s obvious to me at least that you’re not doctrinaire, and have never been, politically or ideologically or any other way. Now, was this a conscious decision?
GROTH: Are you just sort of naturally…?
FEIFFER: I guess I’m not sure I even believe in conscious decisions. I think conscious decisions are the decisions you make after you’ve made up your mind. Viscerally.
GROTH: (Laughs) A Feiffer-ism. And you went to the Pratt Institute.
FEIFFER: Well, not for very long. I went to the Art Students’ League first. My mother dragged me. I was a very shy kid, and very nervous, truly nervous about putting this talent that I fantasized a lot about on the line. Meaning that in the bright light of day, I didn’t think it would measure up to anyone else’s. So I preferred to be alone in my neighborhood, where I was the only one who could draw. And when she, at the age of 15 or 14, took me by the hand and took me to the Art Students’ League, I remember screaming bloody murder, I didn’t want to go. But she thought I should study anatomy, and it was wonderful, it was a wonderful experience. Like a lot of wonderful experiences that I’ve been dragged kicking and screaming into.
GROTH: And from there you went to Pratt.
FEIFFER: I went into Pratt after high school. I failed to get into the college I wanted to go to. They said I’d have to make up, that I didn’t have enough credits to go, and I’d have to make up by going back to high school in the summer. I hated high school. I mean, I liked people in it, and I liked some teachers in it, but the whole notion of going back was anathema to me. So, I forgot about college, which is probably the best accident that ever happened to me. An accident which was one of the smartest things I’ve done. I went to Pratt for one year. But Pratt at that time was very much under the influence of the Bauhaus school, and had a lot of transplanted Europeans, and its mode of thinking was towards abstract art about which I knew nothing and cared nothing at that time. And certainly those teachers weren’t going to make it more sympathetic to me, because they were overblown with their own self-importance, and belonged to that school of thought which was not unpopular in those years—that the more you demean the students, the more they learned. Well, the more I was demeaned, the more I disappeared, and so I vanished altogether from the day school, switched over to the evening school, where I ran into a wonderful teacher, wonderful perhaps because he actually worked in the field. He was an advertising art director for Grey Advertising named Lenny Kusokov. He was very sympathetic, and I learned a lot from him in a period of three years or so, in the evening.
GROTH: Now, you would have been 18, 19?
FEIFFER: Yeah, 17, 18, 19.
GROTH: And how passionate was your commitment at that time to being a cartoonist?
FEIFFER: It’s never been anything but passionate. It started passionate at four or five, and it remained passionate all those years.
GROTH: You were drafted in ‘51.
GROTH:Did you start working for Will Eisner before or after?
FEIFFER: Oh, before.
EISNER, WOOD, KURTZMAN
GROTH: Can you explain how you became associated with Eisner?
FEIFFER: Well, I loved The Spirit. I mean, going back to newspaper strips, I loved newspaper strips and ran across The Spirit in a paper called the Parkchester Review, where it was a Sunday supplement. I knew his work from comic books because I liked Hawks of the Seas. I knew his stuff. He was somebody who I could identify under whatever alias he used: Will Rensie or Will K. Maxwell or whatever the hell, there were things in Espionage or Black X. I was just crazy about him. I couldn’t believe The Spirit when I found it. I just ate it up. That and, I guess, Terry and the Pirates and Li’I Abner were the three strips, and Abbie an’ Slats, which Capp wrote, but I didn’t know that at the time. Those four were combined, were a series of role models for me. As to what, I’m not sure, but I studied them, studied the way they cropped the panels down, the dialogue, how many panels they would use on a Sunday page. There were other strips I liked, but those were the ones that were masterpieces to me. So, when it came to looking for a job, comic books was the field, because that seemed the most accessible. I had no idea how one got to be an assistant to a daily strip cartoonist. Also, that seemed to be way outside the realm. Comic books were more accessible because they were more raffish, they weren’t drawn as well, generally, and it looked like it might be a field to enter before I did what I wanted to do, which was to have a syndicated adventure strip. That’s what I thought I would end up doing. So I went to Eisner after a number of experiences—I got to know a few comic book artists before then—and showed him my work, and he thought it was terrible. But he’d just gotten out of the Navy about a year earlier, had organized a group of people to work on The Spirit to revive the strip. Lou Fine had edited it during the war years, and it had pretty much been run into the ground, and he was trying to bring it back. He had Jerry Grandinetti there, and a man named John Spranger there, a lettering man named Sam Rosen. He said I was worth absolutely nothing, but if I wanted to hang out there, and erase pages or do gofer work, that was fine, which I did a few weeks, and then he came upon bad times. I forget what was going on at the time, but he let virtually everyone go, Spranger, I think maybe everyone but Grandinetti. He kept me around for $10 a week, just to fill in, to do blacks and rule borders and things like that. So he had to strip down staff. I was useful just to do all the dirty work that it didn’t pay for other people to do. So I did that for a period of time. Then I got promoted to $20 a week and did more of the same. But the main reason he kept me on was because I was the only real fan he had. I mean, the others in the office in the early days, Grandinetti, Spranger, would talk about how old-fashioned he was, and would put down the work as terribly dated. I didn’t know what the hell they were talking about. I thought this was the most wonderful stuff I had ever seen in my life. And whatever other annoying and wise-guy features I had which pissed Eisner off, he also knew I was a scholar of his work, that I was a groupie. That certainly didn’t hurt his feelings. To the others, this was a job, and if they left that, they’d go to another job; this was an obsession to me. At some point, we got into one of our arguments—and we got into a lot of them—about his stories. I said that his post-’46 stories weren’t really up to his ‘39, ‘40, ‘41 stories. He had heard enough of this, and he said, if you think you can do better, write me a story. So I did. He liked it, and from that point on I was writing a lot of them, or most of them. It’s hard for me to remember exactly how that broke down, but I would write them, he would go over them. We’d just go back and forth. We worked well together, and when we didn’t, he would win.
GROTH: But what was working with him like? How much input did you have?
FEIFFER: Oh, I had a lot of input. I mean, it was a very relaxed—he called it a “shop”—it was a very relaxed shop. The best period for me, was those years when Abe Kanegson was doing lettering and backgrounds. Because Abe, even more than Will, was a personal mentor. And also was a professional one. I would bring him samples of cartoons and he would just beat me up, saying this is sloppy, you can do much better than this, you’ve settled for less here, this panel doesn’t pay off, and forced me to adhere to standards that no one else cared about. He apparently did. He taught me to be tougher on myself. In various stages of my life, I’ve been lucky enough to fall in with people who would remind me that simple facility wasn’t enough.
GROTH: Presumably the samples that you showed Eisner were an adventure strip?
FEIFFER: No, it was a dreadful semi-straight, but not straight, cartoon called Adam’s Adam, which someone else had written—the editor-in-chief of my high school newspaper—we collaborated on it. It was one of the rare times that I collaborated, and only then because I thought he had a connection—he claimed to have a connection, but he didn’t really, as it turned out—and that would be a way of breaking into a newspaper. And when it didn’t go anywhere, I just had these samples and I showed them around.
GROTH: I see. What do you mean by “straight, but not straight”?
FEIFFER: Oh, what I mean is, it’s Archie-style. You know, it’s not goofy comedy, it’s not…
GROTH: Falls in the cracks?
GROTH: How long did your association with Eisner last? Until you got drafted?
FEIFFER: It went from 1946 to January ‘51, when I got drafted. I think the Spring of ‘46 or something like that.
GROTH: How did you get to do the Clifford strip for Eisner?
FEIFFER: It was in lieu of giving me a raise. [Both laugh] I was making something like $25 a week. I went in and demanded $30. I was writing The Spirit and laying it out. I thought that was worth $30 a week. He informed me that it really wasn’t. So I threatened to quit. And to keep me on, he said he’d give me the back page of The Spirit section, which then had a nice strip, but rather predictable and tired by then, called Jonesy by a wonderful old cartoonist named Bernard Dribble. Stibble or Dribble. But I was a cut-throat competitor, so the hell with him, and I got the Clifford page.
GROTH: For which you weren’t paid?
FEIFFER: No. That was my reward. Eisner got me used to not being paid by the Voice. I’m used to doing pro bono cartoon work. I’ve been doing it a good pan of my life.
GROTH: Now, you wrote the Spirit strips that Wally Wood drew.
GROTH: Did you work with Wood on that?
GROTH: What was he like to work with?
FEIFFER: Well, I knew Wood a long time before that. I’d known him for many, many years. I knew him almost from the time he came to New York, because my closest friend was a man named Ed McQueen, who was a buddy of Wood’s, and his lettering man, who later came to work for Eisner. So Ed brought Woody and me together. He worked in a studio he had rented right across from what is now Lincoln Center, but then was a rather run-down Puerto Rican neighborhood. He had a loft there, on the second floor. The rent must have been not much, and a lot of room. And he operated the way a lot of cartoonist freelancers were operating at that time. Except for me, I worked at home, out of my apartment, rather, my parents’ apartment in those years, I guess.
GROTH: Let me get the chronology down. You worked for Eisner prior to the time you were drafted. You were drafted in ‘51.
FEIFFER: And then I actually wrote the Wood stuff while I was in the Army. While I was in basic training.
GROTH: O.K., that’s what I was going to ask you.
FEIFFER: I wrote the stuff and did layouts and sent it to Eisner, and then he gave it to Wood. And he drew them.
GROTH: So you never saw Wood during that period?
FEIFFER: Oh, I’d see him on and off. When I’d be on leave, I’d go into the office and stuff like that. He’d be around a lot of the time. So I saw something of him.
GROTH: But it wasn’t what you’d call a collaboration?
FEIFFER: No, never. And I was embarrassed by that stuff, anyhow, I didn’t like it at all. First of all, I hate science fiction, I hate space stuff. I don’t know anything about it. It’s all bullshit to me. I’ve never been a fan of science fiction work. I don’t get it. Only because Eisner was trying to move the cartoon in another direction, and by that time it was simply a source of income. I had no other means of making any money, particularly while in the Army.
GROTH: What was Wood like as a person?
FEIFFER: Well, I never knew him very well. I mean, I knew him, I suppose, as well as someone who was not a friend would know him. He was friendly enough, but always a little standoffish, wry. He had something in his eye which you’d say was a cross between a twinkle and a glint. There was always a sense that he was in on something. But he also made it quite clear that he wasn’t [laughs]. It was manner and posture, and I didn’t understand then, and I don’t understand now, his popularity. I never got the point of Wood’s work. I didn’t like what he did for the Spirit, I didn’t like what he did before, I didn’t like the stuff for Mad magazine. I jutst never got it. He always seemed to me derivative. And heavy-handed, and unripe. Earnest though—he loved comics, and we got along well because we both loved comics. But when I met [Harvey] Kurtzman for the first time, or saw his work for the first time, I knew I was in the presence of someone extraordinary. It was a joy to see the work, and a joy to be around him. I knew that I was in the company of an artist. With Wood, I felt that I was in the presence of a carpenter. Somebody who worked very hard at his craft, and by working hard got results, but there were no sparks. And there was certainly no invention.
GROTH: He was more of a craftsman than an artist.
GROTH: Did you at all like the work he did for Harvey [Kurtzman], for the war books?
FEIFFER: No. I liked [the Mad work] better than the others because he did wonderful parodies, and particularly the comic strips, and I enjoy that.
GROTH: Did you follow his career at all?
FEIFFER: I didn’t follow it; I was aware of it.
GROTH: I assume you lost touch after a while.
FEIFFER: Well, he put me on a mailing list, and I started getting these books, Witzend, and then it just became very sad, and I became upset for him. Because it was clear that he was coming unglued. I heard he was an alcoholic, and had all sorts of other problems. I wasn’t prepared for what happened, though. Nor was I prepared for what happened to Jack Cole some years earlier. Now, Jack Cole was really great, and his work, I guess, I like in comic books only second to Eisner. Plastic Man was just wonderful and terribly funny. Free. And actually Cole was a lot funnier than Eisner.
GROTH: Did you know Cole?
FEIFFER: No, never met him. Another one of those guys whose work I liked, who worked for Eisner, was Klaus Nordling who later did Lady Luck, but he did a lot of other stuff.
GROTH: What did you like about his work?
FEIFFER: Oh, again, I thought he was funny, I liked that kind of wooden style. No one else drew like him, it was very expressive, it was clearly his own personality. He didn’t look like anybody else. He wasn’t one of the Caniff clones or one of the Eisner clones. The thing I detested most in comics then—and now—are people who thought a good thick and thin line is what drawing was. And that’s what the comic book business actually encouraged people to think. It always seemed to me idiotic, and the more that became the acceptable norm, the more it defined what good work was, the more uninterested I became in the profession.
GROTH: By thick and thin line, you mean what, exactly?
FEIFFER: The kind of slick line adventure strips that proliferated in those days, and many of which proliferate today. The brushline by a professional brush artist has no quality except smoothness.
GROTH: A dead line.
FEIFFER: It has no character, it has no integrity, it has no bite. All it’s showing is that it can do an outline. Skillfully. It’s like ice-skating.
GROTH: Now, does that have to do with the line, or the content?
FEIFFER: Well, I think they’re inseparable. Line is content. Form is content. Black is white and noon is day.
GROTH: You prefer Nordling to Wood?
FEIFFER: Oh, infinitely. I preferred Nordling to Wood, I preferred Andre LeBlanc to Wood, I mean, Wood wouldn’t have made the top 50, as far as I was concerned. I had no interest in the work.
GROTH: The one virtue I always found in Wood was a certain sensuality.
FEIFFER: Well, that’s fine, I suppose. I never found…I thought there was more a sense of the pornographer than the sensualist of a sort.
FEIFFER: I mean, it’s a difference between liking tits ‘n’ ass and liking women.
GROTH: Which I’m sure we’ll get into.
GROTH: You said you met Harvey [Kurtzman]. When was that and what were your impressions of Harvey?
FEIFFER: Well, if you worked for Eisner you met everybody because they all came there. Harvey came by, and Eisner showed us his work, and I think I already knew Hey Look!. Harvey was just immensely outgoing. I don’t think Harvey was any different then than he is now. He was always above-board, direct, loved to talk, very generous about other people, self-effacing. Took a compliment well, but it was clear that it embarrassed him. I don’t think there’s—I mean outside of getting older, he hasn’t changed so far as I know.
GROTH: As a cartoonist?
FEIFFER: Oh, as a cartoonist, of course, he changed immensely, because he got into—what I knew in the early days was Hey Look! and there was the stuff he did for Gaines, the war stuff. I mean, you take a look at European comics today, and they’re still using Harvey’s layouts. I think Harvey derived from Eisner, and everyone else derived from Harvey. You know, the use of sound effects: THWACK! GLMP! BUMPITY-BUMP! Eisner did a bit of that, but Harvey took it. I think the first person to actually use that was Roy Crane. And then Eisner picked up on it. And then Harvey just went to town. He was far more inventive. And I suspect Harvey must have—I don’t know, but my guess is Harvey must have picked all of this up, as I did, from old-time radio. When you listen to radio you were very aware of the sound effects. Particularly when they became very sophisticated in shows like Suspense and Sam Spade, they were as romantic as the show itself.
GROTH:You know, usually Harvey’s war books are eclipsed by Mad, so I was wondering what you thought of the war books.
FEIFFER: I thought the war books were wonderful. Harvey knows I was never that big a fan of Mad.
GROTH: Is that right?
FEIFFER: Yeah. I mean, what makes me respect Mad more in retrospect was how many brilliant talents, young talents of today, grew up on Mad and that was their inspiration. So somewhere along the line, I must have been wrong.
GROTH: But at the time you weren’t touched by it?
FEIFFER: No, not at all. Because I was very political, Mad wasn’t. Mad was anarchic, I was on at least 1 1/2 sides. And I thought it was chickenshit not to take sides. So, being apolitical and saying plague on all your houses was to me saying that no one was to blame. When I thought that there were certain parties that you could blame. That Joe McCarthy was certainly to blame, that the blacklist was certainly to blame, that Eisenhower’s America was certainly to blame, that the Cold War was certainly to blame. And that the perniciousness of suburban living or advertising was secondary to the perniciousness of Cold War America, which was what my primary interest was in those years.
GROTH: It’s interesting that you should make that point, because in the ‘50s you weren’t as overtly political as you are now. You were more of a broader, social-cultural critic.
FEIFFER: Well, yes and no. You’ll see as you go through the strips there’s a lot more politics than you may think.
GROTH: More generically political, but less ideologically political.
FEIFFER: No. I don’t think so. Remember, Munro, which is a political book, was the first satire I did. The next one I did was Boom! So—
GROTH: And then you segue away from that into Sick, Sick, Sick.
FEIFFER: Yes, that’s right.
GROTH: Which had to do with relationships.
FEIFFER: That’s right. And then slowly combined the two. But the balance was, in the early years, say, one to three or four in social against political. But, as I said in Feiffer’s America, you couldn’t be around Eisenhower’s world without those people getting dragged into politics, because it was every part of that sense of muted isolation. It was a very significant part of one’s life. And that there was no political criticism going on. There was no real social criticism going on. It began with people like Mort Sahl and nightclubs. You couldn’t find it in pages of the New Yorker or anywhere else. And the [Village] Voice was the first publication to start letting people air their views even though they were uncommercial at the time.
GROTH: I might display some ignorance here. Weren’t people like Herblock working?
FEIFFER: Herblock? Yes. That’s not ignorant. Herblock was around at the time. There was Herblock, there was Mauldin. I’m not sure when Conrad began.
GROTH: Probably later.
FEIFFER: Probably later. Hugh Haynie was around, though. Beyond those three, I mean, Fitzpatrick I always thought had a reputation far beyond his importance. So mainly it was Herb and Bill.
GROTH: Did they serve as guideposts for you, or inspiration?
FEIFFER: Oh, no. First of all, I never thought of myself as a political cartoonist. I never thought that any more than I thought of myself as a gag cartoonist. I could love the work of Whitney Darrow and Peter Arno, and some of Thurber, without ever thinking that I was ever going to get in that line, just as I could love the work of Herblock, which would feed me, sustain me, because of its political comment, and Mauldin. And I never dreamed I would get into that line. The line I got into was the adventure strip business.
GROTH: Well, now correct me if I’m wrong, because I’ve read a lot of your work, but I haven’t read all of it. In the ‘50s, did you tackle HUAC and McCarthy?
FEIFFER: No, I came along after HUAC and McCarthy. I came along in ‘56, when McCarthy was over, but I did even then some strips on the blacklist when I had the opportunity. And McCarthy was gone. I did a number of things on the Cold War, on the Red Scare. On liberals and J. Edgar Hoover. J. Edgar Hoover was the holy of holies then. The only person who was really attacking him was Mort Sahl. No one else was.
GROTH: Were your parents proud in any sense that you were a cartoonist, that you were working on an art form that you were developing?
FEIFFER: Oh, it was never thought of as an an form by anybody in those years. Including cartoonists. I remember Walt Kelly’s hackles would rise if you talked about cartooning as an art form.
GROTH: Oh, is that right?
FEIFFER: Oh, yes.
GROTH: Do you think he believed that?
FEIFFER: It’s hard to know what these guys believed. I mean, they came out of the newspaper gang, where artists were sissies in a way, and they were proud of being newspapermen, journalists, working in bullpens. And doing work that was disposable. As Caniffhas said, you never thought twice about having your originals thrown out.
GROTH: I was under the impression that in the ‘20s and ‘30s, the time when Herriman was working, and Segar, and McCay that it was thought of as an art form.
FEIFFER: No. I don’t know what McCay would have thought, and who knows about Herriman? But most of them didn’t think twice about that. I always thought of it as an art form. My love for Eisner, my love for Caniff, I always thought these guys were artists, and when I brought it up, they got very defensive.
GROTH: What did they think of themselves as, then? Craftsmen?
FEIFFER: Yeah. “This is my job. I’m a cartoonist. What’s all this big deal about art?” Something vaguely unmanly about it.
GROTH: How did Eisner look at it?
FEIFFER: Same way. Eisner now accepts the term “artist” but he certainly didn’t when I was working for him and tried to use it.
GROTH: Did he reject it?
FEIFFER: Sure, he rejected it entirely. He would admit that. That’s not going to be discomforting to him. He remembers those arguments.
GROTH: You actually argued with Eisner over it?
FEIFFER: Oh, yes, back then. We argued all the time. We talk about it to this day.
GROTH: About what?
FEIFFER: It’s just a lot of nostalgia on his part, and mine, for that relationship that goes back many years and took many turns.
GROTH: Did you argue as to the potential of comics?
FEIFFER: We weren’t talking comics as a thing in and of itself. I just thought The Spirit had a greater potential than he was giving it at that time. He and I talked about that a lot. I think good work came out of that. He just was very uncomfortable with labels.
GROTH: You talk to Eisner for long periods of time about this?
FEIFFER: Oh, back when I was a kid, and he was-
GROTH: He was about my age now.
FEIFFER: Well, he was an old guy as far as I was concerned. I think he was 32 when I went to work for him.
GROTH: Had you considered going to comic book publishers in New York?
FEIFFER: Oh, not a chance. What I did had nothing to do with what they did.
GROTH: But you could draw.
FEIFFER: Oh, yes, but I didn’t have that kind of brushline that was considered required. First of all, they wouldn’t publish what I would want to do. But even if I wanted to do their work, I wasn’t qualified. I really wasn’t good enough in their description of job qualifications.
GROTH: O.K. Didn’t you say earlier that you were interested in doing an adventure strip?
GROTH: At what point did that ambition fall off?
FEIFFER: Well, the Army really changed my entire direction. The Army was the true watershed experience.
GROTH: In the sense that you reacted against it.
FEIFFER: Yes, in the sense that I reacted against it. It was the first time I was truly away from home for a long period of time, and thrown into a world that was antagonistic to everything I believed in, on every conceivable level. In a war that I was out of sympathy with, and in an army that I despised. And which army displayed every rule of illogic and contempt for the individual and mindless exercise of power, that became my material.
GROTH: You were opposed to Korea?
FEIFFER: I was opposed to Korea.
GROTH: Have you seen Biloxi Blues?
FEIFFER: Yes. I thought it was a good movie. It’s interesting, I’ve seen all the military movies, there were a lot of them over the years, going back to From Here to Eternity, and none of them approximated my own feelings about the Army until Biloxi Blues. That came closer to representing what it really felt like, much more so than say, the Paris Island sequences in Kubrick’s movie.
GROTH: I was going to ask you about that.
FEIFFER: Well, I thought that was very stylized, and I certainly couldn’t identify with it.
GROTH: And you were in the Army for how long?
FEIFFER: Two years.
GROTH: Two years. And what did you do when you got out?
FEIFFER: I went on unemployment, and was getting money from the Army, and rented an apartment and tried to become a cartoonist. Mostly that. Then I’d run out of money, and get a job for six months, with a schlock art studio, until I had enough time to be able to go on unemployment—you had to be fired to be eligible, so I managed to get myself fired. That was never hard.
GROTH: Attitude problem?
FEIFFER: No, they always loved me. It was just that I’d make sure that they stopped loving me at a certain point. You know, I’d stop showing up at the job, I’d start insulting people. Nothing very awful. My favorite—there was an outfit called Chartmakers on Lexington Avenue and 48th Street, and they did annual reports, and they did slides, and you’ll find some of the slide drawings in that pile in there. They began to get curious because every afternoon—they had a time-clock, you punched in and punched out—and about three or four afternoons a week, I’d disappear about a quarter to three and show up at about quarter to five to punch out. I found out later they sent somebody to follow me, to find out where I was going. I thought I was sneaking out very quietly, but apparently everybody knew about it. They followed me to the three o’clock screening of the Museum of Modern Art films. So, I got fired from that. But I was daring them to fire me at that point, because I wanted to get fired, otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten my money. If I quit the job I wouldn’t be eligible for unemployment insurance.
GROTH: Did you see any moral impropriety in doing that? In getting unemployment insurance that you didn’t deserve?
FEIFFER: Are you kidding? No, because I thought I did deserve it. I thought the work I was doing on the dole was real work, and important work, and serious work. And the work I was doing that I was paid for was bullshit.
GROTH: Right. But that’s really not what the dole was meant for.
FEIFFER: Oh, yes it was [laughter]. You’ve never heard of grants before? The National Endowment. This was my early version of the National Endowment. I gave myself a Guggenheim.
GROTH: I wanted to examine the period between the work you did for Will and when you started at the Voice. Specifically, you said that Munro was done as a reaction to your stint in the army.
FEIFFER: Well, first of all, the ‘50s mainly don’t include Will, except maybe the first year. I was drafted in 1951. I was still writing The Spirit my first few weeks in the Army. I think that lasted maybe a month, possibly a little more, not much more than that. Someone else had already taken over Clifford, and that didn’t run very much longer.
GROTH: Now, you wrote Munro immediately after the Army?
FEIFFER: No, I started Munro actually, my first year in the Army, I did a couple of dummies of it. And I couldn’t get it right, I couldn’t finish it. It was the first work of this kind that I had ever toyed with, and I didn’t understand exactly what I was doing, and I didn’t know what the rules were, and I didn’t know what I was going after exactly. Although I had something in mind. But all of it was very unclear to me, and it was terribly difficult. I seemed to understand what it was I had to do, and I seemed to know when I was doing and when I wasn’t doing it. It went along fine up until the last third and then I seemed to blow it each time, and I couldn’t figure out why. As I say, I started it fairly late in 1951, and by the time I finished it I was ready to get out of the Army. I finished in 1953. It’s possible, now that I think of it, that I finished it after I got out of the Army. I mean, that I figured out how to end it. And I remember still the pleasure and the thrill when I came up with the ending, and how I came up with it, because I learned, I guess for the first time then, that when you’ve found out the way to do it, it always had something to do with the beginning. You had to go back to the beginning to find out how to end it, and that it always had to be very simple. It had to have a logic to it that made absolute sense. And whatever the struggle, once you had solved the problem, it became clear that the answer was in a sense dictated right from the first ten pages of the stuff.
GROTH: Did you have a market in mind for this?
FEIFFER: Yes. Particularly Simon and Schuster, who were putting out some wonderful cartoon books in hardcover, some of them rather sophisticated. I took it around there, and I saw a man whose name is Paul Jensen, and he liked it immensely and tried to push it. And got nowhere. Finally I began taking it elsewhere, and Jensen and other editors told me they didn’t know how to market it, because it looked like a children’s book, but it wasn’t. Nobody had ever heard of me.
GROTH: Now, what about Boom and Passionella? What were the circumstances around those?
FEIFFER: Well, by that time I was working for schlock art houses of one kind or another, making a living, and experimenting with this work. Before Boom there was a book called Shhhhhh about the bomb. Boom, I believe I wrote after Passionella. Yes, Passionella I wrote because I was already in the Voice. This was early days, and Pageant magazine approached me. A woman named Lois Cantor, who was an editor, who later became a friend, liked the stuff in the Voice. Pageant was already publishing people like Blechman, who was just beginning as well, and there was interest in quality avant-garde cartoonists, and she asked me. She said they would give me 28 pages, and I could design a story for them. So, I decided that I would use that space to make a commercial reputation for myself, as opposed to the reputation I was getting in the Voice, doing this non-commercial work that was very nice, but publishers didn’t know how to market it. I thought I would write a very marketable story, which meant that it had to be about sex, which meant it had to be about someone with big tits, because Marilyn Monroe and Playboy and all that was very much part of the social context at the time. So I came up with the story of Passionella with total cynicism, thinking that I would do a fake satire that publishing people would confuse with a real satire. I would try to make it fake enough and slick enough so that I would get some work out of it. I didn’t, it worked perfectly. But because of my crass motivation going into it, for years I had very little regard for Passionella until sometime later I looked at it and realized that I liked it a lot, it was a lot better than I thought.
GROTH: So it turned out not to be a specious satire.
FEIFFER: That’s right. Well, I don’t know whether it’s specious or not. Just as a piece of work I really enjoyed it. What it chose to satirize—and this is how I marked the value of work in those day—what it chose to satirize was easy targets. Nothing very difficult about taking on the Actor’s Studio, or the movie business, or movie stars with those values. That was hardly hard-hitting at that time or at any time. But it did exactly what it was supposed to do.
GROTH: And Boom?
FEIFFER: And Boom, I suppose, was to get over my embarrassment about Passionella and make me uncommercial again or something. Boom was at a time when the U.S. and the Soviet Union were doing a lot of underground testing. Our then-version of the Nuclear Energy Commission, it was then called the Atomic Energy Commission, the AEC, was putting out constant communiques to the public saying that there was no harm done to the atmosphere despite the numbers of leaks. And as a matter of fact it wasn’t underground testing, it was above-ground testing. But they said, no problem, no problem at all. And people like I.F. Stone in his weekly, and Paul Jacobs in the Reporter were telling me just the opposite, and I chose to believe them and I was right. So Boom was really about the conditioning of public attitudes to accept radioactive fallout as a positive rather than a negative. And it was done in fury. It was one of the early works, the early examples, and most expensive examples, of something which I’ve done a lot of since, which is go into detail about how government lies to us. Something that was considered quite appalling and hard to believe at that time, and now we just take it as the norm. Back then in the ‘50s, that was still shocking news. The idea that presidents lied was hard to take. The ideas that government commissions would deliberately lie as opposed to making honest mistakes. That sort of thing. None of this was conventional wisdom at that time.
GROTH: Was this appalled reaction against government lying naivete?
FEIFFER: Yes, it was naivete, but there were 180 million Americans who were equally naive. What I’m saying is, we’re talking about pre-Vietnam America, pre-Watergate America, pre-Iran-Contra, and even today you’ll get people, who after all this, still trust in our leadership. Well, back then everybody trusted. It’s not naïve if everybody believes it to be true.
GROTH: Can you explain a little how you came to the Voice? I know you offered your work free just to gel a start.
FEIFFER: Well, I’ve told this story a number of times. I’ll tell you, my approach to the Voice—we talked about cynicism before, the work is not cynical, my approach to the Voice was totally cynical. I had been turned down over and over and over again by book publishers. Munro was turned down. A couple of other books, the book I called Sick, Sick, Sick was turned down—which I later did for Playboy under the title The Conformist. I’d go from publisher to publisher and all these publishers thought I was terrific, and they passed the book around, and they’d take me out to lunch, and they’d rave about what I was doing, how fresh it was. Finally this stopped being a compliment, because nobody—early on, you think, well, this is terrific, I’m in! But then you discover you’re not in, you’re out, because they say, well, we don’t know how to market this. “It’s wonderful stuff, but there’s no market for it.” And it became clear there was no market for it, because it was a Catch-22 situation. I had no name, so who was going to buy this work that looked like children’s drawings, but was very adult material? Now, if my name was Steig, then it would be marketable. If my name was Steinberg, then they could sell it. If my name were Thurber, no problem. So I had to figure out a way of becoming Steig, Steinberg or Thurber in order to get what I wanted into print. I thought of all sorts of things. I could kill somebody, and then get famous that way, and then I could get published. I could commit suicide…suicide was not then established as a form of self-promotion, as it later became with several poets.
But short of suicide or murder, I didn’t know what to do until the Voice came along. I saw that that was the paper that a lot of the people whose attention I wanted, the very people who were rejecting me read that paper, because it was hip, it was inside. It was very modestly circulated, but to all the right people. I was smart enough to know, even at the age of 27, which I was then, that if I could get the stuff they’re turning down in print, anywhere, they will think, well, wait a minute, it’s in print [laughter]. So if I can get those six guys who say I can’t get into print looking at the stuff in print, they will change their minds, which is what happened. It did exactly as I hoped it would. Although I thought it would take a couple of years. It took something like three months. It was very fast.
GROTH: Could you chart your evolution, visually? You started off, the early Sick, Sick, Sick stuff at least, very angular, no fluidity, and sans the spontaneous line you developed later.
FEIFFER: Oh, there wasn’t any [style]. I was struggling for style. Those drawings you found in that pile, some of them date back to those years, and almost all of them are more interesting than you’ll find in Sick, Sick, Sick, because as soon as I got to reproduction, I would stiffen up. I couldn’t handle a brush very well. I couldn’t handle a pen very well. I could handle a pencil well, but you couldn’t reproduce in pencil. Finally I stumbled on a technique of using wooden dowels and that gave me a dry line which I liked very much, which approximated I guess pencil. And I’d draw those in poster and black ink, diluted. And that gave me a line that I liked for a while. But it took forever to do, it was very slow going. In those years I was very influenced by William Steig and Osborn, and the closer I could get my work to look like them, the happier I would be. I must have been doing the weekly strip for, oh, I can’t think of how long, anywhere from three months to six months to maybe a year, before I hit on the drawing style I liked. Somewhere along the line Pageant magazine asked me to do Passionella, which is where it first appeared, and it came out and it was a great success. But the drawings, I thought, were so awful, that when the book came out I redrew the whole thing completely. In fact, I didn’t use a single one of the drawings in that book. I was just embarrassed by how it looked. Although nobody at Pageant seemed to mind. They all liked it, but I was just mortified.
GROTH: When did you start working for the Voice?
FEIFFER: Fifty-six. October ‘56.
GROTH: So it was roughly from ‘53 to ‘56 that you were struggling to—
FEIFFER: Well, I was still struggling, because the Voice didn’t pay me, so I had to keep these jobs. The Chartmaker’s job went through my early weeks at the Voice, and then I went to work for Terrytoons in New Rochelle, which was the first of these jobs that I actually enjoyed. You know, that I didn’t consider pure schlock. Because Terrytoons was taken over by a man named Gene Deitch, who had been with UPA, and who was trying to upgrade the quality of the studio. I was in the story department designing characters and new features for morning shows like Captain Kangaroo and I did several scripts for a show called Tom Terrific.
I met people I really liked, and whose talents I respected. I mean, at these other jobs there were a lot of people I liked, but not necessarily people doing work that I cared about or meant anything to me. But when I went to work for Terrytoons, I guess in ‘56, there was a man I never heard of named Ernie Pintoff doing a cartoon called Flea Bits which I think is still a brilliant piece of work. There was a man I never heard of named Bob Blechman, who was going up on the same train I was, working on an animated version of The Juggler of Our Lady. There was a lot of talent around. So, for the first time, I felt that I was among constituents, that there were peers around. They put me, Terrytoons or Deitch, put me to coming up with the morning animated series that would replace Tom Terrific when that ran out, so it would run four or five minutes a day. So I designed a series called Easy Winners about a bunch of kids living in a neighborhood like the Bronx. Something that would have been vaguely autobiographical, really, a kind of spin-off of Clifford. Show the real world of children, but in a highly comic way. Maybe not unlike, in some ways, Charlie Brown. They all loved it, Deitch loved it, and the various other people who were important at Terrytoons loved it. And then some muckety-muck from CBS was coming who had to O.K. it. CBS owned Terrytoons at that time. And I was told that we were very lucky in getting this particular fellow because he was creative; he edited soap operas. He came in a three-piece suit, very expensive looking, and very well coiffed, and I knew I was dead.
GROTH: Your heart sank.
FEIFFER: I don’t know if you know the animation business—the storyboards are pinned up by push-pins on the wall, and it looks like a comic strip. You do the storyboards on these little sheets of paper, and it looks like a comic strip. My idea of a comic strip is you read a comic strip. That’s not the way it works in animation. The people who come in to O.K. it or not expect to be performed for. And you get these 50- or 60-year old animators who quack like ducks and jump up and down and flap their wings and do everything, they act out the drawings. So you have a middle-aged animator, or a story layout man flapping his wing, and then being his own laugh-track, so as to encourage the clod who’s looking on to think this is amusing, because how would he know? He wouldn’t know from the drawings and he wouldn’t know from the performance. But from his laugh and from the laughs of the claque in attendance, he will know that they are laughing, therefore this is supposed to be funny. That’s how they can tell. Except that this man from CBS could not tell. He said it at the end of my disgusting display, and I couldn’t do a very good job of it, I kind of mumbled my way through it.
GROTH: You quacked and fluttered.
FEIFFER: I didn’t quack once, and I was kind of mumbling, I could see my support system, all the guys that were left slowly disassociating. First thing, all around me, grinning, beaming, and by the time I had finished the last drawing, I was standing alone [laughter] and they were all surrounding this guy from CBS.
GROTH: Just like a Feiffer cartoon itself.
FEIFFER: Very much so. And he said, well, it’s a little too New Yorker-ish. And by then I knew I was dead. The worst curse word in the world. And then he said, what I mean is, and this is a direct quote I will never forget, “It’s a little closer to Dostoevsky than it is to Peter Pan.” [Laughter] I tried to get one of my buddies to say something, and it was just blanket sighs. Just nothing. That afternoon they cancelled the series. The next day I went in and quit, and I got a $50 a week raise to stay on. By that time I knew that my days there were numbered, but I needed the money, and I would take it until something else came along. What came along was Mr. Hefner offering me 500 bucks a month to do a cartoon for Playboy.
HEFNER & PLAYBOY
GROTH: Hefner saw you in the Voice?
FEIFFER: Hefner saw me in the Voice, wrote me. Before Sick, Sick, Sick came out, he wrote me. Before it came out as a book. By that time we reached an agreement, and the first publication of my work in Playboy was some of the cartoons from the forthcoming book that they ran in advance. And then I started doing special stuff for them and running every month.
GROTH: This must have been only a year after it started.
FEIFFER: Well, the book came out in ‘58, so I guess I began, yeah, it was two years after I started, 1958. By that time I was already also in the Observer in London, which was the first paper to—I mean, that was a very important change in my life, too, because nobody read the Voice, but all of the people like those editors, who could do something about my destiny, read the London Observer, which was highly thought of. Much more highly thought of than, say, Punch was at the time. I mean, it was the English weekly that people in this country read, who had an international turn of mind, or who were part of the intellectual community. So they started talking about this English cartoonist Feiffer. And I got a lot of cachet that way.
GROTH: I think Playboy started in ‘54, if I remember correctly, which means you were in pretty early.
FEIFFER: I was in pretty early, yeah. I met Hefner before his first club, when he was living in a two-room apartment.
GROTH: Pre-mansion days.
FEIFFER: Oh, well pre-mansion days. He was very sweet and full of enthusiasm. I was out in Chicago for whatever reason, and he already had his first sports car, he already was making money, he talked about the opening the first Playboy club, and all of his plans, every one of which became a reality. The thing about him then, the thing about him as long as I’ve known him—I’ve seen very little of him in recent years, but always—was that there was an ingenuous quality, a sense of wonder and pleasure and enthusiasm, that most editors, and certainly most publishers would try in one way or other to establish rank or pecking order. And Hefner simply didn’t know, at least with cartoonists, he loved cartoonists, and I don’t know how he was with others, but I suspect it was much the same way. If he liked you, he liked you, and he took you on face value. I said and did some dreadful things to him in my years on the magazine, because I was very much at odds, as time grew, with the Playboy philosophy, as that developed, as he was writing it. So I would go to the mansion and stay there, sleep there for several days, when I was in the Midwest, eat his food, drink his liquor—drink a lot of his liquor—pass out on his furniture, and before I passed out, insult him [laughter]. And then apologize the next day, because I felt terribly guilty, and he didn’t know what I was talking about. Never bothered him, never ruffled him, never took umbrage. Never said, “Fuck you, you hypocrite. Here you are in my magazine.” Never did any of that.
GROTH: Why do you think he didn’t?
FEIFFER: I think it’s part of his character. That he just didn’t think it was important, or just essential good nature… I have no explanation for it, but that he was…He always behaved like a mensch to me, and to every other cartoonist I know of. I think Harvey [Kurtzman] would probably have similar stories to tell. He’s incredibly supportive.
GROTH: He’s a frustrated cartoonist himself, isn’t he?
FEIFFER: He’s certainly a first-rate cartoon editor. There are lot of frustrated cartoonists who don’t know a lot about cartoons. He, on the other hand, would send me back my roughs with single-spaced letters, sometimes running to two or three pages, going panel-by-panel breakdown. And first, I’d look at them and groan. Oh, shit. And they never did not make sense. And often he would bring up things that he was absolutely right about and I’d agree with. When he didn’t, then I would write him back, or call him, and say, I disagree because of such-and-such. He’d say, O.K. go ahead. He would never say, I’m sorry you disagree, but it’s my magazine, if you want this in, you’d make a change. That conversation never took place. The conversation that always took place was, if you can’t do it my way, do it your way. His way was never, ever, about selling out my principles in order to make it dovetail more with the magazine’s marketability or approach. He would criticize cartoons in order to make my point stronger—although my point was often counter to the Playboy philosophy.
GROTH: Such as?
FEIFFER: It was many years now, but I’ve got some of that correspondence on file somewhere. He was just so fascinated by the subject, he just loved the nuts and bolts. How do you make this work better? I think this panel here is diversionary. They’re talking too much here about something else. It was extraordinarily helpful. And over and over again.
GROTH: Right. How did you feel about working for Playboy, since you came more and more to dislike its philosophy?
FEIFFER: Well, the magazine had the best cartoonists on it, outside of the New Yorker, and often including the New Yorker. And in those years had livelier work, and I thought more interesting work than one could generally find in the New Yorker. Not more talented, but some of the same New Yorker talent would come and do better work for Playboy because of the editorial policies of the New Yorker. And, as far as my agreement or disagreement with the point of view of the magazine, I was operating as a dissident cartoonist. There wasn’t, outside of the Voice, a single newspaper in the country running me who I agreed with. If I was going to be proud to the point of suicide, I was not going to be ever known, or have a career, or do this work. So I felt it important to get in print wherever I was in print, and Playboy was by no means as objectionable to me as 90% of the newspapers who I was being syndicated in, who were considered mainstream. I mean, the mainstream I considered the foul stream, as Jesse Jackson might say.
GROTH: Can you distill what your main objections were to the Playboy philosophy?
FEIFFER: Well, yes, the girl on every arm. I don’t want to sound feminist before feminism, but that was truly dehumanizing, and I didn’t think of it as a feminist point, I thought of it as dehumanizing in terms of relationships. I’ve never understood the humanizing aspect of the gang bang. Or the positive aspects of the orgy. My own sexual orientation, compared to that of the magazine, is pure victorian, and awfully prudish. So, that’s basically it. But that didn’t mean that I thought the magazine should go. It was a lively and entertaining publication, and I enjoyed looking at it. And I liked those tits.
GROTH: We all grew up on those tits. But Hefner was an astute critic?
FEIFFER: Absolutely. The most. He was the only astute cartoon editor I’ve ever had anything to do with. The only one.
FEIFFER: To know him was not to know him, because he was always very private. Very friendly. There was a lot of banter back and forth. His interest, at least in me, would soon dissipate, and he’d move on to other things and other people, so I always felt, over the years, that I never quite succeeded in getting his complete attention. On the other hand, he was always more than responsive when I had two openings on the West Coast, one for Hold Me, which was a show based on the cartoons, that was done at the Westwood Playhouse. He threw an opening night party at his West Coast mansion. And the same thing for Grown- Ups when it was done at the Mark Taper, he had an opening night party. I happened to be at the mansion when Kretchmer and I decided that I was going to go back into the magazine after many years, and start the Bernard and Huey series. And Kretchmer told me he had not told Hefner, because he wanted to surprise him. I decided I would tell Hefner. We were just casually talking, and he said, I’d love to get you back, I wish you’d come back. And I said, I am back, and I told him. Tears came into his eyes, and he hugged me. That was just the most moving, sweet, it was just absolutely spontaneous, gesture, and lovely.
GROTH: About what year would that be? The ‘60s?
FEIFFER: No, I’m talking about the ‘80s. I don’t know if you know what that series was. But it was these two characters I’ve been doing since the ‘50s, now as middle-aged men, back on the singles scenes, going into bars and trying to make it with young women. It was a brutal, tough series about the Playboy reader as he really was, as opposed to the romantic. I mean these guys were losers, middle-aged paunchy losers, who were trying to stay young. That was in Playboy. For my money, it’s the best work I ever did for the magazine. And Kretchmer loved it.
GROTH: Do you have any sense, I don’t think I’ve seen the strip, but just form the way you described it, do you feel that the context of Playboy could devour the strip’s commentary?
FEIFFER: No, I think it’s just the reverse. This may be my own vanity, but I think the strip devours the magazine.
GROTH: Well, do you think the kind of people who read Playboy would be open to…?
FEIFFER: Apparently not, there was no feedback at all! [Laughter] And finally I stopped it, I dropped it, because doing it for two years, and getting extremely well paid, I felt depressed because I was doing this work which I was inordinately proud of, and not a whisper, not a letter, not a comment. Nobody saw it.
GROTH: If I’d known, I’d have read it.
FEIFFER: You didn’t see it.
GROTH: No. I’m sure I read Playboy periodically during the time it ran. Was Hefner intellectually formidable, do you think?
FEIFFER: No. Nor was he un-formidable. He was certainly as bright or brighter than any editor I’ve every had anything to do with. And interesting. Was he challenging? No. But no editors I knew were.
GROTH: You mentioned something in Feiffer’s America that I wanted to ask you about, and that is, you say you were in psychotherapy, and you said ‘ ‘I scared myself by my anger and my politics.” You went on to say that you took full advantage of your sessions in psychotherapy. I was wondering if you could elaborate on that.
FEIFFER: None of this was particularly conscious, but what would come out of therapy in this kind of freewheeling association of conversation would sooner or later be introduced into the weekly strip. Not in the political cartoons, but in the personal, sexual, social ones. I would find my way to having views, opinions. For example, I never knew how much anger I had in me until I went into therapy and then I started introducing anger as one of the traits in Bernard Mergendeiler. That seemed like an interesting aspect to investigate, to take the kind of Benchley-like character who traditionally has always been the nice guy who society works against, and to show that there is another side to him, which is vengeful, which can be nasty and so on. That if you give the meek, mild man power, he can be as much of a son of bitch as anyone else. So that son of thing. I just found that as a result of the sessions a lot of stuff would come out that I wouldn’t ordinarily be in touch with, and that I could later not deliberately, but just as a matter of course, almost restrain, translate that, because it was still in the forefront of my mind, into material for the cartoon.
GROTH: I’m curious about your anger and how you channel it. Do you have a temper?
FEIFFER: No. I mean, not much of a temper. It comes out mostly in the work, or in…I don’t know. [Both laugh]
GROTH: In the work.
GROTH: O.K., you started in the Voice in October of ‘56. I believe you said in Feiffer’s America that it took you a while to actually find a—
FEIFFER: Style, yes.
GROTH: —a cartooning style you felt comfortable with. And then somewhere in the early ‘60s, you basically said that you were burning out on the strip and that you saw playwriting as a way to reinvigorate your creative—
FEIFFER: No, not in the early ‘60s. We’re talking about two different things. First of all, the finding of the style took a couple of years before I was satisfied with the direction I was going in, not satisfied with what I ended up with, but at least I thought I was on the right trail, as opposed to floundering around and trying one thing one week and another thing another week. And that was a very exciting period, to discover just what this form I was playing with was, and how I could work best with it, and that was fine for quite a time. It was just about 10 years later, by the mid-’60s, that I began to get more and more bored with the drawing, if not the writing of the cartoons. I had no particular visual ideas. I became satisfied in knocking the stuff out by just drawing people in profile. There’s endless numbers of profile cartoons. I just got tired of the repetitive headshot—it seemed to me the only way to be true to the nature of the work. In other words, the writing was fine as far as I was concerned, but if I could have hired anybody to draw it at that point, I would have. If I were making enough money to do that. I thought that for the work to be effective, the movement had to be very subtle or non-existent. I had to sneak up on the reader. And therefore each drawing had to look like the previous drawing, so I had to have a frozen camera. I just traced one drawing after another drawing after another drawing. That was before the photocopier. It bored the pants off me, but I didn’t see any other way of working. I tried to move the camera around a bit. I didn’t think it worked. I thought that one lost the flow. And most important to me was the storytelling, that the flow had to be very smooth, and the point I was making had to sneak up on the reader, and the best way that could be done was with this frozen camera. So the logic of the style of the work forced a monotony on the actual drawing process which eventually became so boring that I was going out of my mind.
GROTH: Yes. Now, you were not dissatisfied with the commentary and the writing?
FEIFFER: No. Most of the time not. Much less so. Of course, from time to time I would be, but generally I felt that whatever fun there was was in that.
GROTH: Now, was there a period when you started to struggle with the cartooning to make it more interesting to yourself?
FEIFFER: No. Because I simply was boxed in and defeated by my own logic. I mean, I simply didn’t know any other way of going about it. And in fact, I did not find another way until I started Tantrum. Tantrum taught me a way out. That was another 15 years later.
GROTH: So you were in a Catch-22 situation before Catch-22.
FEIFFER: Yeah. The other thing that helped get me out of it was Trudeau and other people who came along and were doing the same thing, and finally I realized that I was being forced out of my own position, because everybody was beginning to look too much alike.
GROTH: What did you discover to be the solution?
FEIFFER: Just to ignore my logic [laughter]. Just say the hell with it, and start drawing it from different angles and drawing it freehand. Going back to having fun with the drawing. In other words, when I began drawing it without any pencilling, or any design for the page, but just doing it on scraps of paper, doing 15 or 20 drawings, picking out the ones I liked. Putting them on the page, doing a layout, making a real layout out of it, using the space artfully, I hoped. While that took often twice as long as the old method, I was having fan with the art again.
GROTH: Now, when you use the term “freehand,” you mean by that no underdrawing?
FEIFFER: No pencilling.
GROTH: I see. You started that shortly after Tantrum?
FEIFFER: I started that with Tantrum. But I was still pencilling the strip, and as soon as I finished Tantrum I realized that I couldn’t go back and continue the strip the way I had. It was just too painful. So I started doing it on the strip.
GROTH: What prompted you to use that technique with Tantrum?
FEIFFER: Again, it was a matter of practicality. I wanted to do a comic strip novel. I knew it was going to be long, and I knew it was going to involve backgrounds, because there was no way of avoiding it, with the work I had in mind. And I knew that if I had to pencil it and ink it, I would never do it. It would never get done. It would just be torture for me. So I thought that since this is about a man who becomes a child again, I would try using a more or less child-like technique. Immediate, crude, hit-the-reader-in-the-eye drawing, which I hoped gave a sense of child-like immediacy to the work. So, again, it was like the early cartoons, there was a logic behind the style that seemed to work with the story I was telling. And in this case, that logic was for me on the verge on doing better and more lively and more interesting, more personally interesting artwork.
GROTH: You don’t consider that during that 10- to 15-year period prior to Tantrum that your visual approach evolved?
FEIFFER: Oh, I think I did evolve. The drawing kept getting better. And within the monotonous facial drawings there were differences. There were dancers that I did continually, and that was always fun. There were drawings of kids that broke the mold, because I loved drawing kids in kid-like poses, and there was a lot of that. There were various other things that defied the logic that I’m speaking of here, but generally the work was fairly monotonous.
GROTH: Could you describe how your political beliefs evolved over the period?
FEIFFER: Well, I don’t think they did that much. I think they were pretty much in shape by the time I was in my early 20s, and certainly by the time I was in the army. They didn’t so much evolve as refine themselves.
GROTH: Right. You simply applied them to the changing times.
FEIFFER: Within that, there were people who I learned from. I devoured writers like Paul Goodman and Izzy Stone and Murray Kempton and Dwight Macdonald. Generally writers and intellectuals on the left. Edgar Friedenberg on education. When the New York Review of Books started coming out it became a very important part of my reading and education. Christopher Lasch. A psychiatrist who was important to me was Erich Fromm.
GROTH: When you started gaining a certain notoriety in the ‘60s, sort of establishing yourself. I wanted to ask you who you got together with, who you hung around with, with whom you exchanged ideas and so forth? Was there a circle of friends?
FEIFFER: Yes, there was a circle of friends, mainly literary people, who I met by the good fortune of standing in line to get tickets to a Nichols and May concert and discovering I was standing just in front of Kenneth Tynan, who had just become the theater critic of the New Yorker and had just written the introduction to the English edition of Sick, Sick, Sick. So I introduced myself and he invited me out for drinks after the show. During those drinks and times afterwards, he introduced me to people who would shape my friendships and my social life for the next 30 years. Those were mainly people in the then-New York intellectual literary community. Mailer and George Plimpton and William Styron and Philip Roth.
FEIFFER: Sontag came sometime later. She was not part of that Tynan group. Terry Southern. Sally Belfridge. And Judy Sheftel, who became my first wife. Donald Larson Stewart, Jr., who became one of my closest friends. John Marquand, Jr., another close friend. A number of people like that. And then Plimpton at that time had begun throwing almost weekly cocktail parties. I became a regular at those. And then in another year or two Elaine’s opened, and everybody I knew started trooping to Elaine’s.
GROTH: Was there a kind of intellectual crosspollination?
FEIFFER: Yeah. I mean, also in that group was Norman Podhoretz who was not then the editor of Commentary magazine, but a literary critic and his friend, Jason Epstein, who became the co-founder of the New York Review of Books, and Bob Silvers, who became the editor. I mean, there was a lot of constant back-and-forth about all sorts of subjects, and that was invigorating. A lot of drinking, which was in some ways more invigorating. It was quite stimulating and exciting, and at the same time, quite threatening, because you were dealing with a lot of high-powered types or soon-to-be high-powered types.
GROTH: That was intimidating, I guess.
FEIFFER: And that accounted for even more drinking. [Both laugh]
GROTH: Was there a sense of community?
FEIFFER: Yes, there was a sense of…erratic community. You know, when you’re dealing with a lot of writers and artists, you’re dealing with essentially isolated people who come together not so much to commune with each other as to, I don’t know, commiserate, to mix and then withdraw again. And sometimes to clash. There were a certain amount of fights going on at that time. Rivalry, feuds. Mailer and Styron were not getting along. I remember people starting batting each other around from lime to time. There was an intense sense of competiveness and rivalry. And Hemingway macho writer bullshit.
GROTH: Was that healthy?
FEIFFER: Oh, I don’t think it was particularly healthy, I think that was just the way things were done then and now. It’s not that different now. You know, the Jay McInerneys—that’s pretty much the same scene, except with the addition of drugs.
GROTH: Was there an overwhelming sense of seriousness among these people, in terms of their political beliefs and literary preferences and so forth?
FEIFFER: Oh, I think there was more of a sense of play about that. Yes, there was a sense of seriousness, and I would add even pretentiousness about the statements and the polemics that would come out. But there was also a sense of gusto and fun. There wasn’t much politics. The time I’m talking about was pre-politics. The only people I knew at that time who had real politics were people like Mailer, who came out of the left, and myself. And Lillian Hellman. In fact, most of the others weren’t all that political. We certainly weren’t particularly on the left. The movement left happened sometime later, as the ‘60s really got going.
GROTH: And that’s when the New York Review really turned into a political-literary journal.
FEIFFER: Yes, but that happened at least four or five years after it came into being.
GROTH: Why did that develop as it did?
FEIFFER: The New York Review?
GROTH: Well, I’m talking more about its political orientation.
FEIFFER: Well, It began with dissatisfaction with the content of the New York Times Book Review and that being the arbiter of opinion for the country. It was something stale, sterile, and unalive. And so, as people who were young began writing, just because they were in dissent, and divisive, it started with literature and almost had to move into politics and general criticism of the culture, because the times, not just the literary Times, but the political times were so moribund. We were still in the days of Eisenhower, in the throes of Eisenhowerism. We had just gotten through McCarthyism. There was something sterile and more than sterile—suffocated and politically repressed about the entire society. So there was only one direction to move in and that was to the left. We already were on the right.
GROTH: My impression was that the New York Review sort of inherited the Partisan Review’s constituency.
FEIFFER: Yes, but also it went to a younger constituency, as well, of academics and writers and general literary types, who were maybe a generation younger than the Partisan Review crowd.
GROTH: It almost seems as though the New York Review right now is at the same place the Partisan Review was at then.
FEIFFER: Well, in some ways, yes. Although it still has some pretty good stuff. Some of the best political writing going on today is by Theodore Draper, who writes for them regularly.
GROTH: Has your relationship with the Voice been more or less the same since you began working for them?
FEIFFER: I think this is primarily my own fault, I’ve had very little relationship with them. I live uptown, they’re downtown. In the years when Dan Wolf was the editor, I would go down and hang out every few weeks or so, but not a hell of a lot—got to lunch. Then when Dan left the paper that became even less so. And now I will see David Schneidermann, the publisher, maybe once or twice a year. If that. The current editor I haven’t even met. We talk on the phone, and we get along fine, it’s just that I have no reason to go down, and also there’s no longer any kind of feeling of particular affinity for the paper. That paper is a very different paper. It’s a much more successful paper that I find much less appealing.
GROTH: That was my next question, I was going to ask how you felt about it today versus how you felt about it in the ‘60s.
FEIFFER: You know, I’m not talking about the ‘60s. By the ‘60s, the paper was already beginning to pall, I think. The ‘50s was really its heyday.
GROTH: I see.
FEIFFER: I mean, into the middle ‘60s. The paper did some very good work on the early youth movement and the yippie movement. But by the time the stuff really started moving in terms of S.D.S., and left protest, the Voice was really not very much on top of that, and left a lot of stuff out. As I recall, it never ran a single article on the conspiracy trial. It was very spotty in all sorts of coverage. And as far as the back of the book goes, it had a few good book editors, I thought. I thought its theater column, with the single exception of Ross Westone and maybe one or two others, was always bad. Smug. Full of self-regard. Trendy. Avant-garde, without respite.
GROTH: Do I dare ask you what you think of Sarris?
FEIFFER: Oh, Sarris I enjoy. I mean, I do often disagree with him, but I’ve always enjoyed his writing. I think he’s a lot of fun. We’ve had words with each other from time to time. He enjoys bashing me in print, and I’ve enjoyed bashing him privately. Basically, I feel friendly about him. I can’t say that about the Voice’s drama writers, Michael Feingold, Erica Monk. I think they’re all foolish people.
GROTH: Where do you think the paper’s fallen apart poetically?
FEIFFER: I don’t think it’s fallen apart. It’s come together. Its politics has become a very sectarian, left, hard-nosed survivors of the ‘60s on the one hand, and then a strong gay contingent, with its focus on both cultural art and gay politics, which is more noticeable than any other part of the paper, including the city politics. A lot of people come to the Voice, of this generation, think of it primarily as a gay newspaper. That’s how people refer to it. Its urban politics, particularly Jack Newfield and his colleagues were the first people to blow the whistle on Ed Koch and catch the fact that he was racially dividing the city and polarizing it, and fighting the politics of polarization. The first comments on that and the first exposure of that was in the Voice. That is now taken as a given, but at the time it outraged a lot of people. Newfield has now left the Voice, but I don’t think that will change very much.
GROTH: But is there any way the paper has betrayed its original mandate?
FEIFFER: I don’t think it’s ever betrayed its mandate so much as—I mean, a lot of people do believe it’s done that, and in the sense that it was always a writer’s newspaper, in its first 15 or so years, and no longer is, it’s become more of an editor’s newspaper, I guess that’s true. But I don’t think it’s so much betrayed its mandate as it’s gotten bored with its mandate. You just get a lot of the same people who are doing the same thing. They’re getting older, and there’s not enough new blood, or the new blood is not developing as it should, because it’s dominated and under the thumb of the old guard. That’s one of the problems which I hope it solves, but that I don’t know that it will.
GROTH: You’ve never been close to it editorially?
FEIFFER: No. I’m very pleased with the turn in the cartooning in the paper. For a long time it was only Stamaty and Stan Mack and myself, and now they’ve gotten Nicole Hollander and Lynda Barry and Matt Groening. I think that’s terrific.
GROTH: Something curious that we discovered when we were doing some research on your career is that from 1959 to roughly 1970 you had a lot articles printed in magazines like Mademoiselle, Holiday, Life, Commentary, Saturday Evening Post, Ramparts. Not a tremendous number, but you appeared in there.
GROTH: And then we found a blank spot between 1970, where you appeared in the New York Times Magazine and 1978, where you appeared in the Nation. I’m not sure if our research is a bit faulty or if you simply stopped writing essays, but I wanted ‘to ask you about that.
FEIFFER: No, I started writing plays which meant that I could stop writing articles. I was never comfortable. The things you see in the Nation were really condensations of speeches. I was on the lecture circuit, so whatever appeared in the Nation was generally adapted from a speech. So in fact, I think I stopped writing entirely for publication. I’ve written things for Commentary and I’ve written things for Harpers and the Atlantic, but those are assignments. They were never all that much fun. I never felt that much at ease about them. When I began writing for the theater, and discovered that this was what I really wanted to do, and loved it every bit as much, and often a lot more, than cartooning. When I wasn’t cartooning, I was writing plays, and there was no reason to do anything else. It takes me harder and longer, generally, to write a 2500-word article than it does to write the first act of a play.
GROTH: I think that would strike most people as unusual.
FEIFFER: Well, it’s just that prose is not what I’m gifted at. I can do it, but it takes an enormous amount of effort and study and working and reworking. As opposed to my wife, who’s just a natural prose writer, and just does it. And she feels sure of herself and sure-footed. She’s been doing it always and does it with great facility. What I’ve got is neither the facility nor the real talent. I can do it because I’ve read a lot and I know how it’s supposed to sound and know how my own voice is supposed to sound, but I don’t approach it with the naturalness that I do either the cartoon or the theater. I’m comfortable with the human voice. And so characters in a cartoon talk like people, and people on stage talk like other kinds of people. Or for that matter in screenplays. Again, they talk differently because each form makes different demands, but you’re talking about dialogue. That I’m very comfortable with. Straight prose I’m not.
GROTH: That’s interesting, because the introductions and the afterwards and so forth to your books read as though they were written with the greatest of ease.
FEIFFER: Well, what I do is write myself as a character. Those are written consciously in the form of dialogue, in a sense.
GROTH: You’re in fact giving a monologue.
FEIFFER: I’m giving a monologue. I’m writing in what I have assigned myself as a voice. There’s this character Feiffer who comes down and he makes a statement. And that’s the way I’m able to do it.
GROTH: You’ve written plays and you’re a cartoonist, so the seemingly natural combination would be for you to do something akin to a graphic novel. It would seem to be a perfect conflation of your two best abilities. You did it with Tantrum, but I was wondering why you hadn’t done it since, or hadn’t thought about doing it.
FEIFFER: I have thought about it. After Tantrum I thought, I’ve got to do this once a year, I’ve never had so much fun. I simply don’t know how. I don’t have another idea. I haven’t had one. Now, maybe if I took two or three months off, something would come up. Tantrum had to be what it was. It wouldn’t have worked as a play. It wouldn’t have worked as a weekly strip. The form it found for itself was the only form it could have been, that was the only form that was appropriate. I’ve been able to think of nothing else that would have been only appropriate as a cartoon novel and nothing else. I can think of screenplay ideas, I can think of play ideas, but I haven’t thought of cartoon novel ideas.
FEIFFER: Unlike people like Harvey Pekar or Spiegelman, I’m just not content having characters talk to each other and then go on to a scene. If I do that, then it’s a movie, and I’ll do it as a movie. There has to be something in it that eliminates the possibility of the other forms that I use. If it can’t be screenplay, it can’t be play, only then can it be a cartoon novel.
GROTH: Since you brought up Pekar and Spiegelman, let me ask you this: do you see any line of advance in comics with Spiegelman doing Maus and with Pekar’s work, material of that nature. Do you see the narrative cartoon medium maturing?
FEIFFER: Well, I think particularly with Maus or almost anything that Spiegelman does, because he’s smarter than almost anybody around today, and because he is in total command of his art. I think that he’s doing extraordinarily interesting and personal work and he’s found a way of using confessional work, and turning it into something much broader and much more general. Work that has somehow a resonance to it, although you can never trace its fingerprints. So it’s far more artful, as far I’m concerned, than Pekar’s work or Crumb’s work or anybody else’s that I know of today.
GROTH: I wanted to ask you haw exactly you sit down and write a cartoon, which is probably an unanswerable question, but I’d like to refine it and ask you, how much do you fiddle with the writing of a cartoon?
FEIFFER: Well, I fiddle a lot. For example, I just did yesterday a cartoon on the shooting down of the Iranian airliner. That virtually wrote itself because of my extreme anger at watching the TV handling of this incident, and the bland denials that it had any similarity to the downing of the Korean airliner and my memory of the American reaction, official and unofficial, for that act by the Russians. We called it savagery, we called it a crime against humanity. We said the Russians were uncivilized, and this incident proved it and we can never do business with them. Well, the lesson we seem to draw from this new episode is that we’re not so dangerous, but the Iranians are. We’re more interested in their potential acts of terrorism against the U.S. and what will they do, these mad dogs, than our own act that resulted in the deaths of 290 people. And that where the Russians were the monsters for shooting down the Korean airliner, the lesson we seem to be learning from this is that the Iranians are monsters.
The cartoon is called “Perceptions 101.” I was listening to radio telephone call-ins yesterday, that insisted on the possibility that the Iranians set this up to embarrass us. My point is that kind of situation virtually writes itself in terms of the work that I’ve been doing over the years. It’s just sitting there, virtually as a sitting duck, since the kind of comment that I’m going to make is not likely to be duplicated by many others, maybe one or two others. I can see Toles, perhaps, or Auth, or Conrad, but not the others taking what would be my approach. In other work, it’s just sitting around and schmoozing on paper, having a conversation with myself.
For example, I’m trying to return more to the personal area, because I have a suspicion that the Bush or Dukakis administration is going to be far less interesting and provocative to me, and I better insure myself by getting interested in social and sexual and cultural things that I’ve generally ignored, except for the theater, for many years now. And yet at the same time, I don’t want to get into what I myself think of as a Feiffer cliche or self-parody, and there’s almost got to be some of that, but I would like to find new ways of approaching this material if I can. It’s not easy at the age of 59. So that’s very much on my mind.
GROTH: I assume the rhythm and the pacing and so forth are by now just a matter of course.
FEIFFER: Yes they are, but I would like to sway the course. I would like to find a way of breaking new ground for myself, if that’s at all possible. I don’t know if it’s at all possible.
GROTH: How much writing and rewriting do you do on a strip?
FEIFFER: It depends. There’s always a certain amount. I think the minimum number of drafts I do is three, and I can do five, six or seven before I have it where I think it should be, and sometimes I’ll end up going back to the very first. And I always try to have at least one day go by before I actually do the drawing, because something that seemed actually perfect on paper the first day, in terms of script, may seem very different the second day. I need the detachment, the distance I can get between the writing and putting it on paper.
GROTH: Are the illustrations pretty much the first things you conceptualize? I mean, are they fixed and then you write the strip around—
FEIFFER: No, the first thing I think of is the script, the dialogue and the story I’m telling, and then I will try to figure out what the drawing should be. And even what the sex of the characters should be. A couple of weeks ago, I did a series of drawings, and the illustrations were a woman. I liked them fine. I put them down, put them into place, and I didn’t think it worked at all, so I redid the whole thing with a man.
GROTH: One question I wanted to ask you, and what prompted it was the murder of the 290 passengers on the Iranian plane, but does it ever occur that there’s a political event that you find so distasteful, and that you ‘re so outraged about that you can’t discipline yourself to write and draw a strip about it?
FEIFFER: Well, it does happen. Or that I’ve already handled it in another form and have nothing new to say about. For example, what goes on in the West Bank continues to appall me, but I have nothing fresh to say that I haven’t said before. If I could think of another way of expressing my anger about this, I would.
GROTH: Does the physical act of drawing the strip give you pleasure?
FEIFFER: Yes, now it does. It has since Tantrum. Great pleasure. Again, because it’s freehand.
GROTH: But before then, it was much more—
FEIFFER: I don’t like preparing anything. I don’t like ruling the pages. I don’t like anything that takes preparation. Except for writing. I don’t mind it in writing. But in drawing I don’t like anything that is preliminary work. I just like to get down and do the work.
GROTH: The strip you did a few months ago, the funny animal strip, you must have done pencilling in that?
FEIFFER: Oh, yes. But because that’s a kind of parody. That was great fan. That was great pleasure. Also, it was great fun to see that I could do something in a very different style, that to the general reader… unless you saw my name on it, the general reader would not know that this was my work. I rather like that.
GROTH: That’s absolutely true. It seems to me that it was so accomplished that it would tempt you to do something like that again.
FEIFFER: Oh, I’m tempted, believe me. This French film I’m doing for Alain Resnais has a series of comic strips in it that are animal strips that I’ll be doing in that style, so I’ll be doing six dailies and a Sunday page in that style. Or something like that style with different characters.
GROTH: Why did you just now do that funny-animal edition of your weekly strip?
FEIFFER: Again, Ronald Reagan decides my subject matter. Reagan said, when asked about the Larry Speakes quote, he was asked at the newspaper editors’ convention in Washington last week, does he read newspapers? And he says, yes, he reads newspapers, contrary to public speculation. It’s not all 3-by-6 cards. And the first thing, he says, he reads is the comics. A lifetime habit, he says, and then he goes on to the editorials, and then he reads the rest of the paper. I thought what power this gives Calvin and Hobbes. What power this gives Hagar the Horrible. They can talk to the president, so it seemed more natural to do cartoon characters. But since I didn’t have any, I had to invent them. And then when I started to fool with it in my own style, which I did a couple of dry runs on, that was no fan. So I thought, why the hell not make it look like a real comic strip? And draw with a brush, which I haven’t done in 30 years or so? I didn’t know that I could. Eisner would never let me use a brush, he said I was awful at it. And I was. I’ve gotten better by not doing it. The reason I got into the cartooning I do now is because I couldn’t do the other kind. Somehow, in absentia I’ve learned, I guess, on the basis of this, that I might make it as an ordinary cartoonist.
There’s nothing behind it other than function fitting form. The style I draw in now has generally evolved from doing Tantrum. And the reason I did it in Tantrum was because I had always wanted to do a novel in comic strip form. But I hate doing all that preparation. I hate pencilling. I knew that if I was going to do a book of something like 160 pages in cartoons, that I was never going to finish it if I pencilled every line, drew it laboriously and erased the pages. So I thought I would just try doing it cold with a pentel, and I started doing drawings that way, and my god they were working. And they had an immediacy that—to me—was much more important than their obvious crudeness. And that crudeness seemed to play stylistically into the story anyhow, because it’s about a man who becomes two years old. When I finished the book, I couldn’t go back to pencilling any more. So I converted the style of the book to the regular strip. It was a revolution for me, because I got interested in drawing again.
GROTH: What is it about pencilling that you find objectionable?
FEIFFER: Drawing as a professional was never as much fun as drawing as an amateur. When I was nine, ten, those drawings in pencil—just doodling—was always more fun than doing finished work as a pro. And all my career was an attempt at trying to get my finished work, the reproduced work to look as relaxed and as at ease, and as far as I was concerned, as graphically interesting as my so-called amateur work. And it never occurred to me that the reason was the pencilling, and to eliminate that. That’s all it took. Now the drawings are just as I would want them to be.