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.
CHESTER GOULD, AL CAPP & MILTON CANNIFF
Do you like Chester Gould?
I loved the drawing. I thought that Dick Tracy was exciting, but quickly got bored with it.
I assume you have to overlook the politics on both Annie and Tracy.
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.
Now, could you admire that work in some way, notwithstanding that?
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.
I wanted to ask you if you could talk just a little bit about Caniff, because I know you admire him.
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.
How big an effect did Pogo have on you?
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.
Can you explain how you became associated with Eisner?
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.
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, 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.
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.
How long did your association with Eisner last? Until you got drafted?
It went from 1946 to January ‘51, when I got drafted. I think the Spring of ‘46 or something like that.
How did you get to do the Clifford strip for Eisner?
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.
For which you weren’t paid?
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.
You said you met Harvey [Kurtzman]. When was that and what were your impressions of Harvey?
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.
As a cartoonist?
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.
HEFNER & PLAYBOY
Hefner saw you in the Voice?
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.
This must have been only a year after it started.
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.
I think Playboy started in ‘54, if I remember correctly, which means you were in pretty early.
I was in pretty early, yeah. I met Hefner before his first club, when he was living in a two-room apartment.
He’s a frustrated cartoonist himself, isn’t he?
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.
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.
Right. How did you feel about working for Playboy, since you came more and more to dislike its philosophy?
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.
Can you distill what your main objections were to the Playboy philosophy?
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.
THE VILLAGE VOICE
Has your relationship with the The VillageVoice been more or less the same since you began working for them?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Where do you think the paper’s fallen apart poetically?
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.
But is there any way the paper has betrayed its original mandate?
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.
You’ve never been close to it editorially?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.