One of the great things about interviewing the Jules Feiffer, from an editorial standpoint, is the fact that the legendary cartoonist invariably has some new project to speak about, between a seemingly endless parade of comics, plays, and books, all of which the artist thankfully continues to crank out, a mere six months away from his 80th birthday, to a bottomless stream of career retrospectives that publishers such as Fantagraphics seem to issue like clockwork.
Conducted with the artist after a recent appearance at The Strand Bookstore, just below Manhattan’s Union Square, this interview largely celebrates the latter, in light of the recent release of Explainers, a hardbound volume celebrating the early Village Voice strips that first put Feiffer on the map, released by the completists at the aforementioned indie comics publishing house.
After his discussion [video of which is available here], Feiffer happily signed several towering piles of books for admiring fans, from the aforementioned new Fantagraphics volume, to classics like The Phantom Tollbooth, to the poster for the black comedy, Little Murders, for which Feiffer penned the screenplay.
In this first of our two part interview, we discuss the roles that newspaper comics, Will Eisner, and the Korean War played in the genesis of Feiffer’s career.
You’ve recently completed work on the first draft of your memoirs.
Oh no–this is something like the second or third draft. It’s finished, but we’re in the editing process, which means that the editor is doing his edit, and I’m going over that and making changes and corrections, based on his suggestions, so that should be done within the next three or four weeks.
Have you made any significant changes, over the course of these multiple drafts?
Oh no. Well, there have just been some cuts—what people usually do in these things. I’ve cut 70 or 80 pages out of it, all of which has to do with making it flow and read better and making it a faster and more entertaining trip for the reader.
But going into it, you knew exactly what you planned to focus on.
Oh yeah. The book unwound and as it played out, it was pretty close to what I thought it would be, in the first place. In the begin, I didn’t think it would be as chronological as it was. I thought I’d do a lot more skipping around. I did some of that, but it’s more or less chronological.
And it focuses specifically on your professional career?
Yes. But my professional career also involves—because the work is so personal—much autobiographical detail.
At what point in your life did your professional career officially begin?
Oh, well there’s no question—with the [Village] Voice.
You’d said before that you had considered yourself a “four-year-old cartoonist.
Well, I was drawing from the time I was a kid. But my ambitions as a kid were a very different kind of career, based on the careers that I knew, which were the newspaper comics strip artists that were popular, at the time: Al Capp, who did a L’il Abner; [Milton] Caniff, who did Terry and the Pirates; [E.C.] Seegar who did Popeye. Those were heroes and role models for me—and of course, Will Eisner, a little later, when I was about 12 and became aware of The Spirit.
How did you make the transition to the political strips in The Voice? Did Eisner play a direct role?
It was the United States Army. I got drafted during the Korean War, and my reaction to being in the service and the sense of mindless authority that any military operation oppresses you with—it hits you, right between the eyes—the use of language is misappropriated to not say what you mean, but to maneuver and manipulate people and disguise meaning. All of the versions of that that I had seen in my civilian life plus all of it being so highlighted by my military experience, I decided within months of my being in the army that I wasn’t going to be a traditional comics strip artist. I decided that I had to comment about the world around me and use my cartoons for the purposes of social and political satire. If I hadn’t been in the army, it would have been a very different career.
Would you consider your time in the military, in effect, also the birth of yourself, as a politically-minded person?
Well, I was already a politically-minded person, but I hadn’t thought about using politics in my work, and from the time I got in the army, everything I did was more or less political. The first thing I did, as a young cartoonist, long before I was ever published, was starting work on Munro, which was a four or five-year-old kid who gets drafted, and it was a quite devastating satire on the misuse of authority.
How did you get involved with The Voice, initially?
I had been trying, since I had been out of the army for almost four years, to sell this satirical work, and got no takers at all. Everyone seemed to like it at the publishing houses that I went to. These were 30, 40, 50-page booklets. The political times were essentially not friendly to satire. This was just after Joe McCarthy, and there was still a very oppressive atmosphere, particularly in terms of what the media was and wasn’t willing to print. The Voice, as it appeared, was the one independent newspaper that was likely to run me, if anyone was going to run me. If The Voice wasn’t going to run me, I would have run out of choices and would have had to do something else with my life. I wouldn’t have been a cartoonist.
There was a pretty strong background in terms of political cartooning in the United States at that point.
Oh yes, but there was not a strong background for leftwing radical political cartooning, by any means. Outside of Herblock who was a liberal political cartoonist for The Washington Post and Bill Mauldin, there was virtually nobody commenting strongly in regards to the Cold War, and certainly no one at all commenting from a position as far-left as my own. In other words, it’s not about the tradition of political cartooning—there was a strong tradition for political cartooning. It was the fact that it was radical political cartooning. You have to go back to World War I days—1915, -16—and a magazine called Matches, to get back to radicial political cartoons.
Was it difficult to express that level of consent in any medium, not just cartooning?
It wasn’t just politics—Cold War politics—you also couldn’t talk about sex. No one was interested in anything relating to the lives of the people I saw around me. Publishers were interested more in continuing along the lines that had been established in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and early ‘50s, which is traditional humor and cliché and stereotype. That was fine for them, and there were a lot good careers that developed out of that. There was a lot of good work, I don’t disparage that. It just wasn’t what I was interested in.
As a reader, do you think its more or less difficult to be confronted with these manner of ideas, if they’re coming at you in comic strip form?
Yes. People did not take cartoons seriously. They were not in the habit of taking them seriously. And when people—particularly literary intellectuals—began taking my cartoons seriously, they insisted that they weren’t cartoons. They couldn’t use the word “cartoon” or “comic strip” in regard to my work because they thought it was a lowly form, and they therefore called it “essays” or “one-act plays.” They called it all sorts of things. They called it anything but what it was.
[Concluded in Part Two].