Over the course of a professional career that has spanned some seven decades, Jules Feiffer has built a staggering body of work in a diverse array of mediums, including the theater, motion pictures, novels, and children’s books. But it’s the artist’s groundbreaking work in the world of political cartooning that really put him on the map. Feiffer’s work for The Village Voice began in the 50s and ran for 42 years, earning him a Pulitzer in 1986.
Fantagraphics celebrated the artist’s work for The Voice with the recent release of Explainers, which compiles the first 10 years of his weekly strip.
In honor of the new book, we sat down with Feiffer to discuss the state of contemporary editorial cartooning, the difficulties of penning a daily strip, and legacy of Will Eisner.
You’ve tried your hand at any number of creative fields over the course of your career. Why did you originally settle on cartooning as your primary form of expression? Because it was what you knew?
It was what I knew, it was what I loved, and it was what I had in mind, essentially, since I was a kid. I had no second ambition. Later on in life I became a playwright and a children’s book author, but those were later ambitions. They came out of the cartoons. They were certainly not what I had in mind. Being a writer was the furthest thing from my mind, when I was a young man. I didn’t think I knew how to be a writer.
You wrote a book about comic book superheroes [The Great Comic Book Heroes] and spent time working under Eisner. Did you ever feel a sense of obligation to help legitimize the form?
Not really. The Great Comic Book Heroes was not my idea. Dial Press, at the time, had a senior editor by the name of E.L. Doctorow—long before he wrote Ragtime and the other books that made him famous. We were friends, and he approached me about the idea of doing a book about comic books. So it was his idea. So I wrote it, not just because I thought it was neat, but also because I wasn’t going to make it a work of scholarship, I was going to make it a personal reminiscence, which is what I did.
The one mission that was part and parcel of that was to include Willie Eisner, who was completely forgotten, by that time, and make him a keystone of my reminiscences of comics. By the time I did this, Eisner had abandoned The Spirit. He was a business man now, and doing work on publications and putting out magazines. I thought The Spirit was, at that point, his important work, so that was a rediscovery, at that point, for a whole new generation of readers.
You took over some writing duties on The Spirit from Eisner, at one point.
Oh, I was essentially the writer of The Spirit from 1947, until I went into the army in 1949—two and a half years, or something like that.
Prior to your time in the army, was continuing along that path something that you had considered?
It was a job—it was a very important job, and I learned a numerous amount on the job, but what I hoped to promote out of it was my own daily comic—a newspaper strip. The model of the script was Clifford, which is what I was doing on the back page of The Spirit. Over the years, before I got into The Voice, I made two or three attempts at selling syndicates daily strips—humor strips. They considered them much too sophisticated and much too difficult for readers. They weren’t at all, but that’s what the syndicates thought.
Who were they aimed at? Was it similar to the Schulz model—
Well, remember, I started Clifford before there was a Peanuts, so Sparky and I were going along similar paths from the beginning. I was less interested in doing another Peanuts than I was in the influences that I had. Creating my own strip was more connected to Walt Kelly and Pogo and Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby.
To some degree Kelly, but more so Schulz, when you look back on your work, are you happy that you didn’t have to work with the same characters day in and day out?
You know, years later, when I was vaguely thinking of security for my family and making more money at this business, because, although I’ve had great success, in terms of reputation, I never really made a good living as a cartoonist. I had to augment it. I was doing one strip a week and syndication was seldom over 100 papers, because I was doing essentially something that was not all that commercial. I thought of starting a syndicated strip, and I came up with ideas and I would them and start drawing them, and after the third day, I would say, “this is too boring. I don’t want to do this.” And I gave it up.
It was clearly something that I was not equipped to do. I like telling stories, I didn’t like doing four repetitive panels, day after day, year after year. I wouldn’t have been able to do it. I have great admiration for people who do do it, but it turns out that I was off-kilter, in terms of my ambition, because it wasn’t really meant for me.
Dealing with comics the way that you do, with characters that don’t tend to carry over from strip to strip, do you feel that your work is more focused on abstract concepts than traditional ideas of character and story?
Well, yes. And everyone once in a while, you come up with characters that help you along with an idea, like my character, Bernard, or whoever the President of the United States is became a running character for four or eight years, or however long he was in office. So Lyndon Johnson was a recurring character, as was John F. Kennedy, as was Nixon—as were Bernard and Huey. But that was essentially it. That was all that came to mind, in terms of making a statement.
I was out to make points about the society that I was living in, both as a politically thoughtful person and as a citizen. There was much that I disagreed with and there was much that I was enraged about. When I was into my career for a few years, the civil rights movement began, and my cartoons, if you look at the book, were quite strong and pointed, about those years, and nobody else was doing anything close to that, at the time. No white cartoonist was talking about white liberal and their hypocrisy. And they’re still very pertinent to this day, because very little has changed, in that regard. I was the first cartoonist in the mass media to come out against the war in Vietnam and I did that as early as 1963.
So you think that, despite the fact that the players have changed—specifically the politicians—that the satire has aged well? We’re still dealing with all the same issues?
That’s for someone else to say, but I think there seems to be a relevance to these cartoons done 40 years ago. And that’s not anything to praise me about. It’s something to lament, because we haven’t really evolved that much. It’s not that we’ve gone nowhere—we’ve certainly moved ahead in terms of racial issues in this country, but we’ve certainly also moved backwards, as well. You see the Obama campaign, how race is being used to scare people off. You see Bush’s talk in Iraq about “appeasement,” and you see that this fear-mongering that was present at the height of the McCarthyism is now at work in the Bush administration.
It’s certainly become easier to express these issues in print than it once was. Do you ever think that perhaps it’s become too easy? Are people falling back on the same old gimmicks?
Well, that’s bound to happen and there’s nothing to be done about that. In any form, once there are breakthroughs, the breakthroughs eventually become stereotyped and then they become clichés, and then you’re ready for some new breakthroughs. That’s always going to happen.
In your estimation, who is making those sorts of important breakthroughs, these days?
The one that comes most readily to mind is Art Spiegelman with Maus and In the Shadow of No Towers. I wish he kept at that and did more of that, because he’s a wonderful example of what a cartoonist should be, which is both a writer and an artist. He knows how to combine words and pictures as well, or better, than anyone around. He’s also smart as hell and political. He has enormous skills.
Chris Ware is a combination of being entirely original and clearly derived from influence’s like Windsor MacKaye’s Little Nemo in Slumberland and Frank King’s Gasoline Alley. We all derive from countless influences. And there are others. There’s incredible work being done, but most of it is being done in the alternative media and so-called “graphic novels.” Though there are still some brilliant political cartoonists. There’s my friend Tony Auth, for The Philadelphia Inquirer and Tom Toles in The Washington Post and Pat Oliphant in syndication. These guys are extraordinary. They’re brilliant.