After a run of nearly 44 years, Jules Feiffer ended his renowned weekly cartoon on June 25, 2000 with a month-long series in which the old trouper tap danced his way into a future as crammed with creative activity as the past. Clearly, Feiffer didn't stop doing the strip in order to retire. "This isn't retirement," he said during a PBS NewsHour interview. "It's a refocusing."
He'd been doing cartoons for more magazines—The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, American Prospect, among others. And he had a new play about to be produced and a commission to write another for Lincoln Center. He'd been doing children's books—illustrating some, writing and drawing others. And at 71, he was father to two small children, who require a certain amount of attention.
"I need time to work on these other things in order to build up such a lot of weight on myself that I can finally have my breakdown," he quipped. More seriously: "I needed some give somewhere, and the strip took up the most time."
Although it wasn't so much the time it took as it was the lack of commensurate income. For the time he spent, the income from the syndicated strip was scarcely adequate. And the inflexibility of a weekly deadline compounded the situation. "It's not the cartoon I got tired of," he said; "it's the weekly schedule."
Feiffer's distinctive cartoon commentary on the human condition first appeared in The Village Voice in the issue dated October 24, 1956. The weekly Voice was then only a year old. Feiffer's cartoon was forthwith a regular feature in the paper. Witheringly, he revealed in his cartoons the chronic self-absorption of the typical denizen of Greenwich Village—the would-be intellectual cum artist, whose ego and attitude are the major (albeit never quite acknowledged) obstacles to personal fulfillment. As the years trickled by, Feiffer turned, too, to politics, flaying every president since Eisenhower.
From the start, Feiffer's cartoon was a startlingly different looking enterprise. No other cartoonist produced anything like it. Although it consisted of a succession of images like the conventional sequential "strip," Feiffer scorned the traditional panel borders of newspaper comic strips, dropping pictures of his actors and actresses into an otherwise uncluttered ocean of white space. And instead of speech balloons, he merely clustered the verbiage of his characters' utterances around their heads, a single slanted line pointing to the speaker. The comedy of his cartoons was equally unusual. No vaudevillian boffolas here, no pratfalls or custard pies. No puns, either. Instead, we had chorus after chorus of the old "bait-and-switch" as ostensibly hip characters engaged in erudite conversations or monologues that ended by revealing their self-absorption and cultural shallowness. Feiffer's characters were always talking. But none of them ever listened.
Feiffer's cartoons have been described as "comic nightmares, biting vignettes of contemporary life as it is experienced and explained away by sensitive adults, beatniks, precocious children and politicians. The introspective adults are by far the most frequently portrayed, they who, according to Newsweek, have 'rationalized Hostile Group attitudes' and are trying to find themselves." In dramatizing their search, Feiffer ripped away the hypocrisy and sham of the intellectual fads that preoccupied so many of the creative poseurs in the Village (and, as it proved, elsewhere). When the first collection of his cartoons was published in 1958, Gilbert Millstein, reviewing the book for The New York Times, applauded the cartoonist—"alone and unafraid in a world made of the macrocephalic bromides of psychoanalysis, avant-gardism, progressive schooling, the hideous nuances of cocktail-party conversation, politics, television, togetherness, and the careful conformism of the equally careful outrageous."
These days, more than ever, Feiffer is without peer. No cartoonist since Walt Disney has dabbled so brilliantly in so many related fields. A sort of Renaissance Man of cartooning, Feiffer wrote and drew a weekly cartoon, and he also wrote plays for the theater and for movies, and he wrote novels. He gave up the weekly cartoon, but he continues to draw occasional cartoons and illustrations for various outlets; and he's still writing plays and novels. And children's books. And all of these productions are critically acclaimed. But Feiffer's accomplishments do not end with the foregoing list. In reviewing his career, I was astonished to realize what a seminal figure he has been in the history of cartooning and, even, in the history of comic fandom.
His weekly cartoon clearly influenced (if it did not inspire) Garry Trudeau, and Trudeau's Doonesbury, in turn, has set the pace for satirical newspaper cartoonists since the collapse of the Nixon White House in 1974. And Feiffer's 1965 book, The Great Comic Book Heroes, might well have legitimatized an interest in old comic books thereby helping to establish fandom. Feiffer's book was the first mainstream manifestation of nostalgia for the funnybook artifacts of the thirties and forties. "Fandom" had been brewing since the early sixties, and the first price guide was published in 1965 by Argosy Book Shop in Hollywood. But Woody Gelman's pioneering Nostalgia Press didn't publish any reprint volumes until after Feiffer blazed the trail with The Great Comic Book Heroes. And Overstreet's first Comic Book Price Guide didn't appear until five years after Feiffer's book—1970, the same year as Don Thompson and Dick Lupoff produced their affectionate look backwards at comic books of the Golden Age, All in Color for a Dime.
The quality of the reprinted comic book stories in Great Comic Book Heroes is not up to present standards, but the book is unquestionably one of the most readable books on the subject to be published. Feiffer's nostalgic and analytical essays occupy the first fifty pages of the 189-page work, and they are remarkably astute. In writing of Bob Kane's Batman, Feiffer observes that Batman "popularized in comic books the strange idea, first used by the Phantom in newspapers, that when you put on your mask, your eyes disappeared. Two white slits showed—that was all. If that didn't strike terror into the hearts of evildoers, nothing would." On Wonder Woman: "My problem with Wonder Woman was that I could never get myself to believe she was that good. For if she was as strong as they said, why wasn't she tougher looking? Why wasn't she bigger? Why was she so flat-chested? And why did I always feel that, whatever her vaunted Amazon power, she wouldn't have lasted a round with Sheena, Queen of the Jungle? No, Wonder Woman seemed like too much of a put up job, a fixed comic strip—a product of group thinking rather than the individual inspiration that created Superman. It was obvious from the start that a bunch of men got together in a smoke-filled room and brain-stormed themselves a Super Lady. But nobody's heart was in it."
In the "schizoid and chaste menage a' trois" between Lois Lane and Clark Kent and Superman, Feiffer saw the "typical American romance" enacted twice: Lois, pursued by Clark, scorns him; Superman, pursued by Lois, scorns her. This sort of thing marked "the difference between a sissy and a man. A sissy wanted girls who scorned him; a man scorned girls who wanted him. Our cultural opposite of the man who didn't make out with women has never been the man who did—but, rather, the man who could if he wanted to but still didn't."
Four decades later, we can't add much more to the picture Feiffer painted—except, perhaps, some dates.
Given the role Feiffer has played both in newspaper cartooning and in appreciation of the art of comic books, it is surprising that his name so seldom crops up in the fan press. In 1989, Fantagraphics Books set about to correct the oversight, undertaking to publish in fifteen volumes the complete works of Jules Feiffer—cartoons and plays and novels and miscellaneous writing. The first three volumes volumes, copiously complete, follow his career just to the summer of 1958, when Feiffer's weekly cartoon for the Voice was only about eighteen months into its four-decade run.
That summer, Feiffer was probably still doing the cartoon without pay—the same remuneration for which many of the contributors to the Voice labored in the paper's early years. But fame was just around the corner. The London Observer had picked up the cartoon, Playboy's Hugh Hefner was a fan and was about to commission Feiffer to do a monthly cartoon for his magazine, and McGraw-Hill was on the verge of bringing out a collection of the cartoons called Sick, Sick, Sick (which was the name of the feature in those days). In short, Feiffer was on the cusp of national notoriety. But whatever the triumphs of the next decades, he would continue to produce a cartoon for every weekly edition of the Voice. It was here that he got his first big break. And Feiffer and The Village Voice are inextricably linked as a result. Even after their falling out toward the end of the 1990s, Feiffer's emotional attachment to the paper was profound, as we shall see.
The Village Voice was a child of the fifties. Playboy was, too. Playboy's first issue sold out in late 1953. Clearly, the fifties audience was ready for it. It was the Eisenhower Era, the Age of Conformity. It was the decade of the Organization Man and the button-down collar and the gray flannel suit. Naturally, all that compulsion to conform fostered a desire to break ranks. Playboy broke ranks. And so did Beatniks: Jack Kerouac's legendary On the Road was published in 1957. The Voice was launched precisely between the two—on October 26, 1955.
The founders of the paper were Dan Wolf and Ed Fancher. Wolf was the visionary; Fancher, the practical, hard-headed type. They set out to produce a different kind of paper for the different kind of community that the Village was. Fancher saw the Village as the "center of innovation in the arts" and "a symbol in the American consciousness, just as Hollywood is" but standing for intellectual and artistic creativity rather than glitz and glitter. For that audience, the paper must needs be hip, Bohemian, avant-garde and iconoclastic. It would be a gazette for the adventurous intelligentsia.
Wolf and Fancher enlisted the help of Norman Mailer at first. Mailer put up some money and (according to one account) christened the sheet. And for the first few months, he contributed a hip column, trying, doubtless, to resuscitate his literary reputation after the disaster of his second novel, Barbary Shore. So Mailer attracted attention with his bombast, and Wolf and Fancher attracted some other dedicated enthusiasts who valued good writing and principled reportage. But the paper could not survive on quality alone.
According to Kevin Michael McAuliffe who wrote a history of the Voice called The Great American Newspaper, the infant weekly made the right friends and the right enemies at exactly the right time. It survived, McAuliffe says, because it did four things exactly right. First, it championed off-Broadway theater, launching its own award, the Obie ("O-B" for "Off-Broadway"), at the end of the theater season in the summer of 1956. Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera got the nod as best musical of the year. The production ran for years, becoming a Village institution. Second, the Voice crusaded to save Washington Square Park. Robert Moses, the city's powerful czar of public works, wanted to improve the flow of uptown-downtown street traffic by running a four-lane thoroughfare straight through the Park, effectively destroying it. The Voice marshalled the citizenry, and, by the summer of 1960, it had unhorsed Moses' plan. At the same time, the Voice took on "the Bishop," Carmine DeSapio, the political boss of the Village environs. By 1961, the Bishop's machine had lost enough elections due to the campaigns conducted by Wolf and Fancher that DeSapio was effectively defrocked. With these two crusades the Voice introduced the "new politics" to New York: in the new politics, issues and movements took the place of political machinery, and causes displaced connections. In short, the new politics stood for purity not patronage. The Voice established itself by becoming a giant killer. Moses and DeSapio, dead.
In three undertakings, the little weekly paper secured its place in the Village and in the city as a cultural maven, an iconoclastic voice, a community crusader, and a political power. The fourth thing that McAuliffe says ensured the survival of the Voice was that it published the cartoons of Jules Feiffer.
John Wilcock, one of the paper's editors in those years, remembered that Feiffer walked into the office exactly a year after the Voice began. It was, he recalled, in late October 1956, when Feiffer, "very birdlike and defensive," showed some cartoons he'd done to Jerry Tallmer, the associate editor. Other staff members were looking over Tallmer's shoulder as he read them. "They flipped," McAuliffe reported. "This guy, Wilcock was thinking like all the others, was good." Tallmer wanted Feiffer's cartoons in the paper, and he offered Feiffer what was then the typical Voice deal: no pay—but complete editorial freedom to say whatever he wanted to say.
In Feiffer's first cartoon for the Voice, two men in suits are standing at a bus stop reading the newspaper when a third man approaches. The third man launches into a monologue of complaint: "I'm late to work," he says; "I always get a stomach ache when I'm late to work. I'll be docked and I have bills to pay. I always get a stomach ache when I have bills to pay." He begins doubling over in pain—the pain signalled visually by a tiny collection of specks and curlicues and lightning bolts emanating from his stomach.
"That's why I worry a lot," he goes on. "I always get a stomach ache when I worry a lot. So I drink to forget. Then I think I'm becoming an alcoholic. I always get a stomach ache . . . ."
"Shut up!" the two listening men scream at him. Then they exit, stage left—tiny specks and curlicues and lightning bolts emanating from their stomachs.
The first cartoon was emblematic of what was to follow. There is a kind of ironic circularity about Feiffer's cartoons. His people seem stranded on an incestuous merry-go-round of self-absorption. They begin in one psychic place and bemoan their lot in life for a few panels during which they seem about to escape their fate, but they always finish in the same situation they started in. They never seem to escape. Feiffer's cartoons often take us in this circle.
In another early cartoon, a young man stands and waves at the people he knows who are walking by him. They walk by but never acknowledge him. "People never notice me," he says, sadly. Then he walks off, passing a young woman who waves at him and says, "Hello Hubert." He doesn't acknowledge her. She watches him walk away and then says, "People never notice me."
The futility of it all, particularly (among the culturally and socially ambitious Villagers) intellectual or artistic endeavor, was frequently Feiffer's subject. His celebrated dancer is perhaps the most notable in this motif. The dancer first appeared March 27, 1957. "A dance to spring," she announces. Then she flings herself around the page in a series of graceful maneuvers, concluding the dance in repose. Then, as if in answer to this pagan rite, a single snow flake drifts down from above. In the last scene, the dancer departs—in a full-fledged snow storm.
Relations between the sexes were a frequent subject of his cartoons. In one, a rather large woman is berating a rather small man. "That's all you think a girl is for," she says, frowning; "Some people think I have a mind too!" He says, "I'm sorry." She says, "Mr. Big Hands! Do you think I'm on this earth so you can prove your masculinity?" He says, "But it's New Year's Eve. Everybody does that on New Year's Eve." She shouts, "Not to me, Mr. Sloppy Mouth!" Then she adds, "I'm going inside to dance. You can come if you want to." And he's silently elated: "She forgives me. Heh, heh. It's all an act. This is the night," he says, his eyes glowing with lust. In the last panel, they're dancing, and she says, "Don't press so close! That's all you think a girl is for."
Feiffer set himself to make "a weekly satiric comment" on the people he knew: "the young urban middle class, their work habits, sex urges and family antagonisms." He was interested, he wrote later, "in satirizing my own kind: Greenwich Village make-out men, wine and cheese parties, modern dancers, girls who were too busy to see you because they were washing their hair, bosses who thought it was a violation of friendship to ask for a raise, anxious fathers and possessive mothers, Village men and women explaining themselves in an endless babble of self-interest, self-loathing, self-searching and evasion. My aim was to take the Robert Benchley hero and launch him into the Age of Freud."
Although he began with Benchley, Feiffer ended with Dostoevski. After reading Notes from the Underground, he realized that he had "always hoped to get in terms of humor some of the feeling that Dostoevski got about his man, to show within the space of the strip first how a man views himself and then show what the outside sees him as. And the two have absolutely no connection."
The essential Feiffer cartoon is about communication—the breakdown of communication not only between people but within oneself. The failure to understand oneself, to be honest—perhaps brutally so—in self-examination, is a crucial failure. "If someone can't even talk to himself, how can he be expected to meet with, talk to, and evaluate others?" Feiffer asks.
Taking this tack week after week, his cartoons deflated the artistic and cultural pretensions of Village wannabe artistes (who numbered in the legions). But Feiffer was even-handed. His cartoons also revealed and mocked the aspirations and the materialistic underpinnings of middle class society at large, pitchmen and peddlers all.
A short wight in a suit and hat is walking down the street next to a hipster, who snaps his fingers and murmurs, "Oyes, oyes, omyes." The short fellow is complaining that he's tried every way he knows to be hip. "Is it my fault I can't grow sideburns?" he says; "I've tried to dig everything—jazz, motor scooters. Is it my fault I can't change my speech patterns? Haven't I tried to say 'man,' 'like,' 'you know,' 'I mean.' Why can't I be an outsider? What I wouldn't give to be a non-conformist like all the others."
An advertising executive addresses his minions: "All the reports are in, gentlemen—we have researched anger and found it marketable. . . . Angry young men are the literary rage, but literature is not enough. Anger must ride with the times, gentlemen. We must merchandise it in useful ways—keep it loud! Keep it harmless! We can have angry sports car rallies, angry ivy league suits, angry push button shaves. . . . This must be a banner year for anger, gentlemen. Remember—anger can be sold. Next year, we can go back to tranquilizers."
Feiffer didn't play favorites. He spared no one. No one escaped.
He once said, "I'm probably with most of the people in the cartoons—urban, middle class. But I'm not a spokesman for any group. I'm a spokesman for myself. Once you start representing people, you have to be responsible, and I want to retain the right to be irresponsible."
He wanted, in other words, to keep his radical edge sharp and cutting. It was a right he had earned. Feiffer had paid his dues. He had spent nearly ten years in the minor leagues.
Feiffer had always wanted to be a cartoonist, he says. In 1993, he gave us a glimpse of the yearnings and tribulations of his youth in a novel called The Man in the Ceiling (Harper Collins, $14.95 hardback). Although written for young adults, the book is scarcely beneath the notice of older adults, particularly those who may be interested in cartoonists and their lives. The novel is not autobiographical except in the sense that any book about a young artist (whatever his art) is likely to reflect aspects of its author's own youth and apprenticeship. And so we meet Jimmy, ten-and-a-half years old, who draws constantly. He draws comic books—adventure stories full of superheroic deeds of derring-do. Jimmy draws because he must. But he also finds that his pictures earn him a kind of regard from his classmates. Introverted and unathletic, Jimmy can't find acceptance on the playing field like other youths. Jimmy's parents (like so many of Feiffer's creations) are self-absorbed and therefore nearly oblivious of their son's talent and inclination. But Jimmy's uncle, a would-be playwright, notices him and encourages him. Observing that Jimmy can't draw hands very well, Uncle Lester urges him to practice. Jimmy learns from his uncle. And, eventually, his uncle learns from Jimmy. Together they discover the virtue of an old adage. They both learn to "keep trying."
Here and there along the way, Feiffer tells us what it's like to be an aspiring young cartoonist. In Chapter 20, Jimmy sits at his drawingboard, staring at a blank sheet of paper, waiting for inspiration. The paper "stared back at him in a threatening manner. 'Draw on me and you will be sorry,' it was saying. Not really. Paper can't talk. But that's how it seemed. If you know some artists or writers, ask them about blank white paper. It is frightening. It scares you because it looks so white with expectation. White to signify hope. White to signify 'Who do you think you are? Ha!' And white to signify the prizes you're going to win as a result of the drawing or story you put down on the blank white sheet of paper. And sooner or later, when you can't think of any more errands, when you've gone to the bathroom one time too many, when you've lost your favorite pencil but you didn't do a good job and found it before you were ready and it's between your fingers twitching with anticipation, you touch it to the blank sheet of clean paper. And it's over. The paper is ruined. The line you drew stinks. The prize goes to someone else. Who deserves it. Because that artist isn't scared of white paper."
Although essentially a prose undertaking, the book's pictures are integral to its story. Drawing in two styles, Feiffer illustrates not only the story he tells but the comic books his young hero draws. And the conclusion of the novel is a perfect blend of word and picture.
As a youngster, Feiffer (like every other kid aspiring to draw comics) worshipped newspaper cartoonists—Al Capp, Roy Crane, Milton Caniff, Will Eisner; Li'l Abner, Abbie an' Slats, Wash Tubbs, Terry and the Pirates, The Spirit. "I studied them," Feiffer told Gary Groth in a 1988 interview (Comics Journal, no. 124), "—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."
His mother dragged him off to the Art Students League at the age of 14 or 15 to study anatomy. After high school, failing to enter the college of his choice, Feiffer went to Pratt Institute. But his real training in cartooning was at the elbow of Will Eisner. Feiffer wanted to do a syndicated newspaper adventure strip, but he knew that was a difficult field to break into. And he knew comic books were more accessible for a novice. In the spring of 1946, he knocked on a few doors and soon arrived at the Eisner studio. Eisner had just returned from his World War II stint in the armed forces and was trying to revive The Spirit, his celebrated weekly comic strip in comic book format. He had assembled a small production team, and although he told Feiffer he was "worth absolutely nothing," he let the youth "hang out there and erase pages and do gofer work," as Feiffer explained. Feiffer was delighted.
And a few weeks later, when Eisner's fortunes declined somewhat and he let most of his production staff go, he kept Feiffer on at $10 a week, then $20, "to fill in, to do blacks and rule borders and things like that," Feiffer said. "But the main reason he kept me on was because I was the only real fan he had. The others in the office in the early days ... would talk about how old-fashioned [Eisner] 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 traits I had which pissed Eisner off, he also knew I was a scholar of his work, that I was a groupie. ... To the others, this was a job, and if they left that, they'd go to another job; this was an obsession with me."
According to Eisner, Feiffer had "a unique impact on The Spirit. ... Jules couldn't letter. He wasn't a very good draftsman as an artist, but he made up for it in his intensity," he told John Benson in 1973 (Panels 1, Summer 1979). "He was a great man to have in the shop because almost instantly we had a good strong interaction. I could talk stories with him."
Eventually, Feiffer graduated from erasing pencils to writing the feature. "At some point," he said, "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."
Feiffer was suddenly a collaborator. "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." Talking to Benson in 1974, Feiffer described the process: "I would take the actual pages and write the story on the pages and break it down into panels and do a kind of half-assed layout, very lightly sketch it in enough for Eisner to know exactly what was going on. Then he would go over it, edit it, and rewrite it where he felt it needed rewriting, or call me in. Sometimes he [followed my layout] and other times he improvised on it and other times he changed it entirely. ... It should be clear ... that even when I wrote a Spirit story ... they were still essentially his. ... There's a difference between a ghost and a creator. That has to be understood. Some of them that I wrote—particularly the ones that were less violent and more human interest—were based on my own conceptions, which were drawn out of radio, more or less. But others were pure Eisner, and I was simply acting as Eisner's head, doing them as I knew Eisner would do them, or would have done them at an earlier time. As I told him when I started writing," Feiffer continued, "I felt that I had more of a key to what the strip once was and to the excitement that turned me on about it than he, who was into lots of other things at that particular time, and no longer had that interest. But he taught me how to write stories so I understood the style; I mean, it was a nuts and bolts thing. So some of them I think of as mine and others I think of as really his even though I did them."
Others in the shop occasionally did a little writing on The Spirit, but, Eisner said, "Jules was the only one I would trust to do a Spirit story."
The youth also learned from Abe Kanegson, Eisner's letterer, to whom Feiffer would bring samples of his work for criticism. Kanegson taught Feiffer to set standards for himself and to reach for them.
After nearly three years in Eisner's shadow, Feiffer began champing at the bit. He asked Eisner for a raise in pay. "I was making something like $25 a week," he told Groth. "I was writing The Spirit and laying it out. I thought that was worth $30 a week." Eisner didn't agree. Feiffer threatened to quit. "To keep me on, he said he'd give me the back page of The Spirit section."
The back page had been the province of a one-page strip for some time; Feiffer inherited the spot in lieu of a raise in pay. And his one-page creation, Clifford, started on July 10, 1949. Clifford was a little kid, maybe 6-7 years old. He was drawn like most cartoon kids in those days—tiny body, large head. (Like Charlie Brown only a year or so before Schulz's creation debuted.) But Clifford was different than other kid strips of the period. Said Feiffer: "I wanted to do a kid strip that was unabashedly pro-kid and from a kid's point of view. It seemed to me that every strip on kids up to that time was done from an adult point of view, saying 'Aren't they terrible, aren't they awful.'"
Eisner liked Clifford. "It really deserves to be recognized as the forerunner of Peanuts," he told Benson. "Whether Charlie Schultz was influenced by Feiffer or not, I don't know, but Feiffer was there with the Peanuts concept before Peanuts got started [in the fall of 1950]. I don't know whether Jules'd claim it, but I credit him with it."
In Volume One of Fantagraphics' Feiffer: The Collected Works, we find Feiffer's kid strip. Although the drawing style is dated, the content is not: presenting a kid's view of himself and his world, the strip is as ageless as children. These strips also give us insight into Feiffer. We can see the seeds of Sick, Sick, Sick in Clifford. Before the strip was a year old, Clifford very often behaved in the manner of a Feiffer Character: he (or one of his friends) was sometimes undermined by his own fixations or pretensions.
Feiffer arranges a marble game for Clifford, setting it up as if it were a major athletic event (or an old-fashioned shoot-out in a Western). But the awe-struck audience of watching children is quickly distracted by another playground entertainment, and they run off and leave the once puffed-up Clifford alone with his marbles, completely deflated.
And in January 1950, Clifford's diminutive pal, Seymour, walks the street among adults, complaining: "Bein' a little boy can be a pain in the neck sometimes. F'instance, y'get just one view of people." We see him surrounded by the legs of the adults who tower over him. "All the time, just one view. How would you like it?" He meets a small dog about his size. "You an' me, doggy—nobody knows we're alive. Walked on, stepped all over, nothin'—that's us." As they walk on together, they pass another dog, even smaller. Seymour and his dog pass by, and Feiffer shifts our attention to the new, smaller dog. This dog is saying, "Bein' a little dog can be a pain in the neck sometimes. . . ."
This juvenile estrangement is echoed in one of Feiffer's earliest cartoons for the Voice. (Almost word-for-word, in fact—"People never notice me. . . .") By then, Feiffer had come to realize that estrangement is not juvenile: it's part of the human condition, whether young or old.
Clifford and his pint-sized pals are often defeated. Ostensibly, that's because they are children in an adult world or children whose abilities are not mature enough for the tasks they set themselves. The perspective Feiffer developed for this work he would later turn on the world at large, giving his adult undertakings their distinctive point of view. In attempting to see children from their point of view, Feiffer had honed an insight into human nature itself. Inside, we are all still children—alone, self-absorbed, desperate for one kind of success or another, but, somehow, innocent and hopeful. Like Feiffer characters.
The Fantagraphics Clifford volume also offers a sketchbook section of miscellaneous early Feiffer art, including a comic book page rendered in a wholly realistic fashion. And the volume includes the famous Spirit installment in which the Eisner the Cartoonist is murdered in the frame story (drawn in the usual manner) by his Feiffer Assistant, who then takes over the strip and produces a Spirit adventure with Clifford in the mask and snap-brim hat—drawn in Feiffer's style. Published December 31, 1950, it was almost the last of Clifford's appearances; the final Clifford appeared March 4, 1951. By then, Feiffer was in the Army.
Feiffer had been drafted early in 1951, and in the army, once again employing the perspective of the very young, he produced his first major work—Munroe. Volume Two of the Collected Feiffer reprints this celebrated story, all 50 pages of it. Munroe is a savage satire of the military mind and its rutted, immutable routines—exactly the sort of vision we should expect from a young creative personality encountering regimented life for the first time.
"It was the first time I was truly away from home for a long period of time," Feiffer explained, "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 [the Korean War] and in an army I despised. And which army displayed every rule of illogic and contempt for the individual and mindless exercise of power—and that became my material."
Munroe is a little kid, but he lacks Clifford's assertiveness. He is only four years old, and he is drafted into the army—by mistake, we assume. But military officialdom, the ultimate communication cul-de-sac, treats Munroe just as it treats all draftees, refusing to recognize that he is somehow different. Munroe was the first long work of Feiffer's career, and he had great difficulty finishing it. He started it during his first year in the army but didn't find an ending until after he had been discharged in 1953.
"I did a couple dummies of it," he told Groth. "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. ... 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."
After he got out of the service, he was able to devise an ending—an ending entirely consistent with the fabric of the work as a whole. "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 ... [that] 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 ... the answer was in a sense dictated right from the first ten pages of the stuff."
Returning to civilian life in 1953, Feiffer tried unsuccessfully to interest a book publisher in Munroe. He also tried selling a comic strip to several syndicates. Again, no luck. Volume Two includes the strips Feiffer concocted, some in pencilled state only. Kermit (which he invented in 1950) is about a child prodigy; Natalie is about a little girl. In Dopple, Feiffer might be said to have left the world of childhood, but considering that the premise of the strip is that the world is flat (a proposition that the title character and his wife set out to prove), we can see Feiffer's now-familiar stance still in effect. While experimenting with these strips, Feiffer earned his living by working in a series of "schlock art houses." And then he began hearing about The Village Voice.
Feiffer's approach to the Voice was, by his own admission, "totally cynical." He wanted to appear in the paper's pages in order to attract the attention of others who might publish his work—and in order to make a name for himself. In shopping Munroe around, he had learned that his being unknown was an enormous handicap. "I had been turned down over and over and over again by book publishers," he recounted to Groth. "Munroe was turned down. A couple of other books—the book I called Sick, Sick, Sick—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. 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 that 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," he continued. "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 it was the paper that a lot of the people whose attention I wanted read—because it was hip; it was inside. It was modestly circulated, but to all the right people. I was smart enough to know—even at the age of twenty-seven (which is what I was then)—that if I could get the stuff they're turning down into print anywhere, they would think, Well, wait a minute: it's in print. So if I could 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."
Almost. "I thought it would take a couple of years," Feiffer said. "It took something like three months. It was very fast."
Feiffer's drawings at first were a stylistic hodge-podge. He was influenced by William Steig and Robert Osborne. And, occasionally, by UPA animated cartoons, then all the rage. United Productions of America was born out of an instructional film company that had been formed in 1944 to produce an animated pro-Franklin Roosevelt film for the Presidential campaign that year. Later, under the designing influence of Osborne, UPA created an entirely new visual style—modern, simplified, almost abstract. (One of UPA's most celebrated creations, Mr. Magoo, first appeared in Ragtime Bear in 1949; Gerald McBoing-Boing, which established the company's new look, debuted in January 1951.) The UPA style was widely imitated in the early fifties, and Feiffer tried his hand at it, too.
Volume Three of the Collected Feiffer presents the first year-and-a-half of his Voice cartoons in strict chronological order, and we can see Feiffer's style evolving, sometimes week-by-week. By the spring of 1957, he had abandoned his most obvious attempts at Steig and others, and his own style was emerging. His style would continue to evolve, though—as does the style of any artist—until it reached what I regard as its mature form in the mid-sixties. By the seventies, Feiffer's compositions as well as his line were wonderfully loose yet starkly etched.
For much of the early run of the Voice feature, Feiffer did not much plumb the potential of the visual-verbal artform—as an artform. His cartoon was essentially a verbal enterprise: the pictures served to identify the stereotypical personage being ridiculed and to pace the talk, timing verbal disclosure until the punchline was reached and the speaker's Achilles' heel was revealed. The expressions on his characters' faces added useful information to our comprehension of the talk and its import, but the basic objectives of the cartoon were often accomplished through words alone. And sometimes the pictures were nothing more than talking heads. By the seventies, however, Feiffer's visualizations were contributing substantially to the mission of the cartoon, adding information essential to complete understanding of his point.
An anti-gun cartoon, for example, offers the following speech: "No gun control! Shooting a president is tragic, but limiting our use of hand guns is worse. Shooting women and children is wrong, but regulating the right to bear arms is worse. Deprive Americas of the freedom to shoot and you will leave our families ungunned and unprotected, ripe for terrorist take-over. Shoot first! Protect the lives of the ungunned."
The sophism of this diatribe is underscored by the visuals—a series of pictures showing the speaker firing a pistol from all sorts of positions, prone, sitting, crouching, standing, which effectively portrays the speaker as a fanatic who loves to fire guns.
The female half of a hippie couple says (in a succession of scenes illustrating her words): "Dancing ... partying ... doping. Fun's fun, Al," she goes on, "but I got ambitions. I want to do something with my life." She arises from the bed upon which her lover remains, zonked out, dissolute. She concludes: "I'm going to learn how to read." Her lover's head lolls back as he slides, apparently, into complete unconsciousness.
Feiffer's dancer often made his point with her pose in the final panel. A monologue of self-pity delivered by Henry Kissinger concludes with a picture of him in a crucified position. Nixon is depicted as King Kong, wrecking havoc on Washington monuments, but the chorus of observers decides they can't get rid of him because "it would tear the country apart."
Although Feiffer was achieving his objective when he broke into print at the Voice, since he was not paid for his weekly cartoon, he continued working at a variety of undistinguished art shops for the first year or so. Among his stops was Terrytoons in New Rochelle, where he met and worked for Gene Deitch, formerly with UPA, who would later produce the animated version of Munroe (which would win an Academy Award in 1961). But Feiffer was frustrated by the button-down minds of the studio's owners, CBS, and welcomed the chance to quit as soon as it came. It came in 1958, and it came from Hugh Hefner. Hefner had been watching Feiffer's work in the Voice and offered him $500 a month to do a cartoon for Playboy.
By this time, Feiffer's cartoon had been picked up by the London Observer (which resulted in his being mistakenly perceived as a British cartoonist—"I got a lot of cachet that way," Feiffer said), and McGraw Hill was poised to publish Sick, Sick, Sick, the first collection of Feiffer cartoons from the Voice. The first Feiffer cartoons in Playboy, in fact, were "pre-prints" from the book. (Although the Voice cartoon was originally titled Sick, Sick, Sick, Feiffer changed the title to avoid his work's being confused with the so-called "sick humor" of Mort Sahl and Mike Nichols and Elaine May. At first, Feiffer tried to explain how his cartoon was different: "I said it was not sick humor but that society was sick, that I was commenting on a sick society, and that I hated sick jokes. I turned blue explaining myself. Eventually, it was simpler to drop the title Sick, Sick, Sick and rename the cartoon Feiffer.")
Although Feiffer was happy at the prospect of earning a living wage at last, he was not quite comfortable with Playboy. He didn't agree with the "girl on every arm" philosophy that dominated the magazine. Thus, in the pages of Playboy, he saw himself as "the dissident cartoonist." But that wasn't an unusual feeling with him once his cartoon was being syndicated nationally.
"Outside of the Voice," he told Groth, "there wasn't a single newspaper in the country running me that I agreed with. And Playboy was by no means as objectionable to me as 90% of the newspapers that I was being syndicated in, which were considered mainstream. I mean, the mainstream I considered the foul stream, as Jesse Jackson might say."
Despite his disagreement with the magazine's point of view, Feiffer enjoyed working with Hefner, who the cartoonist described unequivocally as "a first-rate cartoon editor." Feiffer would send in roughs of his cartoons, and Hefner would send them back with two- and three-page letters that reviewed virtually every panel, every drawing, in the rough.
"At first," Feiffer said, "I'd look at them and groan. Oh, shit. [But] 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. And he'd say, Okay—go ahead. He would never say, I'm sorry you disagree, but it's my magazine, [and] if you want this in, you'd make the change. That conversation never took place. The conversation that 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 was fascinated by the subject [of cartooning]; he just loved the nuts and bolts [of it]. How do you make this work better? I think this panel is diversionary. They're talking too much here about something else. It was extraordinarily helpful. And over and over again. He would criticize cartoons in order to make my point stronger—although my point was often counter to the Playboy philosophy."
Feiffer eventually left the magazine for a time, then returned, then left again. During his second stint in the 1980s, he used again the characters he'd introduced during his first run—only now they were middle-aged men, but they were still 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 [vision]," Feiffer said. "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."
But Feiffer had absolutely no feedback from the readers of the magazine. Understandably, perhaps. And as a result, after a couple years, he quit again.
Meanwhile, Feiffer in the fifties and sixties wrote articles for magazines like Mademoiselle, Holiday, Life, Saturday Evening Post, Harpers, The Atlantic and Ramparts. He was on the lecture circuit. He wrote a novel. And he began writing plays.
"When I began writing for the theater, [I] discovered that this was what I really wanted to do and loved it every bit as much [as] and often a lot more than cartooning," he told Groth.
Feiffer's first venture into play writing was a satirical review produced in Chicago in 1961. It was called "The Explainers" (like a collection of his cartoons published the year before.) The leap from cartoonist to playwright was not as great as might be imagined: Feiffer's forte as a cartoonist was dialogue and monologue; the visual nature of a comic strip gave him the staging device for timing the speeches. Play writing is very similar. Both modes of expression required that Feiffer get into the personalities of his characters, writing from the psychic inside out. The act of assuming a personality, or persona—of becoming a character—in order to write became a maneuver that Feiffer adopted even for writing straight expository prose like the introductions to his books. "I write myself as a character. . . . I'm writing in what I have assigned myself as a voice. There's this character Feiffer who comes down and makes a statement."
The same year as "The Explainers" review debuted, Feiffer's one-act play "Crawling Arnold" was staged in Spoleto, Italy. And two years later, Feiffer's first novel, Harry, the Rat with Women, was published. In 1967 came "Little Murders," a two-act comedy produced in New York. Then "Collision Course" off-Broadway at the Cafe au Go Go and "God Bless" in New Haven in 1968. The next year, Feiffer contributed "Dick and Jane," a one-act piece that appeared in "Oh! Calcutta!" And in 1970 "The White House Murder Case" was produced at Circle in the Square. In 1971, Feiffer broke into movies with "Carnal Knowledge," a film directed by Mike Nichols and starring Jack Nicholson, Art Garfunkel, Candice Bergen, and Ann Margaret. It was Feiffer's first really big hit, and it gained considerable notoriety in the obscenity litigation surrounding its production. Then came "Knock, Knock" and the second novel, Akroyd, in 1975. In 1980, he wrote the screenplay for Robert Altman's Popeye, starring Robin Williams and Shelly Duvall.
Feiffer started writing prose because he was bored with cartooning. He'd boxed himself in with his approach to humor, as he explained to Groth. "I thought that for the [cartoon] to be effective, the movement [any action] 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. . . . 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."
Looking at the parade of talking heads and static compositions in Feiffer's cartoon through the late fifties and into the sixties, I can see how he would be bored drawing it. I feel that he worked out of this period by the mid-sixties, but Feiffer says he didn't feel energized by drawing again until after he produced the book-length work, Tantrum, which was published by Knopf in 1979. His opinion, however, arises more from his sense of satisfaction in the act of drawing than from the appearance of the work. In doing Tantrum Feiffer eschewed preliminary pencil sketching. "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."
After finishing the book, he continued the same approach with his weekly cartoon. "I got interested in drawing again," he said to Groth. "Drawing as a professional was never as much fun as drawing as an amateur. ... 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."
Writing the cartoon—creating its verbal spinal chord—was, however, still the essence of the work. Feiffer did a minimum of three drafts, sometimes as many as six or seven, before he was ready to draw, and he usually let the script ferment for a day before doing the drawings.
Feiffer's satire turned from the strictly social to the sharply political fairly soon in the cartoon's Village Voice run. Although he didn't intend to go into politics at all, being interested chiefly in the psychic and social disorders of his generation, Feiffer quickly discovered that he couldn't avoid political themes. All his characters—the modern dancers, the artists, the wannabe creative talents, the advertising men, the victim heroes and heroines —all, "self-obsessed as they were, could not live independently of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the president of their existence [throughout the fifties]. Eisenhower's presidency surrounded me and mine, not in its politics . . . but in a Cold War mood of muted anxiety and isolation that bled out of the White House into offices, bars, coffee houses, and bedrooms."
In short, politics so permeated American life that even a satirist interested chiefly in personal relationships found himself confronted by politics because government policies contributed to everyone's idea of himself or herself. An early example of this is "Boom," a long cartoon narrative that first appeared in the Voice October 29, 1958. Reprinted in Volume Three of the Collected Feiffer, "Boom" is a searing indictment of the complacency of government in the face of mounting evidence that nuclear testing will eventually destroy the human race. Throughout the piece, bureaucracies and the military continually deny the destructive potency of radioactive fallout. In the end, it doesn't matter: the bomb, perfected through repeated testing, destroys everything. Or so it seems.
So integrated are politics and American life in Feiffer's cartoons that the 1982 reprint volume Feiffer's America is organized by presidential tenure—"The Ike Age," "The Sundance Kid" (Kennedy), "Here Lies Lyndon," "Vietnixon," and so on through the early Reagan years. But Feiffer was a nonpartisan critic: politicians of every persuasion received his caustic attention. Ridiculing Eisenhower's ineffectuality in the cause of civil rights during the crisis of integrating schools in Little Rock, the cartoonist drew the President at a press conference, babbling mindless evenhandedness: "I deplore the actions of extremists on both sides," Feiffer's Ike says, "—those who blow up schools and those who want to keep them open."
But John F. Kennedy fared no better under Feiffer's scrutiny. He depicted one of JFK's new frontiersmen saying: "Don't think I don't understand you idealists. I was an idealist myself before I joined the Administration. But then I learned politics is the art of the possible. We make our stand, introduce a bill milder than the stand we have taken, make a deal to water it down with amendments in order to get another watered-down bill we want out of committee. And then we get both bills on the floor for a vote where they're defeated. This gives us an issue to campaign on while freeing us from having to implement a meaningless bill which would have cost us congressional votes on future measures that we might feel equally strong about! It's easy to be principled," he concludes, "but it's another thing to get your program through."
Feiffer ends the book with a few words on the role of the satirist: "Reagan and his kind, his predecessors and their kind, are not my kind. They are my teachers, however. They teach what not to, where not to, and how not to. They give negative lessons, fine for the uses of satire, which is essentially a negative form. Surviving our leaders is not just a struggle, it is a joy; that is the irony of the work I do. The more outraged I am as a citizen, the more fun I find as a cartoonist. In the long and short run, I may not affect much but the state of my own sanity. The cartoon keeps it in bounds, it continues the illusion of hope, it raises for me the distant possibility of actual solutions to some of our problems. That possibility is my muse. And my rationale. It gets me out of bed in the morning, it makes me read the papers, it forces my mind off unpaid bills and the writing of plays, it humanizes me, it galvanizes me into combat. See me advance on the White House. See me sit down at my desk. See me pick up my pen. See me attack my enemies: a cartoon of a happy man."
Taken as a whole, Feiffer's cartoons are a history of modern times. History viewed askance so that the humor in the human comedy can be discerned.
Meanwhile, The Village Voice went on. Dan Wolf and Ed Fancher disappeared from the masthead in a series of sales and re-sales that began in the seventies, ending with Rupert Murdoch, the robber baron of journalism, as owner. But Feiffer was as biting as ever. One of his cartoons from his last years at the paper showed a reporter interviewing a "man in the street." The man, it quickly develops, is unemployed. The reporter's questions—about the role of the economy in the Presidential elections, minimum wage, and so on—make no sense to him. "Without a job," he says in response to one query, "who cares?" The reporter, oblivious to the man's situation, continues asking her litany of pre-determined questions. "Do you favor Clinton or Dole?" she asks. Says he: "They never heard o' me, I never heard o' them."
Perhaps the most profound thing about communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished. Effective communication requires good listeners as well as good talkers. We still aren't listening any better than we ever did. And Feiffer persisted in reminding us of it until, long about 1998, the Voice did him in. After years of publishing his cartoon for nothing and then for next-to-nothing, the Voice started to paid him handsomely, until the arrival of another new management, which, in an effort to cut expenses, announced they were cutting Feiffer's pay drastically. Insulted (and understandably so), Feiffer took his cartoon out of the paper, a sad and fateful act. Although the cartoon was in syndication (since 1959) and therefore continued to appear in various venues, "the Voice is what made the whole thing practical," Feiffer acknowledged to Michael Dean at The Comics Journal when discussing his retirement of the weekly cartoon. Choosing between the straight-jacket syndicate deadline and more flexible working conditions for numerous other projects, the cartoonist elected to discontinue the cartoon. He had been lambasting cultural Achilles' heels for decades, but the cartoon was as much a political cartoon as it was social commentary. Feiffer was awarded a Pulitzer in 1986 for political cartooning. But political cartooning, he observed on the NewsHour, has changed—and not for the better.
"When I used rage in a political cartoon, it was aimed at certain people for certain reasons and on certain issues," he explained. "But now, attitude has replaced politics, replaced sensibility—and any kind of philosophy. It's gotcha and smugness and I'm cool and you're not and I know more than you do; I'm gonna go with attitude which will stop you from asking questions."
Feiffer at first considered just stopping the strip without actually staging a finale. But realizing that many of his readers would be disappointed, he decided to do one last pirouette or two with the only regular reappearing character in the cartoon—the dancer. After the leotarded dancer's first appearance with a "dance to spring," she returned, a typical Village artistic amateur, to celebrate every season—hopeful and giddy in the spring, lazy and wilting in the summer, wistful and nostalgic in the fall, bleak and shivering in the winter. Given to leaps of ecstasy and silly ranting, she was modeled after "the first girl who slept with me and spent the night," Feiffer told Sarah Boxer at the New York Times. She was a modern dance student at Brooklyn College, who, Feiffer believes, has since died. "The early dancer looked just like her," he said. "And as I changed girlfriends, her body changed." But none of the dancer's appearances were based upon his wife, Jenny.
The dancer came to represent Feiffer himself. "At a certain point," he said, "the girl became me, and I became her. She was there to talk about how lousy her life was. That I will miss."
In the four-installment finale (see below), it's deeply gratifying to see that Feiffer and his dancer are as dysfunctional as any of the other couples he's dissected over the years. And then Feiffer becomes a dancer himself, lending another layer of meaning to his final assertion on the NewsHour: "I do want to find a job for the dancer."
I'm reminded of William Butler Yeats' line—"How can we know the dancer without the dance?" How can we know a cartoonist if there's no cartoon? But Feiffer is perhaps more in the mold of Don Marquis's alley cat, Mehitabel, about whom Archie the Cockroach wrote so memorably (always in lower case):
dance mehitabel dance
caper and shake a leg
what little blood is left
will fizz like wine in a keg
Archie's poetic life of Mehitabel, illustrated by George Herriman in his kraziest manner, also provides the appropriate coda for the alleged retirement of a cartoonist: "There's a dance in the old dame yet," Mehitabel sings, "toujour gai, toujour gai."