In 1956, the Village Voice, then just a year old, gave an ambitious but struggling young cartoonist named Jules Feiffer space for a comic strip, thereby launching an illustrious cartooning career, and revolutionizing the notion of what a mainstream cartoonist might dare to address in print. In his expressively drawn, multipanel comic (which would run for more than four decades), Feiffer’s nebbishy characters explored all manner of anxieties and neuroses—puncturing Cold War era repressiveness with their angst-ridden monologues on everything from sex to social anxiety to dysfunctional family life. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Feiffer ventured into political territory, becoming an early and outspoken critic of the nation’s civil rights and Vietnam policies—and later going on to skewer Reagan, Clinton, and others. (In 1986, he received a Pulitzer Prize for political cartooning). Feiffer also successfully branched out into other media, writing the movie Carnal Knowledge, the play Little Murders, and numerous beloved children’s books, among many other projects.
In his new memoir, Backing Into Forward, Feiffer looks back over his extraordinary life and career, chronicling how a gawky, unpromising boy from the Depression-era Bronx grew up to take his place among the pantheon of cartooning legends that he had admired as a young boy.
You talk about having just sort of known from a young age that you were going to have a successful cartooning career. How did you know?
I think it’s the arrogance of kiddishness, combined with having no other choice. In every other way, I was a failure as a boy. I couldn’t do any of the stuff boys do to be successful boys. I couldn’t play ball. I was smaller and skinnier than virtually all the other kids—including the girls. So I was inadequate in the extreme, and the only way I could achieve any notice was to draw pictures, which was something I could do and the other kids couldn’t. A lesson like that stays with you—especially if it’s established by the time you’re six or seven. So it became clear to me that either I was going to be a cartoonist, or I was going to be a nothing.
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Do you think that’s how a lot of cartoonists wind up in the field?
Cartoonists are very different from everybody else. Some are class clowns, or they did poorly in school, or they didn’t get along with their families, or they live lives underground—in hiding from everybody else. One way or the other, they are weird, and the only pleasure they get is by drawing. Not all cartoonists are like that. But an extraordinary number of cartoonists are exactly like that. And I was among that group.
You say it was the army that turned you into a satirist. What was it about the army?
Well, my ideals and dreams starting out were to be a rather conventional newspaper strip artist. Newspaper strips back then had a lot of clout. They were a big, big deal, not at all like today, where they’re tiny and hard to read and not part of any kind of public consciousness. Back then, from the 1920s on, comic strips were a major part of American entertainment, along with movies and network radio. I loved comic strips, and identified with them. So I wanted to draw and write like the big boys in the strips—whether it was Al Capp, who did Li’l Abner, or Milton Caniff, who did Terry and the Pirates, or someone else.
But once I got into the army, and this is in 1951, during the waning days of the Korean War, I found the blatant, automatic, day-to-day misuse of authority—the contempt for the enlisted man—so overwhelming, and so far different from any of the far gentler misuses of power that I had suffered in the Bronx, that it released the kind of rage that I’d probably been sitting on all my life, but had never dared to confront.
The army made me feel anonymous. I felt that I was being drowned and destroyed by it. And in order to save myself, I began writing and drawing in a way I never had before, which was full of rage. But I understood, even then—early on—that you can’t show your hand to the reader. If you’re angry, and express that anger in a tantrum, or a polemic, then nobody’s interested, including yourself. So you have to find a misleading way—a satiric and comic way—to make your points. Somehow or other, I understood that from the start.
So I came up with the idea of Munro, this four-year-old boy—namely me—who gets drafted by mistake, which is how I had perceived my own drafting. He tries to convince the authorities that he’s only four. And of course, they don’t believe him. Once you’ve got that concept, the story basically writes itself. Munro wasn’t just my first attempt at political and social satire, but also my first awareness of how to go about expressing myself. I had to remain true to the essential vision, and not go off in six different directions just because it might be easier or less inflammatory. I had to confront the idea that I was saying something powerful, and to resist any urge to sell it out or soften it—or, at the end, to wink at the reader and say, “Oh, see—I’m only kidding.” My point was that I wasn’t kidding.
It was the Village Voice strips, though, that brought you to mainstream attention.
Yes, Munro never got published or seen by the public at all until I was already famous. The Voice—and this can’t be overstated—was responsible for my having a career in the first place. Had there not been a Village Voice, the likelihood of me speaking to you right now, or having written a memoir at all, or having a memoir to write is unlikely. Nobody was giving me a chance. And I’m fairly certain nobody would have given me a chance. There were no alternative newspapers at the time. There was nobody interested in the kind of work that I was determined to do. Outside of the Voice, there was not a single outlet in the United States of America. It was only after I appeared there and surprised everyone by building an audience, not just in the environs of the Village, but elsewhere, that I started getting picked up. What really made the break was when the Observer in London picked me up, thereby blowing away the conventional wisdom that my stuff could only work in the Village. I was actually far more popular in England at the time. I became a craze over there, the way I wasn’t yet over here.
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You describe things happening for you pretty quickly once your strip started appearing in the Voice. Were you pinching yourself, having gone from unpublished and struggling to “it” cartoonist overnight? Or did you take it pretty much in stride, since you’d always been so convinced you were going to make it?