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.
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.
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?
It was a combination of the two. Amidst all the insecurity, and the ambition, and determination, there are two things always at work. One is self doubt, and the other is arrogance. And they work hand in hand. So I was convinced this stuff was good and that it was unlike what anybody else was doing, and that it would take off exactly the way it finally did. But at the same time I was also ready to be totally wrong about everything.
You write about your struggles to develop a style, and how, starting out, each of your Voice strips was in a different style from the last. How long did it take for the style you’re now known for to emerge?
Actually, it didn’t take as long as I thought it did. About two years ago, Fantagraphic books put out a book called Explainers, which is the first ten years of my Voice cartoons. And for the first time in years, I was able to look at the stuff in sequence. I discovered that that struggle to find a style, which I had remembered as having taken two, three, or four months, had in fact asserted itself after about a month or so. But in my head, both then and now, the effort to visualize it correctly felt like an immense struggle. You can see if you look at those cartoons, the variation of line, of approach, of layout—the use of balloons, getting rid of balloons, the use of panels, getting rid of panels, imitations of William Steig, imitations of somebody else. I was going back and forth trying to be everybody.
Did you know right away when you’d finally hit on the style you would stick with?
Well, there are two things that happen. You can draw an original and say, “This is it.” But not until it comes out in the paper, and you see how it reproduces do you know it. Does it look comfortable on the page? Does it announce itself? Is it what you thought it was going to be? You have to adjust your mental eye to understand that what you’re putting down on paper is going to look different in a newspaper. Until you can figure out how it’s going to look in a newspaper and make that adjustment, it’s hard to arrive at a final approach.
Even after I had already arrived, I changed my style any number of times. If you look at the later work—not in Explainers, but after fifteen, twenty years—I started working in a much more direct approach. I stopped penciling my figures—doing layouts and then inking over them. I started just doing them freehand. And then I would cut them out and put them in a photocopier and blow them up or reduce them in size and paste them up so that the line would be freer. I was always trying to go for the sort of line that captured the freedom I had as a kid, just drawing in pencil. Back then, you couldn’t reproduce in pencil, so I was trying to find some means by which I could approximate that. Finally, I just started drawing freehand, beginning with a book called Tantrum, which was a novel in cartoon form. I had so much fun doing that—just putting ink on paper, without knowing where it was going. From that point on, I did the strips that way.
Eventually did you start using Photoshop to do the layouts?
You’re talking to someone who wouldn’t know the first thing about Photoshop. I know it’s a word, but I don’t know what you do with it. I’m computer-illiterate.
What I always liked about cartooning, or any kind of drawing, from the time I was a very little boy, was creating on paper a sense of immediacy. For that matter, I tried to do the same thing as a playwright. In my plays, I always tried to fashion on stage a sense that what was happening wasn’t written—it just happened to be unfolding in front of the audience. I wanted to make it more of a contact sport than it usually is—a contact sport between the audience and the play.
In the book, you talk about how your style of generating cartoons is similar to what they do in improv groups—riffing off an idea and just seeing where it goes.
Yes, I realized when I first saw Second City in Chicago that the way they work, which is starting with an opening line and following it through, was basically the same way I did strips. I’d start writing, and if six or seven or eight panels later, a cartoon ended up getting somewhere, then I’d draw it. The writing always came first. And if it didn’t, then I’d either try to doctor it, or throw it out and start again. And as I say in the book, sometimes I’d get as far as six or seven panels, but I couldn’t figure out the ending, so I’d put it aside. And then I’d stumble on it many years later—sometimes twenty-five or thirty years later—and suddenly I’d think of a last panel. It would come immediately.
So were you always inspired by a line of text, rather than starting with a doodle?
Occasionally, when I was coming up blank, I would just doodle, hoping that the drawing would inspire something. And sometimes it did. But most of the time—I’d say 99 percent of the time—I’d start with text. Sometimes an opening line would come. Or, often enough, during the Vietnam and civil rights years, an issue would be angering me that I’d want to address, and I’d figure out a way of turning that into a strip.
Would you do a few strips at once and then take time off? Or would it be a regular routine each week, where you’d sit down on a certain day and crank it out?
Both. You always think, “I’m not going to be caught this time; I’m going to get way ahead.” And then two minutes before you have to, you finally get to work. So I would leave too many things to the last minute. I had what I call a system of avoidances. I’d have three or four things that I needed to do, and the one that was most important would be the last one I’d get to. So I’d work on one thing, which would energize me toward the next thing. And I found that switching from the cartoon, to plays, to whatever, would energize both forms, rather than distract me.
You cartooned for the Voice from the mid-‘50s through the late ‘90s. Is there a decade that you found to be most fertile from a cartooning perspective?
Looking back at the early years—in the mid-‘50s—the reader really wasn’t expecting much of anything, because the culture was so moribund, and was about to undergo seismic change. So that period, when I was just discovering myself, was by definition fertile, because I was beginning, and I was beginning to find an audience. And the audience had a need for this kind of work, because it didn’t exist before. But while I was doing it, I wasn’t thinking “This is a really fertile time.” I was just trying to figure everything out.
Then, in the ‘60s, during the height of the civil rights and Vietnam years, virtually noone else was doing this kind of commentary. On civil rights, the only other cartoonist that I know of who was white and was making strong comments was Bill Mauldin, and he was losing lots of newspapers. So it was very exciting to be out there. This was a time when Martin Luther King was thought of as an extremist by the very respectable mainstream white press. So my target was the well-meaning, white liberal who was saying exactly the wrong things to the civil rights movement. I found it exciting to go against the grain of established liberal opinion. I was doing the same thing on Vietnam, which was, after all, a liberal war. We who were the war protestors were always being told that our protests were in ignorance, and that the insiders—the Pentagon and State—had access to information that we didn’t have. But with all their access, it turned out the experts were wrong and the protestors were right. And we knew that from fairly early on. So it was exciting to get that down in print, because it was a fairly minority opinion until it became a majority position, which was only after we started losing the war.
And did you sometimes have the satisfaction of hearing from people that your cartoons had changed their outlook?
Well, what I got from a whole generation of younger cartoonists was how my work had taken them into the field when they hadn’t been considering it. They decided to become cartoonists, some of them, because they had seen my work. They hadn’t thought you were allowed to make those kinds of statements in cartoons before. And that inspired them, which was very exciting for me to hear.
The whole genre of alternative weekly cartoons, with multiple panels and a significant amount of text—do you consider that generation of cartoonists to be heirs to what you pioneered at the Voice?
Oh, they freely admit to that. I’ve heard it from the likes of Matt Groening and Dan Perkins who does Tom Tomorrow, and others. You know, there are quotes on the back of the book from Chris Ware and Art Spiegelman. It’s very heartwarming for me, that these people who I admire enormously consider themselves my children. I love that.
Are there cartoonists you especially follow these days?
Right now, in the Washington Post, Tom Toles does extraordinary stuff. Pat Oliphant, who has been around for almost as long as I have is still brilliant. Tony Auth in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Signe Wilkinson in the Philadelphia Daily News. I don’t read strips much, but Mutts is still entertaining. And Doonesbury. I think Trudeau is amazing in how he’s kept up the pace. And I don’t want to leave out my friend Jeff Danziger, who is an extraordinary cartoonist.
You say that when you tried to write a couple novels back in the ‘60s, the experience was excruciating, whereas cartooning was generally a smooth process for you. Once you’d hit your stride with the Voice cartoons, did doing them pretty much always come easily?
Well, it wasn’t necessarily easy, but it would always come. Whether it was a cartoon or a play, ultimately, no matter how difficult it was, and how much of a struggle, I knew I was in charge, and that I would get results. But with fiction, it was different. Fiction and comics had always been my first and second loves. But I never felt comfortable writing fiction. It never came to me naturally, the way writing for theater did, and of course the cartoon. So part of me always felt awkward and like I was faking it. That changed when I started writing novels for children. When I wrote for children, I found a voice, or different voices, that worked perfectly for me. So the three novels I’ve written for kids—The Man in the Ceiling, A Barrel of Laughs a Vale of Tears, and A Room With a Zoo, all flowed the way the plays did. I think the difference might be that in each of them I found a voice that worked—kind of a narrator’s voice, as if it were a monologue on stage. And in each book, I stayed consistent with that voice and what it thought and what it believed. So the logic in each case was impelled by the sound of that voice.
If graphic novels had been in vogue back when you were struggling to write your novels, do you think you might have given that approach a shot?
Actually, I did. And it was before the graphic novel was in vogue. Just after Will Eisner came out with A Contract With God, my book, Tantrum, was published, which was a very early example of the form. I didn’t call it a graphic novel. I called it a novel in cartoons. Graphic novels are called graphic novels because people are ashamed of the term “cartoon,” which is idiotic. I’ve always been thrilled to be a cartoonist, and I’m proud of it, and I like the term. I see no need to upscale the work I do with some meaningless choice of words like “graphic.” So I came up with this idea of Tantrum, and loved it. I first did it as a four-week strip in the Voice, and then decided that I was going to expand it into a novel in cartoon form, which was something I’d always wanted to do. I wanted to do it by the time I was 50 years old—and I just about made it.
How was the experience? Did you want to try it again?
It’s interesting. I tried the form, and loved working in it, and was more proud of that book—and still am—than just about anything else I’ve done. And I thought, “I’ll do a whole bunch of these!” But then I was never tempted again, and I never had another idea that I wanted to do again. Ask me to explain that—I can’t.
Pretty soon after your cartoons started appearing in the Voice you also started turning to plays. What inspired you to try your hand at playwriting?
I was actually reluctant to try plays, because I love theater, and I’d always gone to a lot of it. But the plays I loved usually got panned and closed quickly. And the plays that win the Tonys and the Pulitzers are very often the plays I walk out on. There are exceptions, like August: Osage County, which I loved. But more often than not, I dislike the plays that the critics think are the best thing ever. So I took it for granted that if I wrote a play I really liked, it would close in a week. And sure enough, I wrote Little Murders and it closed in a week. But by that time, I was so infected by the love of writing scenes and using the language, and doing work in a much more expansive and explosive form than the weekly cartoon that I found playwriting irresistible.
It must have been interesting for a change to instantly see a whole audience reacting to what you had done.
Yes. Reacting in all sorts of ways. Reacting with laughter, but also reacting with rapt attention and silence. You feel that you’ve got them—that you’re holding onto them, and that you can read their silences. What’s so interesting is that when a play is in rehearsal and doing run-throughs, you really can’t tell a goddamn thing. And then, when you have your first preview in front of an audience, it tells you things that seem so obvious, you can’t believe you didn’t notice them in rehearsal.
Looking back, you’ve done so many different types of work—movies, novels, kid’s books, plays, cartoons—are there certain things that you most hope will live on and be remembered?
The three forms I’m most proud of are the comic strip, of course, the children’s books, and the plays. Not so much the movies, except for Carnal Knowledge and the screen adaptation of Little Murders. I’ve written a lot of screenplays that weren’t made. And from the beginning, I considered movies simply work you do for hire.
What was the process of writing this memoir like?
That’s pretty much how my work has always gone through the years. I try one thing, and that doesn’t work. So I try several other ways, and often enough, through a process of elimination, I discover that exactly the approach I really wanted to avoid is the one I have to do. But by that time, I’ve come to terms with it, and I start to enjoy it.
How long did it take you?
From beginning to end, the book took about five years. But it was interrupted by a year off because my wife came down with ovarian cancer. I didn’t work on the book at all during that time. It was only when she was clearly recovering that I felt the interest in resuming. But that year layoff seemed to improve things. I went at it with much more energy and interest after that, and I started remembering more.
I was interested by your take on your mother and her influence on your career. In certain ways it sounds like you had a lot in common, since she was a good artist and creative and observant, and had a wry sense of humor. But it doesn’t sound like you particularly felt like you were emulating her, or felt much kinship as fellow artist.
Well, we were all victims of the Great Depression. And my mother worked [as a fashion designer]—at first as an avocation—and then as a necessity to feed the family. But she saw the man as the breadwinner. And when my father was incapable of doing that, it soured her, and the times soured her. And that souring experience affected her life and all of our lives. Had 1929 not happened (except for my birth, of course), we might have had very different experiences as mother and son. I don’t know. Because it’s clear that my interest in art entirely came from her. Without her, I wouldn’t have known about Al Hirschfeld, or theater, or much about graphics at all. She brought home these magazines, and showed me stuff, and talked about it. Apart from her repressive side, which was very strong, she had this free-spirit, free-wheeling side, which was also strong. And it informed me.
Do you think she in some sense felt vindicated or fulfilled through your success?
I think she was very proud of my success. It’s something she had always hoped for. But at the same time, she was mystified by it. Because she was terrified of the political comments I was making. My mother always had this fear that something awful would happen—that she would be sent back to Europe, and her citizenship wouldn’t mean a thing. She could not defy authority or stand up to grownups. So she stood up to her children instead.
She seems to have shown up in your work in a lot of ways.
Yes, I wouldn’t let her go to my plays. I didn’t want her to see herself up on stage being ridiculed as the character of the mother in Little Murders. There was a recent screening of Little Murders at the Film Forum, and I was sitting next to my younger sister Alice, who kept turning to me and saying, “I can’t believe it—it’s her! This is word-for-word her!” I had forgotten that. I’d thought I made up those lines!
So she never saw the play?
I told her there was too much dirty language and she’d be upset by it. So she stayed away. But who knew what she really knew? As I was playing games with her, she may have been playing games with me.
It must be exciting for you to see your own kids carrying on the Feiffer artistic legacy in their different ways.
It’s thrilling. It’s absolutely thrilling to have my oldest daughter, Kate, writing children’s books. I’ve just finished and am about to mail out today the finished art on her next book. I just love that, working with Kate.
And Halley is a wonderful actor and a brilliant playwright. She’s been in a few things of mine. My daughter Julie’s only fifteen, so she hasn’t emerged yet. But we’ll figure it out.
And how about you? Do you have new projects in mind?
I have another book to do of Katie’s, and some other kid’s books. And I want to write a play for my daughter. I also want to do a survey of humor in the Great Depression. I taught a course at Dartmouth this summer, called Graphic Humor in the Twentieth Century. And the class that got the most reaction was on Depression Humor. So I’d like to turn that into a book.
It sounds like you’re busy.
I need something to do. I also do these Dancer watercolors, which had an exhibition last summer at Jacob’s Pillow. There’s going to be a mini-exhibition again this year, which will get toured around. And at Stonybrook Southampton, where I’m teaching now, they’re going to have a show of my drawings next summer. So I’m doing a lot. And I love it.