The Return of Cartoonist Jules Feiffer

The Pulitzer-winning artist drew his way out of the Bronx

Jules Feiffer, 86, won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning in 1986 and is author of more than 35 books, plays and screenplays, including “Backing Into Forward: A Memoir.” His first graphic novel is “Kill My Mother” (Liveright, 2014). He spoke with Marc Myers.

My first memory of the Bronx was trying to escape. I grew up in a four-story building on Stratford Avenue in apartment 2F. It was the Depression, and from the movies I assumed everyone outside of New York had a butler. I could see train tracks from our apartment and imagined I’d hop a freight car one day with Woody Guthrie.

People in my neighborhood didn’t know they were poor. Most families had fathers who were unemployed. My father, Dave, was a salesman and was out of work for much of the 1930s. He wanted to be a dental technician, but the chemicals destroyed his hands. He tried to open various shops, but they closed 15 minutes later. He just didn’t have the instincts of a businessman.

My mother, Rhoda, was the family breadwinner. She was a fashion designer of women’s cloaks and men’s suits. She’d make watercolor drawings of her designs and take them to Manhattan’s garment district. She’d go door to door selling her designs for $3 a pop. She saw the Depression as an assault on 2F and my father, the bum. I had to rise above the weakness of my dad. He was actually a gentle and accepting man, and he loved my mother. We weren’t a screaming, yelling family. There was just an atmosphere of silent blame from my mother that my father accepted manfully.

I was the middle child, with two sisters, Mimi and Alice. I was skinny and looked much younger than my years. I looked helpless because I was, and tried not to leave our two-bedroom apartment if I didn’t have to. Most of the bullies ignored me since I was too small to beat up and there was no claim to glory for doing so. Even kids younger than me could beat me up. So I turned to reading and drawing comics. I had to draw myself out of my predicament.

I began drawing at age 3, and the more I drew, the better I became. I soon discovered that if I took this skill out in the street using chalk, the kids shooting marbles and playing stickball noticed me. I’d draw characters like Popeye, Tom Mix and Dick Tracy on the sidewalk, and I became the only cartoonist on the block. I was allowed to live. Drawing was my way out of the Bronx.

My mother always encouraged me to draw. Cartooning in the 1930s and early ’40s was a big deal. The comic strip was in its glory, and writing and drawing them came with a degree of aristocracy.

When I was little, I shared a room in our apartment with my older sister, Mimi. She moved out right after high school to Greenwich Village. I got the bedroom, and my mother bought me a drawing table. We both worked in there. When I was 13, she dragged me by the hand to the Art Students League in Manhattan to take an anatomy class taught by Robert Beverly Hale, before he became curator for contemporary American art at the Metropolitan Museum.

In January 1951, I was drafted into the Army. My hope was that I wouldn’t be sent to Korea. To make sure that didn’t happen, I took samples of my work along and showed everyone in sight. They sent me to Long Island City, to the Signal Corps Photographic Center, where training films for GIs were made.

Months later, the Army realized it was 80% over its allotment for the unit and I was transferred to Fort Gordon in Georgia. I discovered hate down there. I was discharged in 1953, and in 1956 I began drawing my strip for New York’s Village Voice until I was fired in 2000 because they said they were paying me too much money.

After the Voice let me go, my friend, author Roger Rosenblatt, called. He said he was starting a writing program at Stony Brook University in Southampton and insisted I move out to teach. I lived in several places before settling in a rental in the Northwest Woods area of East Hampton in 2013. The house is beautiful and spacious, with four bedrooms. It reminds me of how I had always dreamed of living as a kid.

When I moved out here, I had come to believe that the social and political cartoons that had made up most of my career had become repetitive. I turned to the graphic novel. Now, at 86, I find myself writing and illustrating the stuff I loved most as a kid but didn’t know how to draw in apartment 2F.








A show of Jules Feiffer’s art work opens tonight at the Adam Baumgold Gallery, and a book of his collected works, “Out of Line: The Art of Jules Feiffer,” is about to be released. Feiffer’s own graphic novel “Kill My Mother,” was published last year, and he’s currently working on the second book of what will be a noir trilogy. We asked the ebullient eighty-six-year-old artist to chat about what’s behind his recent spate of activity.

You started out as a wide-eyed fan of comics as a kid. Can you talk a bit about that moment in your life—what your ambitions were, what you loved then about comics?

I had trouble learning how to read as a kid, and I didn’t see much point in doing anything that gave me that much difficulty. It was a boon to my parents that I was fascinated with comics because, to get the full value of comics, I had to learn how to read the words that went with the pictures. I might be illiterate to this day if not for newspaper strips and comic books.

Do you think you had what would now be diagnosed as dyslexia or a reading disability?

All I know is that I was determined to know what these characters were saying. I found it a blow to my six-year-old individuality that the dialogue had to be read to me by my mother, especially when she was describing violence. People would be beating each other up and it was my mother who was saying, “Take that!” That was a little too close to home for me.

The field of comics has changed tremendously in the intervening eighty years.

I was raised in the age of the glory years of the newspaper comic strip, when they were six or seven columns in a daily paper and a full page in the Sunday paper—and they were glorious things to behold. And that’s what I wanted to do, that’s what I wanted to be, that’s how I saw my life.

You never doubted your urge to be a cartoonist?

I loved Milton Caniff’s “Terry and the Pirates,” which was kind of a movie on paper. He was using low-angle shots, real characters—or seeming-to-be-real characters—and high drama. I also loved the Sunday supplement in the newspapers: “The Spirit” section by Will Eisner, the most ambitious of the cartoonists, whose work was more of the German Expressionist school and projected a sense of dark reality. All of these guys just fascinated me, hypnotized me, and I wanted to be one of them.

When I was sixteen or seventeen, I looked up Eisner in the phone book. I went to his office and showed him my samples. He was notably unimpressed, but we got into a conversation about his work, and he quickly found out that I was an authority on everything he had ever done, going back years. I knew his one-page adventure cartoons and a feature he had done called “Muss ’Em Up!” I knew everything he had ever done, so he had no choice but to hire me as a groupie, which is what he did. He put me in his office, but it turned out that I was unequipped to do anything—I was just too screwed up. But I was a good conversationalist, so with me around he had someone to talk to about comics, which he hadn’t had before. None of the more proficient people in his office had any interest in the kind of conversation that he and I enjoyed getting into, and slowly I started learning the craft. That was how I entered the field, in the summer of ’46, when I was still in high school, and by the time I left high school, in 1947, I was working full time for him. At first, not getting paid at all, and then getting twenty dollars a week–which was only fifteen dollars more than I should have got.

All of your life, you’ve been committed to this medium and you’re still excited by it. I heard you say recently that the field is in a new golden age.

As you know, it disappeared for a while. When comic books became all superheroes in the fifties, I kind of lost interest. Newspaper strips had declined in terms of quality—there was not much around to read. By then, I was in my twenties and in a way I had lost my taste for comic books. I was into more grown-up things and comics weren’t doing the job, so I moved on. I didn’t read comics anymore and didn’t really begin to read them again until I got a call by Edgar Doctorow, who was then an editor at Dial Press (and not yet a renowned novelist). He said, “I want to publish a book on the great comic-book heroes and I don’t know anybody else who could write it except you.” So that’s how I got back into comics.

You’re currently doing a new noir graphic novel—or, actually, three of them. You seem excited by the medium again. What’s so exciting for you about comics now?

Well, as you well know, your husband’s “Maus” helped catapult this whole thing into the stratosphere. There’s a whole new world of comics called graphic novels or alternative art. Whatever it is, the sort of work that was never imagined at one time is being done as a matter of course now. I just started getting excited by the new generation—Chris Ware, Lynda Barry—people younger than I by a generation or two, who are doing extraordinary work.

When I moved out of the city, it was no longer convenient to write for the theatre. And I lost much of my hearing, so I couldn’t hear much at rehearsals. I had to figure out what form I could work in. I went back to my original love, the adventure strip, and decided to bring to it what I had learned as a playwright and a screenwriter. I realized I could combine all of the forms that I adored and particularly that form that I have loved since I was very young, and make that the bulk of my work for the remainder of my working life—and that’s what I’m doing. So it’s thrilling, at eighty-six, to go back to the sort of work—or a version of the sort of work—that I wanted to do when I was eight, nine, and ten.

You’ve often featured female heroines: they danced in your Village Voice strips and they dominate your current work, “Kill My Mother.” You’ve collaborated with your daughters; you have talked about your mother as an artiste manqué. Do you have favorite female authors in comics (or in theatre or film or literature) whom you read for inspiration or for pleasure?

Well, I read for pleasure—I don’t particularly read anyone for inspiration, but people do inspire me as I stumble upon them. Like David Small’s “Stitches”: it threw me for a loop when I saw it! Because he was a friend, I knew him as a children’s-book illustrator, but I think he really opened up new ways of approaching comics. It quite excited me. And I love Lynda Barry’s recent work—it’s so different from what she was doing earlier. To see people who seem to be pretty fixed in what they did, and then suddenly they explode in different directions—that excites me when I can do it in my work and it excites me when I see it in other people’s work. And that, whether they’re male or female, inspires me. I love comics now that I’m back in it, as much or perhaps more than I ever did, and with more of a focus and a purpose than I did as a kid, obviously. And that love becomes my serious work, but also, as I do the serious work, I’m having the best time of my life. I can’t stop giggling.

That’s wonderful. One last question: Since you’ve been not just a cartoonist but also a screenwriter and a playwright, and you’ve done paintings for gallery walls, what do you think is driving the current Jules Feiffer? Is it the writer part of you, or the artist part of you?

Well, you know the answer: it’s a combination of all of the above. The first thing any kid does when he wants to communicate is to pick up a pencil and draw. We all do that for a long time, and then either we add our own version of words, or we have a grownup put in words for us while we tell them what to say. Words and pictures is what we all do, before we are educated out of dropping the pictures and just using the words. The great thing about comics is that it’s words and pictures—that it’s a literary form and it’s a visual art form, that’s what makes it so exciting. The length of time it took to have this form taken seriously by allegedly serious literary people is stunning—and it’s particularly stunning to me when I think back on all the prejudices that had to be overcome.





If You Really Loved Me, You'd Find Me: The Strips, 1960-2000
Adam Baumgold Gallery
74 East 79th Street, Manhattan

Jules Feiffer has earned acclaim as a screenwriter (''Carnal Knowledge''), a playwright (''Little Murders'') and an illustrator of children's books (''The Phantom Tollbooth''), as well as a writer and illustrator of them (''The Man in the Ceiling''). But he is best known as a cartoonist whose work graced the fourth page of The Village Voice for 40 years. His full-bodied, well-rounded yet exquisitely Minimalist talent in this arena is, on its own, more than enough to contend with.

As a cartoonist, Mr. Feiffer might be described as Daumier mixed with substantial doses of Calder, Giacometti, Walt Disney, Philip Roth and Lenny Bruce. His were certainly not the first cartoons for grown-ups, but they may have been the first to chart the erratic inner life of emerging counterculture urban American adulthood in all its childish splendor, mood swings, narcissism, self-hate and alienation.

It is startling to learn that the small but thorough and very funny 48-drawing sampling of his work at the Adam Baumgold Gallery is his first gallery show in New York. It focuses on his strips: mostly those done in ink for the Voice, but including a few in ink and watercolor that appeared in Playboy in the mid-80's and Fortune as recently as 2005.

One Feiffer specialty is the interior monologue spoken by all kinds of types: shopaholics, wary parents, desperate children, self-aggrandizing businessmen and, most notably, the angst-ridden urban male. Occasionally real people do the talking, notably sitting presidents and especially Richard Nixon during his Watergate flame-out. Nixon's machinations take up most of one wall here, and alternately seem dated (and almost innocent) and painfully pertinent. They culminate in ''Would You Buy a Used Country From This Man?,'' a 6-by-4-inch drawing in ink and soil-colored pastel done for a Voice cover. While small, it centers on an image of Nixon's rubbery face that is, relative to the strips, quite large, and displays his linear repertory to good effect.

Mr. Feiffer's genius for line encompasses the skills of the psychologist, linguist, fashion illustrator, social critic, political commentator, choreographer and dramaturge. His Minimalism, radical for its time, is ideal for showcasing this genius. Props and settings, other than the White House and an occasional bed, armchair or restaurant table, are rare. (One exception is the bit of Earth Art in ''I'm Going to Find a Chasm of My Own to Work With.'')

He long ago banished speech balloons -- he must have found them confining and too cute, anyway -- increasing the sense of the page as a vast and lonely place. In his dialogues he often reduces his protagonists to nothing but a few rapid, nearly symmetrical zigzags and curves, their jutting profiles in a face-off. Usually these belong to a man and a woman engaged in tight-lipped exchanges of accusations, as in ''Can I Go Now?''; sometimes the dialogue is compressed to nearly poetic alliterations, as in ''You Devour Me.''

Mr. Feiffer's line can be lax, shambling, frazzled, wiry, electric or, suddenly, taut as an arrow. It is a highly entertaining thing in itself and, if not exactly realistic, then supremely truthful in conveying human emotions as they rippled across the faces and through the minds and bodies of his characters.

In ''Bad Dog!'' from 1980, the object of a young child's accusation turns out not to be an offstage parent but a large, placid hound that doesn't appear until the last scene. The changes in the child's hands and chin convey the force of her mounting outrage and her final reprimand of the object of her projections. The images are collaged onto the paper in this work, probably culled from a series of attempts, none of which quite satisfied the artist.

Over all, it is great to be able to see the original drawings and to understand better the perfectionism that produced such perfection. ROBERTA SMITH

Photos: From top, works by Jules Feiffer at Adam Baumgold: ''You Devour Me'' (1997) and ''Bad Dog'' (1980). His cartoons suggest Daumier with doses of Calder, Giacometti, Philip Roth, Walt Disney and Lenny Bruce. (Photos by Adam Baumgold Gallery)