When Jules Feiffer’s Kill My Mother was released in 2014, it was met with enormous interest and excitement, and rightly so. Feiffer is a living legend of a cartoonist, a Pulitzer Prize-winner who had a weekly feature in the Village Voice for 41 years, and yet cartooning was just one medium that he had attempted and ultimately conquered. An author of prose fiction and non-fiction for adults and illustrated picture books for children, a playwright, a screenwriter, an animator...basically, if it had to do with words, pictures or words and pictures, Feiffer, he's done it, and he did it before the turn of the millennium. And he's kept doing it.
Despite his long history with comics and cartooning, and with writing and drawing, it wasn’t until Kill My Mother that Feiffer attempted a graphic novel, a format for long-form cartooning that didn’t exist, at least not as we currently understand it, until well after Feiffer retired from the Voice. So yeah, it was kind of a big deal.
The 2018 release of his third graphic novel, The Ghost Script, is also a pretty big deal, although it’s easy to see why it didn’t get quite as much attention as the release of his first. One only gets so many firsts, after all (Although perhaps I would be remiss if I did not note Feiffer’s Tantrum, a “novel-in-pictures” that was published in 1979 by Alfred A. Knopf, and republished by Fantagraphics in 1997; like Will Eisner’s 1978 A Contract With God, it’s one of those books that can be argued over whether it was a graphic novel or not.)
Regardless, how remarkable is it that an artist who will turn 90 in just three months has released another 160-page graphic novel, the conclusion of a trilogy that ultimately followed a large cast of characters for several decades through what became an almost 500-page epic of film noir and crime fiction homage turned great American (graphic) novel?
Despite its place as book three in a series, it’s well worth noting that The Ghost Script reads like--and therefore can be read as-- a self-contained work. Important, defining moments in the lives of the characters that occurred in the previous books, Kill My Mother and 2016’s Cousin Joseph, are revealed here, either in dialogue or in flashback, with several pages from Cousin Joseph reused and repurposed as those flashbacks. The cast’s motivations are clearly delineated between the covers of this single volume. The plot, as elaborate as it is, begins and satisfyingly ends here, and some of the more important elements of the story as a literary work are specific to this book.
Each book is set in a different decade, and each picks apart the familiar concerns of that decade as they have been conveyed to us through our lifetimes of pop culture consumption. Ghost Script is set in 1953, and the fear of Communism, the fight against it and the sometimes quixotic, sometimes opportunistic, sometimes disingenuous search for sympathizers throughout all aspects of American society, but especially in the Hollywood film industry, is the overriding concern of the plot.
The main main character is Archie Goldman, who we met as a teenager in Cousin Joseph. He is now a private investigator, although it’s really his mother Cissy, a devout socialist and veteran of the labor movement, who is the brains of Goldman and Mother, Confidential Investigations. Goldman approaches eccentric, reclusive and ancient Lyman Murchison, head of Our Forefathers for Freedom, an organization devoted to defending “Americanism” (and suppressing alternate viewpoints), about the titular “Ghost Script.”
Said script, which may or not actually exist, is rumored to be for a thriller about the blacklist and how a secret order of powerful people conspired to ruin careers and lives by smearing certain professionals as communists. Unlike most film scripts circulating around town, however, the ghost script is said to contain real names rather than fictitious ones; it appears to be an act of whistleblowing in the form of one of the city’s peculiar forms of currency.
Murchison is actually Cousin Joseph, who decades ago used a combination of pay-offs and beatdowns to bully Hollywood producers into submission. And the ghost script was meant as a gag cooked up by screenwriter Annie Hannigan to rile the right, but the idea appealed to several screenwriters who wanted to make it real, either for laughs or politics. Unbeknown to Annie, Cousin Joseph is responsible for the death of her father, and plenty of other misery for many other characters, more than one of whom want to take their revenge on him.
That’s the gist of the plot, but like the first two-thirds of the trilogy, The Ghost Script is powered by character more than plot, which mostly just provides the string of coincidences and motivations for Feiffer’s engaging characters to move through his lived-in, rumply, ink-washed streets and rooms and bounce off one another.
Feiffer’s art style is so distinctive and so well-known at the this point that discussing it feels almost superfluous. You will have heard his linework described before as kinetic, dynamic, dancing, jittery, sketchy, dashed-off, and such descriptions all still apply. What is significant is the degree to which he is able to marshall his style to suit a graphic novel narrative of such substantial length.
His decades as a cartoonist have obviously made him into a formidable character designer, and each and every character has a unique and strikingly look--if this were a film, its cast would be comprised entirely of character actors--and they all radiate explosive and subtle emotions through the nervous jumble of lines that each is composed of. And they all hold their form, from panel to panel, from page to page and even, now, from book to book...to book. That’s one of the most awe-inspiring aspects of Feiffer’s graphic novels, how each and every image can appear to be hurriedly scribbled into a pitch-perfect, single-panel cartoon but maintain a consistency...for so many hundreds of pages now.
His style suits his subject matter. The Ghost Script is mostly black-and-white, as all good noir should be, with only the very occasional splash of color that mainly serves to remind one of the lack of color everywhere else. The dynamism of Feiffer’s lines gets a workout in the several fights and chase scenes of the book--there’s a recurring gag in which Archie Goldman walks by demonstrations only to be chased and beaten by the assembled mob of “right-wing union goons” because he looks socialist--and when someone gets punched, they look like a crumpled up piece of paper, and when someone is badly beaten, as a young black journalist is near the climax, they resemble a chewed-up rag doll.
The first page of Kill My Mother featured a dedication to the inspirations and influences the artist called upon in its creation. They came from an unsurprising number of different fields, given Feiffer’s own career: prose (James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett), film (John Huston, BIlly Wilder, Howard Hawks) and comics (Milton Caniff and Will Eisner). They are all apparent, but so blended and subsumed under Feiffer’s own style and interests that the book was less a pastiche than a synthesis. Two books and 300 pages later, that has only gotten truer. The Ghost Script, and the trilogy it caps off, is a fine celebration of those inspirations and influences, and likely to be a source of inspiration and influences for other writers, artists and writer/artists in the future.