Originally published in The Comics Journal 124, 1988.
Back in the '50s, Jules Feiffer foresaw a time when the comic strip would be a medium for serious, adult expression. He may yet live to see the day.
Feiffer was born in 1929 in the Bronx section of New York. Growing up in a liberal household, he had to sneak off to friends in Hearst paper or Daily News-reading homes to follow his favorite comic strips. Newspaper comics eventually led him to comic books, and his love for comics translated into a burning desire to be a cartoonist. As a child he drew his own full size comic books which he would then trade with his friends (though they only counted as half a comic because they weren’t "real"). In 1946 he found his first job as a cartoonist as an assistant to his idol, Will Eisner. In 1947 he was granted the back page of the Spirit section for Clifford, a kid strip that prefigures Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes in its charming and sympathetic child’s-eye view of childhood.
In 1951 Feiffer was drafted, and his experience with capricious authority radically changed his point of view about himself and his work. While in the army he began Munro, a satire about a five-year-old boy mistakenly drafted into the army, and the army’s unwillingness to admit a mistake. It would eventually be made into an Academy Award-winning animated film, but at the time there was no place in the publishing industry for it. For the next several years Feiffer worked at uninspiring commercial art jobs while honing his cartooning skills. In 1956 he offered to do a weekly strip for the Village Voice for free. That strip was Sick, Sick, Sick a weekly dissection of popular neuroses, both social and political. Though he received no pay, he hoped to gain notoriety, and he succeeded better than he could have dreamed. It did not pay the rent, however, and before notoriety turned into a salary he did a stint at Terrytoons, then supervised by Gene Deitch, who would later direct the animated version of Munro. While there Feiffer developed Easy Winners, an animated television series about city children that was never produced. Sick, Sick, Sick was picked up by the prestigious London Observer, and in 1958 Playboy offered Feiffer $500 a month to draw comics for them. In 1959 the Hall Syndicate picked up Feiffer’s strip for syndication. During this period "sick humor" had become quite the bete noire to publications like Time and Newsweek, and Feiffer had become tired of the misunderstandings, so the title of the strip became simply Feiffer.
A critic once called Feiffer’s characters “explainers.” Though by no means do all of his strips follow this pattern, the prototypical Feiffer strip features a character—man, woman, boy, girl, or politician—staring point blank at the reader, explaining his dilemmas or justifying his actions, ironically, bitterly, ingenuously, mendaciously, or, as often as not, in a state of confusion. His style has been imitated often but seldom successfully. He became in all probability the most widely read satirist in America. Over the years he has branched out into other media. He has two novels published, Harry the Rat With Women and Ackroyd. In 1965 he wrote The Great Comic Book Heroes, one of the earliest books giving respect for comic book creators. It also helped bring Will Eisner’s work back into the public eye after years of obscurity. He wrote the screenplay for Carnal Knowledge, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Jack Nicholson, Art Garfunkel, Candice Bergen, and Ann-Margret, which became one of the biggest hits of the ‘70s. In 1979 Knopf published Tantrum, a cartoon novel about a 42-year-old man who turns himself into a two-year-old boy. Producer Robert Evans asked him to write the screenplay to the Popeye movie, directed by Robert Altman and starring Robin Williams and Shelly Duvall, which Feiffer made faithful to the original E.C. Segar version of the character.
But his second true love is the theater, and his plays include The White House Murder Case, Little Murders (also filmed), Knock, Knock, Grown-Ups (also staged for video), and Feiffer’s People. As of this writing he has two plays in production, his latest Elliot Loves, in Chicago, and Carnal Knowledge in Houston. His latest screenplay is to be directed by Alain Resnais. His current cartoons are still published weekly in the Village Voice (now for pay) and syndicated by Universal Press. His recent cartoons are collected regularly by UPS’s publishing branch Andrews, McMeel & Parker, the latest being Ronald Reagan in Movie America. Later this year Fantagraphics Books will begin Feiffer: The Collected Works, which will reprint all his cartoons from 1949 to 1982, along with plays, screenplays, magazine articles, and other writings.
GARY GROTH: I was trying to think of some way to organize this interview, so—
JULES FEIFFER: Forget it.
GROTH: Because your career ranges around. I thought at least to give me a coherent state of mind, I might want to start at the beginning and move forward chronologically. I know you grew up in the Bronx.
GROTH: You were a comic book fan when you were a child?
FEIFFER: Yeah. But more newspaper strips. Much more. I felt comics were a good way of collecting newspaper strips I’d missed. As I say in The Great Comic Book Heroes I had to steal newspapers, the Daily News and the Hearst press, from other neighbors’ garbage cans or befriend kids who I didn’t particularly like in order to get their papers. To see Terry and the Pirates, we’d have to get the Daily News, which my family wouldn’t allow in the house. I came from a New Deal Democratic family and they considered Captain Patterson, who ran the News, and Hearst to be anti-Semites and racist and all of those other things. And they weren’t far off the mark by any means.
GROTH: Do you see some sort of an advance between somebody like, for example, a master like Caniff, and someone like Spiegelman, who’s using the form for a much more personal vision?
FEIFFER: I think that Spiegelman goes back to an earlier form of cartooning than Caniff’s. If you look at the old daily newspaper strips, you know, Chicago Tribune comics of the ‘20s and ‘30s, and the work of Harold Gray, and the work of Sidney Smith, it’s more in that tradition. I think it has less to do with Milton’s work than this earlier form of comic writing and drawing.
GROTH: Did you like Gray’s work?
FEIFFER: Loved it. And I loved Sidney Smith’s work.
GROTH: Do you like Chester Gould?
FEIFFER: I loved the drawing. I thought that Dick Tracy was exciting, but quickly got bored with it.
GROTH: I assume you have to overlook the politics on both Annie and Tracy.
FEIFFER: Oh, I don’t care. It never bothered me one way or the other. Gray’s right-wing politics was far less of a problem for me than Al Capp’s because Gray had right-wing politics, but he wasn’t a mean-spirited man. What was disturbing about Capp’s right-wing politics was that it was done within the context of a rotten guy. He was simply mean, nasty, angry. Angry without generosity of spirit. And I must say, without integrity.
GROTH: Now, could you admire that work in some way, notwithstanding that?
FEIFFER: I admired it in the early days, because I could admire the craft of Li’I Abner back in the ‘40s and ‘50s. The writing and the stylization and the drawing, which is a little stiff, but still I always loved his line. His pen line. And his characters. It was great fun. But it was nasty. Capp was one of my boyhood heroes along with Kelly and Caniff and Eisner, but Capp really got increasingly bitter, and his work changed. As his bitterness took over, the quality of the work declined, and then I simply stopped reading it. I used to save Li’I Abner. They were part of my treasures.
GROTH: I wanted to ask you if you could talk just a little bit about Caniff, because I know you admire him.
FEIFFER: He and Capp were very great friends, and they were card-carrying opposites. Capp as I said was ungenerous, while Caniff was the most generous cartoonist, and one of the most openly kind men I’ve met anywhere. Without being a wimp. You felt that he had real character and real strength, but he was fine in every aspect of the meaning of that word. Just simply a fine man. Very supportive of me from the beginning. But I’m not describing him this way because of that. I’ve seen him with others. He was, that old-fashioned word, a gent. If there ever existed an elder statesman of the cartoon profession, he was its only example that I can think of.
GROTH: And his work?
FEIFFER: I loved Terry. Terry was for me a formative work. It taught me a lot, I adored it, I lived off the storytelling. I never latched onto Steve Canyon in the same way. It didn’t have the same emotional pull for me. And maybe that was because I was hooked on Terry when I was younger and somehow couldn’t make the same attachments because I was too old. Whatever the reasons, I was not that much of a follower of Steve Canyon. The artwork, I felt, was extraordinary, but the storytelling didn’t work for me nearly as well. Same is true for Roy Crane, who I was a great fan of in Wish Tubbs and gave up on Buz Sawyer.
GROTH: Did you like Noel Sickles’ work?
FEIFFER: Yes, just brilliant. But again, not in the same league. A better graphic artist than Caniff, but not a comic artist the way Caniff was. He didn’t put it all together the way that Caniff did.
GROTH: Did Crane and Caniff influence you?
FEIFFER: Oh, Crane very much. Caniff less so. Crane to this day is an influence. He was the true comic artist. I love the way he did characters in action, running around, jumping. And early Caniff stuff is very influenced by Crane. I think everybody, one way or another, for years was influenced by Crane.
GROTH: Were there other high points for you in the early strips?
FEIFFER: Oh, there were a lot, because I adored Abbie an’ Slats, Raeburn van Buren’s strip. The drawing, which I felt was absolutely wonderful, was no influence on me, because it was much more an illustrative style, which I wasn’t interested in, except as a reader. Not in terms of my own work. But it was a beautifully rendered cartoon. It was years before I knew that Al Capp wrote it in the earlier years. And I thought the combination of writing and drawing was simply perfect. I thought it was a perfect comic strip. It was the equivalent, I’ve written about this elsewhere, the equivalent of what Preston Sturges and in a sense Frank Capra were doing in the movies. So there was that. And there others that I liked. Ella Cinders was a strip that I was very fond of, in the ‘40s, and into the ‘50s. I liked the way it was drawn, I liked the storytelling.
GROTH: How big an effect did Pogo have on you?
FEIFFER: Enormous, enormous. Kelly was just like a bolt of lightning to my perceptions. Beginning with his political cartoons in the New York Star, before I was even aware of Pogo. And then Pogo began in the Star and it really knocked me out. He also made me aware of the dangers of being brilliant six days a week with a Sunday page, because I thought that he suffered real burnout after 10 years, and I can understand it. After 10 years or so, I stopped reading Pogo.
GROTH: Were your parents New Deal or were they socialist?
FEIFFER: They were New Deal. My father might have been a closet socialist, but it never came out. From the beginning my older sister and I were always further to the left than my family.
GROTH: Well, can you trace how you think you came to your rather acidic perceptions of American life? Was it your upbringing? School?
FEIFFER: No, I can’t think of anything I ever got out of school, except—well, maybe—
FEIFFER: Yeah. (pause). As I said, my family, one could describe them as New Deal liberals. But they weren’t very political. I mean, they had an automatic politics, an automatic bent. But I grew up in a generally left-wing neighborhood in the Bronx. My sister, in high school, was a member of all sorts of left-wing groups and eventually joined the Communist Party when she was older. And since I was closest to her, a lot of my political formation came in arguing with her, because I was not a communist, I wasn’t a socialist. So we fought a lot. I always lost. Never, ever in those years could you argue with a communist and win. And so I became more and more like Bernard Mergendeiler, where I’d stand up, be knocked down, stand up, be knocked down.
GROTH: This would have been in the ‘40s?
FEIFFER: The ‘40s and ‘50s. Early ‘50s.
GROTH: Communism was fairly discredited by the ‘40s, wouldn’t it have been?
FEIFFER: No, not at all.
GROTH: Stalin’s purges would have been common knowledge by then?
FEIFFER: I’m sure they were common knowledge, but also denied. Or ignored, or explained away. I mean, among the main coterie of New York intellectuals, the people like the Partisan Review crowd, Lionel Trilling, Philip Rahv, others, that’s certainly the case. But the people I knew, first of all, probably never heard of those people, and secondly, thought of anti-communists as the Hearst press. Which automatically...
GROTH: Threw you back into communism.
FEIFFER: Yeah, that’s right.
GROTH: The reason you couldn’t win an argument with a communist was because the ideology went down so well?
FEIFFER: Well, no, the reason you couldn’t was because a lot of what they said about the society was true, in terms of inequality, because they were in the forefront in terms of union organizing. And unions weren’t corrupt in those days, and they were needed and some of the most effective unions were communist-led. Because they were the vanguard down South, working among the poor, and working among blacks, and working among farmers. Because they were—of all things—The Daily Worker was about the first paper to ever suggest that Jackie Robinson should be on the Brooklyn Dodgers, and started that campaign about a year or two before anyone else was in on it. So, there were clear things that they did that were apt and accurate and appropriate. And so one shunted aside this latest devotion to the Soviet Union, to the party line, their abuse of artists in this country who didn’t tow the right line, and their smugness about artists in the Soviet Union who were not tolerated because they were out of favor. So as much as I even at that time understood the contradictions, I couldn’t dismiss them then. I can’t dismiss them now, as people do, as simply an unmitigated evil, because I knew too many things that were fostered because of their organization and because of their passion that might have taken years to build up support otherwise.
GROTH: What would your arguments against communism have been then?
FEIFFER: It was a totalitarian system that adhered to the rigid politics of the Soviet Union. You know, Stalinism. In this day and age, you don’t have to point out what was wrong with Stalinism.
GROTH: Right. So your argument wasn’t the specific programs they were initiating here, so much as the ideological corruption?
FEIFFER: Yeah, and that there was a party line, and that you had to toe it. One reason that, however much I might have agreed with them from time to time on issues, that I never joined the party was because the idea of being a spokesperson for a group, rather than for myself…I mean, to this day, I can’t do that. I was a delegate to the Democratic convention in ‘68, and finally walked to join the crowd on the streets because I couldn’t be even be part of the New York caucus, which was a rather liberal one, and very much against what was going on there and I couldn’t even be part of that group. I can’t be part of a group.
GROTH: Well, it’s obvious to me at least that you’re not doctrinaire, and have never been, politically or ideologically or any other way. Now, was this a conscious decision?
GROTH: Are you just sort of naturally...?
FEIFFER: I guess I’m not sure I even believe in conscious decisions. I think conscious decisions are the decisions you make after you’ve made up your mind. Viscerally.
GROTH: (Laughs) A Feiffer-ism. And you went to the Pratt Institute.
FEIFFER: Well, not for very long. I went to the Art Students’ League first. My mother dragged me. I was a very shy kid, and very nervous, truly nervous about putting this talent that I fantasized a lot about on the line. Meaning that in the bright light of day, I didn’t think it would measure up to anyone else’s. So I preferred to be alone in my neighborhood, where I was the only one who could draw. And when she, at the age of 15 or 14, took me by the hand and took me to the Art Students’ League, I remember screaming bloody murder, I didn’t want to go. But she thought I should study anatomy, and it was wonderful, it was a wonderful experience. Like a lot of wonderful experiences that I’ve been dragged kicking and screaming into.
GROTH: And from there you went to Pratt.
FEIFFER: I went into Pratt after high school. I failed to get into the college I wanted to go to. They said I’d have to make up, that I didn’t have enough credits to go, and I’d have to make up by going back to high school in the summer. I hated high school. I mean, I liked people in it, and I liked some teachers in it, but the whole notion of going back was anathema to me. So, I forgot about college, which is probably the best accident that ever happened to me. An accident which was one of the smartest things I’ve done. I went to Pratt for one year. But Pratt at that time was very much under the influence of the Bauhaus school, and had a lot of transplanted Europeans, and its mode of thinking was towards abstract art about which I knew nothing and cared nothing at that time. And certainly those teachers weren’t going to make it more sympathetic to me, because they were overblown with their own self-importance, and belonged to that school of thought which was not unpopular in those years—that the more you demean the students, the more they learned. Well, the more I was demeaned, the more I disappeared, and so I vanished altogether from the day school, switched over to the evening school, where I ran into a wonderful teacher, wonderful perhaps because he actually worked in the field. He was an advertising art director for Grey Advertising named Lenny Kusokov. He was very sympathetic, and I learned a lot from him in a period of three years or so, in the evening.
GROTH: Now, you would have been 18, 19?
FEIFFER: Yeah, 17, 18, 19.
GROTH: And how passionate was your commitment at that time to being a cartoonist?
FEIFFER: It’s never been anything but passionate. It started passionate at four or five, and it remained passionate all those years.
GROTH: You were drafted in ‘51.
GROTH:Did you start working for Will Eisner before or after?
FEIFFER: Oh, before.