EISNER, WOOD, KURTZMAN
GROTH: Can you explain how you became associated with Eisner?
FEIFFER: Well, I loved The Spirit. I mean, going back to newspaper strips, I loved newspaper strips and ran across The Spirit in a paper called the Parkchester Review, where it was a Sunday supplement. I knew his work from comic books because I liked Hawks of the Seas. I knew his stuff. He was somebody who I could identify under whatever alias he used: Will Rensie or Will K. Maxwell or whatever the hell, there were things in Espionage or Black X. I was just crazy about him. I couldn’t believe The Spirit when I found it. I just ate it up. That and, I guess, Terry and the Pirates and Li’I Abner were the three strips, and Abbie an’ Slats, which Capp wrote, but I didn’t know that at the time. Those four were combined, were a series of role models for me. As to what, I’m not sure, but I studied them, studied the way they cropped the panels down, the dialogue, how many panels they would use on a Sunday page. There were other strips I liked, but those were the ones that were masterpieces to me. So, when it came to looking for a job, comic books was the field, because that seemed the most accessible. I had no idea how one got to be an assistant to a daily strip cartoonist. Also, that seemed to be way outside the realm. Comic books were more accessible because they were more raffish, they weren’t drawn as well, generally, and it looked like it might be a field to enter before I did what I wanted to do, which was to have a syndicated adventure strip. That’s what I thought I would end up doing. So I went to Eisner after a number of experiences—I got to know a few comic book artists before then—and showed him my work, and he thought it was terrible. But he’d just gotten out of the Navy about a year earlier, had organized a group of people to work on The Spirit to revive the strip. Lou Fine had edited it during the war years, and it had pretty much been run into the ground, and he was trying to bring it back. He had Jerry Grandinetti there, and a man named John Spranger there, a lettering man named Sam Rosen. He said I was worth absolutely nothing, but if I wanted to hang out there, and erase pages or do gofer work, that was fine, which I did a few weeks, and then he came upon bad times. I forget what was going on at the time, but he let virtually everyone go, Spranger, I think maybe everyone but Grandinetti. He kept me around for $10 a week, just to fill in, to do blacks and rule borders and things like that. So he had to strip down staff. I was useful just to do all the dirty work that it didn’t pay for other people to do. So I did that for a period of time. Then I got promoted to $20 a week and did more of the same. But the main reason he kept me on was because I was the only real fan he had. I mean, the others in the office in the early days, Grandinetti, Spranger, would talk about how old-fashioned he was, and would put down the work as terribly dated. I didn’t know what the hell they were talking about. I thought this was the most wonderful stuff I had ever seen in my life. And whatever other annoying and wise-guy features I had which pissed Eisner off, he also knew I was a scholar of his work, that I was a groupie. That certainly didn’t hurt his feelings. To the others, this was a job, and if they left that, they’d go to another job; this was an obsession to me. At some point, we got into one of our arguments—and we got into a lot of them—about his stories. I said that his post-’46 stories weren’t really up to his ‘39, ‘40, ‘41 stories. He had heard enough of this, and he said, if you think you can do better, write me a story. So I did. He liked it, and from that point on I was writing a lot of them, or most of them. It’s hard for me to remember exactly how that broke down, but I would write them, he would go over them. We’d just go back and forth. We worked well together, and when we didn’t, he would win.
GROTH: But what was working with him like? How much input did you have?
FEIFFER: Oh, I had a lot of input. I mean, it was a very relaxed—he called it a "shop"—it was a very relaxed shop. The best period for me, was those years when Abe Kanegson was doing lettering and backgrounds. Because Abe, even more than Will, was a personal mentor. And also was a professional one. I would bring him samples of cartoons and he would just beat me up, saying this is sloppy, you can do much better than this, you’ve settled for less here, this panel doesn’t pay off, and forced me to adhere to standards that no one else cared about. He apparently did. He taught me to be tougher on myself. In various stages of my life, I’ve been lucky enough to fall in with people who would remind me that simple facility wasn’t enough.
GROTH: Presumably the samples that you showed Eisner were an adventure strip?
FEIFFER: No, it was a dreadful semi-straight, but not straight, cartoon called Adam’s Adam, which someone else had written—the editor-in-chief of my high school newspaper—we collaborated on it. It was one of the rare times that I collaborated, and only then because I thought he had a connection—he claimed to have a connection, but he didn’t really, as it turned out—and that would be a way of breaking into a newspaper. And when it didn’t go anywhere, I just had these samples and I showed them around.
GROTH: I see. What do you mean by “straight, but not straight”?
FEIFFER: Oh, what I mean is, it’s Archie-style. You know, it’s not goofy comedy, it’s not...
GROTH: Falls in the cracks?
GROTH: How long did your association with Eisner last? Until you got drafted?
FEIFFER: It went from 1946 to January ‘51, when I got drafted. I think the Spring of ‘46 or something like that.
GROTH: How did you get to do the Clifford strip for Eisner?
FEIFFER: It was in lieu of giving me a raise. [Both laugh] I was making something like $25 a week. I went in and demanded $30. I was writing The Spirit and laying it out. I thought that was worth $30 a week. He informed me that it really wasn’t. So I threatened to quit. And to keep me on, he said he’d give me the back page of The Spirit section, which then had a nice strip, but rather predictable and tired by then, called Jonesy by a wonderful old cartoonist named Bernard Dribble. Stibble or Dribble. But I was a cut-throat competitor, so the hell with him, and I got the Clifford page.
GROTH: For which you weren’t paid?
FEIFFER: No. That was my reward. Eisner got me used to not being paid by the Voice. I’m used to doing pro bono cartoon work. I’ve been doing it a good pan of my life.
GROTH: Now, you wrote the Spirit strips that Wally Wood drew.
GROTH: Did you work with Wood on that?
GROTH: What was he like to work with?
FEIFFER: Well, I knew Wood a long time before that. I’d known him for many, many years. I knew him almost from the time he came to New York, because my closest friend was a man named Ed McQueen, who was a buddy of Wood’s, and his lettering man, who later came to work for Eisner. So Ed brought Woody and me together. He worked in a studio he had rented right across from what is now Lincoln Center, but then was a rather run-down Puerto Rican neighborhood. He had a loft there, on the second floor. The rent must have been not much, and a lot of room. And he operated the way a lot of cartoonist freelancers were operating at that time. Except for me, I worked at home, out of my apartment, rather, my parents’ apartment in those years, I guess.
GROTH: Let me get the chronology down. You worked for Eisner prior to the time you were drafted. You were drafted in ‘51.
FEIFFER: And then I actually wrote the Wood stuff while I was in the Army. While I was in basic training.
GROTH: O.K., that’s what I was going to ask you.
FEIFFER: I wrote the stuff and did layouts and sent it to Eisner, and then he gave it to Wood. And he drew them.
GROTH: So you never saw Wood during that period?
FEIFFER: Oh, I’d see him on and off. When I’d be on leave, I’d go into the office and stuff like that. He’d be around a lot of the time. So I saw something of him.
GROTH: But it wasn’t what you’d call a collaboration?
FEIFFER: No, never. And I was embarrassed by that stuff, anyhow, I didn’t like it at all. First of all, I hate science fiction, I hate space stuff. I don’t know anything about it. It’s all bullshit to me. I’ve never been a fan of science fiction work. I don’t get it. Only because Eisner was trying to move the cartoon in another direction, and by that time it was simply a source of income. I had no other means of making any money, particularly while in the Army.
GROTH: What was Wood like as a person?
FEIFFER: Well, I never knew him very well. I mean, I knew him, I suppose, as well as someone who was not a friend would know him. He was friendly enough, but always a little standoffish, wry. He had something in his eye which you’d say was a cross between a twinkle and a glint. There was always a sense that he was in on something. But he also made it quite clear that he wasn’t [laughs]. It was manner and posture, and I didn’t understand then, and I don’t understand now, his popularity. I never got the point of Wood’s work. I didn’t like what he did for the Spirit, I didn’t like what he did before, I didn’t like the stuff for Mad magazine. I jutst never got it. He always seemed to me derivative. And heavy-handed, and unripe. Earnest though—he loved comics, and we got along well because we both loved comics. But when I met [Harvey] Kurtzman for the first time, or saw his work for the first time, I knew I was in the presence of someone extraordinary. It was a joy to see the work, and a joy to be around him. I knew that I was in the company of an artist. With Wood, I felt that I was in the presence of a carpenter. Somebody who worked very hard at his craft, and by working hard got results, but there were no sparks. And there was certainly no invention.
GROTH: He was more of a craftsman than an artist.
GROTH: Did you at all like the work he did for Harvey [Kurtzman], for the war books?
FEIFFER: No. I liked [the Mad work] better than the others because he did wonderful parodies, and particularly the comic strips, and I enjoy that.
GROTH: Did you follow his career at all?
FEIFFER: I didn’t follow it; I was aware of it.
GROTH: I assume you lost touch after a while.
FEIFFER: Well, he put me on a mailing list, and I started getting these books, Witzend, and then it just became very sad, and I became upset for him. Because it was clear that he was coming unglued. I heard he was an alcoholic, and had all sorts of other problems. I wasn’t prepared for what happened, though. Nor was I prepared for what happened to Jack Cole some years earlier. Now, Jack Cole was really great, and his work, I guess, I like in comic books only second to Eisner. Plastic Man was just wonderful and terribly funny. Free. And actually Cole was a lot funnier than Eisner.
GROTH: Did you know Cole?
FEIFFER: No, never met him. Another one of those guys whose work I liked, who worked for Eisner, was Klaus Nordling who later did Lady Luck, but he did a lot of other stuff.
GROTH: What did you like about his work?
FEIFFER: Oh, again, I thought he was funny, I liked that kind of wooden style. No one else drew like him, it was very expressive, it was clearly his own personality. He didn’t look like anybody else. He wasn’t one of the Caniff clones or one of the Eisner clones. The thing I detested most in comics then—and now—are people who thought a good thick and thin line is what drawing was. And that’s what the comic book business actually encouraged people to think. It always seemed to me idiotic, and the more that became the acceptable norm, the more it defined what good work was, the more uninterested I became in the profession.
GROTH: By thick and thin line, you mean what, exactly?
FEIFFER: The kind of slick line adventure strips that proliferated in those days, and many of which proliferate today. The brushline by a professional brush artist has no quality except smoothness.
GROTH: A dead line.
FEIFFER: It has no character, it has no integrity, it has no bite. All it’s showing is that it can do an outline. Skillfully. It’s like ice-skating.
GROTH: Now, does that have to do with the line, or the content?
FEIFFER: Well, I think they’re inseparable. Line is content. Form is content. Black is white and noon is day.
GROTH: You prefer Nordling to Wood?
FEIFFER: Oh, infinitely. I preferred Nordling to Wood, I preferred Andre LeBlanc to Wood, I mean, Wood wouldn’t have made the top 50, as far as I was concerned. I had no interest in the work.
GROTH: The one virtue I always found in Wood was a certain sensuality.
FEIFFER: Well, that’s fine, I suppose. I never found...I thought there was more a sense of the pornographer than the sensualist of a sort.
FEIFFER: I mean, it’s a difference between liking tits ‘n’ ass and liking women.
GROTH: Which I’m sure we’ll get into.
GROTH: You said you met Harvey [Kurtzman]. When was that and what were your impressions of Harvey?
FEIFFER: Well, if you worked for Eisner you met everybody because they all came there. Harvey came by, and Eisner showed us his work, and I think I already knew Hey Look! Harvey was just immensely outgoing. I don’t think Harvey was any different then than he is now. He was always above-board, direct, loved to talk, very generous about other people, self-effacing. Took a compliment well, but it was clear that it embarrassed him. I don’t think there’s—I mean outside of getting older, he hasn’t changed so far as I know.
GROTH: As a cartoonist?
FEIFFER: Oh, as a cartoonist, of course, he changed immensely, because he got into—what I knew in the early days was Hey Look! and there was the stuff he did for Gaines, the war stuff. I mean, you take a look at European comics today, and they’re still using Harvey’s layouts. I think Harvey derived from Eisner, and everyone else derived from Harvey. You know, the use of sound effects: THWACK! GLMP! BUMPITY-BUMP! Eisner did a bit of that, but Harvey took it. I think the first person to actually use that was Roy Crane. And then Eisner picked up on it. And then Harvey just went to town. He was far more inventive. And I suspect Harvey must have—I don’t know, but my guess is Harvey must have picked all of this up, as I did, from old-time radio. When you listen to radio you were very aware of the sound effects. Particularly when they became very sophisticated in shows like Suspense and Sam Spade, they were as romantic as the show itself.
GROTH:You know, usually Harvey’s war books are eclipsed by Mad, so I was wondering what you thought of the war books.
FEIFFER: I thought the war books were wonderful. Harvey knows I was never that big a fan of Mad.
GROTH: Is that right?
FEIFFER: Yeah. I mean, what makes me respect Mad more in retrospect was how many brilliant talents, young talents of today, grew up on Mad and that was their inspiration. So somewhere along the line, I must have been wrong.
GROTH: But at the time you weren’t touched by it?
FEIFFER: No, not at all. Because I was very political, Mad wasn’t. Mad was anarchic, I was on at least 1 1/2 sides. And I thought it was chickenshit not to take sides. So, being apolitical and saying plague on all your houses was to me saying that no one was to blame. When I thought that there were certain parties that you could blame. That Joe McCarthy was certainly to blame, that the blacklist was certainly to blame, that Eisenhower’s America was certainly to blame, that the Cold War was certainly to blame. And that the perniciousness of suburban living or advertising was secondary to the perniciousness of Cold War America, which was what my primary interest was in those years.
GROTH: It’s interesting that you should make that point, because in the ‘50s you weren’t as overtly political as you are now. You were more of a broader, social-cultural critic.
FEIFFER: Well, yes and no. You’ll see as you go through the strips there’s a lot more politics than you may think.
GROTH: More generically political, but less ideologically political.
FEIFFER: No. I don’t think so. Remember, Munro, which is a political book, was the first satire I did. The next one I did was Boom! So—
GROTH: And then you segue away from that into Sick, Sick, Sick.
FEIFFER: Yes, that’s right.
GROTH: Which had to do with relationships.
FEIFFER: That’s right. And then slowly combined the two. But the balance was, in the early years, say, one to three or four in social against political. But, as I said in Feiffer’s America, you couldn’t be around Eisenhower’s world without those people getting dragged into politics, because it was every part of that sense of muted isolation. It was a very significant part of one’s life. And that there was no political criticism going on. There was no real social criticism going on. It began with people like Mort Sahl and nightclubs. You couldn’t find it in pages of the New Yorker or anywhere else. And the [Village] Voice was the first publication to start letting people air their views even though they were uncommercial at the time.
GROTH: I might display some ignorance here. Weren’t people like Herblock working?
FEIFFER: Herblock? Yes. That’s not ignorant. Herblock was around at the time. There was Herblock, there was Mauldin. I’m not sure when Conrad began.
GROTH: Probably later.
FEIFFER: Probably later. Hugh Haynie was around, though. Beyond those three, I mean, Fitzpatrick I always thought had a reputation far beyond his importance. So mainly it was Herb and Bill.
GROTH: Did they serve as guideposts for you, or inspiration?
FEIFFER: Oh, no. First of all, I never thought of myself as a political cartoonist. I never thought that any more than I thought of myself as a gag cartoonist. I could love the work of Whitney Darrow and Peter Amo, and some of Thurber, without ever thinking that I was ever going to get in that line, just as I could love the work of Herblock, which would feed me, sustain me, because of its political comment, and Mauldin. And I never dreamed I would get into that line. The line I got into was the adventure strip business.
GROTH: Well, now correct me if I’m wrong, because I’ve read a lot of your work, but I haven’t read all of it. In the ‘50s, did you tackle HUAC and McCarthy?
FEIFFER: No, I came along after HUAC and McCarthy. I came along in ‘56, when McCarthy was over, but I did even then some strips on the blacklist when I had the opportunity. And McCarthy was gone. I did a number of things on the Cold War, on the Red Scare. On liberals and J. Edgar Hoover. J. Edgar Hoover was the holy of holies then. The only person who was really attacking him was Mort Sahl. No one else was.
GROTH: Were your parents proud in any sense that you were a cartoonist, that you were working on an art form that you were developing?
FEIFFER: Oh, it was never thought of as an an form by anybody in those years. Including cartoonists. I remember Walt Kelly’s hackles would rise if you talked about cartooning as an art form.
GROTH: Oh, is that right?
FEIFFER: Oh, yes.
GROTH: Do you think he believed that?
FEIFFER: It’s hard to know what these guys believed. I mean, they came out of the newspaper gang, where artists were sissies in a way, and they were proud of being newspapermen, journalists, working in bullpens. And doing work that was disposable. As Caniffhas said, you never thought twice about having your originals thrown out.
GROTH: I was under the impression that in the ‘20s and ‘30s, the time when Herriman was working, and Segar, and McCay that it was thought of as an art form.
FEIFFER: No. I don’t know what McCay would have thought, and who knows about Herriman? But most of them didn’t think twice about that. I always thought of it as an art form. My love for Eisner, my love for Caniff, I always thought these guys were artists, and when I brought it up, they got very defensive.
GROTH: What did they think of themselves as, then? Craftsmen?
FEIFFER: Yeah. "This is my job. I’m a cartoonist. What’s all this big deal about art?" Something vaguely unmanly about it.
GROTH: How did Eisner look at it?
FEIFFER: Same way. Eisner now accepts the term "artist" but he certainly didn’t when I was working for him and tried to use it.
GROTH: Did he reject it?
FEIFFER: Sure, he rejected it entirely. He would admit that. That’s not going to be discomforting to him. He remembers those arguments.
GROTH: You actually argued with Eisner over it?
FEIFFER: Oh, yes, back then. We argued all the time. We talk about it to this day.
GROTH: About what?
FEIFFER: It’s just a lot of nostalgia on his part, and mine, for that relationship that goes back many years and took many turns.
GROTH: Did you argue as to the potential of comics?
FEIFFER: We weren’t talking comics as a thing in and of itself. I just thought The Spirit had a greater potential than he was giving it at that time. He and I talked about that a lot. I think good work came out of that. He just was very uncomfortable with labels.
GROTH: You talk to Eisner for long periods of time about this?
FEIFFER: Oh, back when I was a kid, and he was-
GROTH: He was about my age now.
FEIFFER: Well, he was an old guy as far as I was concerned. I think he was 32 when I went to work for him.
BECOMING A CARTOONIST
GROTH: Had you considered going to comic book publishers in New York?
FEIFFER: Oh, not a chance. What I did had nothing to do with what they did.
GROTH: But you could draw.
FEIFFER: Oh, yes, but I didn’t have that kind of brushline that was considered required. First of all, they wouldn’t publish what I would want to do. But even if I wanted to do their work, I wasn’t qualified. I really wasn’t good enough in their description of job qualifications.
GROTH: O.K. Didn’t you say earlier that you were interested in doing an adventure strip?
GROTH: At what point did that ambition fall off?
FEIFFER: Well, the Army really changed my entire direction. The Army was the true watershed experience.
GROTH: In the sense that you reacted against it.
FEIFFER: Yes, in the sense that I reacted against it. It was the first time I was truly away from home for a long period of time, and thrown into a world that was antagonistic to everything I believed in, on every conceivable level. In a war that I was out of sympathy with, and in an army that I despised. And which army displayed every rule of illogic and contempt for the individual and mindless exercise of power, that became my material.
GROTH: You were opposed to Korea?
FEIFFER: I was opposed to Korea.
GROTH: Have you seen Biloxi Blues?
FEIFFER: Yes. I thought it was a good movie. It’s interesting, I’ve seen all the military movies, there were a lot of them over the years, going back to From Here to Eternity, and none of them approximated my own feelings about the Army until Biloxi Blues. That came closer to representing what it really felt like, much more so than say, the Paris Island sequences in Kubrick’s movie.
GROTH: I was going to ask you about that.
FEIFFER: Well, I thought that was very stylized, and I certainly couldn’t identify with it.
GROTH: And you were in the Army for how long?
FEIFFER: Two years.
GROTH: Two years. And what did you do when you got out?
FEIFFER: I went on unemployment, and was getting money from the Army, and rented an apartment and tried to become a cartoonist. Mostly that. Then I’d run out of money, and get a job for six months, with a schlock art studio, until I had enough time to be able to go on unemployment—you had to be fired to be eligible, so I managed to get myself fired. That was never hard.
GROTH: Attitude problem?
FEIFFER: No, they always loved me. It was just that I’d make sure that they stopped loving me at a certain point. You know, I’d stop showing up at the job, I’d start insulting people. Nothing very awful. My favorite—there was an outfit called Chartmakers on Lexington Avenue and 48th Street, and they did annual reports, and they did slides, and you’ll find some of the slide drawings in that pile in there. They began to get curious because every afternoon—they had a time-clock, you punched in and punched out—and about three or four afternoons a week, I’d disappear about a quarter to three and show up at about quarter to five to punch out. I found out later they sent somebody to follow me, to find out where I was going. I thought I was sneaking out very quietly, but apparently everybody knew about it. They followed me to the three o’clock screening of the Museum of Modern Art films. So, I got fired from that. But I was daring them to fire me at that point, because I wanted to get fired, otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten my money. If I quit the job I wouldn’t be eligible for unemployment insurance.
GROTH: Did you see any moral impropriety in doing that? In getting unemployment insurance that you didn’t deserve?
FEIFFER: Are you kidding? No, because I thought I did deserve it. I thought the work I was doing on the dole was real work, and important work, and serious work. And the work I was doing that I was paid for was bullshit.
GROTH: Right. But that’s really not what the dole was meant for.
FEIFFER: Oh, yes it was [laughter]. You’ve never heard of grants before? The National Endowment. This was my early version of the National Endowment. I gave myself a Guggenheim.
GROTH: I wanted to examine the period between the work you did for Will and when you started at the Voice. Specifically, you said that Munro was done as a reaction to your stint in the army.
FEIFFER: Well, first of all, the ‘50s mainly don’t include Will, except maybe the first year. I was drafted in 1951. I was still writing The Spirit my first few weeks in the Army. I think that lasted maybe a month, possibly a little more, not much more than that. Someone else had already taken over Clifford, and that didn’t run very much longer.
GROTH: Now, you wrote Munro immediately after the Army?
FEIFFER: No, I started Munro actually, my first year in the Army, I did a couple of dummies of it. And I couldn’t get it right, I couldn’t finish it. It was the first work of this kind that I had ever toyed with, and I didn’t understand exactly what I was doing, and I didn’t know what the rules were, and I didn’t know what I was going after exactly. Although I had something in mind. But all of it was very unclear to me, and it was terribly difficult. I seemed to understand what it was I had to do, and I seemed to know when I was doing and when I wasn’t doing it. It went along fine up until the last third and then I seemed to blow it each time, and I couldn’t figure out why. As I say, I started it fairly late in 1951, and by the time I finished it I was ready to get out of the Army. I finished in 1953. It’s possible, now that I think of it, that I finished it after I got out of the Army. I mean, that I figured out how to end it. And I remember still the pleasure and the thrill when I came up with the ending, and how I came up with it, because I learned, I guess for the first time then, that when you’ve found out the way to do it, it always had something to do with the beginning. You had to go back to the beginning to find out how to end it, and that it always had to be very simple. It had to have a logic to it that made absolute sense. And whatever the struggle, once you had solved the problem, it became clear that the answer was in a sense dictated right from the first ten pages of the stuff.
GROTH: Did you have a market in mind for this?
FEIFFER: Yes. Particularly Simon and Schuster, who were putting out some wonderful cartoon books in hardcover, some of them rather sophisticated. I took it around there, and I saw a man whose name is Paul Jensen, and he liked it immensely and tried to push it. And got nowhere. Finally I began taking it elsewhere, and Jensen and other editors told me they didn’t know how to market it, because it looked like a children’s book, but it wasn’t. Nobody had ever heard of me.
GROTH: Now, what about Boom and Passionella? What were the circumstances around those?
FEIFFER: Well, by that time I was working for schlock art houses of one kind or another, making a living, and experimenting with this work. Before Boom there was a book called Shhhhhh about the bomb. Boom, I believe I wrote after Passionella. Yes, Passionella I wrote because I was already in the Voice. This was early days, and Pageant magazine approached me. A woman named Lois Cantor, who was an editor, who later became a friend, liked the stuff in the Voice. Pageant was already publishing people like Blechman, who was just beginning as well, and there was interest in quality avant-garde cartoonists, and she asked me. She said they would give me 28 pages, and I could design a story for them. So, I decided that I would use that space to make a commercial reputation for myself, as opposed to the reputation I was getting in the Voice, doing this non-commercial work that was very nice, but publishers didn’t know how to market it. I thought I would write a very marketable story, which meant that it had to be about sex, which meant it had to be about someone with big tits, because Marilyn Monroe and Playboy and all that was very much part of the social context at the time. So I came up with the story of Passionella with total cynicism, thinking that I would do a fake satire that publishing people would confuse with a real satire. I would try to make it fake enough and slick enough so that I would get some work out of it. I didn’t, it worked perfectly. But because of my crass motivation going into it, for years I had very little regard for Passionella until sometime later I looked at it and realized that I liked it a lot, it was a lot better than I thought.
GROTH: So it turned out not to be a specious satire.
FEIFFER: That’s right. Well, I don’t know whether it’s specious or not. Just as a piece of work I really enjoyed it. What it chose to satirize—and this is how I marked the value of work in those day—what it chose to satirize was easy targets. Nothing very difficult about taking on the Actor’s Studio, or the movie business, or movie stars with those values. That was hardly hard-hitting at that time or at any time. But it did exactly what it was supposed to do.
GROTH: And Boom?
FEIFFER: And Boom, I suppose, was to get over my embarrassment about Passionella and make me uncommercial again or something. Boom was at a time when the U.S. and the Soviet Union were doing a lot of underground testing. Our then-version of the Nuclear Energy Commission, it was then called the Atomic Energy Commission, the AEC, was putting out constant communiques to the public saying that there was no harm done to the atmosphere despite the numbers of leaks. And as a matter of fact it wasn’t underground testing, it was above-ground testing. But they said, no problem, no problem at all. And people like I.F. Stone in his weekly, and Paul Jacobs in the Reporter were telling me just the opposite, and I chose to believe them and I was right. So Boom was really about the conditioning of public attitudes to accept radioactive fallout as a positive rather than a negative. And it was done in fury. It was one of the early works, the early examples, and most expensive examples, of something which I’ve done a lot of since, which is go into detail about how government lies to us. Something that was considered quite appalling and hard to believe at that time, and now we just take it as the norm. Back then in the ‘50s, that was still shocking news. The idea that presidents lied was hard to take. The ideas that government commissions would deliberately lie as opposed to making honest mistakes. That sort of thing. None of this was conventional wisdom at that time.
GROTH: Was this appalled reaction against government lying naivete?
FEIFFER: Yes, it was naivete, but there were 180 [million] Americans who were equally naive. What I’m saying is, we’re talking about pre-Vietnam America, pre-Watergate America, pre-Iran-Contra, and even today you’ll get people, who after all this, still trust in our leadership. Well, back then everybody trusted. It’s not naïve if everybody believes it to be true.
GROTH: Can you explain a little how you came to the Voice? I know you offered your work free just to gel a start.
FEIFFER: Well, I’ve told this story a number of times. I’ll tell you, my approach to the Voice—we talked about cynicism before, the work is not cynical, my approach to the Voice was totally cynical. I had been turned down over and over and over again by book publishers. Munro was turned down. A couple of other books, the book I called Sick, Sick, Sick was turned down—which I later did for Playboy under the title The Conformist. I’d go from publisher to publisher and all these publishers thought I was terrific, and they passed the book around, and they’d take me out to lunch, and they’d rave about what I wasdoing, how fresh it was. Finally this stopped being a compliment, because nobody—early on, you think, well, this is terrific, I’m in! But then you discover you’re not in, you’re out, because they say, well, we don’t know how to market this. “It’s wonderful stuff, but there’s no market for it.” And it became clear there was no market for it, because it was a Catch-22 situation. I had no name, so who was going to buy this work that looked like children’s drawings, but was very adult material? Now, if my name was Steig, then it would be marketable. If my name was Steinberg, then they could sell it. If my name were Thurber, no problem. So I had to figure out a way of becoming Steig, Steinberg or Thurber in order to get what I wanted into print. I thought of all sorts of things. I could kill somebody, and then get famous that way, and then I could get published. I could commit suicide…suicide was not then established as a form of self-promotion, as it later became with several poets.
But short of suicide or murder, I didn’t know what to do until the Voice came along. I saw that that was the paper that a lot of the people whose attention I wanted, the very people who were rejecting me read that paper, because it was hip, it was inside. It was very modestly circulated, but to all the right people. I was smart enough to know, even at the age of 27, which I was then, that if I could get the stuff they’re turning down in print, anywhere, they will think, well, wait a minute, it’s in print [laughter]. So if I can get those six guys who say I can’t get into print looking at the stuff in print, they will change their minds, which is what happened. It did exactly as I hoped it would. Although I thought it would take a couple of years. It took something like three months. It was very fast.