“It Was a Complete Revolution for Me”: A Conversation with Jules Feiffer

Jules Feiffer’s body of work spans forms and decades, the product of indignation and prodigious intelligence. Feiffer’s collaborators have ranged from Will Eisner to Robert Altman; he has been a screenwriter, a playwright, a political commentator, and a cartoonist. In his time at The Village Voice, Feiffer produced comics of wit and psychological rigor. After more than sixty years of cartooning and illustration, he has turned his attention to one of the forms of his Depression boyhood: the crime story. Kill My Mother features banter, backstabbing, and Feiffer’s specialty, family acrimony. Earlier this summer, I spoke with Feiffer about noir storytelling and the tyranny of drawing backgrounds. kmm1-1 Greg Hunter: I assume comics were your introduction to crime fiction.

Jules Feiffer: I think I was eleven or twelve, the first time [I encountered crime fiction]. It might’ve been after I saw the movie Murder, My Sweet [1944]. Although I do think I had read a book before that called Farewell, My Lovely [1940]. Whenever that movie came out, I started reading the stuff about a year or two earlier. But it really began with an adventure strip, which was Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates. Terry and the Pirates, at that time, was a whole new way of seeing comics—there was no precedent for it. In layout, in storytelling, it looked like movies on paper. Caniff, and then Eisner after him, with The Spirit, created a sense of reality. Not life-reality; movie-reality, which for most of us was a better deal than our real lives. So that was something that was glamorous, exciting, imaginative—and this is at a time when there were very few competitors in terms of mediums. There was no TV; movies were mostly in black and white; they couldn’t rival the Sunday comics, the color supplements.

Did you ever have the opportunity to meet Caniff?

He and I became friends. We used to have dinner and drinks together over the years. That’s something I still value.

Did drawing Kill My Mother force you to do anything as a cartoonist you hadn’t done before?

It was a complete revolution for me, in my way of thinking, in my way of approaching art and toying with it. I spent over forty years doing Village Voice strips, almost never doing backgrounds, because the characters were the prominent thing and the conversation was the prominent thing. I thought backgrounds would be distracting, and in addition, I didn’t know what anything looked like that wasn’t a human figure. I’ve never had an eye for the inanimate. And so I never drew cars or planes—all the things that boys generally love to do. They were totally foreign to me, alien to me. Buildings, bridges, all of that stuff. And noir, if you take a look at any of the movies—Double Indemnity [1944], Maltese Falcon [1941], any of them—they’re full of atmosphere. And atmosphere is backgrounds, reflected light, shading. All that stuff that I had perfectly no experience in drawing or in thinking about. So I had to completely rethink my entire approach to drawing, at the age of eighty.

Some lines in Kill My Mother are note-perfect in recreating the feel of noir—when Hammond says, “Any hour, I’m here, you’ll find me. Drinking my lunch,” for instance. Is there one writer you hold as the gold standard for these sorts of lines?

The guy who began it all was [Dashiell] Hammett. And it was his short stories about a private detective, the Continental Op. Those stories were the ones that so fascinated me and excited me. They were short, they were pithy, they were tough. Out of that came Red Harvest [1929] and other wonderful Hammett books. But Chandler was up there also—Chandler’s way of ... not so much storytelling, but his way with words and his allusions. The Big Sleep [1939] is a remarkable piece of work. I love Chandler’s short stories also. The other writers that other people like, like John MacDonald, never meant anything to me. They never did a thing for me.

Did you discover any hidden features of the noir genre as you drew Kill My Mother? Maybe tropes you didn’t realize were tropes until you started drawing them?

Well, what we’re talking about here is comics, and comics—you can’t talk about just the drawing. It’s words and pictures. If it’s not words and pictures, the whole doesn’t exist. It’s the integration of storytelling, dialogue, and the art. They all become one. So it’s not simply about having a good-looking page. It’s telling a story that moves the reader and pulls the reader in and where the reader—as in the best of Caniff and Eisner’s Spirit—doesn’t differentiate between reading the balloon and looking at the picture. Creating that double impact was the challenge here, and also the fun. I worked from a typed script that I first wrote and sold to the publisher. And very much like the screenwriter of a movie, I found that once the director—who was also me, in this case—got a hold of it, he kept changing or rewriting or cutting the dialogue. The pictures in the scene demanded something else. I was continually being corrected and outguessed by the director. That was revealing and often quite educational. So it wasn’t so much the visual surprises, although I encountered many of them—what surprised me over and over again as somebody who has written plays and screenplays over the years is how much rewriting and rethinking and revising the text demanded because the pictures were going in another direction. kmm1-2 Is there one change in particular you think is the most radical? A change that took place in the drawing of the story...

Well, yes. In the second part of the book, I had a long sequence after the South Pacific. And by the time I’d almost finished drawing the South Pacific sequence, the director in me said, “It’s time to get out of this. It’s time to close down. This is the big climax, and you can’t have another chapter and another part of the story. The reader is not going to stand for that.” So I had to find a way of getting to the end—get all the information in that was required from that last part—and not seem to be hastening to get out of the book. Once I started thinking in that direction, it happened very naturally. And I must have cut about thirty pages.

Let me ask you—how did the Pacific theater find its way into Kill My Mother? Did you know from the start you wanted to include World War II?

Well, I could see from the beginning that the book would be in two parts: the Depression '30s, when I was a boy, and the war years. Particularly in Hollywood, because my idea for a second volume was to take these same characters into the years 1947, 1948, during the Hollywood blacklist, which is when I developed a lot of my left-wing politics. So I wanted to do a noir book about the blacklist, and I was building up to that. Then, once I was in Hollywood [in the Kill My Mother’s middle section], it’s the war, and everybody’s in uniform, and everybody’s entertaining troops, going on USO tours... Suddenly it occurred to me that this would be a big climax, with all the characters going to an island, which is in battle in the South Pacific. And Tarawa was one of the first islands that, after Pearl Harbor, we took back from the Japanese. That USO tour—all my characters go, and while they’re fighting the Japanese, they start settling scores with each other. That’s a funny and wonderfully dramatic and exciting idea, and once I thought of it, I knew it was absolutely right. That had to be the big, big climactic sequence of the book.

Having lived in the US during Vietnam, and having almost served in Korea, does World War II occupy a different space in your mind?

World War II was considered the good war. It was the war against the Nazis, and I’m Jewish, and it was a war—as we soon found out—to stop Hitler’s destruction of the European Jews. There were all sorts of good moral reasons—not to mention military reasons—for getting into that war. But from Korea on... I was drafted into the Korean War, but I didn’t serve in Korea, and that really began my career as a satirist. By doing army cartoons. From Korea on, it was a different attitude. First of all, since we were attacked by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, everyone understood in World War II the need for a draft, the need for everyone to do his or her part.

By Korea, we had pretty much recovered from the Depression, which hit most everybody hard. There was the creation of a middle class that had never existed in America or in the world before—I mean, a broad-based middle class on a level that was unprecedented. And so we were seeing comfort and prosperity and a sense of actually doing better than one’s parents, which was a mythology that was always talked about as part of the American dream but which wasn’t always enacted. Now it was being enacted. And suddenly we were back in war. And most people were in favor of that war. And the war went on and on and on. And the mythology is that we won it. But we didn’t win it. We ended up with a truce. And that was the first war that, Americans really began to lose the gung-ho spirit. By the time we got to Vietnam, and particularly by the time we started drafting college students, it was a whole different picture. Vietnam was the first American war that a massive amount of Americans opposed. You can’t find any opposition—I mean, there was some opposition to the Civil War, but that was sporadic; there were different groups, the Irish and some others. World War I, there was virtually no organized protest except from some in the socialist left—and those guys went on trial. The mass protests that went on during Vietnam were unprecedented in our history. I was in the middle of that, and it was a very exciting time. It really helped shape my career. That and the civil rights revolution were basically the two political acts that essentially defined my career as a political cartoonist.

You were an early critic.

I was the first cartoonist to oppose the war in Vietnam, that I know of. I did as far back as 1963. And I was also a vigorous civil rights cartoonist in the early years of the movement, when the general attitude toward Martin Luther King was that he was an extremist, that he was going to hurt his own cause by breaking the law. And I understood early on—because I had done a lot of reading, going to pro-civil rights meetings, left-wing meetings on civil rights, and meeting people like Bayard Rustin—if you go through the courts, this is going to take a generation or even more than a generation. It ain’t gonna work. Because the law was controlled by southern Democrats at the time, in Congress. If you read Robert Caro’s books on Lyndon Johnson, you see how that had happened. The idea of going to the courts, which sounded good, really meant to do nothing. Radical movement was necessary, and my work espoused that radical movement at a time when most cartoonists—and most everybody else—were acting more cautiously. kmm1-3 Let me ask you a question about protest and crime fiction. Hammett was a communist; not all of his contemporaries were. Do you see a consistent kind of politics in noir?

I’m not sure you even find Hammett’s politics in noir, other than perhaps in Red Harvest—the whole town being corrupt, which may have been his metaphor for capitalism. Perhaps somebody’s written about that and I haven’t seen it. But other than that, I don’t see, in any of Hammett’s work, his red politics. His companion Lillian Hellman—you saw a little bit more of Lillian’s politics in things like The Little Foxes [1939] and a few of her plays. And one of her movies, about the Soviet Union—The North Star [1943], it was called. But most of the time, these writers left their politics out. Or, if they tried to put it into a film, it was cut out by the producers. In my case, I’ve always been a political person, and since I’m dealing with historical times—the next book is set in 1931, two years before Kill My Mother begins—I find with that, and the later book I plan on the Hollywood blacklist, I’m going more and more into politics. But it’s got to be part of the storytelling. None of this stuff can be preachy.

On that note—your earlier work critiqued the sort of self-imposed censorship of people in the '50s and the early '60s, and our culture has evolved now in a way that gives people countless platforms for broadcasting themselves. It’s almost the opposite problem. What do you think is the role of an artist in a time like ours?

Oh, I’ve never thought in terms of the artist having a role. The artist’s role is to do his or her work and to present his or her vision. Does he or she have a greater responsibility because of having a particular gift? Only if you choose to take it on. I mean, I was always a social and a political person, so it was automatic—ingrained, that politics would make up what my art was. And that happened during a pretty heady political time, because of Vietnam and the Cold War years and the civil rights years. Of course, they were also post-Joe McCarthy years. As I’ve said before, liberals had no idea they had First Amendment rights. If you watched popular television shows in the 1950s, the talk shows, Meet the Press, what you saw were conservatives who were called conservatives, middle-of-the-roaders who were called liberals—very few liberals at all, unless they were clean-cut, loyal liberals—and absolutely no one on the left. That was considered free and open debate at the time.

About the left—your memoir was released around the time the US elected Barack Obama president. According to the memoir, you were thrilled with that result. Since then, we’ve seen no shortage of coded racism pitched in his direction; his presidency has had its share of disappointments. At this point, with everything you’ve seen, how do you measure progress?

Well... I measure it backwards. I think that we see on the conservative side—most notably the Tea Party, which has not only achieved results but also garnered an extraordinary amount of attention—an attempt to do what the Republican Party has wanted to do since the days of the New Deal. Which is to repeal the entire New Deal. To get rid of Social Security, to get rid of welfare in all forms, to get rid of a social contract that says the wealthy—and all of us—are citizens who have a responsibility not just to ourselves and our families but to others as well. The right doesn’t believe that but shut up about it for many years because their view was unpopular. Now you have people going on cable TV, talking quite openly about how we should not have a minimum wage at all. And if that argument is won, you’ll see, in few years, an argument in favor of child labor: “Why not hire someone at six or seven years old?” You see the kind of conversation that could not have occurred thirty, forty, fifty years ago. We are going back to trying to deny blacks and other minorities of their voting rights, which was the entire twentieth century up until the '60s. The bullshit about voter fraud—of which they hardly find anything but still go on talking about. And a totally reactionary Supreme Court, which backs up the end of the Voting Rights Act. So I think we are moving backwards. Now how far that goes, and how long it will go, I don’t know. But I find it very discouraging. kmm2 Let me circle toward the personal for a second. A reader who has read your memoir will find all sorts of overlap between that book and Kill My Mother, including resentment within families and battles of will between parent and child. How demanding was this project in that respect? Can you revisit these themes with some distance?

It’s demanding only in the way that all serious work is demanding. My creative life is fun. This is a form of play to me. I never had hobbies. I never played sports. I never did anything but what I’m doing, and now what I’m doing... At my very roots, as a boy cartoonist, I wanted to do an adventure strip, and I’m ending up my life doing adventure strips. This is just endless joy for me. Within that, it’s quite demanding. Trying to figure out how to solve legitimate problems. But if you address them, I find that they tend to solve themselves. You don’t force the issue, you don’t give yourself deadlines, you take the story down one road you didn’t know you were going to take it, and wait for it to solve the problem for you. And it does, if you’re moving in the right direction. If you’re not moving in the right direction, you’ll find that out also, and you’ll have to go tear things up and rewrite.

At the same time, it’s the most challenging—in terms of the art, I’ve never done anything like it before. The book is 149 pages, I think. And every one of those pages, I felt unqualified. I felt that I was bound to fuck this up. And the fact that I didn’t, that I was getting stronger, getting to know more and more what I was doing, never gave me the sense of assurance that I thought I would gain through the process. Every page, I thought, Jesus Christ, what am I gonna do now? I can’t possibly pull this off. They’re gonna find me out. That slowed me down considerably too. There were days when I just simply wasn’t up to the struggle. So it was a constant challenge in the way that the Feiffer strip never was. I had no intention of illustrating Kill My Mother. I didn’t think I was qualified. So I was going to write it and hope to get a good illustrator for it.

What finally made you decide to illustrate it yourself?

It was my agent, Gail Hochman, and my editor, Bob Weil. They wanted me to take a shot at it and kept saying that no one could really do it except me. I kept saying, “I don’t know how to do it. It’s not what I do.” So I thought, to prove my point, I would do a couple of sample pages. And they turned out great, and I was stuck with it.

Are the boxing scene or the dancing scenes a kind of release, in that respect?

Oh, yes. I could not wait to get to the boxing scene. Kids in the 1930s and '40s, particularly poor kids, loved prizefighting. And you grew up on the heavyweight champions, and middleweights like Sugar Ray Robinson, and you listened to the radio broadcasts of boxing matches, saw movies and early television... I was shocked when I first started seeing real fights on TV, back in the '50s—how little action there was. Because I was used to the movies, where they’d beat the shit out of each other. In movies, it was like Jack Kirby doing the art. In fact, boxing was very slow. So I wanted to get a sense of the movement, what it really looked like if you were watching those fights. And then I was also telling a story about my dancing master, Eddie, so he had to be graceful, while the other guy was just a thug. So that was a way of storytelling with little bits of gesture. One of the reasons I was drawn to dance, and I loved being drawn to dance, was that as a cartoonist of adult things, of satire, I couldn’t do action anymore. I couldn’t do what I had loved to do, which was people beating each other up. I was no longer in that field. So this gave me a chance to happily get back to the youthful violence I had loved.

Before we finish up, can you describe what it’s been like for you to watch the comics medium develop throughout these last decades?

Oh, I’m glad you asked that. It’s moving and it’s astonishing. Because before this period, it really looked like it was all dying. When I was a child, we had the daily strip—and the strips got smaller and smaller, and the art got worse and worse. And just as Star Wars changed movies for the worse, so did Charles Schulz and Charlie Brown [change comic strips]. Schulz could do what he did because he was a genius. Outside of Calvin and Hobbes, no one else could do that—because Bill Watterson was also a genius. All the others were just pale imitations, doing gags that were not very funny and characters who were not very interesting. The '20s and '30s, which gave us Gasoline Alley and other wonderful strips, faded into boring—and I found, unreadable—comics.

Then seemingly out of nowhere came this alternative movement. I mean, it came out of the underground comics—Zap, all the druggy stuff—but I never read those. I never did drugs—I think if there was a booze underground, I would’ve been part of that. So [Robert] Crumb and most of his allies were not of any great interest to me. The sexuality, the brazen naughtiness, seemed juvenile to me—I was just older. There were a lot of people my age who thought it was great, but I had a tin ear for it. Still do. But out of that came [Art] Spiegelman and [Gilbert] Shelton and all the others. And suddenly appeared this extraordinary level of talent. Chris Ware, Lynda Barry, Dan Clowes. And then people from other media started moving into it—David Small, who was a children’s book illustrator, did this graphic novel Stitches [2009], which was a masterpiece. And Craig Thompson, who did Blankets [2003]. If Blankets was a piece of fiction, it would seem very ordinary, familiar. But told as a graphic novel, it was new, it was fresh, it was poetic, it was revealing—it was extraordinary. Over and over again I’ve seen stuff—Alison Bechdel. It’s just wonderful. Certainly another golden age of the form, and totally unexpected. I’m just glad that by accident, I’m joining the ranks of all these others. As with the title of my memoir, it was backing into forward. I had no idea it was going to end this way. kmm4-1 All images reprinted from Kill My Mother: A Graphic Novel by Jules Feiffer. Copyright (c) 2014 by B. Mergendeiler Corp. With permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.