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Backing into Jules Feiffer: An Exclusive Q&A

If you want to see the 'toon, you have to pay the Feiffer — as so many of us did for decades, snatching up The Village Voice each week to see Jules Feiffer's satiric comic strip Feiffer, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1986. Or we bought the paperback collections, like Sick Sick Sick (the strip's original title, reflecting the catchphrase "sick humor" applied sardonically to hip, topical comedy in the late 1950s and early '60s), The Explainers, Hold Me! and many others. The Feiffer-scripted, nine-minute cartoon Munro (1960), adapted from a Feiffer story, won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short. And he wrote one of the first graphic novels with the modern-day fable Tantrum (1979), about a harried businessman who wills himself physically into becoming a toddler, an all-id creature who then goes off to reconcile his present with his past.

The Bronx born and bred Feiffer got his start in cartooning under the fabled Will Eisner, first as an art assistant and then as the writer of Eisner's landmark, seven-page comics series The Spirit, published as part of a standalone, comic-book style section of Sunday newspapers in the 1940s and early '50s. Shortly afterward, he made his mark with Feiffer, which ran in the Voice from 1956 to 1998. He went on to produce such disparate works as novels (1963's Harry the Rat with Women, 1977's Ackroyd), plays (1967's Little Murders), movies (1971's Carnal Knowledge, 1980's Popeye), a raft of children's books, the influential 1965 non-fiction book The Great Comic Book Heroes and, well, way too much more to list without this becoming his resume — as if the 81-year-old legend needed one.

On March 24, 2010, Feiffer appeared with host/moderator Danny Fingeroth — himself an author, comics historian, comic-book writer and a former Marvel Comics editor — in an interview and Q&A at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, where Fingeroth is senior vice-president of education. Feiffer's new autobiography, Backing into Forward: A Memoir, has just been published by Doubleday, to glowing reviews. With thanks to MoCCA executives  Karl Erickson and Ellen Abramowitz, exclusively presents an annotated transcript of the evening — a rare, highly expansive and unexpurgated look into the mind of one of our times' most acutely insightful creators.

DF: Why a memoir? Why not a novel or a play?

JF: I'd tried writing two memoirs for grown-ups, and one was Harry the Rat with Women, which was a successful book but took me two years of agony to write, not a moment of which I enjoyed. I was happy the book came out well, but I like to have fun. I've read for years about writers agonizing and squeezing blood out, and that is not a life for me; I'd like to have a good time at what I do.

The only novels I've written that I've really enjoyed doing are the ones for children, beginning with The Man in the Ceiling (1993) and A Barrel of Laughs, a Vale of Tears (1995). So it's not a novel because I don't like writing novels. I like reading novels, and if I could have written a novel that I could read without having written it… So that's why. It wouldn't be a graphic memoir because I didn't feel like doing that much drawing. Also what I had to say was complicated and nuanced and in and out, and you can't do that with pictures and text and have anybody stick with you. Or I haven't figured out a way of doing it and I wasn't interested in finding it.

I have things to say that I thought could only be said the right way in what would be essentially a literary form, and with prose that delineated what I was going through and what others around me were going through, and what the times were like, what the culture was like and the politics were like, and combining all of those into a picture involving me personally. And I didn't see any other way of doing it. If it were a graphic memoir, doing all of that would have been more than 1,000 pages and I wouldn't even read it.

DF: Did you have to do a lot of research? Did you have to talk to people from your past?

JF: [As] I say in the book, I hate homework and I've never done homework. What I remembered I remembered and what I didn't remember I left out. I would talk to my sister, Alice, who's four years younger. It occurred to me one day when I was writing the chapter on theory that my mother — who sang old 19th-, early 20th-century ditties from Broadway shows, and who brought theater magazines into the house and introduced me to the world of [legendary theater caricaturist] Al Hirschfeld, whom I would never have known without her — that we never went to a Broadway play as children. I couldn't believe that was possible, but that was my memory. But my memory is very flawed so I asked Alice and she thought about it and she said, "No, I don't think she ever did [take us]," which presented me the challenge of trying to figure out why. In the book I speculate what her motivation was, and I found that even more interested than writing about how we went to see this show or that show.

My mother was a rather stylish woman, she was a career woman, she undoubtedly – and this is all my speculation – went into marriage with pressure from her family. I think she would have preferred to remain single, preferred not being a mother, although she did her best with the children, which meant she took care of us and loved us but she had no maternal feeling at all. She loved going to theater, she loved hanging out with artists; she was a bohemian young woman. Well, not quite bohemian, because her tastes were very conventional, but she was stylish in a way one might be living on the Upper West Side in the 1950s, except we're talking about the 1930s or '40s. And when the Depression hit, our family was hit harder than any of our relatives, and I think my mother's sense of shame and place prevented her from going out into public places where she might run into somebody she knew — running into somebody she knows who's sitting in the orchestra while we're in the second balcony, because that's all we could afford. She could not have tolerated that; it would have been just too mortifying. So during the Depression years, she cut off all of her friendships except for relatives, because she was just embarrassed by her poverty, which she blamed on my father. A national disaster didn't amount to much; there had to be some man to blame.

DF: A big theme of your work is how unfair childhood is and how unfair adults are to kids. You seem to maintain that sense of outrage, which has served you well.

JF: I think most adults, except too many of the people in charge, try to do their best with kids. It's virtually impossible for an adult to put himself or herself in the kid's place and know what that kid is reacting to. I'm for the return of the draft, and I think all kids of 14 should go into the Army or military or some service and come out when they're 20 and give their fucking father a break. (joking) And if that doesn't work, try execution. But this is an 81-year-old father talking; I wouldn't have sounded this way when I was 15 or 16.

Kids go through a struggle and a period that we romanticize in literature. What did Mark Twain write about except two children who were delinquents – Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn – and write about them accurately and with great detail and  nuance. And if Tom and Huck behaved that way [today] you'd have them in wilderness camp. So it's hard to be a kid and it's hard to be a parent; they are warring tribes.

DF: And speaking of childhood, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, [the creators of Superman,] were influential on your childhood, and on all our childhoods.

JF: When I did [the 1965 non-fiction book] The Great Comic Book Heroes, the powers that be at DC [Comics] said, "Why do you want to [use] Siegel and Shuster's Superman [illustrations]? There are so many better artists since. Why don't you use Wayne Boring" — who I found boring — "or some of the others?" And I said then, and I look at this work now, [that] nobody created the sense of flight, the sense of power, the impressionistic feeling of action, immediately taking place, taking place in front of you, as well as Joe Shuster did in his earliest days. When he started getting help he slipped quickly, but in the early stuff it's primitive, it's impressionistic. Some of it is badly drawn, but when Superman picks up a car, you feel the weight of that car and you feel that he's doing it. When he shoves it into a mountainside you feel that, you feel the power, the punch. Shuster was wonderful at exactly the things he should have been wonderful at.

DF: What was there about Superman and superheroes in general that…

JF: We were coming out of [the] Depression, but still in it; the readers of these books that were Jewish were aware of what was going on in Europe. Dimly aware, because we didn't know yet about something called the Holocaust, but we knew there were concentration camps and ghettos and people were being beaten and killed…. [There was] the sense of victimization; there was [the controversial Roman Catholic priest] Father [Charles Edward] Coughlin in the United States who [as a pioneering radio-show star] was broadcasting hate; there were anti-Semitic groups everywhere, and they were fashionable. They were so fashionable some of them ran the State Department of FDR's administration.

There was through all of it, in all of that time, a sense of helplessness — and at the same time a feeling that we're going to get through this, and a feeling of defiance. So that sense of helplessness and that feeling of defiance perfectly meshed to invent some kind of character, some kind of savior, some kind of hero who could rescue us. And since the Jews of that time were not religious —  they had come over from Europe and dropped their religion; they wanted to assimilate and be as Christian as they could without becoming Christians — he couldn't have any religious background. He had to be a secular hero. So what we got was somebody who came from another planet and landed on Earth and was raised by the Kents and became Superman. A Jewish fantasy of a pimply, acne'd, boy with glasses who can't beat up anybody and can't get girls, "But if they only knew who I really am, boy would they respect me! Maybe they'd even kiss me. Maybe I'd get a cheap feel." So that's the basis of it, I think.

DF: And here's a personal superhero of yours. [Screens an image of cartoonist
Will Eisner, who created the newspaper comics feature The Spirit and the Sunday-paper "Spirit Section" of comics, and who gave the teenaged Feiffer an assistant job.]

JF: I met Will when he was in his 30s, already bald, or balding, very bald, and actually much pleasanter-looking than that. A wonderful face. … Will was smart and pretty well-read and friendly and helpful and loved being a teacher. Not having much education himself he was an autodidact and he knew how everything worked. He knew the printing press process, how the cartoons were done. … He'd take me to a print shop to show what happened. He had no need to do anything with me, but he insisted on basically grooming me by educating me and very little of that education stuck. I thought, "Boring, who cares, let me draw pictures, go away." But he was trying very hard to be helpful and I probably wouldn't have had a career without him.

[continued, next page]

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