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Backing into Jules Feiffer: An Exclusive Q&A

DF: There were interesting people in that job that you talk about in the book. Who are some of the other characters you worked with?

JF: When I first worked for Will there was John Spranger, who was his penciler and a wonderful draftsman; better than Will. There was Sam Rosen, the lettering man. Jerry Grandenetti came a little after me and did backgrounds, and Jerry had some architectural background. His drawing was stiff but loosened up after a while, but he drew backgrounds and inked them beautifully. And Abe Kanegson, who was my best friend in the office, was a jack-of-all-trades but mostly did lettering and backgrounds after Jerry left. Abe was a mentor to me.

DF: In what way?

JF: He was a Jewish Communist, like many of the people I knew from The Bronx, particularly my older sister. We would fight a lot about politics — he always won —  but he was very supportive of my cartooning. When I started doing "Clifford," this back page of the :Spirit [Section]," I would do a rough sketch, a layout, and show it to Abe, hoping to be praised. He would say, "Not good enough," or "You gave up too easily." I still remember one time he said, "You want to be a big deal and yet you're not willing to work for it. So let's work a little harder here." I was burned and shamed and worked harder.

DF: Who was Ed McLean?

JF: Ed McLean was a buddy of [artist] Wally Wood's. Wally came to the office before anybody knew him and he and I became friendly. He may have brought Ed to the office to show off to Will Eisner, but in any case, he invited me to his studio, which was at that time in the very slummy Upper West Side in the [West] 60s, years before it was [the] Lincoln Center [area]. It was a cartoonist and science-fiction writers' ghetto — just a huge room where the walls were knocked down, dark, smelly, roach-infested, and all these cartoonists and writers bent over their tables. One was [science-fiction writer] Harry Harrison.

And Ed was lettering comic books then. He was a lettering man, but he wanted to be a proletarian novelist; this was the age of the proletarian novel, [of Studs Lonigan author] James T. Farrell and others. And Ed wanted to be the next [Ernest] Hemingway, actually, as did everybody writing in those years. He and I started talking about books and he introduced me to writers I had never read, and some I'd never heard of. I had never read Theodore Dreiser, and he made me read [that author's 1925 novel] An American Tragedy, which was a book that so influenced me I made it an important part of the very last play I put on, in 2003, A Bad Friend. He introduced me to [the legacy of attorney] Clarence Darrow – I'd never heard of Clarence Darrow – and the Haymarket Riots in Chicago. I had been brought up in a house where my sister was a Communist and I knew a lot about the Russian Revolution, but I knew nothing about American Radicalism. He basically introduced me to indigenous American Radicalism and John Dos Passos and his "U.S.A. Trilogy" [the novels The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919, also known as Nineteen Nineteen (1932) and The Big Money (1936)], all of which was much more to my liking and my thinking than what my sister and her friends represented. So he was a big early influence.

DF: Is he the one you went on the hitchhiking trip with? That was a big adventure before the Beats, wasn't it?

JF: Well, everybody hitchhiked. I was about to be drafted and I had never seen the country, and I thought if I'm supposed to die for my country, I'd better see what it looks like. In addition, I had a girlfriend in The Bronx, another Red, who was going to Berkeley, before Berkeley was a hot Red center. And she had hitchhiked out and she was sending me these increasingly hostile letters about how gutless I was that I was not hitchhiking out to California to join her. So eventually that gets to even a coward such as myself, and I decided to hitchhike to California. But I needed a friend, so Ed agreed to it, and then I suggested we take the bus and he laughed me out of that. So we hitchhiked, and on our first lift out of Chicago we got into a fight and I ended up taking the trip alone, which basically changed my life. Up till then I thought that any move out of the house, any move out of the neighborhood, would kill me. I was full of fear, and when I took what I saw as these terrible chances and nothing happened, and when in fact there were physical risks and I figured out a way out them, it altered how I saw myself and altered how I felt about everything else. That's how kids grow up.

DF: How did you figure your way out of physical risks?

JF: I got a ride late one night out West and there was another hitchhiker in the car and he was a big kid. He was about three times my size and he had a face that was marked up, and it wasn't marked up with acne, it was marked up by the wounds of fights. So I thought I'm dead. And he was sullenly friendly, and I knew that this kid is just waiting to get out of the car with me, either have me turn all my money over to him, which I had very little of, or beat the crap out of me, or do both, and I would have been helpless to do anything about it. So I had to figure out fast what the hell I was going to do, and this is what that trip was all about. There were several incidents where threats occurred and I had to kind of worm my way out of these threats, which I did successfully each time. But all of that gave me a sense of a different place for myself, that I could handle myself even if I couldn't physically defend myself, which I couldn't.

DF: Details are in the book. You were a big fan of what's called the pre-war Spirit.

JF: Yes.

DF: You even told Eisner that perhaps his later work was not up to snuff?

JF: I think the later work, artistically, was better, but the stories got sloppier. Not all of them; the trolley story is as good as anything he ever did.

DF: Who wrote this [story]? "The Black Alley."

JF: I wrote the story. What's that? '47? I think that may be the first story I ever wrote. It's about a kid in The Bronx, it uses my candy store owner on the corner of my block, Pensky. I gave him another name but it would look something like him, and the Spirit just has a walk-on. But in those years, the Spirit was mainly a cameo insert into these little short stories that Eisner wrote and later I wrote. But Eisner gave me enormous leeway to do what I wanted to do, and basically what I wanted to do is write as well as he did, or try to write as well as he did, before he got drafter.

After he came out of the Army, his art improved enormously, [as did] his sense of layout — particularly composition and blacks-and-whites and the splash pages. But he had lost interest in The Spirit as a feature pretty much, and he wanted to be [Time magazine founder] Henry Luce, he wanted to be an entrepreneur, he wanted to be a big-time publisher. He was always somewhat ashamed, and he writes about this and people write this about him in his own memoirs — he talks about how he'd be at a party and somebody asked what he did and he said he was a comic-book artist and they'd walk away from him, something I quite believed. So he was embarrassed and wanted to move onward and upward as he saw it, so he began losing interest.

His stories took considerable time and he didn't have help writing them. He'd turn a story over to me or to Marilyn Mercer, who was his secretary at the time, but when he did the artwork John Spranger would pencil it and Ed and somebody else would ink the body or Will could do as much as he wanted and go in and out. And it left him free time to be the entrepreneur that he wanted to be. And that never really worked out that well for him. I mean, he made a lot of money, I think, but he never rose above comics as a class thing, which he wanted to do. He wanted to move himself into a higher bracket of respect and I don't think that ever worked for him until he later did [the 1978 graphic novel] A Contract with God. Oddly enough, it was returning to comics that got him out of Rodney Dangerfield territory.

DF: You talk about how there are stories that he wouldn't let you get away with, themes and subjects, and ones you did get away with.

JF: I was a lefty and I tried to sneak stuff in. Early stuff against the Indochina War before the US got into it, and I think I got away with that because Will didn't know. I read a story in Time magazine about Nazis being recorded in the French Foreign Legion members, some of whom were ex-Nazis; they were defeated Germans who had joined the Foreign Legion and they were fighting in Indochina for the freedom of the Indochinese. So I did a story on that and I think I got away with that. But a lot of the stuff with my lefty point of view, I had trouble with it. The Spirit got into the Sunday Compass; The [Daily] Compass was a very left[-wing] newspaper, the most left newspaper we had outside of the Communist Daily Worker. And thrilled by that, I tried to talk to my colleagues out there and the Compass found me too far left for it because they didn't want entertainment with politics in it. They thought it might be offensive to the reader, or whatever it was. They had similar attitudes to, say The New Yorker, which think that we're there to entertain and not do anything else.

DF: This was a story you wrote. [Screens page from "The Spirit in Space," with finished art by Wally Wood]. Did you lay it out also?

JF: Yes, I think I laid it out.

DF: So we have some of your thumbnails. Do you remember working with him?

JF: Well, Eisner by that time was not doing The Spirit at all and I was in the Army. I think this was probably January 1951 or March or something like that. I got drafted in January of '51 and I still was writing The Spirit, and Eisner had basically separated himself from the character and the feature. And because so much was going on with science fiction, he decided to come up with an outer-space Spirit, and asked me to write it. And the one thing I've never been interested in is science fiction or outer space. … So I read up on some of the stuff and then I tried to write disguised human-interest stories taking place on Mars. And Woody would do layouts and he would follow them or not and do this job that people seem to over the years like and I never thought much of it. Still don't.

DF: How did you end up the guy at The Village Voice?

JF: In the Army I moved in another direction, which was a way for me to stay with [comic] strips, which I had always adored, and my single ambition was to become one of those guys. And as the Cold War heated up, as McCarthyism heated up, I became more and more political and veered more and more to satire, but not the mild satire that was allowed occasionally on a newspaper strip. Or not even the occasional angry strips that Walt Kelly did in Pogo. It was more in the direction of what Kelly was doing as a political cartoonist in the New York Star before Pogo. Really angry stuff; vicious stuff.

And I was out for blood, and I was particularly out for blood in the Army against the Army, surprisingly. And so I came up with the story of Munro [the titular star of Feiffer's 1961 Oscar-winning animated short about a 4-year-old boy accidentally drafted into the Army], because I understood that if you're really in a rage and really want to attack someone in cartoon form, the least effective way is to jump up and down and scream and yell and to be polemical — something a lot of cartoonists have never learned. The best way is to go in the other direction and feign innocence, and bring the reader along in a quiet way. And so Munro tells this savage story but tells it entertainingly and sweetly and builds it up and gets the reader stressed, and as you read it, and particularly when you see the film, you feel your stomach knot up because of the obvious abuse and ignorance of authority. And people connected to their own situations with authority in or out of the Army when no one listens, no one believes you. They know, you don't, and they may even start to convince you, as they do Munro, that they're right and you're wrong.

[continued, next page]

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