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Backing into Jules Feiffer: An Exclusive Q&A

[JF continuing] At the beginning of the [new autobiography], part of the epigraph at the very start says, "And always remember, do not let your judges define you." And that's much of what the book is about; how grownups, the people in charge, the people you work for, the editors and the art directors and the editorial schmucks who tell you who you are when you don't think you are that person and tell you how to do the work and give you notes on how to improve it, and every line you put down tells you you're not improving it, you're destroying it, and when you've destroyed it enough they accept it as being good. These can destroy you and have destroyed many people. And it's hard to stand up to them because they are in charge of letting you in the door, and if you don't do what they want they're not going to let you in the door, you'll have to find another way, if there is another way. And for some there is and for some there isn't, and so much of it is a matter of luck. I got very lucky because if The Village Voice hadn't existed at the time that I was trying to sell my stuff, I wouldn't be here. I would've been a second-rate art director somewhere else having a lousy time, and probably dead 20 years ago from drinking too much.

DF: You talk in the book about not just wanting to be good and accomplished, but wanting to be famous. What was so important about that to you?

JF: I wanted to be famous in order to be free. I knew that I had strong things to say and radical things to say and if I weren't famous I wouldn't be allowed to say them. So I got famous and I said them and that's why you're here today and so am I.

DF: E.L. Doctorow was your editor on [The Great Comic Book Heroes,] a book that probably affected the lives of a lot of people in this room. How did you know him and how did that come to be?

JF: I don't how I knew him. I knew him casually; we knew each other from parties. He was a senior editor at Dial Press and at the time I knew him I didn't know that he was a fiction writer. I mean, he had been writing but he had no degree of success. At the time he and I worked together he was working on a book, a Western called Welcome to Hard Times, that got some response and later became a movie with Henry Fonda. But it was Edgar [i.e. Doctorow] who called me up and said, "I have this idea for a book on comic book heroes and comic books of the '40s and '30s and whatever, and I can't think of anybody else who can write it but you. Are you interested?" And I said, "I'll be right over."

And he was not just [there] in terms of the basic idea, but later on with the introductory material which I wrote. I mean, practically, that form was how I saw the book being done: To write an introductory essay, two sections, and then we put in the cartoons. He was wonderful, particularly at the end. I handed the book in without the last section, which talks about comics as trash and [psychologist Fredric] Wertham, [whose 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent helped spark an anti-comics fervor] and all of that, and he said, "No, you need some kind of windup. You need some kind of summation to all of this." So I wrote that, which often has been widely quoted, maybe the most widely quoted part of the book outside of my analysis of Superman at the time, that was stolen whole for Kill Bill: Vol. 2. Mr.[Quentin] Tarantino talks about how he came up with this idea one night sitting around, remembering something vaguely that he'd read in a book once. And then you can hear what's on the screen, what [David] Carradine says, to what's in the book, and it's incredible.

DF: In the book you reintroduced Eisner with this [July 20, 1941, Spirit] story ["The Spirit in the Middle East"], and I don't know if I'd ever heard anything about it before, that said that the first…

JF: That was one of the pre-war stories, and it was one of the stories that so effectively [worked] in terms of Eisner creating atmosphere [with] the splash page, the layout, which nobody came near,, nobody tried to do, and using the "Spirit" title in exotic and graphic ways, unimaginable ways before Eisner did this sort of work. And then the story itself, with atmosphere a big part of it, [the] locale, you felt the heat — he could make you feel heat on a comic page. You felt the smokiness of the room. He created a reality on the page with some rather cartoony-looking characters. He didn't draw that realistically, but you felt it with a vividness.

DF: It all seems sudden for an outsider, [going] from The Spirit [to] the Feiffer strip [in The Village Voice]. When and how did you start writing it?

JF: I didn't; the times did. If there wasn't a Cold War and there wasn't McCarthyism and there wasn't this spirit of suppression in the United States, the work I did would be very different indeed and I never would have ended up probably doing the work I did. McCarthyism was long gone and I was doing a strip from 1956 on, and then on November 22, 1963, an incident occurred that changed America. After [Jack] Ruby shot [Lee Harvey] Oswald a week later, I realized that this country had gone through a significant alteration and we would never be the same. And six months later I was convinced that we were on the way to some kind of national nervous breakdown, and collapse all forms of authority that we had respected for years. I looked around to read about it somewhere, Time magazine and The New York Times and The New Yorker, and nobody was writing about it, and I said, "Shit I have to put this down. I have to figure out how to do this."

And it was too complicated an idea to do in a six- or eight-panel cartoon, and I hadn't thought in terms of a cartoon novel; I didn't think of that until some years later when I did [the 1979 graphic novel] Tantrum. I wasn't so worried about form; I wanted to get the story out that was on my mind, and simply because I wasn't a columnist or an essayist I had to find a creative form to do it in. So the first one I came up with, because I had written a novel, Harry the Rat, was to do it as a novel. I got so bogged down in writing this novel that it got completely away from where I was going and I was totally depressed by it, and three years later [was] trying to figure out what to do with this damn thing.

I had friends that talked me into going up to Yaddo, which is this artist's colony in Saratoga Springs, New York, and the first day I read the first 200 pages or so of the novel and was deeply depressed. And then I went over the original notes. When I woke up the next morning with a considerable hangover I said, "I know I'm not that stupid to waste all these years on a piece of crap like this. Where are the notes? What did I think I was doing?" And I went back to the notes, which I hadn't looked at in two-and-a-half years, and I said, "This is brilliant. Somebody should write it," and there was nobody.

So I thought, well, I'll try dramatizing it; I'll make it a play. I'd been wary about trying to get into theater. Second City in Chicago had adapted my cartoons on stage, and I was not crazy about what the stuff looked like; cartoons didn't really play on stage. I knew I had to write in another form and I also knew, having been a lifelong theatergoer, plays I loved closed fast and plays I walked out on won Pulitzers and Tonys. If I ever wrote a play I really thought was any good it would close in a week. Despite that, I had no alternative if I wanted to get rid of this material, get it from inside me out, and I needed to do that. So I began dramatizing it and as soon as I began dramatizing it, and this was my first play except for one act of Carnal Knowledge [the eventual unproduced play on which the 1971 movie was based] that I had written some years ago. But this was very different. As soon as it began to dramatize itself it took off. I realized within the second day there that I was a playwright, and I started having the time of my life, and I wrote a first draft of Little Murders in three-and-a-half weeks. And when it opened on Broadway [in 1967], it closed in a week. But it came back [in 1969 as a long-running Off Broadway play].

DF: What do you remember about Carnal Knowledge?

JF: The first director I sent Little Murders to was Mike Nichols, and he didn't get it at all, I mean simply didn't understand it. And then when Alan Arkin did his [1969] production at the Circle in the Square, downtown on Bleecker Street, this hole in the wall, with a wonderful cast of actors and a brilliant production, Mike came over to me at the opening and said, "I just didn't get it," and was thrilled by it. I sent Carnal Knowledge to Alan Arkin to do because he had done two of my plays; he had done that and the next one, The White House Murder Case, another political play. But this was a play about sex and relationships, and it made Alan very uncomfortable. So I gave it to Mike, and Mike called up and said, "I want to do it but I think it's a movie," and he was at that point the hottest director in America. The Graduate had been a couple of years earlier, he was now editing a final cut on Catch-22, with Alan Arkin starring in it, and I said, "Give me 30 seconds to think about it." and then we were off and running. As I say in the book, he sent me to see Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider, and I couldn't see how Nicholson had anything to do with the character I had written, Jonathan, and I said that to Mike. I said I think [Nicholson's] all wrong, and Mike said, "Trust me, he's going to be our most important actor since Brando," and I trusted him.

DF: This was one of your favorite childhood characters, Popeye. [Screens comic-strip image]

JF: [E. C.] Segar's Popeye….

DF: And I know you're less fond of this Popeye. [Screens live-action movie image]

JF: The movie, which eventually, after going through a long list of directors and, for that matter, actors. The original Popeye script was written for Dustin Hoffman. He was supposed to do the part. He was a buddy of Robert Evans, the producer, and when Dustin read the first 50 pages he was very excited and talked to me and said, "This is like Kafka and Beckett." And I turned in a script which Evans loved … and Dustin wanted me fired and to bring in his own writer. And Evans said to him, which producers never say in Hollywood, "Dustin, I want to make this movie. I'm the producer, you're the star, Jules is the writer. We want you very much to do it but you are not going to decide who's going to write it."

DF: He said the kid stays in the picture?

JF: Well, this kid stayed in the picture; Dustin walked. And then we had no picture because [Dustin] was the financing. A year-and-a-half passed and Evans called me up from Hollywood and said, "Have you seen [the 1978-92 ABC sitcom] Mork & Mindy? " And I had, but it never occurred to me that Robin Williams was a much better choice for Popeye than Dustin ever was. As soon as he said it I knew that this was it, and on the basis of that we got the financing. We sent it to every director we could think of, and finally [Robert] Altman was down on the chain of command and he said he loved it and wouldn't change a line and I knew he was lying because … I knew he hated scripts. But I also knew that nobody could bring the characters to life on the screen the way he did. He had a great gift for visualization, for making unreal things look real, and I knew it would look wonderful. I dreaded to think what would happen to my script but I got about 50% on screen, which is about 35% more than I thought.

Audience question: In your opinion, will political and editorial cartooning survive the death of newspapers, in some other form?

JF: Cartoons have been around as long as newspapers and before newspapers. They were all over the place. These forms are there because people need them and the artists themselves need to express themselves. When theater was in a state of collapse back in the late '40s and early '50s and everybody said theater was dead, suddenly somebody named [Edward] Albee came along and [Jack] Gelber and Arthur Kopit and these Europeans, Beckett and Ionesco, and we had a flourishing downtown which didn't exist before. It's like the artists taking over these deserted or going out of business manufacturing centers in Soho and turning it into a fashionable neighborhood. If artists are there and they create the work a market will find itself. The artists are maybe the last people to profit from it, and certainly in terms of graphic novels and alternative comics, there's not a lot of money in it. These guys work years and years, and how they make a living, how they feed their families, I don't know.

The [musical adaptation of Feiffer's 1993 children's book] The Man in the Ceiling came about because a friend of mine, [cartoonist] Ed Sorel, had an idea for a kids' book and he wanted to draw it; he didn't want to write it. It was about a kid who loved movies, and loved movies so much he ends up in [a] movie world. And Ed wanted the opportunity of drawing these old movie palaces and these old movie stars. He loved the '30s and '40s and he knows caricatures; no one does better Warner Bros. lot or MGM, I mean Sorel is unrivaled in doing this stuff. And I loved the idea and I wanted to write it, and each time I came up with an idea he said no, no, no. I went up to Martha's Vineyard where I have a house and we didn't talk over the summer, so at the end of the summer I had an idea and spent about two weeks on it. Very excitedly, I called him up and said, "I think I've got it, it's going to be terrific," and there was a long pause on the other end and Ed in his long, drawling voice said, "Uh, I guess I should have told you. I decided to write it myself." I said, "When did you decide that?" and he said, "Uh, two weeks ago." Two weeks earlier was when I began work on this thing. I said, "That's when you should have told me," and I hung up.

[continued, next page]

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