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, FilmFestivalTraveler.com 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]
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.
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]
[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  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]
[JF continued] And he called back immediately sputtering an apology and said, "You do the book, I'll give it to you, I don't care," and I said, "No, you write your book, I'll write mine. My book will be better than yours." So having made that boast/threat, I had to come up with an idea. His idea was a kid who loved movies. I loved old movies; what else did I love as a kid? Well there was old-time radio, but who's going to read a book about a kid listening to old-time radio? And then there was comics. Comic books, the idea I came to last. So I was going to do a book about a kid who loved comic books, which then, duh, turns into a book about a kid who wants to draw his own comic books. So it worked its way, but slowly, and not revealing itself until the final moment that it was a book about me writing comics and drawing comics in disguise; dark hair instead of blond hair; living in New Jersey instead of The Bronx, different parents, more or less, than my parents. The father is different; the mother has the same profession as mine, a fashion designer…. And once I started writing it and finding a voice to write it in, which took some time; at the beginning it was very coy, and cutesy, and I had to get rid of that. Once I learned how to do it, it was like becoming a playwright for the first time, or earlier, becoming a cartoonist. I never enjoyed myself as much. That's how I learned what these forms are that in a sense find me instead of me finding them, and they all come out of my childhood. … The dancer drawings I do, well, Fred Astaire was life and death to me when I was a kid.
[My 2003 play A Bad Friend is] all fictionalized, but it's a memoir of a time. It's based on my sister, the Communist, but she's somewhat different, and the protagonist in the play, the one she's fighting with over politics mostly, is me in drag. It's her 17-year-old, high-school-senior daughter, but it's based on those arguments we had back and forth and those political times. And it's also based on something else, which was that at the height of the Cold War in the '50s, I was living in Brooklyn Heights with other artists – [political caricaturist] David Levine, [painter] Burt[on] Silverman and others – and we got to know him because he started hanging out with us, this old man in his 50s who liked to hang out with kids. He seemed rather strange but was very pleasant and friendly and his name was Emil Goldfus [better known as Rudolph Abel, who was] later was arrested as the leading Russian [i.e. Soviet] spy in the United States, the biggest spy we ever caught. I knew that I had to tell that story someday so I put him in the play. And he's in the book too.
DF: In 2008, Explainers: The Complete Village Voice Strips (1956-1966) came out.
JF: Fantagraphics put out the first 10 years of the Voice strips chronologically. A beautifully designed and produced book; I'm very proud of it. And with a nice introduction by [Fantagraphics publisher] Gary Groth. They just forgot to market it; something they don't know a lot about. It was a front-page review in The New York Times Book Review and [Fantagraphics] didn't think that was a big deal.
Audience question: How have you managed to keep the past with you all these years? In writing this memoir, in fact in writing all the things you've written about your past, are there any triggers you use to kind of sum it up?
JF: The trigger is the act of writing itself. I write in longhand – I never learned to type – and as I'm writing one thing, not thinking I remember very much at all about anything, suddenly something else having nothing to do with it pops up and I quickly make a note of it. But just one or two words, because I've got it; it comes back whole. And then I go on and other things pop up which I didn't know I remembered. I worried at the very beginning that this was going to be a very thin book and by the end of it I had to shut up because I remembered too much. As I say at the end, I left out the Lenny Bruce trial where I testified as an expert witness on humor, and I went to Cuba in the mid '60s at the height of the Cuban Revolution, and there were other things that I can't think of right now that didn't get into the book. I was telling a story and the story was about me but it was also more about a career that dealt with rejection and failure and me not paying attention to that and moving on. And these other things, while entertaining, and interesting, and fun, would take away from the momentum that I wanted to create.
Audience member: The Times reviewer characterized [Backing into Forward] as a prequel to Patti Smith's memoir about Robert Mapplethorpe. I was wondering how you feel about your role in the continuous culture of New York in the 20th century.
JF: I don't think about my role. I'm told about my role but I leave it to others to judge. Mainly I just wanted to do my work, and I know what's said about me, [but] it never connected viscerally.
I love that people think these things, I'm not going to deny it, but it doesn't have very much to do with how I get up in the morning and do my work and deal with my family life and teach. That's pretty much what it was for the last 50 years. That doesn't change; there's still nothing in the house and I have to go shopping today.
DF: There are stores that will deliver stuff.
JF: No, I don't like that. I like being in a store. On the Vineyard you go shopping and you see these cars with the motors running and the husbands are in the cars staring into space and they're listening to music. And they will stare for a half hour while the wife is inside doing the shopping. And I thought, what is this numbing existence, preferring to sit in the car staring into space because it's somehow unmanly to squeeze a piece of fruit?
Audience question: I'd love to hear you talk about the dancer [who frequently appeared in Feiffer], who was a role model for so many of us who were in our late teens.
JF: I talk about it in the book. The first dancer was based on a modern dancer living in [Greenwich] Village, of course, who I give a different name to, and she was beautiful and sexy. And I had my first apartment on 521 E. 5th Street, I still remember, five blocks from Tompkins Square, between Avenues A and B [in the East Village], and she came home with me shortly after I had an apartment and slept with me. The first 19-year-old, or any-year-old, to ever sleep with me overnight, and of course she had to be memorable. I mean, how could you forget that? And my early dancers were built like her and as I went on to other girlfriends the dancer's shape changed.
Audience question: If you were to do Tantrum now, how would it be different from the middle-aged man who turned into a two-year-old?
JF: I wouldn't do that [book] now. There was a screening at the Museum of Modern Art, they were honoring Mike Nichols, and they had a screening of [Carnal Knowledge] and of course I was there and I saw the movie, and I felt very distant from it. I mean it still worked, the audience loved it, but I said to Mike afterward, "I could never write that now; I'm not that guy," and he said, "I couldn't direct it." The work you do is determined by who and what you are at that particular time. I no longer am acquainted with the writer of Carnal Knowledge, and I'm maybe a little more acquainted with the writer of Tantrum because that's a child in us that's always trying to get out. But I would never dream of basing a full book on it. It wouldn't occur to me; I wouldn't see it as material today.
Interview transcription by Allie Finkel.
For more on the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art: http://www.moccany.org