For nearly four decades Jules Feiffer’s cartoon strips have dependably given us an ironic afterword for whatever issue or personality is in the news, or else have caught an inside ripple in the white water of current events.
Though he still has plenty of work cut out for him, Feiffer at 64 is rounding into that period of his life when he can start a bit of summing up. On Tuesday, Every Picture Tells a Story art gallery in Los Angeles unveiled a retrospective of his strips and drawings--including some original charcoal sketches of dancers and drawings from “The Phantom Tollbooth,” and new pieces from his upcoming children’s book, “The Man in the Ceiling.” Feiffer will be on hand Saturday for a reception at the gallery.
Has a New Age Administration re-sharpened his pen?
“I was a lot more sage in the ‘50s and ‘60s,” Feiffer said by telephone from New York. “I’m more aware of how stupid I am now. I knew absolutely what needed to be said about the Cold War, Nixon, Johnson, Kennedy and Eisenhower. But I can’t make anything of Clinton’s health plan. I know we should do something about Bosnia, but I don’t know what to tell him. I knew what to do about Vietnam, but I don’t know what to do about the recession.
“I knew how to solve everything in the ‘60s. Everything seemed decipherable and measurable. Now we seem in a free fall. All we can hope is that it’ll become a free lift. All I know is that I feel more dopey than at any time in my professional life.”
It’s only natural that, as dependent as we’ve become on the shock of the new, Feiffer should generate less cutting-edge interest than he used to. But his sense of irony, which tends to curdle in his plays, is untarnished in his strips, and he can still bring some heat and unpredictability to turbulent issues. When the National Endowment for the Arts censorship issue came to a boil, for example, who among his artist confreres would have expected him to draw an angry picket asserting his right to unrestricted artistic freedom as well as his anti-Establishment contempt, only to proclaim at screed’s end, “FUND ME!!!”
A relatively recent strip took in both the temper of current female complaint and our general feeling of political letdown when a young woman talked of the man who lied to her, showed up late, told her she was crazy when she caught him in a deception, and concludes, “I wish I had known that when I voted for Bill Clinton, I wasn’t getting a president . . . but another sick relationship.”
(In typical Feiffer style, he shuffled through the presidential receiving line at Martha’s Vineyard this summer and now says, “I think he knew about the strip. I didn’t get the double handshake. I didn’t get the clasp. It was light and quick. Now I feel abused.”)
No one had ever seen anything quite like his strips that began appearing in New York’s Village Voice in 1956. Cartoons and comic books of all had long been entrenched in American pop culture, and still are. But the wan, squiggly, vaguely horror-stricken shapes that seemed to writhe in eyeball-popping limbo, though altogether new, seemed instantly familiar.
Conventional wisdom recalls the ‘50s as the decade of the Deep Snooze, of gray flannel suits entraining daily to work in monolithic corporations, which at dusk disgorged them back to fresh-faced wives and children at home in metastasizing suburbs.
Jules Feiffer’s nerve-wracked people gave us a more microscopic look at the America coalescing into a lonely crowd. His inability to draw backgrounds (which persists) seemed more of a virtue than a handicap as the postwar alarms of racial and sexual tension, the fallout from McCarthyism, The Bomb, and the insidious, inescapable presence of a hostile Communist bloc, seemed in his strips to blend into a vast backdrop of featureless anxiety.
It was the age of Individualism Reconsidered as well, where the argot of psychoanalysis--repression, paranoia, guilt, neurosis, rejection--filtered into the vocabulary of the urban middle-class, whose troubled self-regard took the foreground of Feiffer’s strips. And it was an age in which anyone who challenged the order of things was called “sick.” (“Sick, Sick, Sick” was in fact the name of the book of Feiffer cartoons that came out two years later).
Over the years he’s written 14 cartoon books; nine published (and six unpublished) plays; five screenplays, including “Carnal Knowledge” and “Popeye”; two teleplays; and provided several contributions as illustrator to volumes such as “The Phantom Tollbooth” and “The Excalibur and the Rose.” He’s won a special George Polk Memorial Award, two Outer Circle Critics Awards, an Obie, an Oscar (for his 1961 animated feature, “Munro”) and a Pulitzer Prize, in 1986, for editorial cartooning--which has remained his base.
“I was interested in cartooning starting in babyhood,” Feiffer says. “My parents were European Jews with a vaguely liberal-left leaning, but terribly frightened of offending anyone. My father was a salesman, basically a victim of the Depression. The only time he made money was during World War II, when he worked in a supply store on the docks. My mother was a fashion designer, and was the breadwinner. I had an older sister who was a Stalinist, a loving woman with a terrible temper. (He also has a younger sister.) I was a kind of unaffiliated left-liberal. We used to fight a lot.”
Feiffer lived at home until he was 20. He studied at the Art Students League and at Pratt Institute, which he considered a disaster (“The faculty was too influenced by the Bauhaus school and looked askance at cartooning”). He hoped he could be the next Al Capp, and figured that in any case he wouldn’t amount to anything until he reached his 30s. The Army changed him.
“I went in when I was 20, and was stationed in New Jersey, Long Island and Georgia,” he said. “During that period my rage against authority formed my attitude about satire. I knew I had to go in a new direction. I try not to look back, but if one were to try to come up with an overview, I’d say my work deals with going up against authority, and conventional wisdom, and how people use language not to communicate, and the use of power in relationships.”
Although his style and point of view were unusually well-defined for his young age, Feiffer had a rough time getting started. “The message I got was that if I were as well known as William Steig or Saul Steinberg, I could get published.”
But of course he wasn’t, and didn’t. His day job writing for CBS’ “Terry Toons” sustained him, and though it didn’t pay, the Village Voice offered the unheard-of freedom for its writers and artists. Once he was able to compile the body of his “Voice” work in “Sick, Sick, Sick,” his visibility grew. Playboy magazine put him on a $500 a week retainer, and his career took hold.
Paul Sills first drew Feiffer to the theater by asking him to come to Chicago’s Second City troupe to flesh out his people for live performance. That, and Feiffer’s decision to give up a ponderous effort at a novel called “Little Murders” and adapt it for the stage, led him to an alternative life in the theater. Though he’s admitted that for the first 15 years of his theater career his plays were largely staged essays, he holds a general antipathy for critics.
” . . . Not really stupid but just slow-witted,” he has called them. “There’s a general condescension toward a subject that began with the Village Voice and alternative press, and has now filtered into the mainstream press,” Feiffer said in his telephone interview. “Harry Belafonte is a friend of mine and recently gave a concert in New York. It was a magnificent show. Rich and elegant. Nothing like you’d see in Vegas. But the New York Times reviewer . . . savaged him. That’ll be the record of a great show. It’s the old thing of the up-and-coming 25-year-old knocking the past, saying ‘Everything that precedes me is bull . . . .’ ”
“I do get dispirited,” Feiffer acknowledged, “but one thing that helps is having an 8 1/2-year-old around.” He was referring to Hallie, his daughter from his marriage to journalist Jennifer Allen. (He has a grown daughter from his first marriage.) “Having a young child around forces me to observe and re-orient my life, which was settling into a stale pattern.”
His illustrated children’s book, “The Man in the Ceiling,” is his remedy for staleness. Though it’s not autobiographical, except for the makeup of the family, it does reveal a capacity to get inside the mind of a character that Feiffer hasn’t shown this way before.
Feiffer’s art has never been featured in a Southern California exhibit before. Every Picture Tells a Story was formed by two women, Abbie Phillips and Lois Sarkisian, and grew out of their conviction that wondrous creations have been cropping up in the world of children’s art that are too imaginative and accomplished to be dismissed as mere kid stuff.
“I feel they have a strong sense of what they’re doing,” Feiffer said. “When they visited me in New York, I fell in love with them. I’m particularly excited that I’ll be able to exhibit the charcoal sketches of my tap dancers for the first time.”
Those dancers look like swooping, loose-jointed variants on the swells Lautrec observed capering across the floor of the Moulin Rouge. The heavy censorious heads nearly collapse into torsos lifted by long rubbery legs in a goofy elan. There is no background, no floor. They are funny, and free.
Every Picture Tells a Story art gallery, 7525 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 932-6070.