Those of us who grew up with the illustrations of Milo and his friendly watchdog, Tock, in Norton Juster’s 1961 children’s classic, “The Phantom Tollbooth,” had little idea of the life of the neurotic genius behind those drawings. With few squiggles, Jules Feiffer conveyed angst and humor as memorable as the mischief and whimsy dominating Mr. Juster’s text.
Now the 81-year-old artist has given us a delightful, self-deprecating look at his life and his evolution as one of America’s most original cartoonists. He traces the journey that began as a shy boy “who sidestepped arguments, fled confrontations, pedaled away from fistfights” and became the “enraged satirist” whose career spans four decades. It includes cartoons for the Village Voice, films like “Carnal Knowledge,” plays, children’s books and other works.
Growing up poor and Jewish in the Bronx during the Great Depression, Mr. Feiffer became obsessed with comics. His 11-year-old masterpiece, “Comics Caravan,” promising “Lightning. Fast. Action. Adventure” is reproduced here in all its glory. If the story lines smack of “Flash Gordon” or “Terry and the Pirates,” what of it? At home in his apartment, his mother begged him to stop, and go downstairs and play.
But if “fear was the principal emotion of my childhood,” then for Mr. Feiffer, swiping from the masters “was more rewarding” than anything to be found in the “scary streets” of New York. Tough kids had balls, baseball gloves, broomsticks. Once outside, Mr. Feiffer had only one weapon - chalk, which he used to draw Popeye on the sidewalk. Armed with such talent, jocks left him alone. The skinny kid was known as the “best cartoonist.” Drawing, he writes, became “my life.”
In school, art, history and English were the only subjects he could understand. “Every other course was an exercise in confusion, endurance, fakery and cheating.” After being turned down by the only colleges to which he had applied, Mr. Feiffer’s hunger for approval, fame and fortune gave him the chutzpah to march into the office of legendary cartoonist Will Eisner and talk himself into a job. One of the strongest chapters in this book gives a sense of what cartooning was like during the 1930s and ‘40s, when comic books gave many Jewish Americans “a port of entry, an Ellis Island into the big time.”
Mr. Feiffer’s 1951 stint in the Army was unhappy, but it was the Army “that made a satirist of me” with his cartoon strip “Munro.” For four years, he encountered nothing but rejection. Each editor told him the same thing: Come back when you’re famous. Always the strategist, Mr. Feiffer noticed that on almost every one of those editors’ desks was a copy of the Village Voice. Cartooning for that paper provided him with a bully pulpit from which to hone his craft, poking fun at the neurosis, anxiety, conformity and confusion gripping America during the 1950s, and later the social and political upheavals of the 1960s and ‘70s.
Today’s generation may not appreciate how highly original those cartoons were. They tapped a nerve long before the revolution or youth movement, when “fifties conformity still held sway.” Encompassing seven or nine panels, Mr. Feiffer’s ironic text, the movement and facial expressions of his characters, made one laugh aloud (this book includes a generous stimulus). That technique was the inspiration behind today’s explosion of graphic novels and memoirs - a genre that, with very few exceptions (Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” being one), don’t come close to displaying Feiffer’s talent or wit. (David Small’s highly celebrated but incredibly mediocre “Stitches,” out in 2009, is a case in point.)
Through his acquaintance with theater critic Kenneth Tynan, Mr. Feiffer was introduced to the world of the New York literary scene: William Styron, Alfred Kazin, Gore Vidal, Woody Allen, Mike Nichols, unabashed liberals all. “It was not a bad word in the fifties and sixties, not yet the L word, ” Mr. Feiffer notes wryly. Today, “Liberals have come to favor the word progressive, a delicious irony if you’ve been around as long as I have.”
“Backing Into Forward” contains some nice moments. Mr. Feiffer’s 1963 graduation speech to James Monroe High School should be mandatory reading for any graduating senior.
Lamentably, too much space is spent describing his youthful sexual angst - OK, OK, I get how it relates to his work life, but do I need to know about his games of “pocket pool”? More details about his actual craft and not just the evolution of it would have been welcome. So, too, would have been a kinder assessment of a controlling mother. She, too, was an artist, who saw the Depression as “a personal humiliation, a traumatic shift in status from up-and-coming career woman to impoverished family breadwinner,” embittered by a husband’s string of business failures. Surely there is poignancy in dreams deferred.
Nonetheless, “Backing Into Forward” concludes with mellow wisdom borne of maturity. For along the way, Jules Feiffer, the angry young man who never wanted more than a three-month relationship with any one woman, who shunned commitment or having children - discovered he enjoys marriage, fatherhood and his role as doting grandpa. Thanks to his daughters, he stumbled across “a joyously accidental career” as author of several children’s books that include “Bark, George” and “A Room With a Zoo.” He jokes, “The inspiration my children represent in terms of my present line of work is so overarching that I often mean to ask my accountant if I can deduct them as a business expense.”
Constant interruptions of his work by a demanding 4-year-old granddaughter are met with humor - and, again, a strategy - what he calls his creative defense initiative, or CDI, “a pause button I activate the moment I am waylaid by a child.”
It is a sweet picture.
Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the author and editor of several books, including a two-volume edition of H.L. Mencken’s “Prejudices,” to be released this fall by the Library of America.
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