Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Jules Feiffer: The Great Comic Hero

“I was a creature of the newspaper comic strips, which I worshipped, and they were iconic,” Jules Feiffer says from his studio in the Upper West Side, a corner room in his apartment, with windows affording a view of the city. Built-in bookcases line the walls, packed with an assortment that includes some copies of his own work, as well as the work of the classic cartoonists he grew up on. “This was extraordinary talent doing extraordinary stuff, and with comic books, it was more like early rock ‘n’ roll – we felt anybody could do it. These were artists, particularly in the early days, who drew very crudely, particularly Joe Shuster (who I loved, particularly in his early Superman and before that Slam Bradley and Spy), whose stuff I could imitate and almost do as well at. It was that way with others: Bob Kane could barely draw.

“There was more of the possibility of a future for yourself, because these guys were in print and so could I be. Easily, the outstanding one in comic books from the very start was Will Eisner. I immediately launched onto him, and he entered this pantheon that included Milton Caniff and Alex Raymond and Hal Foster. He was head and shoulders beyond everybody else. He was somebody to admire, and also daunting to imitate. The others who were closest to what I knew I could become were Bernard Baily who did The Spectre and drew very stiffly, and Fred Guardineer who drew Zatara and could barely draw the human figure. All of these guys gave me hope.

“I loved comic books and, if you read enough of them, they’d give you a sort of caffeine high. I loved The Human Torch and I loved the Sub-Mariner, particularly because he was, before Spider-Man, the first really complicated hero who did bad things.”

Now in his early 80s, Feiffer has profited from that early sense of hope, that caffeine high brought on by cracking open a cover and smelling the newsprint of a new comic book. Along with becoming a critically acclaimed and highly intellectual cartoonist, Feiffer has written plays, movies, and several books. A hardcover book he wrote in 1966 The Great Comic Book Heroes, is the first tome on comic book history, combining Feiffer’s reminisces of the Golden Age of comics with reprints of pivotal stories from the 1930s and ‘40s.

Affable and friendly, Feiffer has a wise-guy attitude about him, leveled off with a genuine modesty and friendliness. He is of the first generation of writers and artists who grew up with comics in their early days, a product of that crude storytelling medium sold for a thin dime on newsstands.

“I’m the son of people who moved there during the Great Jewish Migration of the 1930s, from Yorkville and other parts of the city,” Jules says. “No one ever heard of the lower middle class. Middle class was rich, and everybody else was what they were. Nobody thought of themselves as particularly poor, but you lived from hand to mouth. Those were the years of deflation and nothing cost anything. You didn’t have any sense of going without. It was pre-television and pre-advertising on a large scale, so that you didn’t know. Somebody that got a car was rich. If you had an uncle in Riverdale, that was where the rich people lived. These were things you took for granted.

“Like all poor neighborhoods, the boys lived by the culture of the streets, which was playing stickball and other games. If you weren’t athletic, which I seriously wasn’t, you either made up for it with your wits or staying out of everybody’s way; I made up for it by drawing on the sidewalk. I could do something nobody else could do, draw Dick Tracy or Popeye, and that stopped me from getting beaten up. That’s where I learned the advantages of being a cartoonist.

“I was small, smaller than anybody else, weaker than everybody else, and if drawing on the sidewalks kept me from being beaten up, this was a lesson to learn for life.”

Jimmy didn’t like baseball, and that was why he and Father weren’t close and never would be. Because what else does a father do with a son by talk baseball and watch and play baseball?

Feiffer wrote in The Man in the Ceiling, a semi-autobiographical young readers’ novel. The protagonist, Jimmy, delves deep into creating his comics in the basement, experiencing a disconnect with his own family and peers at school with the only person he does feel a kinship to is his Uncle Lester, a failed playwright.

“School [was] impossibly difficult on every level, and expectations from grown-ups were beyond what I could meet, but something I could fake and faked all the time,” Jules says. “I faked my way through school and the approval of family. Childhood was the act of being a CIA agent in enemy territory, waiting to get back home. Getting back home was where I could run my own life, and my own life was represented by what I read in newspaper strips and particularly comic books, which were home turf to me.”
Man in the Ceiling showcases Feiffer’s uncanny ability to connect with younger readers, to put himself in the shoes of a kid in modern day by re-experiencing his own growing pains seventy years prior. It’s not done with an ounce of nostalgia, but a frank and honest innocence that combines a whimsical feeling of juvenile escapism with the heartbreak of the social outcast. He neither trivializes nor dramatizes Jimmy’s plight, leaving one to wonder if Feiffer really has been faking adulthood since the 1940s.

“It was by no means unhappy,” Jules says of his childhood. “I was just doing time. The sense was that I was the prisoner of these grown-ups and other peoples’ opinions and priorities. Through some miracle, I had a mother who allowed me to act out my ambition and dreams and that was my out. That was the straw [with] which I breathed through underwater.”

With an undercurrent of the characters’ failures, Man in the Ceiling culminates in success. Ironically, as the book itself came to being when one of Feiffer’s plays was panned by critics and he decided to try a hand at a children’s book, it is now being turned from novel to Broadway musical by Walt Disney. Feiffer’s exodus from the world of theater has now become his re-entry point.

As a kid, Jules produced his own comic book stories, full of swipes and superhero knock-offs like Radio Riley, Snowman, The Eel, and The Vulture. They were stapled together and sold for about nine cents to neighborhood kids.

Unsurprisingly, he put together a battered portfolio of artwork and pounded the pavement when he was old enough a few years later.

“The first cartoonist I met, I think, was Bob Oksner, because he was a friend of my cousin Herb’s,” Jules remembers. “That’s where Irwin Hasen says he met me. In fact, he was doing some schlock work there. There was an artist named Ken Battlefield, and another one who did animated work and had been neglected for years, named Dan Gordon. Most of these guys were very kind and helpful. I would hang around and watch them and talk to them. It was very thrilling to be able to sit around and talk to these cartoonists as they worked away. The least affable of all was Oksner, but he got me to meet with these other guys, and that was fine.”

The comics industry was comprised of a few major companies and several smaller ones, all of which Feiffer considers “schlock houses”, churning out substandard and schlocky comics for schlock wages. His first work as a schlock jock was for a substandard cartoonist.

“I worked for a guy named Sam Singer, who did some animal comics which he produced and drew, though he could barely draw at all,” Jules notes. “I was his assistant for a while, which meant that I ushered up people into his office who he was going to stiff when they went over to get paid, and I ordered flowers for his girlfriend. I hung onto that job for as long as I could stand it, for about three months, and then I quit. He was certainly a schlock operation. Even Eisner’s operation, Eisner and Iger, had to be a schlock house. While it had some very talented people, these guys paid as little as they could, and put off paying as much as they could. Nobody had any money.”

By 1946, Jules landed work with Will Eisner, whose Spirit strip was at its peak. Will had just come back from the war and took the strip back over from his army of ghosts, reinjecting life into the once great and then-bland crimefighter. Feiffer provided backgrounds, as well as stories for the classic strip.

“I responded so strongly to Eisner when I was a kid, because nobody made city streets during the Depression years look more real, graphic, and internalized,” Jules reflects. “Eisner was the cartoonist of weather: a lot of rain falling, a lot of wind with papers flying. Nobody did that.”

“We were never friends in the sense of being intimate, but we always had regard for each other in being friendly and occasionally having dinner,” Jules admits. “There was also a chronic competitiveness and rivalry and, as I got bigger, Will could get a little nasty about it.

Feiffer laughs. “It was never serious, and we were always warm to each other.”

Working for Eisner on this eight-page Sunday strip was an education for Feiffer, at the feet of one of the men who invented the comics medium.

“He was amazingly affable and outgoing, and interested in the form and knew everything about the medium, far more than I ever did,” he says of Eisner. “He knew not just how to pencil and ink and write, but he knew what happened to it after it went off to be printed. He had worked in print shops, and he took me down to print shops to show me how it happened, and I never understood. I had to pretend, as I had in school, that I got what he was talking about. But from that day do this I still don’t know how it happens. He knew it all, and knew the terminology, and was fascinated by the form. He was not just a good artist, but a true craftsman and had a great scholarship about him. He was in at the birth of everything.”

Feiffer was drafted into the Army in 1951, and was immersed in an environment at odds with his own beliefs. It was almost as if he was in a bigger schoolyard, and he vented his frustrations in the comic strip Munro, about a four year-old drafted into the Army. Despite Munro’s constant declaration of only being four, his higher-ups keep trying to break him and remold him into a perfect soldier. Only at the end, when it finally dawns upon them that, yes, Munro really is four – they give him a huge ticker tape parade to applaud his bravery in voluntarily signing up with the military. It was made into a 1961 short cartoon that won an Oscar, and narrated by Jules.

Children are often used as a vehicle for non-conformists and social outcasts in Feiffer’s work: Tantrum is the reverse of Munro, with a middle-aged man stubbornly willing himself back to childhood, only to find the adult world still trying to pin adult responsibilities on him; and a grown man in the one-act play Crawling Arnold comes home from work (he still lives with his parents) and reverts to the behavior of a small child. The Feiffer hero goes against the grain of the society he or she is forced into and, though they sometimes fail, finds their success in the end.

In 1955, after failing to sell a strip of his own, and drawing in a simplistic and loose style reminiscent of a children’s book, Feiffer offered a strip to fledgling independent paper The Village Voice – initially for free. His strip, initially titled Sick, Sick, Sick, featured Feiffer’s sharp, intellectual wit in a format that combined biting social commentary with his loosely drawn figures. Borderless, and told in sequences of six to eight panels, the strip featured little (if any) backgrounds, and were the drawn stage of his own personal theater.
1961 saw Feiffer illustrating his friend Norton Juster’s children’s book The Phantom Tollbooth. Years later, he would revisit the medium and become a successful children’s author and illustrator, as well.

My copy of The Great Comic Book Heroes has a torn cover, a white paper sleeve with a Joe Shuster drawn Superman emblazoned across. It’s worn from two and a half decades of reading and referencing and dragged along on family trips and conventions. Neither snotty or navel-gazing, Heroes is a reminiscence told in Feiffer’s own inimitable style. Heroes is book-ended by Feiffer’s personal reminisces of the Golden Age of comic books in the ‘30s and ‘40s; the sweet cream filling is a bunch of reprints of old comics, from Superman #1 to a reprint of Will Eisner’s The Spirit.

“E.L. Doctorow was the senior editor at Dial Press, and we were friends,” Jules remembers. “He called me up one day and said ‘I want to do a book called The Great Comic Book Heroes, and I can’t think of anyone else but you to write it. Are you interested?’

“I said ‘Where do I sign?’

“We worked it out, and I told him from the beginning that I didn’t want to make it a work of scholarship, because I didn’t do homework. I didn’t do it in school, so why should I do it as a grown-up? I wanted it to be my reminiscences of comic books, and since I was there from the beginning in 1938, I was nine when Superman came out. I was also there from Famous Funnies, when they were reprints of popular newspaper strips to the infusion of original material, first in black and white, and then pink and odd colors.

“They got me access to the DC files. DC tried to talk me into not running a Siegel and Shuster Superman, because Shuster did so badly that maybe I should run one of the better illustrators. Of course, I hated the better illustrators, because I thought they were all hacks while Shuster actually had something.

“It was Doctorow’s idea, and he was extraordinarily helpful in editing the book, for the final essay. It was he who talked me into doing the final essay in the book. He said ‘You need some kind of wind-up.’”

With them we were able to roam free, disguised in costume, committing the greatest of feats – and the worst of sins. And, in every instance, getting away with them. For a little while, at least, it was our show. For a little while, at least, we were the bosses. Psychically renewed, we could then return above ground and put up with another couple of days of victimization. Comic books were our booze.
-The Great Comic Book Heroes, page 189

“It got a lot of attention from the beginning, and a lot of big reviews,” Feiffer notes. “Jimmy Breslin did a front-page review in the Herald-Tribune, where he said he liked the comics but didn’t like the writing. He said I didn’t know how to write. Since then, we’ve made up.
Jules laughs for a minute.

“It’s interesting: a lot of well-known people wrote about it critically, because I had written the book that they’d intended to write but had never gotten around to. I was impugning on their territory, and you could see that they were really pissed off at me.”

Feiffer’s crowning achievement with The Great Comic Book Heroes, in his eyes, involved giving back to his mentor, Eisner, who had given up traditional comics at that point in his career.

“I think that originally it was nostalgia, and then as it hit a generation of young readers, it served to validate the seriousness of their interest as opposed to the condescension you’d normally expect from grown-ups or from the culture. The book was taken seriously, so the form gained a new lease on life and new respect, none of which interests me particularly, except in what I did to redeem Will Eisner’s career. That was, for me, a major interest in that this was a guy who was no longer heard of, was completely forgotten, had forgotten himself and was no longer doing comics. I was happy that, in a sense, I was able to bring him back from the dead or, at the very least, from exile.”

About a decade after Heroes’ release, Eisner was back in the saddle, with his graphic novel A Contract With God and a series of Spirit reprints. It was the first of many accomplishments in the second wave of Eisner’s career.

Feiffer’s most recent work, Which Puppy?, is a children’s book written by his daughter Kate (who, incidentally, Great Comic Book Heroes was dedicated to) and featuring his lush watercolor drawings. In it, several dogs compete to become the pet of President Barack Obama’s children. Feiffer, an obvious Obama supporter (he has an Obama sticker stuck on the front door of his apartment), illustrates a pretty non-political childrens’ book about the new First Pet.
Even his children’s books take him back to his sequential roots for inspiration.

“If you look at the children’s books, they are an extension of a Sunday strip,” Jules reveals. “It’s not a far reach to look at a Gasoline Alley Sunday page, or any of the kid strips [from the bookshelf]. When I do these kids books, I figure out what the hell they’re going to look like after I’ve written the story. I go over to that library and pull out Frank Stearett or I pull out Winsor McKay, and figure out who I’m going to steal from this time, and where I’ll strip artist that I venerated when I was a kid. Fortunately, they’re all in print. When I finally do it, it doesn’t look a thing like that guy’s work, but that’s where the inspiration comes.”

Jules next project involves revisiting his own childhood, beyond pulling a reprint book of the shelf, in an upcoming memoir:

“It’s called Backing into Forward, and explains how I got into all of these different jobs,” he reveals. “My argument (and I don’t know if it’s true or not) is that I found if I loved a form before I was ten years old, I could work in it, whether it was comics, children’s books, film, or theater. But after ten or, certainly after twelve, forget it.”

Feiffer keeps his toe in the comics industry, occasionally picking up on a graphic novel or two, and always holding his hometown near and dear to his heart and his work

“I can’t divorce being a cartoonist and a writer and a parent and a citizen from the city I live in,” he says from his drawing table. “The New York Jewish Sensibility culturally, (and not religiously, where I’ve never had any interest in religious beliefs), particularly in the ‘30s and ‘40s when things were more tinged on the left, became what I became. That has to do with everything I am.”

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