Thursday, September 29, 2011

Jules Feiffer on His Groundbreaking Cartoons and His Eclectic Career

In 1956, a young cartoonist named Jules Feiffer started publishing a nine-panel cartoon in the Village Voice, a new alternative weekly in Manhattan. The strip was like a bomb thrown into the world of dating angst and the perpetual conflict between men and women, and quickly took off, being published nationally in 100 newspapers, including the Star-Ledger. In his original cartoons, Feiffer attacked the U.S. government on nuclear testing and was a vocal critic of the Vietnam War when most Americans didn’t know where Vietnam was.

In his witty and quick-moving memoir “Backing into Forward”(Doubleday, $30), Feiffer covers his unhappy childhood in the Bronx with an overbearing mother and a weak father, his four-year apprenticeship with cartoon legend Will Eisner and his two horrible years in the Army. Arriving in New York’s bohemian Greenwich Village in the early 1950s, Feiffer hit the pulse of neurotic dating and with the Voice wrote searing cartoons about racism and the civil right movement, Lyndon Johnson, Nixon and the buffoonish ticks of Ronald Reagan. Along the way, Feiffer became a storied playwright, screenwriter and children's book author.

Feiffer, 81, won a Pulitzer Prize for his cartoon work, wrote the screenplay for “Carnal Knowledge” and illustrated such classics as “The Phantom Tollbooth.” Feiffer met with freelance writer Dylan Foley at his home in Manhattan.

Q. After six decades of acclaim as a cartoonist, why did you decide to write your memoir?

A. My friend Howard Kaminsky and I would get together every few months. He kept saying to me, “That’s a good story. You should write a memoir.” He and my wife finally ganged up on me. It was a formidable task, taking four or five years. I usually don’t like to talk about myself unless it is 2 a.m. and I’ve had too much to drink. I thought I could use my own failures as a hook. Will Eisner told me I had no drawing talent, but then he let me write the stories, which I could do. There is so much advice being given to children all the time. Three-quarters of it is well-intentioned bull. I used myself as an example, how you can work through conflicting advice and make a life for yourself.

Q. Why do you think your cartoons on sex, nuclear weapons and the Vietnam War had such an explosive effect on American society?

A. When I looked at “The Explainers,” my collection of the first 10 years of cartoons, I couldn’t figure out what the fuss was about. What made this such a breakthrough? It was undeniable that there so much excitement about the boy-girl cartoons about sex and the later material about politics. People would stop me on the street and say, “How do you get away with this?” On the other hand, I look at my civil rights cartoons from the 1960s, and they seem to be as dangerous as they ever were. We still haven’t solved the problem of race in America. Race is still the hot-button issue.

Q. Your 1971 movie “Carnal Knowledge,” directed by Mike Nichols and starring Candace Bergen and Jack Nicholson, was a devastating look at American relationships and male misogyny. How did it evolve?

A. I was working at Playboy and saw the behavior of men there who were jerks around women. I heard and observed things. I formed this theory that many heterosexual men don’t like women. Women want companionship with men and exchanges with them, while men only want sex and bragging rights.

Q. In your memoir, you say you were assaulting “the state” one strip at a time. What did mean by this?

A. I saw myself as a radical, and I saw my responsibility in expressing a radical point of view, but not from any organizational point of view. There was no organization that I identified myself with for more than 15 minutes.
(Originally published in the Newark Star-Ledger in March 2010)

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