Jules Feiffer’s “Backing Into Forward”

I had the privilege of working with Feiffer for several months in 2003 when the New-York Historical Society put on an exhibition called Julez Rulez and I was the p.r. director.  This was a singular thrill for me. I’d known his work since I was a kid — his illustrations for the book The Phantom Tollbooth, and later his long-running comic strip, which I first read in our local alt-weekly the Providence New Paper; and his movie Popeye, which came out when I was 14 (I went as Robin Williams as Popeye for Halloween).  I first saw Carnal Knowledge when I was about 20, and had certainly continued to follow his strip in the Village Voice when I moved to NYC a couple of years later. By the time I met him I was writing regularly for the Voice myself, but he had long since left it following a salary dispute. Feiffer was among a small cadre of Cold War era liberals I truly admired, intellectually honest rebels against Eisenhower era conformity and the absurdities of war and militarism. It was the daring of people like him (and Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, et al) during a time when it really mattered that laid the groundwork for the brief explosion of free-thinking that became the 1960s. The exhibition, and conversations with him, had gained me some insight into what drove Feiffer’s antinomianism. His new autobiography Backing into Forward added immeasurably to the picture.

Feiffer was born into a Depression era Bronx Jewish family straight out of Odets: a weak, jobless father, and an overbearing, smothering mother who was the primary breadwinner (a clothing designer). A shy, outwardly compliant child, Jules was also brilliant enough to note and carefully catalog the cruel, often nonsensical injustices committed by those in authority. It is the anti-authoritarianism that assures that he won’t follow his older sister (who is as overbearing as his mother) into full-blown communism, and will make him a pathbreaker for the spirit of the age. Rest-assured that he is of the left. The fact that a cousin of his becomes famous first (and embodies the worst his times have to offer by being the right hand of Joseph McCarthy himself) almost certainly seals the deal. That cousin — held up by certain aunts and uncles  as an example for him to follow — is Roy Cohn. On some level, Feiffer must have considered it a point of family honor to even the scales out some. During the Korean War, Feiffer (who had been part of Will Eisner’s staff on the Sunday comic strip The Spirit for six years) was drafted. With its typical wisdom, the army initially assigned him far away from a drawing board, and only through a Herculean effort was Feiffer able to garner a more appropriate post. The army, as so many fellow satirists of his generation (Vonnegut, Heller, et al) would learn, exists primarily to crush the human spirit, not only that of the enemy, but that of the very people it conscripts to make up its personnel. Obedience is its only mandate, and as an organization it is willing to commit no end of calumnies and absurdities in order to accomplish that goal. Burning with indignation, Feiffer developed Munro, a comic strip about a small child who is drafted into the army.

Munro wouldn’t make him famous, but the indignation did. In 1956, he walked into the offices of the brand-new Village Voice and offered up his services. As a free-wheeling start-up they gladly accepted, giving him plenty of scope to do as he pleased — but no pay (at first). Feiffer rightfully spills much ink in praise of his editor at the Voice, now my colleague at the Villager, Jerry Tallmer. (Off-off Broadway should erect a monument to Tallmer. It wouldn’t exist without him. He is a majorly important cultural figure in this city who deserves a lot more recognition). Feiffer’s early strips, full of relationship stuff, anxiety and psycholanalysis, caught on like wildfire, and were definitely a widespread influence on many, including the young Woody Allen (a claim that Feiffer is uncharacteristically too modest to make for himself, but the chronology bears it out). As the 60s ground on, his work grew more political. Again, it is impossible to imagine Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury, or any of a thousand other comedians, cartoonists, etc, without Feiffer’s example. After the Voice, Playboy (then a brand new magazine) was to become a national platform for Feiffer’s art.

Nichols and May were exact contemporaries of Feiffer, and covering much the same ground that he was. A love of theatre, and an ambitious nature, inspired him to write his first play Little Murders, which flopped on its Broadway debut in 1967, but was a huge hit when it was staged by Alan Arkin two years later in the wake of the shooting violence that had engulfed the country. (He’d been inspired by the Kennedy assassination and the University of Texas shootings of 1966 to create a sort of universal sniper world for his dark comedy. People hadn’t bought it in ’68. After Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Andy Warhol, George Wallace (and later Kent State) etc etc, people were buying it. In 1971, Arkin made a movie version starring most of the original cast (Elliot Gould, Donald Sutherland, Vincent Gardenia, Arkin himself, et al). It is WELL worth watching and deserves to be far better known.

Feiffer’s career crested with Carnal Knowledge, released that same year, directed by Mike Nichols at the peak of his powers following The Graduate and Catch-22; and starring Jack Nicholson (then the most talked-about actor in Hollywood in the wake of Easy Rider and Five Easy pieces) and Art Garfunkle (also much buzzed-about at the time, as this was one of his first projects after breaking up with Paul Simon). Carnal Knowledge does for sex what Little Murders does for violence — a relentless, shocking, uncompromising satire. George S. Kauffman once said that satire was “what closes on Saturday night”, but this was the era when audiences were allowing themselves to try new things. Deep Throat, for example, would be released the following year.

While Feiffer’s powers as a cartoonist never wavered (indeed, haven’t to this day), as a playwright and screenwriter, despite numerous attempts, he was never again to enjoy the same kind of success he had in the late 1960s/ early 1970s. The  most notable project of the later years was 1980’s Popeye. On paper this should have been a dream project. Feiffer had the subject matter down cold. He invariably lists E.C. Segar among his main influences. He cut his teeth on the old school strips and he had written one of the first books about comic history  (1965’s The Great Comic Book Heroes). He knew the Popeye characters inside and out. And his collaborators included songwriter Harry Nilsson, one of the top pop musical artists of the 1970s, and director Robert Altman, who was not only a friend of Feiffer’s, but a philosophical soulmate whose works, like Feiffer’s, satirized sex, American culture and the military (M*A*S*H being the supreme example). But Altman is famously not a friend to screenwriters. Half of Feiffer’s script was never filmed. Of what did wind up on the screen, most was undermined by Altman’s extremely scattershot direction, cluttered by physical business and a tendency to only occasionally focus the camera on the person who was actually speaking. (I am a huge fan of Altman, by the way. It just happens that Popeye was one of his worst movies. And the fault was Altman’s, not Feiffer’s by any stretch. I would really love to read the original script. And, better yet, see it made!)

In later years, Feiffer reinvented himself yet again as a children’s book author. (Indeed, at the time I knew him, my kids had as great a connection to him as I did, through works like Bark, George and The House Across the Street. My son Cashel was going to P.S. 87 at the same time as Jules’ daughter Julie, and I used to run into him or his wife Jenny during pick-up/ drop-off, strengthening the kid connection.)

And while Jules’ daughter Halley is now getting famous in her own right (mostly as an actress), Jules himself has hardly passed the baton, book-form lifetime stock-taking notwithstanding. He always seems to have a million irons in the fire — plays, movies, cartoons, personal appearances…and books. Which brings us to this one. Feiffer is that rare visual artist who writes as well as he draws. While the idea of having him do his entire autobiography as a multi-panel strip (the form his afterword takes) is tantalizing, it would no doubt take him much longer to do it. Anyway, with no pictures or dramatic characters for him to hide behind, the voice of the actual Feiffer is allowed to emerge. It is an angry voice, which won’t surprise those who know him and his work. Humorous notes in the book are sporadic and generally pointedly critical, giving us a glimpse at the engine that drives his comedy. Like the former Freudian that he was, he spends nearly half the book on his formative years, expressing a good deal of rancor on certain relatives, above all his mother. A particularly delicious moment has him returning to his old high school to give a graduation speech in which he advises the young people not to listen to their elders. The scowls on the faces of his old principal and teachers must have been one the high points of his life. I bet he wishes he could give such a talk to the soldiers as they graduate from basic training!

He writes about his first girlfriend, who introduced him to modern dance–the origin of the tens of thousands of dancing figures in his comic strip, the very keystone of his art. I wish he’d written more about this. He often talks about the influence of dance on his work in person, as well as his admiration for the art of Fred Astaire. It’s rather impossible to imagine Feiffer himself dancing, but he dances beautifully on the page. I think this is a key to the man himself, who is reserved and diplomatic as a person, but takes no prisoners as an artist.

As often happens in autobiographies, he skims hurriedly over the most recent decades, which is unfortunate. Politically he has been fighting a rear-guard action for decades, of course, but he has been fighting, and his satire is just as biting as ever. I wouldn’t mind hearing him bash Reagan/ Bush I/ Bush II a good deal more. And, as there often is in such books, there is some personal material that is less illuminating and might be of less interest to the general reader.

But, here’s the deal. I’m the kind of person who reads biographies to glean life lessons above all. And I admire the hell out of Feiffer. He is uncompromising to a fault, even to where it has held back his career. He only did one advertisement—hated how it felt and vowed never to do it again. He pushes back in artistic disagreements even where it’s in his financial interest to “go along with the program.” This is the life story of a man who NEVER goes along with the program. It will always enjoy a privileged spot on my shelf.

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5 comments

  1. Interesting homage to Feiffer, while his work is know to me his name till now hasn’t been committed to memory. Truly it’s amazing how influence is born and spread. Really I wasn’t a fan ardent fan of Altman till I again watched The Long Goodbye. Now I surely want to watch Carnal Knowledge and Little Murders! Thanks for an interesting read here, my admiration for you after all these years continues to deepen.

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