JULES FEIFFER on MAD MEN, KILL MY MOTHER and More

"Out of Line: The Art of Jules Feiffer" preview
Credit: Harry N. Abrams
Credit: Harry N. Abrams

After Wednesday's first part of our interview with Jules Feiffer, Newsarama returns with more of the illustrator and cartoonist and his biographer Martha Fay on the new book Out of Line: The Art of Jules Feiffer. In this part two, Feiffer talks about some of his favorite upcoming comics, the sequel to his first graphic novel, Kill My Mother, and how Matthew Weiner, creator of TV’s Mad Men, paid tribute to the influence of Feiffer’s work within the series.

Newsarama: Jules, you mentioned your memoir Backing Into Forward earlier. Obviously, this new book deals more with your artistic development, but for you and Martha, what was the greatest challenging in making this book distinct from that book?

Jules Feiffer: Well, you look at Backing Into Forward, I talk about my artistic influences, and analyze some of them – and some of the cartoonists who I didn’t want to look like.

Martha Fay: I think there’s an analogy to how people learn to write as well – Jules is a good writer, his playwriting and other books. But it’s a learned art.

Feiffer: But what I drew upon for my learning, are forms that other people, and I as well,  have used as well for entertainment – comics, movies, musicals, now in my current career pulp fiction and the movies of Howard Hawks and John Huston and Billy Wilder – all of these are teaching agents I’ve learned from and applied.  

Credit: Harry N. Abrams

The reason that the new work I’m doing right now, the graphic novel, is a little different from other work in that area, is because what I’ve applied is the form is what I’ve learned as a playwright and screenwriter. So these are movies on paper as much as anything else.

Nrama: I wanted to ask about the graphic novel, because last time we spoke, you were working on the second book in the Kill My Mother trilogy. How far along are you now?

Feiffer: As we’re speaking, I’ve finished page 84 on the second book, which is a prequel called Cousin Joseph. It starts two years before Kill My Mother begins.The third book will be set in 1953, in Hollywood, when the Blacklist begins. The current book is going to be something like 123-125 pages.

Nrama: So you’re almost through with it.

Feiffer: I’m almost through, and it’s been a ball. It looks the same but very different from Kill My Mother. because I keep learning. I keep learning new things, and my drawing keeps improving in spite of myself.

Nrama: Did you find you rediscover anything about yourself or your work going through the old materials to put together Out of Line?

Fay: I will tell you, he has an astonishing memory for facts and years. We were checking all these facts and figures, and he’d recall something was from this particular year, and he’d almost always have it right. And that’s from a career that spans about 65 years.

Credit: Harry N. Abrams

Feiffer:  It’s a good thing you were talking to me then and not now. It’s not so good now.

Fay: Well, then, we did indeed find some things – there’d be a drawing and it’d inspire Jules to tell stories about the work, all kinds of things. (to Feiffer) I don’t know if it was the first time you’d seen them in like 20 years or so, but they were wonderful stories.

And we’d have these interview sessions, in which Jules was quite remarkably frank and detailed.

Feiffer: One thing I found startling about Martha’s work was, having written my own memoir, I didn’t know if she could take what I’d written in the memoir and turn it into third-person prose. I didn’t know if there was even that much more to say! And what she did was an entirely different take on it, and – I couldn’t believe, after my second reading of the book, how much fresh stuff there was, and how different it was from the memoir, even when covering the same ground.

Fay: Oh, that’s so nice! Thank you, Jules!

But it wasn’t easy, because he did cover quite a bit in his book, and I don’t have the brain he does – it was more of a journalistic approach. But there’s probably enough for another three or four books, Jules.

Feiffer: [laughs] Okay!

Fay: That I didn’t get into this book, I mean.

Credit: Harry N. Abrams

Nrama: I was going to ask if you wanted to do different books focusing on different aspects of your career – for example, one focusing on screenwriting and playwriting, or one on the kids’ books.

Feiffer: The connection – and I didn’t figure this out until my later years – between all the different forms I’ve worked in and been successful at, were all forms that I was in love with by the age of 10 or 11. Nothing after that was I able to do!

I never had the gift of doing a novel – well, one for kids, anyway – that I had for playwriting or screenwriting or comics. But if I loved movies, or comics, or stories for children, I could learn how to do them.

Fay: That shows up in the book – that desire and ability to shift from one area to another. The one thing you had – this also shows up – is that feeling you had that your desire to be a cartoonist was at one level, and that it wasn’t “literary.”

Credit: Harry N. Abrams

Feiffer: For a long time, I didn’t feel I was entitled to be “literary,” and that I lacked the gifts of observation and language to be “literary.” I can’t detail anything going on around me! I was driving in a car on the road with two friends yesterday, and they saw all sorts of things, and I can’t remember any of them! I don’t see things. I never have. Part of that is, I think, I never had a sense of direction.

Fay: You do see things! A lot of things!

Feiffer: Not intrinsically. And so, to become a writer, I had to find other ways to get past that deficiency.

Fay: But your early work was very vivid, visual stuff. So obviously, you were seeing things.

Feiffer: But that’s things with people. I understand what goes on with people, and I can convey that with a series of drawings. Doing new drawings for the book, I found it was easy to do 10 drawings, that had slight variations among them – and there’s cartoonists who use photos for that, because they can’t draw like that, and it comes easily to me.

But drawing something like a car, a piece of machinery, if it’s anything that has gears and is not human, I need research! And even then, it takes me a long time to figure it out.

Fay: You remember what Norton Juster said about you working on The Phantom Tollbooth? He said, “He just couldn’t draw a horse.” And you argued about it for a long, long time, and finally you drew something and it was passable. It’s in the book.

Feiffer: I drew a horse, and then drew a horse that looked like the second horse…

Fay: See, now, you’re an adult and you can draw anything!

Feiffer: Thank God for Google! I can go back to ‘30s and ‘40s movies as videos, and pictures of things without having to go to the library for days.

Credit: Harry N. Abrams

Nrama: We were talking, Martha, before Jules showed up, about how cartoonists today like Chris Ware or Adrian Tomine have gotten more “mainstream” recognition. Jules, do you feel cartooning today is perhaps considered a more “respectable” profession in the last decade or two, or is at least seen as something more literary?

Feiffer: It’s been a remarkable change – all these reviews in The New York Times! And I think a lot of that we owe to Art Spiegelman and Maus to thank for that. As brilliant as Maus was, and it is a masterpiece, if Art hadn’t used the Holocaust as a subject matter, none of this would have happened – you need something monumental if you’re a cartoon.

Fay: I think that’s true – that’s something that turned the perspective from “this is a medium for children.”

Feiffer: This new generation that essentially took over the field and changed comic art forever first appeared in Raw.

Nrama: What are some things you’re enjoying right now in terms of cartoons, graphic novels, or just general popular culture?

Feiffer: I’m amazed at the stuff comes in, just to read or that gets sent to me for quotes. Bill Griffith just sent me a memoir he wrote, and it’s so far from Zippy the Pinhead it’s unbelievable – it’s a brilliant piece of work, and gorgeously illustrated that I’ve never seen him do before.

Peter Kuper, who’s an old friend, sent me his new book, Ruins, and I did a blurb, and it’s remarkable – these guys in their very different styles and versatility and how they use that to create comic art, that’s the essence of form. And it’s a unique form, beyond art or prose.

Fay: Well, it’s stuck with the label “comic,” which can mean several things, and it’s sold that way. And I don’t know how long it’ll take to evolve beyond that.

Nrama: Well, very few of these are “comic” any more, and some editors say comedy just doesn’t sell.

Feiffer: That’s where we remain in the minority – all of my writing has always been funny, no matter how serious they got. Little Murders and Carnal Knowledge, they were funny. This new book has the title Kill My Mother and it’s funny! And it’s grim and violent, but you will laugh here and there.

Credit: Harry Abrams

Nrama: Someone on Twitter was joking that the last episode of Mad Men was going to be “Don Draper goes to a theater and watches all of Carnal Knowledge.”

Feiffer: Don’t tell me, I haven’t seen it yet!

Matt Weiner and I have been in communication – it turns out he’s been a fan of mine for years. I discovered this because Don’s beautiful wife, whom he stupidly left because she wanted to be an actress, her first attempt at auditioning was for Little Murders when it opened in 1967. You see her with the producer and the writer – and it pretty much looks like the way I looked in the 1960s before I grew my beard.

Nrama: I emailed you about this when it aired! Because I’d interviewed you the first time a little before that, and you said you didn’t watch Mad Men, so I thought you wouldn’t see it. And you wrote back and said, “Really? I would have cast Megan as Patsy.” And I felt bad for spoiling it for you, but I didn’t think you were watching the show.

Feiffer: Oh, I was startled when I saw that. And thrilled.

I emailed Matt Weiner, and said, “Thanks very much, but why didn’t I have a line?!”

Fay: Oh, I need to see that! I watch irregularly, through streaming.

Feiffer: I don’t stream. I have no idea what streaming is.

Fay: It’s like watching a long Google video on different devices, like your computer.

Credit: Harry N. Abrams

Feiffer: The problem with watching something on the computer is you can’t see it. I can’t see, I can’t hear. Don’t try to stretch my limits, it’ll just depress the hell out of me.

Nrama: A lot of your work involves reacting to current events and social mores, but what elements of your work do you feel are timeless? What’s, say, still most relevant to you about a Feiffer strip from the 1950s or 1960s today?

Feiffer: Well, some of it is. But what makes it timeless is unfortunate – I wanted to be part of a movement that tried to change things that seemed wrong in the world, and some of those things did change for about 15 minutes, and now we’re back to the beginning again.

So any cartoon I did in the ‘60s on the Civil Rights Movement is still relevant, unfortunately. And any cartoon I did about American power being misused, be it in Vietnam or Iraq, is, if anything, more relevant today.

It’s not that the cartoons are timeless; it’s that our approach to policy and public issues tends to move a quarter-inch, and then there’s a well-paid movement to move it back. So of course I’m still relevant, because nothing much as a nation has changed culturally since the 1950s, when I began.

I mean, there are a substantial number of unacknowledged people who would like to go back to segregation, would like to see black people have their rights taken away, and the Supreme Court is giving its approval to some of those things. If I’m still hot, it’s because nothing has changed – just a new, thicker veneer of bull***t.

So that’s why I’m just happy now having dropped out of all of this and turned to doing quasi-detective fiction.

Nrama: Well, some aspects of human nature are very hard to change.

Feiffer: It’s all about power – power and control. Controlling our thoughts, controlling our children, controlling the difficulty in comics being recognized as a legitimate form! [laughs]

You know, you want to talk about legitimacy – we start off trying to express ourselves by drawing. We pick up a pencil or a pen and we scribble something or we eventually ask our parents to write something, and we use language to compliment the artwork we done. It’s words and pictures! It’s comics!

Only when the teachers and educators and literateurs take over is that the pictures aren’t respectable, and comics aren’t respectable, and comics are drummed out of the neighborhood, and lose the legitimacy of the basic aspect of communication from ages three through six.

Fay: It’s interesting. No one ever pays for something that’s “written” unless it’s like a 600-year-old handwritten manuscript, but then they’re buying it as an artifact. But grown-up “art,” supposedly, has a premium beyond all other creative work down the line…not for the original artist, obviously.

Feiffer: If the money went to the artist, there wouldn’t be any money.

Nrama: Anything you have coming up you’d like to talk about it?

Fay: Jules has 16 books coming out. I’m trying to figure out what I’m doing next.

Feiffer: Well, what are you doing next?

Fay: I’m thinking of doing a book about my life as a landlady, “A Woman of Property.”

Feiffer: That’s a wonderful idea!  Are we about done?

Nrama: Well, anything else you’d like to talk about that we haven’t discussed yet?

Fay: The book is great! Tell your teenagers to buy it.

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