Catching Up with a Legend: Talking to Jules Feiffer

Talking to Jules Feiffer

At 80 years old, Jules Feiffer is busier than most creators half his age – and still has plenty of opinions to share. Feiffer’s career is a laundry list of achievements that have helped shape the comics industry as we know it. Feiffer got his break as an assistant to Will Eisner on The Spirit, and scripted some of the legendary strip’s most memorable episodes. From there, he went on to do his long-running strip Feiffer in the Village Voice, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize, along with early experiments in extended cartoon narrative, one of which was made into the Oscar-winning animated short Munro.

From there, Feiffer went on to illustrate Norton Juster’s classic children’s book The Phantom Tollbooth and write The Great Comic Book Heroes, one of the first anthologies of classic comic books, and one that helped spur a renewed interest in Golden Age material.

He also found time to write a number of plays and screenplays, including Little Murders, the Oscar-nominated script for Carnal Knowledge for director Mike Nichols, and Popeye for director Robert Altman. He also helped pioneer the modern graphic novel format with Tantrum, a favorite of such creators as Neil Gaiman.

Feiffer has mainly focused on children’s books for the last decade. His latest release is Which Puppy?, a tale of pets competing to be the Obamas’ dog in the White House, which he illustrated for his daughter, Kate Feiffer. In addition, Feiffer’s work has enjoyed a renewed appreciation with Explainers, a reprint of Feiffer’s first decade, which was a cover feature on the New York Times Review of Books.

We recently got a chance to speak with Feiffer about Which Puppy? and his other work. Along the way, we got to give him some good news, get his thoughts on some of his favorite current comics, and his take on the state of modern satire.

Newsarama: Jules, this book came out pretty quickly! How did it all come together?

Jules Feiffer: Well, after Obama made his acceptance speech in Grant Park, which was one of the memorable moments of anybody’s life who saw it, and talked about the two girls getting their puppy, Kate’s editor called and said, “Do you think you could come up with a book idea about the puppy, and come up with it right away, because we want this out right away.”

So, I think she took two days to write it, and then they asked me if I could draw it, and I said I couldn’t, because I had two or three deadlines, one in particular that I had to be working on at that very moment. But when they went through other illustrators and they couldn’t do it, and it looked like the book might lose out because of it, I called the publisher I had a deadline with, and said, “Could I put this off for a month, or two months?” and they said yes.

So then I accepted, and the book had to be turned out in less than a month, so in January, I went up to Martha’s Vineyard, where Kate lives, and where I have a summer house. We turned on the heat, which turned out to be a joke. On New Year’s Day, I brought my drawing table from my studio, which is not heated, into the house , which is technically heated, but not much, and we began work. And 21 days later (laughs), smothered in heavy clothing and anything else warm we could find in the house, the book was done.

It was one of the great illustration pleasures of my life. Before I began illustrating the book, I didn’t know how to draw any of those dogs when I began. There’s a local library on the Vineyard, which has always been very helpful to me, and they gave me a lot of research, and I did a number of sketches and finally got it done. And I think it’s probably the best illustration job I’ve ever done.

NRAMA: Would you say this is the fastest you’ve ever been able to turn around a book?

JF: I think it’s the fastest I ever had to do a book. And because I take great pride in meeting deadlines…what I’m saying is if I had to do one that fast in the past, I would have done it, and if I have to do one that fast in the future, I’ll do it, but I hope that doesn’t happen again very soon! (laughs)

NRAMA: What’s it like working with Kate?

JF: Well, this is the second book we’ve done together, and we’re going to do a third next year. The first book and the next book we’re going to do, I’m doing them because each has a sort of autobiographical content.

The first book we did together, Henry, the Dog with No Tail, is sort of about her dog Henry, who’s an Australian Shepherd, and when she showed me the text, I said, “I have to draw this book!”

And in the book that’s into the future, which is entitled My Side of the Car, it’s about a childhood experience the two of us had up on Martha’s Vineyard, and I’m in the book, and so is she, so we both took it for granted I’d illustrate it. And so I am! (laughs)

Which Puppy? is the only book we’ve worked on that has nothing to do with our own lives. This just came out of the blue, and it came out of the blue beautifully.

NRAMA: You’ve been doing more children’s books in the last few years. How’s it feel to go from Harry, the Rat with Women to Henry, the Dog with No Tail?

JF: (laughs) Well, I’ve just completed a memoir, and the title of the chapter on the kids’ books is “From Carnal Knowledge to Bark, George with No Sense of Direction.”

The way my career has moved throughout my entire career has basically on its own momentum, where things kind of just back up into each other for no particular reason, and with no particular purpose.

I change directions not because I plan to, but because one thing didn’t work out, and in trying to pick up the pieces, something else occurs, and I take that road instead of the one I might have been on instead. Nothing is ever plotted, and a lot of it has to do with rejection. Something I’m very proud of, like a play, gets rejected, and to nurse my wounds, I move into another area.

NRAMA: You returned to the Village Voice for the “OurBama” cartoon last year. Do you see yourself doing more cartoons like that in the future?

JF: Well, I stopped doing the political cartoons eight years ago, and I’ve only done a few in recent years. I did three during the campaign; two were on Obama, and one was on Hillary. And each one of those was in color, and each one I did as a special piece. And in the future, I suppose, I might do special pieces as the ideas come to me and the requests come to me.

But mostly, I’m out of that game, and happy to have it behind me. I have no thoughts of doing any more politics until the idea strikes me, and I may, but it’s not anything I need to do or particularly want to do any more. I did it for many, many years, I was delighted to do it, and now I’m just as delighted, if not more so, to not have to do it.

NRAMA: Now, Explainers has just been nominated for an Eisner award…

JF: Has it? No one told me that.

NRAMA: Wow, um…glad we could give you the news. I was going to ask, given your relationship with Will Eisner, if that’s an unusual experience.

JF: Well, Eisner was the first cartoonist I ever worked for -- well, I briefly worked for a few months for someone else who was a real hack, and that was not much of anything one way or the other – but Eisner was a hero to me when I was a kid, and it was a thrill to get a job with him. And that job, and the years I worked for him, which were basically 1946 to the time I got drafted in 1950, were some of the most important years in terms of shaping me, and shaping my understanding of comics. When I finally moved on, I went in an entirely different direction, but I don’t think that direction would have been available to me if I didn’t have that extraordinarily valuable experience with Eisner.

NRAMA: DC Comics has been doing a new series of The Spirit. Would you ever want to write or write and illustrate a Spirit story?

JF: No, no. It was years ago when a movie director whose name I can’t remember – I think he did The French Connection

NRAMA: William Friedkin.

JF: Yeah! William Friedkin wanted to do a Spirit movie. And I did a treatment – a treatment Eisner liked very much -- and then Friedkin and I spoke, and he gave me his notes, and as with most movie producers or directors who give me notes, my response was to say, “Thank you,” and then I retired from the scene. (laughs)

They may be great filmmakers, but they know nothing about story. And what they do know about the story is not a story that I would like to tell.

NRAMA: And you still haven’t seen the Frank Miller film, correct?

JF: Didn’t see it, don’t have much interest in seeing it. I’m a big fan of Frank Miller’s work, but it never dawned on me that he was necessarily the right man to do Will Eisner, because Eisner was full of whimsy and humor and wryness and satire, and Frank Miller has many strengths, but none of them include those.

NRAMA: What’s it been like seeing your works reprinted en masse, as with Explainers?

JF: You know what? I love all of the different phases of my life, and the work itself, but I don’t sentimentalize any of it, or romanticize any of it. I’m happy that somebody finds it worthwhile to put it between covers. I haven’t actually read the book! There’s stuff I like in it very much, and stuff I don’t, but the thing I like best in it is Gary Groth’s introduction, which I think is a wonderful piece of work.

Other than that, I’m much more concerned with what I’m doing next week, and next month, and so on.

NRAMA: Is there going to be a second collection of Feiffer strips?

JF: Well, there’s no plans for it right now. I haven’t even had time to think about it?

NRAMA: Are there any current comic books, comic strips or graphic novels that you enjoy?

JF: Well, I just read a wonderful graphic novel by David Small called Stitches, and it comes out this fall. It’s an absolutely brilliant piece of work. David is a wonderful children’s book illustrator, he works with his wife, Sarah Stewart, but this the first thing he’s done of this kind, and I think it’s an instant classic.

Another one I loved was Craig Thompson’s Blankets – a wonderful, wonderful work. And Chris Ware – I’m not sure if you can call his works “graphic novels,” but whatever they are, they’re wonderful.

And I love Bone and Jeff Smith’s work, and there are a number of people in the comic strip world who are notable – other than Gary Trudeau, who keeps it up after all these hundreds of years (laugh). Patrick McDonnell is one, but not many more that I can think of.

NRAMA: Well, let’s face it – the newspaper market is what it is. But there has been real growth in the area of webcomics, particularly in terms of what you can do with format and content. What’s your take on this evolution in media?

JF: Well, I don’t have a take, because I’m computer-illiterate. I don’t own a laptop or a computer, and I’ve never seen this work. I’d be interested in it if I could see it, but I have no access to this work because, as I said, I don’t understand these machines. I touch them and they blow up.

Some of the stuff that comes out is quite good, and this one strip, Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel, is excellent. Her autobiographical memoir, Fun Home, was another brilliant piece of work. That was wonderful.

NRAMA: We’re also seeing a renaissance of comic strip reprints—

JF: Oh, that’s my meat and potatoes. It’s wonderful that the early Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes are still around, and Terry and the Pirates is one of the strips that shaped my way of thinking, and Popeye...I did the introduction to one of those reprints Fantagraphics is doing, and of course I wrote the movie that Altman made. But of course Popeye always meant a lot to me.

And all these features of my childhood meant so much to me, both then and now as I’m doing children’s books. I find my memory keeps borrowing from the Sunday supplements I’ve collected in my library as I’m approaching a new book, and deciding how to illustrate it.

NRAMA: Any classic comic strips you’d like to see reprinted? They’re getting into some obscure material these days…

JF: Well, some strips didn’t mean much to me, but became more meaningful when I reread them. I was asked by my friend Iwrin Hasen to do the introduction to a collection of his Dondi strips. Now, I never particularly followed Dondi when it was appearing in newspapers.

But because I love Hasen, and because I decided I had to do this, I read the stuff and I thought it was wonderful! I knew Hasen’s art was brilliant, but the storylines, the continuity, it was terrific! And none of this I was aware of at the time it came out.

NRAMA: In the last decade, many have complained how difficult it is to do satire these days. Do you feel it’s become more difficult to do satire in the modern world, particularly if you’re coming from an angry place?

JF: None of that I have taken very seriously. Of course, I stopped doing it in 2000, but there have been some brilliant and extraordinary political cartoonists still around – Jeff Danziger, and Tony Auth in Philadelphia, and Pat Oliphant is Pat Oliphant, of which there is none better. Tom Toles is a worthy, worthy successor to Herblock (Herbert Block) in The Washington Post.

And of course, on TV there’s John Stewart, who leaves me limp with exhaustion laughing, and he’s right on the money, as is Stephen Colbert, and during the campaign, you couldn’t get better than Tina Fey doing Sarah Palin. That was right on the money.

What we mean by “there’s no satire any more” is actually, “we’re not paying attention any more.” There’s plenty of it out there, and a lot of it is very good, and some, as always, is mediocre, but that’s always been the case.

NRAMA: Any TV shows in general that you enjoy?

JF: I’ve pretty much given up TV. I loved TV through the 50s through about 10 years ago, but when the reality shows came in, I stepped out. I find the whole form distasteful, and television as its norm increasingly degrading and of no interest to me. I watch John Stewart, and Colbert, and the MSN people I like, like Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, and a little bit of Morning Joe goes a long way.

I watch news, mostly. But I’ve always enjoyed, for many, many years, all the crap on TV, but now the crap has gotten too crappy for me.

NRAMA: Well, there’s some good stuff now. Try Mad Men, it might be up your alley.

JF: I’ve seen a couple of them, and they’re pretty good! My hearing has gone south, though, and I can’t hear when they get to talking fast. I could never listen to more than three or four minutes of The West Wing, and so I never watched it, as I couldn’t understand it. Same problem with Mad Men. Other shows, like The Sopranos, surprisingly, I can understand. Can’t follow anything with an English or Irish accent, though.

NRAMA: NBC’s show Parks and Recreation recently had a shout-out to The Phantom Tollbooth. Did you see that?

JF: No! I wonder if Norton Juster even heard of it. He didn’t mention it to me.

NRAMA: Well, you can pass it along!

JF: Thanks!

NRAMA: You’ve got a number of projects coming up, including the memoir and the next book with Kate…

JF: Yeah, the memoir, which is called Backing into Forward, comes out next spring. I’m doing a new book by Norton Juster, which I’m illustrating. I’m illustrating a couple of other books that are coming out in the next year or so. I teach regularly at Stony Brook Southampton, and this summer I’ll be teaching at Dartmouth a course called “Graphic Humor in the 20th Century,” which I’m organizing now. And there are a few other things I have forgotten to mention because I’m on overload! (laughs)

NRAMA: I was going to ask if you had time to sleep these days…

JF: As soon as you get off the phone, I’m going to have a glass of wine and pass out. That’s the plan. (laughs)

NRAMA: Well, one last question before you go. This is from a friend of mine who is a big fan of your work, and I thought it was very moving. The question is: “Does it get better? Does the author of Feiffer’s Marriage Manual feel less cynical now than he was then?”

JF: Well, I never thought of the work as cynical. And I never thought of myself as cynical. I only became cynical, actually, in the Bush years. And that’s less about George W. Bush, who I never expected much from – after you’ve lived through several terms of Henry Kissinger, it’s hard to find anybody to be more cynical about – but I became cynical about America and Americans, particularly those who voted for Bush the second time, after not voting for him the first time. And this is after four years of disaster!

So I kind of gave up on the country, and lost faith in the people, and in the American electorate. And I was afraid that the country I was going to leave upon my demise was not going to be a good place for my children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. All of that turned around last November when Obama was elected in something of a miracle. And my faith has been restored, in spite of all the roadblocks and handicaps along the way, which I understood were going to happen.

I was a New Deal baby – I was born in 1929, and Roosevelt was my president, and Obama is the second guy I’ve ever liked. It’s been him and Roosevelt. So there we are, and it’s a nice way to bow out! I’m very happy about it.

NRAMA: Jules, thanks very much for speaking with us.

JF: Thanks for calling, and I’ve enjoyed our talk.

Which Puppy? is in stores now.

Twitter activity