Welcome back to our countdown to the Small Press Expo (SPX), where we talk to guests at the show who represent the many types of comics found there. Today, we’re talking to one of the show’s Special Guests, and one of the biggest names at the show.
It only took Jules Feiffer 85 years to produce his first graphic novel…that us, unless you’re one of the many people who believe he helped invent the form. Feiffer’s career is a laundry list of achievements, starting with his assisting Will Eisner on The Spirit in the 1940s, producing the satirical newspaper comic Feifferfor The Village Voice for 42 years, winning an Oscar for the animated adaptation of his short comics story Munro, about a four-year-old mistakenly drafted into the Army (you can watch it on YouTube), illustrating the classic children’s book The Phantom Tollbooth (which enjoyed a 50th anniversary edition a few years ago), providing one of the first historical retrospectives of comics with The Great Comic Book Heroes, pioneering the graphic novel format with his “cartoon novel” Tantrum, writing the screenplays to such films as the Oscar-nominated Carnal Knowledge for Mike Nichols and Popeye for Robert Altman, and a host of plays, novels, picture books and more than we could possibly list here.
But now Feiffer has “officially” come to graphic novels with Kill My Mother, a unique twist on the crime noir genre from Livewright. It’s 1933 and Elsie is a widow working for an alcoholic P.I., the former partner of her late cop husband, whose inability to stay sober is rivaled only by his tendency to hit on her and any other lady crossing his path. Back home, Elsie’s rebellious daughter Annie bitterly resents everything about her mom, but finds a strange purpose in a homeless lady who never speaks, but sometimes sings. And soon, this tale encompasses boxers, Hollywood, secret identities, and even a radio show.
We spoke to Feiffer about his book, what made him want to do a graphic novel – and why, at 85, he’s more enthusiastic about comics than ever.
Newsarama: Jules, the first thing that came to my mind when I saw Kill My Mother was coming out was this – you’re calling this your first graphic novel, and yet, by many people’s standards, many of your earlier works might have qualified as some of the first graphic novels.
For you, what makes Kill My Mother a graphic novel in a way that, say, Passionella or Tantrum weren’t?
Jules Feiffer: Well, Passionella I did around that time like Munro, I always thought of them as long cartoon stories. They weren’t long enough to be novels. If anything, they were novellas, and they were in a different style – they emphasized dialogue, like children’s books for adults, which was very much a format I worked in those early years. Trantrum I saw as a novel in cartoon form, but I also saw it as an extension of the Feiffer strip – it was very much in the vein of what I was doing in The Village Voice, but in the long form.
Kill My Mother, first of all, is in an entirely different style. It’s a noir book, and it’s drawn in an entirely different style, as it would have to be – the traditional style that readers know my work from wouldn’t be appropriate for a noir.
And the way it tells its story, the way it introduces characters, the way it goes into violence – which was never a part of my original work, unless I was dealing with the Vietnam War, which wasn’t my violence, it was my government’s violence – is a huge departure and a radical departure from anything anybody’s every seen me do before, including myself, unless you want to include my early days running The Spirit for Will Eisner.
Nrama: Well, it’s more of a traditionally sequential comic book, decades after you started your comics career.
Feiffer: You’re absolutely right! And quite by accident, let me tell you. One of the great thrills of my doing this book is the feeling of going full circle, back to a form I was doing long before I was doing satire, that I loved before I was even working with Eisner – it went back to Milton Caniff and Terry and the Pirates. And that’s when I began to study storytelling – there was no better storyteller than Milton Caniff, and I learned from two masters, Caniff and Eisner.
Nrama: So what were the biggest challenges in doing a story that was more of a straight-up graphic novel, with a new visual style, transitions between locations, and other techniques that were very antithetical to what you were doing in the Feiffer strip?
Feiffer: Well, I’ve been doing screenplays and stage plays since the 1960s, so I considered this an adaptation of all the forms I had worked in – comics, plays, screenplays – combining everything into this one form that seemed to fit it beautifully.
The dialogue in Kill My Mother is unlike what you’ll find in about any alternative form or graphic novel because it’s the way I wrote plays, the way I wrote screenplays. And it’s in that voice, which is different from the Feiffer strip – it’s that style adapted into a tough-guy form, inspired by the greats like Chandler and Hammett, and the filmmakers who adapted their work into those classic movies, from Billy Wilder with Double Indemnity to John Huston with The Maltese Falcon to Howard Hawks with The Big Sleep.
Nrama: I saw those names credited at the front of the book – it’s funny, I didn’t know what to expect when reading this. I thought it might be something like the Robert Altman version of The Long Goodbye, but it’s very much a classic noir mystery plot – just with that Jules Feiffer wit and neurosis in it.
Feiffer: That was the plan! You know, Altman found it impossible, whatever form he worked in, to be anybody but Altman. And so, Philip Marlowe became Elliott Gould becoming this Altman-type detective who was part goof. That wasn’t anyone’s Philip Marlowe but Altman’s.
And I wasn’t trying to change the form; I was trying to embrace the form. I was not trying to put my spin on it, but take it down a road that was familiar to me from books and movies, and treasured by me as one of the great American traditions – noir, as introduced by Hammett and perfected by Chandler and others, was a uniquely American form of writing, and it would up affecting writing and film all over the world.
And my version involves humor, and character, and one other thing that people have commented on and evolved as I wrote it – the central characters are women, and they outnumber the male characters, and they’re always in conflict. And that was just the way the story wrote itself – I let it go where it wanted to, and it was real interesting as it was happening.
Nrama: I took note of that as I was reading it – in a lot of noir stories, there’s a lot of atmosphere and plot twists, but the characters can sometimes get lost. And this is much more about the characters bouncing off each other, and their neuroses and mysteries and their conflicts bouncing off each other, and the more noir elements as almost a second thought.
And as you mentioned, the male characters, from the detective to the boxer to the soldier – they’re kind of useless. Even when they think they’re the guys in charge, they’re still kind of following the trails of the female characters.
Feiffer: Yes, that’s true – and in many real lives, men think they’re running things when we really aren’t.
Nrama: And many of the more noir-type elements, such as Lady Veils, seem tangential to the plot –
Feiffer: I don’t agree – as far as I’m concerned, there are no tangents. Everything that’s in there is instrumental and absolutely necessary. It’s a tapestry. If Lady Veils was not in the book, if she were not singing her songs, if she were not silent except for when she sings, it would be a very different book with a different atmosphere entirely. And also there would be no last page to the book.
It’s the mystery of that character and why she’s singing instead of talking, and what she’s really about and who she is, that helps the narrative considerably. And at the same time, there’s the battle between Elsie and her daughter Annie, is vital. All of it is necessary – as far as I’m concerned, even the males, who are blustery and ineffectual, are a vital part of it, just because they’re so full of shit. It’s their over-the-topness that makes them so ham-handed and so interesting.
Nrama: Well, it’s quite a contrast to have this come out around the same time as the new Frank Miller Sin City film, which is very much in that Jim Thompson tradition where the males are psychotic and the women are temptresses and also psychotic, and this is all flipped on its head with the male macho bluster being useless, and the women being a lot smarter and in control of themselves in the story for reasons that have nothing to do with their sexuality.
Feiffer: My book, I think, is closer to real life, where no one’s in control – people think they’re in control, but they’re not. Mae is the control freak, and she’s the one where, in the end, everything falls apart, and nothing that she wants goes where she wanted it to go. Which, in my life, has been an recurring experience with control freaks, that they wind up controlling nothing.
Nrama: That’s a little too close to home for me…
Another thing that was interesting to me was that you have 150 pages of story in this, and it contains what would be about 300 pages of plot in prose. It’s very brisk, and I was curious if your background in screenwriting or shorter-form cartoons helped you in plotting this out.
Feiffer: It comes out of all of the above, including writing and illustrating picture books for kids. Everything depends on the story you’re telling, and the characters you write and how they interact with each other, and the style of the art. It’s all in service to story.
I’ve seen and I guess you’ve seen many types of comics and illustration, where the illustration can dominate the story. There was a lot of that in Frazetta and a lot of other comic book guys, where they were displaying their skills and didn’t give a crap about what the story was about.
That is completely at odds with my sensibility, because I go back to the old masters, and the two vital old masters were Caniff and Eisner, who drew brilliantly and always loved the story, and everything was in service to the story.
Nrama: Did you do this full script, or was it more of a case of writing individual scenes?
Feiffer: The whole book was submitted like a screenplay. It was broken down into typed panels, page-by-page descriptions and the dialogue. But what was interesting, and this was unplanned – this thing is a living organism, and I’m working on the second one now – whatever I wrote, that the publisher approved of and gave me an advance toward, it all changed as soon as I started drawing the damn page! The art changes the story. When the dialogue goes in, the characters make it different, just like actors in a film.
So I’m constantly rewriting my own stuff, stuff I got an advance for, because the characters demand it. I’m not changing the storyline; I’m changing how they’re interacting, because they’re interacting in a different way once they’re alive on paper, once they’re actors that I’m drawing.
Once they’re relating to each other, talking to each other, I’m struggling to find a way to make that interaction most effective, and to figure out how the drawing will make it most effective and how their expressions will tell parts of the story in ways that will eliminate some of the need for dialogue.
It continues to delight and puzzle and befuddle me as I go on, because each page has a living dynamic that takes me over. It’s in charge of me; I’m not in charge of it.
Nrama: You mentioned doing a second book there – will that continue some of the characters from Kill My Mother?
Feiffer: Well, there’s a lot in Kill My Mother about Elsie’s husband Sam Hannigan, the cop, and how he died.
Nrama: Right, that’s never completely resolved.
Feiffer: Book Two is called Cousin Joseph. It starts two years before, and the main character is Sam, and he’s on the police force and partners with Neil Hammond, who’s about to become a P.I., and what the real story is that ends in Sam’s death, which is totally different from anything anyone thinks in the first book.
If anything, it adds to the emotional resonance of the first book, because you learn about the family – Elsie, and Annie, and now there’s a father in it – and Elsie and Annie are minor players, but Gaffney, the goon from Kill My Mother, he’s in it and is a major player in it.
And again, these things evolved as I wrote it out. Minor characters came forward, and new characters entered the story. And some of them will go on to Book Three, which will conclude the trilogy and takes place in 1947 or 1948, the years of the Hollywood Blacklist.
Nrama: How far along are you with the second book?
Feiffer: The script is done and approved of, and I’ve done five pages of art as of this interview.
Nrama: Getting back to the making of Kill My Mother, I was curious of the challenges of coming up with the original songs performed throughout the book, such as Lady Veils’ musical numbers?
Feiffer: Those came about by accident. In the original script for Kill My Mother, there were Duke Ellington songs mainly, and I got the lyrics and published them, and that was what Lady Veils was going to sing – “Mood Indigo” and “We’re in the Money” and so forth. My editor explained to me that you had to pay to use these lyrics in print, and that was going to take up a considerable amount of the money I was going to get. So I thought, “The hell with that! I’ll write my own songs.”
And then I found that I loved doing that, and I was already involved in writing the book for a Broadway musical, the lyrics for that one are by this musician named Andrew Lippa, and I was very impressed by the way he went about it, and that influenced how I wrote the songs for Kill My Mother.
I loved doing these songs, and the new book will have songs as well. Lady Veils will be back, and she’ll have songs, and there’ll be songs on the radio, and I’ll be writing all of them.
Nrama: What’s the status on the Broadway musical?
Feiffer: That’s based on my first children’s book I wrote and illustrated, The Man in the Ceiling, about a boy cartoonist. Anyhow, Andrew came to me about doing a musical, and Disney expressed interest in being involved, and we did a number of versions, and then we got notes from Disney, and more notes and more notes and more notes, and like most cases where you work with big producers, the more drafts you do, the worse the work gets. And that’s what happened with Disney.
So finally, thank God, Disney dropped it, and a few years later Andrew called me up and said he had another producer named Jeffrey Seller, who’s won several Tonys including one for Rent and one for Avenue Q, and he’s a sweetheart to work with. And we are going to do a production at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego two summers from now, and then we’re going to bring it into New York, I hope.
Nrama: Given how involved you’ve been with comics over the decades, both in terms of creating them and what you did for comics history with The Great Comic Book Heroes, I was curious what you made of contemporary comics, and if you had any recommendations.
Feiffer: Oh Jesus Christ! There’s a renaissance of the form! I think of this as a new Golden Age of comics, and there’s just brilliant people all over the place.
Art Spiegelman is still doing books, and Chris Ware, and Alison Bechdel, and Craig Thompson, who did Blankets, and David Small, who did Stitches…and many others I’m overlooking. There’s so much extraordinary work that’s being done, stuff that’s full of surprise, and full of delight, and it’s a pleasure to be a colleague of these people.
So I don’t feel at all like I’m innovating anything – I’m just happy to be part of the throng. I saw a party going on, and I wanted to be part of it.
Kill My Mother is in stores now. Jules Feiffer will appear at SPX at table W84-87, and will be part of the Alt-Weekly Comics Roundtable at the White Oak Room at noon on Saturday, along with a Q&A spotlight at 4:30 p.m. in the White Flint Auditorium on Saturday. In addition, prior to the SPX show, he’ll appear at a signing for Kill My Mother at the Politics & Prose bookshop in Washington, DC at 7 p.m. on Friday, Sept.12. Beer and wine will be served. For more information on this signing, visit www.politics-prose.com.
Next: Our SPX countdown concludes as Eleanor Davis shows us How to Get Happy!