Jules Feiffer’s career spans almost seven decades and multiple genres across multiple media – from serving as Will Eisner’s assistant on The Spirit to his long-running comic strip Feiffer to illustrating the children’s classic The Phantom Tollbooth to writing the screenplays for such films as Popeye and Carnal Knowledge. And now, he’s taking a look back.
Out of Line: The Art of Jules Feiffer is a new hardcover collection by Martha Fay from Abrams ComicArts that’s years in the making (the intro by the late Mike Nichols, who directed Carnal Knowledge, was written in 2012). It’s a look back at Feiffer’s work through the spectrum of his life, chronicling everything from his childhood to his work with Eisner to his own rise as a cartoonist to his more recent work as a picture book illustrator and author of his first graphic novel, Kill My Mother – with literally hundreds of pieces of original art, including many rarely seen pieces.
We spoke with Feiffer and Martha Fay, who wrote the book and worked closely with Feiffer compiling the materials. Over the course of our two-part chat, we got some candid and funny insights into how the book came together, the comics that continue to influence Feiffer, and what keeps him creating and reinventing his work again and again – with more output at 86 than many cartoonists a quarter his age.
Newsarama: Jules, Martha, thanks for joining us.
Martha Fay: Hello Jules!
Jules Feiffer: Hello Martha.
Fay: How are you doing?
Feiffer: Groggy. And overworked. [laughs] Overworked and underwhelmed. Eh, I’m fine.
Fay: Me too. Just chatting with Zack here.
Feiffer: Ah! You’ve seen Out of Line then?
Nrama: Yes, they sent me a copy. It’s right here in front of me.
Feiffer: Oh, good, good.
Nrama: My parents were just visiting, actually, and they were flipping through it, and Dad said he remembered reading some of these when they were first published.
Feiffer: Ah! You got a very old father, then.
Fay: Hey! He only has to be my age!
Feiffer: Martha did a lot of research, otherwise she wouldn’t know anything about this period.
Fay: It’s true! It’s true! I actually did do a lot of research on your earlier period, before me. But some of the research did overlap with the events of this book. It did indeed.
Nrama: So, how did you two come together to do this book?
Feiffer: Well, ah, Martha has been my friend for some years –
Fay: And it was our editor, our editor Charlie Kochman, wanted to do this book.
Feiffer: And he suggested several writers to me. And I said, “Well, then I want a writer who knows me, and knows the politics of the time, and knows the culture and has some kind of instinctive take on the period, so that she will know, other than doing homework, what this period was all about.” And the only one I knew who was perfect for all of that was Martha.
Fay: Well, that’s certainly a nice recommendation.
Feiffer: So I asked her, “Are you free for a couple of weeks?” And eight years later, there’s a book.
Fay: Nine years, Jules! It was nine years!
We should explain it was not nine years of work. It was interrupted for a variety of reasons. And it was a complicated book to put together. The art alone – there was so much art.
Feiffer: What was startling to me was that Martha, in addition to talking to me, did a lot of independent journalism, and interviewed various people who had been connected to my life, including my sister, Alice, and various people, including Mike Nichols and others, who I’d worked with.
Fay: I think originally I was just supposed to write some captions. But it somehow turned into a mini-artistic biography at some point. I don’t know when that happened. It turned out to be fascinating to do!
Feiffer: I knew biography was a given, but I just expected a long introduction, rather than an ambitious piece of work. Which is one of the keys to the book’s success, as far as I’m concerned.
Fay: And it’s very nice-looking, too.
Nrama: How did you two first come to know each other?
Fay: We were friends from –
Feiffer: The Upper West Side.
Fay: -- the Upper West Side. And our children attended the same public school together, and I do rememeber standing on the corner one time during a fundraiser when Jules was selling old books.
Fay: Remember that, Jules? Selling used books, and signing them to raise money for P.S. 87. And I’d do banners for the fair. That was a long time ago.
Feiffer: We were children then.
Fay: I think it helped we both grew up in the Bronx. It seems like a lot of creative people came from the Bronx, and that was a very cheerful aspect of this.
Feiffer: I forget what you said in the book, but I remember saying “Minutes after my birth, I realized this location was a terrible mistake, and had to get out of there.”
Nrama: What was some of the process of putting the book together?
Fay: It was kind of a stop-and-go process. There was a lot of writing, true, but because it covered such a long period of time and different styles of art, It was a little complicated figuring out what to put in. And then, all the unseen stuff.
Do you remember, Jules, all the sessions we had at your apartment?
Fay: We thought we’d ended this, and then another box would come out, and then another. That’s probably my favorite part of the book, all the very early drawings that no one has ever seen before.
Feiffer: Mine too. And all the rough sketches that proceeded the individual drawings of the Village Voice strips.
Fay: I think that’s what’s going to really intrigue a lot of young cartoonists and artists – I’m flipping through and seeing Jules’ caricatures of Clyde Beatty and Jack Dempsey –
Feiffer: They were big names back then. Everyone knew the name “Clyde Beatty” or “Tom Mix,” he was a famous cowboy, later played in the movies by Bruce Willis, who was more famous than Tom Mix ever was.
But I loved it when my parents took me to the movies and I’d see what wound up becoming subject matter – I’d go home and draw my heroes. Or I’d hear shows on the radio, and draw my heroes from my imagination. That was the material. And it’s in the book.
Fay: And the swipes – Jules says again and again that’s how he learned to draw, from swipes. Right, Jules?
Feiffer: Yeah – like so many of my contemporaries, you’d try to take who you admired and copy them line for line. And hope no one would notice that.
Fay: Flipping through, there’s also the tender side of Jules, not usually seen in his art, which come through in the work he did as a student. It’s interesting, Jules, because the use of color doesn’t come up again until much later in your work, with the children’s books.
Feiffer: Yeah, I didn’t do color extensively until Meanwhile… and I Lost My Bear!. There were some color cartoons for Playboy, but that was filling in the black-and-white work I’d already done.
Nrama: You’ve gotten more experimental with your more recent work – more of a use of color and grayscale.
Feiffer: The title of my memoir was Backing Into Forward, and that’s precisely my method of learning, of moving my career along – because I was doing books for kids, I had to learn how to use color. And I had to learn how to draw in different styles, because the style that worked for the Village Voice strip and for Playboy would not work for a picture book for kids.
Once you know what the demands of a form are, you have to learn how to meet those demands. So I did a lot of practice, and research – going to the library, and going back to my heroes like Winsor McCay and Frank King’s Sunday supplements for Gasoline Alley, which in the ‘30s and ‘40s were glorious, and figuring out how they used color.
And I’d look at the large-format collections of Polly and Her Pals, which was just mind-boggling, and George Herriman’s Krazy Kat. And of course, other children’s book authors, like my friend Maurice Sendak. You plunder! You go through the stuff and figure out what you can use from the people who are informing you, teaching you.
And you actually do it! Because I did it. Eventually, one of those cartoon lightbulbs go off in your head, and you don’t need these guides any more, and then you go off and find your own way of using color and line and moving backward into forward.
Nrama: I’ve found that – learning from what’s come before can give you a structure for your own work, an architecture that lets you figure out your own style and bring something new to it.
Feiffer: It’s like every learning experience from when you are a child. You begin cautiously, and imitating-ly, and then the lightbulb happens. And you’re off and running until you reach the end of that cycle, and then you kind of coast along, and then you start learning from scratch again, and the lightbulb goes off again, and so on.
Next: Our chat concludes as Feiffer tells us about some of his favorite upcoming comics, what’s timeless about his work, and appearing (sort of) on TV’s Mad Men.