Question: As you wrote your memoirs, which moment in your life was most fun to look back on?
Jules Feiffer: Well, look, I’m 81 years old. It’s got to be more than one. And it’s harder to define what fun was. I mean, there’s fun in private life, which is all sorts of things, including making out and sex. But this is a book that centers primarily on career, although it does involve some of that other stuff. In terms of career, it was getting to the Village Voice and getting printed for the first time because I had been trying, without success; to get into print for something like 4 ½ nearly five years and nobody would touch me. So, that of course was very exciting. And then after that, discovering that I was going to write for the theater and the trajectory that moved me into that area and how that developed, and also how the excitement and euphoria that went with writing my first play.
Question: Which moment in your life was most challenging to write about?
Jules Feiffer: Oh well, when you do this kind of work, everything is challenging, but probably the most challenging thing is getting up in the morning and getting on with it because it’s so easy to stay in bed and not get on with it.
Question: How did you persist through rejection to get your start at The Village Voice?
Jules Feiffer: Well I had been trying to sell my stuff, which were books of satire, cartoon satire, which now would be called graphic novels or graphic novellas, there was no such term at that time. And I wasn’t interested in labels. There were things I wanted to talk about and write about in a satiric form and cartoons. This was at the height of the Cold War, the height of a form of domestic suppression where, in the days of Joe McCarthy, Senator Joe McCarthy, and the Eisenhower Administration, liberals and left-wing people in general were basically driven from the debate. They had no place in the national dialogue, or if they did, they were very, very cautious and careful about it and I had nothing to be cautious or careful about because my elders were afraid of losing their jobs. I didn’t have a job. They were afraid of losing their reputations. I didn’t have a reputation. I had zilch. So, I had the freedom, which unemployment gives you, and that was to behave as badly as I believed I should under the circumstances. And the circumstances were quite awful.
At the time, liberals didn’t understand that they had First Amendment rights. So, I was doing cartoons in this narrative cartoon form about subject surrounding that and as I was turned down by editor after editor at each publishing house, I began to notice on their desks this new newspaper called The Village Voice, which I then went and picked up and thought, well my god, these editors that were turning me down all, whom tell me how much they like my stuff, but they don’t know how to market it because nobody knows who I am. If I got into this paper, they would know who I am. And when editors say, “nobody knows,” what they really mean is, “I don’t know.” And once they got to know I thought something might happen, and that’s exactly what happened. I went to the Voice, I showed them my work, they loved it, they put it in the paper, it got on the editor’s desk, the editor’s say, “oh my god, he’s famous,” and they publish me.
So, it was a strategic decision that I made at the age of 26, or 27, that actually turned out well.
Question: Which of your Village Voice cartoons stirred the most controversy?
Jules Feiffer: Well, in the beginning, it was the form of them. I mean, it’s hard for me to answer that question because at the start of it, and for that matter to this day when I look back at the work, I really don’t understand what the fuss was about. So, I can’t say it’s about this or that. When people started reading me and talking to me about the work, they didn’t say how funny, or how satiric, or how brilliant, or how this or how that, they said, how’d you get away with it? How’d you get that into print? And apparently, addressing what I had said before, that liberals didn’t have First Amendment rights, that saying the sort of things that I said that my friends and I said in coffeehouses and bars to each other, these things were not generally said in public any more and hadn’t been in some years. So, I was saying it in a form that simply wasn’t familiar to anybody who was liberal, or on the left. And these people would read it and say, “Oh my god, this is the way I talk, how come it’s getting into print? Why isn’t he arrested?”
So it was the shock of recognition, probably, rather than the quality of the work. I mean, the quality may have been fine, but there’s a lot of fine work out there. It was the fact that I was doing something that at that time, nobody else was doing, except for say, Mort Saul out in San Francisco on The Hungry Eye, and “Second City” was emerging out in Chicago. Nothing in print. It was basically happening in cabaret and nothing in fiction. And certainly nothing in New York in cartoons.
Question: What has changed the most about U.S. politics in the time that you’ve been cartooning?
Jules Feiffer: Well, cartoons were very conservative. The country was very conservative. Although the liberals were allegedly in charge for a long time, there was a very acceptable balance what people would talk about in public. And I wanted to stretch those and move further out. And as the civil rights movement began, I started doing cartoons on that and on sit-ins and I was, along with Bill Mauldin, a great cartoonist out of World War II, arguably one of two white cartoonists doing this kind of work, Bill and me. And that was exciting to be able to comment on civil rights. I mean, the civil rights movement that young people don’t know about today, but Martin Luther King was considered by the establishment press in the early years of the sit-in movement as a dangerous man, and he was the equivalent at that time as Malcolm X. And he was told to stop his demonstrations; they were against the law and all of that. Now that he’s sainted and sanctified we’ve forgotten.
But I was doing cartoons and mocking white liberals, mocking the attitude of government who said to go slow, while intending to do absolutely nothing for black people, then called Negroes. And I had a lot of fun and I expressed a lot of anger. That was another thing that was important to know at that time. As I was emerging into more and more into politics that I was angry. I was enraged all the time. We were moving into Viet Nam and it was clear that the Kennedy Administration was turning its back on Eisenhower’s wisdom, having been a general and not going into Viet Nam. He kept us out. And Kennedy was moving in as he moved into Cuba with the Bay of Pigs. And all these things I thought were mistakes and I did cartoons on them. And then I think I was the first cartoonist in the country to attack the war in Viet Nam and that helped influence a whole generation of young cartoonists who later on took up the battle. And that was exciting to know that I had helped influence work of young people who were moving this forum into a better and more exciting area, out of the more by the state that political cartooning had been in.
The other cartoonist that should be mentioned at the time, beside Malden, doing brilliant work in these very areas I was working in, was Paul Conrad in the L.A. Times, who was extraordinary, and is to this day.
Question: How did the sexual revolution contribute to your work?
Jules Feiffer: I just happened to be around when the sexual revolution was happening. There was Playboy Magazine on the scene, and shortly after I had been to work in the Voice, I heard from Hugh Hefner, who asked me to start doing work for Playboy, and Hugh Hefner was the first one to pay me for my work because The Voice did not pay in those years. It thought that contributing space to people who wanted to say what they thought was all it could do, and that was quite enough for me because it was the only newspaper that didn’t tell you how to think and how to write and what form to write. All the other newspapers, all the other magazines basically guide you, including the words you used, including the style, including your personal voice. It rewrote that voice. And whether these were liberal publications or conservative publications, whether they were mainstream or slightly to the side of the mainstream; out of the mainstream, they all believed that they had the right to tell you how to stylize yourself. And from the New York Times to the much more left-winged nation. And The Voice said, no, whatever you want to. You drew whatever you want to, we’ll publish it. Nobody was doing that. Nobody does it today. The Voice is no longer that paper, and editorializing is now in the hands of editors, with few exceptions.
Question: What materials do you use as a cartoonist?
Jules Feiffer: Well it’s fluctuated over the years. And it’s changed a lot when I switched from the comic strip to doing ****. It’s a whole new way of working that I’ve never tried before and it was great fun to try and play with an experiment. But in the beginning, when I was at The Voice, I had a writing style down pat and I knew what I wanted to say, I just didn’t like the way it looked in print and so I fiddled around week after week, and if you see in the book Backing into Forward, the memoir, It shows the first four or five cartoons, all of which are done in different styles because I was floundering, and it took more than a month before I could settle on a line, the way I wanted it to look. And the way I came about that is, I had picked up some – I was living alone, I was a bachelor, and I picked up some meat from the meat market, and they had these round little dowels sticking in the steak with a pointed tip. And I thought, I wonder what that would be like if I dipped it in some ink. So, after I had my steak, I dipped it in some ink and I got a line that was both dry and in full character and quality and far better than any pen line that I was able to put on paper.
So, I went out and bought a bunch of these wooden dowels, these pointed wooden dowels and I began drawing with them. And I must have used that as my style, as my tool of choice for, I don’t know 10 years or so, and it got to be terribly laborious and slow moving because it’s not meant to be a pen. And finally I got fed up with that and switched to pen and ink, and never liked that very much and also, over the years, all I was trying to do in the artwork as it appeared in the paper, whether in The Voice, or in Playboy, or in syndication; and syndication just took The voice cartoons and ran them around the country. But all I wanted was a sense of immediacy. A sense of spontaneity. And I realized that the more I penciled and then inked over it the spontaneity always had a **** thick, and so I began drawing straight on the paper without any penciling. And by that time, photocopy machines were in, so I could just do them on any kind of paper, any size. Reduce them or fiddle with them and then cut them out and put them in a layout. And this took two or three times as long a penciling to get – and to do them over and over again. But I had finally a line that just jumped and that was vivid and alive and basically I was looking for a line, not a professional line, but more of an amateurs line that had life and vitality to it. And I was beginning to get that by not doing any predrawing.
So, from that day to this, and for more than 30 years I would think by now, that’s the way I’ve been working. And with the kid’s books, I layout this art on separate sheets of paper just to figure out what the final drawing would look like, and with that layout as a guide, I began the finished art and if it doesn’t work out well on this watercolor paper I’m drawing on, I tear it up and go on and go on and sometimes I do it three or four or five times before it works. And sometimes it comes out right the first time.
And then there’s the excitement of adding color, which I didn’t know anything about until 1997 or so, when I did my first picture book. So, the kid’s book in particular have been exciting for me because it forced me to go back to the work I loved as a young boy reading Sunday’s supplements and comics in the Sunday papers when I was six, seven, eight, nine. And number of which have been in wonderful collections, beautifully reproduced. And when I am working a book, I go through my library and take a look through some of the great cartoonists of the past, like Cliff Sterrett, who did “Polly and Her Pals,” or Winsor McCay who did “A Little Nemo in Slumberland,” and Herriman – and I just looked through these guys and looked for somebody to steal. You know, looked for who I could swipe, or turn into – who’s work I will turn into my work. And I still use, after all these years, these artists as inspirations.
So, here in my eighties, I go back to when I was eight for my inspiration.
Question: What was it like to work on “The Phantom Tollbooth”?
Jules Feiffer: Well, I had never done a children’s book. Early on, shortly after I had gotten out of the Army in 1953, I put some samples together hoping to get some children’s book illustration, but I ran a **** of somebody named Sendak that was starting out, and his work was so devastatingly impressive that I thought I’d better get out of the way and let him have that field and find something on my own. So, in a way, I gave up children’s books because of Maurice and dedicated myself as a Cold War cartoonist trying to overthrow the government. So, it was by default.
And with the Tollbooth, Norton Juster, who wrote it, was first a young man who became a friend because we lived in the same building in Brooklyn Heights, and then we moved into a duplex apartment together with a third roommate, and that’s where he started writing the Phantom Tollbooth and he would read to me sections and I’d start doing sketches. So, it was all by accident, by proximity. Norton was there, I was there, he loved early 19th and 20th century English line drawing illustration. So, that’s what I tried to give him, my version of it, because his whole writing style was basically geared to the early 20th century. So, again, it was one of those things that I backed into. And it was accidental and it was great fun to do. But, once it was done, I had no intention of doing more children’s books. This was in the ‘60’s, and it was another 30 years or so before I decided to write and illustrate my own. And I’ve actually just completed, 50 years later, my second book with Norton Juster, called The Odious Ogre, which will be coming out in the fall of 2010. And that’s a big picture book in color, and very different in style from The Phantom Tollbooth.
Question: How did you transition from cartooning to the world of the theater?
Jules Feiffer: Well, I found it was my good fortune to somehow be able to work in these forms that I loved when I was a kid. I love movies and I could write screenplays. I love theater and I could write plays. I mean, they would be my own, I could never write what was used to be called the well-made play. But my first play, “Little Murders,” turned out to be a great success and a great influence on plays at that time. “Carnal Knowledge,” which was originally written as a play, still resonates and people still talk about it. And Mike Nichols’ production of the film is the best collaborative work I’ve ever done with anybody. So, I’ve had enormous luck and enormous pleasure in working in these forums and I just – because I could always write dialogue, because I always had a sense of how people spoke. And because I had a strong narrative sense; growing up and loving stories, loving novels, I just seem to know how to tell a story and I read a lot, I went to a lot of movies, I went to a lot of plays, and it rubbed off on me. And that’s all. It just rubbed off on me.
If Edward Albee had not been writing in the ‘50’s, just when I was coming along and getting interested in theater, I might never have written a play, but Albee suddenly opened these doors because he was doing stuff in a form that I found terribly inviting, and god knows I wouldn’t have ever thought of it on my own.
Question: What changes has the cartooning business undergone during your career?
Jules Feiffer: Well for one thing, commercially, it’s
undergone vast change and not all of it to the good. I mean, when I was a kid, the newspaper comic strip was
dominant and sexy and glamorous, and cartoonists made a lot of money, and they
were famous. Milton Caniff who did
Terry and the Pirates, Al Capp, who did “Li’l Abner,” I mean, there were – Chester Gould who did Dick Tracy, these
then had household names. And the
newspaper strips got smaller and smaller and smaller for newspapers to
misguidedly save space, and the quality went out of the work, the quality went
out of the art, and certainly out of the writing. And whatever quality there was disappeared for a long period
of time until underground comics, Crumb and company, and Spiegelman and
company, gave birth to something new which was alternative comics, and suddenly
we have Chris Ware, and Dan Klaus, and Craig Thompson, and a whole new variety
of artists, many of them every bit as good as the best during the golden age of
the newspaper comic strip. But
here doing work wildly original, very different from one another and impossible
to conceive of in mainstream public press.
Jules Feiffer: Well for one thing, commercially, it’s undergone vast change and not all of it to the good. I mean, when I was a kid, the newspaper comic strip was dominant and sexy and glamorous, and cartoonists made a lot of money, and they were famous. Milton Caniff who did Terry and the Pirates, Al Capp, who did “Li’l Abner,” I mean, there were – Chester Gould who did Dick Tracy, these then had household names. And the newspaper strips got smaller and smaller and smaller for newspapers to misguidedly save space, and the quality went out of the work, the quality went out of the art, and certainly out of the writing. And whatever quality there was disappeared for a long period of time until underground comics, Crumb and company, and Spiegelman and company, gave birth to something new which was alternative comics, and suddenly we have Chris Ware, and Dan Klaus, and Craig Thompson, and a whole new variety of artists, many of them every bit as good as the best during the golden age of the newspaper comic strip. But here doing work wildly original, very different from one another and impossible to conceive of in mainstream public press.
So, this is very exciting now. It ain’t a living. I mean, these guys work very, very hard and put in the sort of work and hours that I would never try to do. And I don’t know how they feed their families, if they do. But it’s a fascinating form and so I think that after a long period of nothing happening and work, nothing very impressive, we are into another golden age of comics. Unfortunately, it’s not a golden age for the artists themselves economically. I don’t know how they get along.
Question: What is the political cartoonist’s role in the modern era?
Jules Feiffer: Well, I’m not sure about that role any longer. The role used to be to mix things up and I think to a great extent it still is, but the quality of the work of the political cartoon has been succeeded by the wisecrack, the gag cartoon, so that the cartoonist becomes more of the equivalent of the Jay Leno monologues, or David Letterman monologues. And there is not much – that digs much deeper, the most meaningful work on politics in terms of political humor that one can possibly find on the air is in the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Colbert Show and occasionally on those opening monologues on Saturday Night Live. But particularly with Stewart and Colbert, that satire, often very pointed, very barbed with a real point of view and at its best. And there aren’t many cartoonists working that. There’s still **** syndication is wonderful; there’s Jeff Danzinger, also in syndication, who is brilliant. There’s Tony Austin of the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Signe Wilkinson of Philadelphia Daily News, there’s Tom Toles who is extraordinary in the Washington Post. But to my knowledge the L.A. Times, which for many, many years had one of the great cartoonists of our time, Paul Conrad, doesn’t have anybody anymore, or runs them in syndication, which is sinful, shameful.
And over and over again, cartoonists are loosing their jobs and I don’t think there are 100 cartoonists in the country working on the editorial pages today. So, the whole form is in danger. But I’ve been around a long time and I’ve found that these forms, whether it’s the cartoon, or whether it’s a play, or all these dying forms refuse to die. Something happens to rejuvenate them and it will certainly happen to the political cartoon. It will come back. But whether it’s on the internet, or whether it’s in some other form, however that works, whether it looks the way it looks now, or entirely different, I have no idea. And thank God I don’t have to worry about it.
Question: Where should good satirists direct their satire today?
Jules Feiffer: Well, you know with Obama being elected, we had a wonderful opportunity. I hope it’s not blown, and we have forms of government that don’t seem to be up to the level of the leaders who are around who will want to move this country in a proper direction. Where that goes and how that goes, I mean, we seem determined to not move ahead, to stay in the same place. And there are a lot of nuts out there as well. It’s a scary, but also wonderful country and I have no idea – I mean look I’m the wrong generation to ask that question too, because I’m mired completely in where I come out of. And I come out of a Cold War sensibility, a Cold War mentality, and during those Cold War years, I used to know, I thought, the answers to everything. And since the end of the Cold War, I’m just a dumb as everyone else.
Question: How has New York City changed, and is it still exciting?
Jules Feiffer: Well, I’m the last guy to probably know how to answer that question because I live in the city, but I don’t really – I live in my own little ghetto on the upper west side of Manhattan, which has changed a lot over the years. But New York is a place of neighborhoods. And people who live uptown, as I do, seldom go downtown. Or at a certain age you don’t go downtown. I found it interesting when my now 40-year old daughter; I have three daughters, one in her 40’s, one in 20’s, and one in teens. Well, my 40-year old, when she lived downtown in the East Village, and I would meet her in the local bar, it struck me how different in age everybody was in that local bar from the bars that I went to uptown. And that she would never know or go to a bar that had anybody my age in it. And except for this being my daughter, I wouldn’t have even know of the existence of the bar because it had her age in it, and they thought, as did I, that this was the entire universe. This was the entire world. That’s who they saw. That’s where they felt – we lived that way then, we live that way now, and we continue to live that way. Everybody kind of hangs out with his or her own particular universe and you think that represents everything.
Question: Is New York becoming too gentrified and sterile?
Jules Feiffer: Oh, we have lived through periods of sterility over and over again. Robert Moses, written about brilliantly in Robert Caro’s book, destroyed neighborhoods with his super highways, and drove immigrant cultures, whether from Eastern Europe or from the south, out of boroughs and sometimes out of the city entirely. And so that kind of mix, which had been around since post World War I days, or even before then changed, and the city was changed, and the city was – and when I first started hanging out in the village in the 1950’s, I was told over and over again about Greenwich Village, that you should have been here, it’s ruined now, it doesn’t exist anymore. And now the ‘50’s is considered one of those golden ages. But now when I was starting out, that was considered part of the corruption. You should have been here in the ‘30’s, or the ‘20’s. So, I seemed to have missed everything. Whenever I got there, it was always too late. And that doesn’t change. The city keeps reinventing itself. And each generation thinks, as they enter it, that they’ve missed the best of it, and then they become the authors of the next “best.” And so it goes on and on and on. And New York keeps redefining itself and reinventing itself, and then you look at it and it’s pretty much the way it was back in the 1920’s., or in the 1930’s. Something stylistically different in some ways, but it’s still got the same vitality.
Whatever New York loses, if you go to other cities around the world, or around the country, New York still has a kind of energy level you find nowhere else. Paris doesn’t have it, London doesn’t have it, San Francisco, a great city, doesn’t have it. Chicago has many things better than New York. I think Chicago theater is basically better than New York in terms of it’s more innovative, it’s more experimental, it’s not as bottom-line, it’s not as market-oriented. But it doesn’t have that crazy anarchic spirit, which you only find in the city and you found it back in the ‘20s, you found it in the teens, and you find it still today.
Recorded on February 22, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen