Jules Feiffer, the popular, award-winning cartoonist, playwright and author, recently addressed an overflow crowd at the library. Using slides, anecdotes and a lot of humor, Feiffer shared the people and events that have shaped him as a man and as a cartoonist. Following the presentation, Feiffer met with a group from the Schreiber High School drama group, who were getting ready to present his play, Feiffer's People.
Feiffer labeled his talk "The Story of My Life Slide Show." Growing up during the Great Depression (he was born in the Bronx in 1929), he found inspiration in the comic books and comic strips of his time. "It shaped the direction of my life," he said, "including now, when I am doing mainly children's books, which are nothing more than dressed-up versions of comic books." He added, "It is great to return to what you loved when you were 7 years old. It used to be called senility." One of the earliest and strongest influences on Feiffer's work was Winsor McCay, cartoonist at the New York Herald. Other great comic strips Feiffer enjoyed in his younger days were Popeye, Terry and the Pirates, Polly and her Pals, and Flash Gordon. Feiffer said, "I had to steal the papers from the Super. In those days Jews didn't read the News and the Journal American, and they had all the good comic strips." In his early years (he began cartooning at age 4 or 5), Feiffer said, "I gave up whatever style I had to steal from the 'big guys.' I was 35 before I got to be as good as I was at 7." (This is reminiscent of Picasso's famous comment, "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he [sic] grows up.")
As a young man, Feiffer said his hero was Will Eisner, who created "The Spirit," a comic book insert that had a "beginning, middle and end; far deeper and more interesting than the others." At age 15, Feifer put together some samples and went to see Eisner, who, despite telling Feiffer how bad his drawings were, offered him a job. In his self-deprecating style, Feiffer said, "I was worthless. I did nothing but screw up. Ultimately, I became the ghostwriter for 'The Spirit.'" Eisner also let Feifffer draw the back page, where he created "Clifford," which Feiffer described as "an early version of Peanuts a couple of years before Charlie Schulz."
The satire for which Feiffer became famous grew in part out of his stint in the Army during the Korean War. "My rage was such that I had to find an outlet," he said. He displayed one of his early cartoons of that era, which told the story of a little boy of 4, named Munro, who has been drafted. Munro tries to tell the Army that they have made a mistake, but the sergeant informs Munro that the Army does not make mistakes, so it must be Munro's mistake. The bitingly satirical story of Munro's adventure in the army continues from there. Over the years, especially in the cartoons he published in the Village Voice and elsewhere from 1956 to 1997, Feiffer's satire was aimed at the military mind and the government's lying and thought control, which, he pointed out, "still continues to this day." "This stayed my subject for the rest of my life," he said. "How authority uses words not for what they mean, but to have the effect that they want to get the results that they want." Few escaped Feiffer's pen. He showed the audience cartoons impaling, among others, Bobby Kennedy, LBJ, Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bush (the first), Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Colin Powell; as well as McCarthyism, campaign finance reform, the Middle East, the media, and Dr. Freud. If there is one consistent theme throughout, it is Feiffer's implacable stand against hypocrisy.
Later, Feiffer brought his art into the theater. Among the best known was Little Murders, about which he said, critics commented, "That isn't a play, it's a Feiffer cartoon." Other plays were Carnal Knowledge; Crawling Arnold (a couple in the audience had been in an early production of that work); Grownups, which he said helped him deal with his growing up and his mother's death; and The White House Murder Case, which helped him deal with the John Kennedy assassination. A number of his works have been made into films, including Popeye, about which Feiffer said, "Popeye was the beginning so I came full circle." In his 60s, he wrote The Man in the Ceiling, a children's book. He commented, "I don't like to write autobiographical experience. The material is autobiographical, but not the incidents." In writing this book he said, "I had to go back to my old cartoons and copy them as an ancient adult. In many ways, that was the most difficult."
"I retired from the business in 2000," he said. "I am so glad I don't have to do anything about these jerks." (Presumably meaning those who are running the country.) As mentioned, he now devotes himself to writing for children. "Most children's literature is condescending, he said. His first picture book for children was Bark, George, a bedtime story written for his daughter. "As soon as my daughter fell asleep, I went to my desk and started writing it, he said. He added, "By the Side of the Road may be my favorite of all. It's about a kid whose parents can't stand him. His father puts him out by the side of the road. He grows up and marries by the side of the road."
Feiffer concluded the program with a series of slides depicting an on-screen dance. Dancing figures, of course, were featured prominently in Feiffer's cartoons, juxtaposed with the anxious little boy, often in adult clothing, epitomized by the character Bernard Mergeneiler.
During the question and answer period, Feiffer elaborated further on his problematic relationship with his family, especially his mother, a rich source of a great deal of his humor. "My mother and father did the best that they could," he said. "But they came from a generation that could never admit that they were wrong. The best education I had was how not to raise your children." He added, "We are all products, good and bad, of parents and family and culture. We choose how to deal with those things that frighten us. One day I was rid of it. I don't know how."
Afterwards, Feiffer met with a group of students from the Schreiber drama club. The students were preparing to perform the play Feiffer's People note: We attended, and the production was wonderful). The students were eager to learn as much as possible about the artistic process in general, and this work in particular, peppering Jules Feiffer with relevant and insightful questions. Feiffer, in turn, was very generous with his time, ignoring reminders that his car was waiting. He said that this particular work was open to a wide variety of interpretations, and encouraged them to use their own creativity. The main piece of advice he gave was to play it "straight," not for laughs. "It's funnier if you play it as if it's real life, and it becomes a surprise to find that it's a joke."
About the artistic process, he said, "Art is a way of dealing with a sense of chaos. The most therapeutic thing an artist can do is to turn chaos into art. Our lives are out of control most of the time; when you do your art you are more in control than ever." He said that it is hard to go back and revise your own material, and gave them some tips, one of which was to put it away for a while, then go back. Regarding writers' block, he said, "If a frontal assault doesn't work, go over, under or around it. Start in the middle if you have to." Feiffer admitted that it is difficult to take criticism. He told the students that the best way to deal with criticism is not to take it personally. "Well, maybe that will be your initial reaction, but then go back and listen." One student asked if he worried about offending people. He responded, "That's my purpose in life. There are enough people who will censor you. The worst censor is in your head."
Feiffer asked the students about their own artistic background and aspirations. He advised them, "Find your own way. Your mother will ultimately be happy if you find your own way." He concluded, "You can get through the minefield."