Now that Frank Gehry is designing a monument to President Eisenhower—an idea about as incongruous as asking Banksy to do the official state portrait of Dick Cheney—it might not be a bad idea to recall just how oppressive and uncomfortable the years of the Eisenhower presidency really were. In other words, it’s a good moment to think about Jules Feiffer. His talky, exuberant, politically astute comic strip, which ran for four decades in the Voice, began as the perfect rebuttal to the Eisenhower era and went on to make us laugh at all of our self-deceptions.
In a lively and engaging new memoir, Backing Into Forward, Feiffer says that his anti-authoritarian stance began at home. Born in 1929, he grew up in the East Bronx, “which I’m told was a fine place to be if you were a different kind of poor Jewish boy than I was.” His father’s business ventures failed, while his mother, who had once hoped to be a clothing designer, bitterly and resentfully supported the family by selling fashion sketches. Jules’s mother bullied him, the other kids bullied him, school couldn’t teach him what he needed to know. “I felt ill at ease from birth,” he writes. “I hid in my sleep. I hid in my dreams. I revealed myself only in comics.”
So he says he drew obsessively, in the style of heroes such as Milton Caniff and Will Eisner, with the ambitious plan of escaping from his mother while at the same time avenging her disappointments. (The irony of this is not lost on him.) An uncle advised him not to put all his eggs in one basket. He countered, “I only have one basket.”
At 16, having finished high school but failed to get into college, he brought his drawings to Eisner, who took him on as an unpaid assistant. Feiffer self-deprecatingly claims he wasn’t much use as an artist: “My line was soft where it should be hard, my figures amoebic when they should be overpowering. The wimpiness of the inner me . . . emerged on paper with every line I drew.” But it wasn’t long before he was writing scripts for Eisner’s The Spirit.
By the mid-’50s, when he was looking for his own style and struggling to support himself without selling out, the suspicious, conformist atmosphere of his parents’ house seemed to have taken over America. He followed the HUAC and McCarthy hearings with horrified fascination: His older cousin, the one whose hand-me-downs he used to wear, was Roy Cohn. He hated the “sterility and seeming permanence of Cold War America,” partly because of the artistic self-censorship that prevailed in those years, partly because dishonesty and sexual bafflement kept poisoning his relationships with girls.
In 1956, when he couldn’t find any other publisher for his “nonconformist” comics, he came to the start-up Village Voice, which didn’t pay but gave him all the room he needed to invent as he went along. Within a year or two, he had settled on the loose, expressive line and improvisational style that finally made him a star. His urbane, neurotic, mostly anonymous characters attacked convention, worried about dating and sex, warned of the dangers of the Bomb. This was new. “Readers of my generation did not expect to see their thoughts and language and way of explaining themselves in print. On some level they believed it was illegal,” he writes. The question he got asked most often was how he got away with saying what everyone knew.
In a section of the memoir called “Famous,” a new Feiffer appears, a partygoer, charmer, and raconteur. Dropping names the way Hansel dropped bread crumbs, he recalls what happened at Elaine’s, what Marlene Dietrich said about Hemingway, how Norman Podhoretz got put down by Lauren Bacall. He remembers “the dinner parties at Jason and Barbara Epstein’s, where [Philip] Roth and I played the class clowns, the dynamic duo brought in to lighten up an evening with Auden and Spender and the Pritchetts and the Lowells.”
In the ’60s, he turned to drama, writing bitingly satirical plays (Little Murders) and movies (Carnal Knowledge). In the ’80s, he wrote and illustrated children’s books, drawing on the tender whimsy that was always a part of his art. (His 1961 illustrations for The Phantom Tollbooth complement the book’s contrarian humor so well it’s not surprising to learn that its author, Norton Juster, was his roommate at the time.) He was prescient about the violence of the late ’60s and an early opponent of Vietnam. With an almost uncanny ability to see through our illusions about ourselves, he mocked the contradictions of the left as easily as he took apart the pretensions of the right. And if he has a few pretensions of his own, he’s charming enough to convince you he deserves them.
Although his fortunes and the Voice‘s were linked, he says little about the paper. By the ’90s, his strip was not what it had been, but longevity had made him the paper’s best-paid contributor. In 1997, the Voice announced it could no longer afford him. Offended but unbowed, he took his strip to the Times. (Feiffer returned to the Voice in 2008 to do two full-page political cartoons.)
“Have you noticed my cartoon voice is more ambivalent than my writer’s voice?” a cartooned Feiffer asks at the book’s end. Maybe. Or you could say that his pictures and words work in complex harmony, yielding more layers of insight and pleasure. (His comics are being reissued now by Fantagraphics and hold up remarkably well. Backing Into Forward is also generously illustrated with early Feiffer cartoons, along with family photos and juvenilia.) In writing, he’s occasionally cranky, especially when he’s complaining about bad reviews of his plays, and often too reticent, especially about his own two marriages. Still, Backing Into Forward is a fine companion to his art. It’s also an illuminating book about the creative process, an entertaining read, and a cautionary tale about an era that really doesn’t deserve a memorial.