New York

Jules Feiffer in Context

Talking with the legendary Voice cartoonist about characters who were born in the Fifties, lived through the Eighties, and are still kicking today

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Jules Feiffer was born in the Bronx in 1929, and recently told the Voice he had hated it. Rather than accept that he was a nebbishy kid from the outer boroughs, he preferred to believe he “had been kidnapped by these Jewish people who claimed I was one of them, when I knew that I was like Freddie Bartholomew [a London-born child actor who became famous for his role as Little Lord Fauntleroy in a 1936 movie]. I wanted to return to my real home in Sussex or Surrey, some country house outside of London.”

It’s a tale Feiffer has told many times, but it is also the sort of ur-story that helps explain the monologues he wrote for all the neurotic, self-absorbed, self-indulgent characters who populate his eight decades of comic strips, plays, and movies — people who are just not happy with their lot in life and don’t mind telling you so.

I sat down with the octogenarian artist and writer to discuss, among many other things, his screenplay for the new movie Bernard and Huey, directed by Dan Mirvish. Feiffer has been writing dialogue since the mid 1940s, cutting his storytelling teeth by ghosting scripts for the legendary comics creator Will Eisner (1917–2005). Fresh out of James Monroe High School, Feiffer looked Eisner up in the phone book and traveled from the Bronx to 37 Wall Street, in Lower Manhattan, where Eisner cranked out his seminal weekly newspaper-comics insert, featuring an ironfisted, lighthearted crime fighter called “the Spirit.” Although riding the subway filled him with “fear and anxiety” when he was a kid, Feiffer steeled himself for the trip downtown. “I walked in and there was an outer office, which was kind of dark, and an inner office, and the only person sitting in the outer office was Will Eisner, sitting at the drawing table in the corner, working on The Spirit. I walked in with my samples, and he welcomed me, and he couldn’t have been more pleasant, until he looked at my work and then he told me that the work was shit,” Feiffer told me, laughing.

Undaunted, the youngster switched tactics and told Eisner how much The Spirit and Eisner’s earlier strips, such as Muss ’Em Up Donovan, meant to him. As Feiffer put it, the comics maestro had no choice but to “hire me — if only as a groupie.”

According to Feiffer, the other artists in the stable, who toiled in the inner office, were all “very competent draftsmen [but] none of them had Eisner’s genius or verve.” These were craftsmen working for hire, and they had little to say to their boss. But things were different between the teen comics aficionado and his idol. “With me he had a conversation, and from the time I walked into that office he and I talked comics, we talked everything, because he knew I was somebody who loved the form the way he did, and that I wanted to do something different with the form, the way he had done.”

Eisner gave Feiffer various jobs, including erasing pencil lines, filling in black ink areas, ruling panel borders, and even coloring the strip, and the teenager eventually got comfortable enough to tell his elder, sometime in the late Forties, that while the artwork on The Spirit was getting better and better, the scripts were in a rut. Instead of bawling him out, Feiffer told me, Eisner replied, “If you think you can do better, why don’t you write one?”

Feiffer did, submitting a taut tale about Freddy, a neighborhood nobody who finally snaps as he’s playing pinball in the corner candy store. The seven-page story, “Ten Minutes,” is formally inventive, featuring a ticking watch on each page counting off, basically in real time, the last ten minutes of Freddy’s life, as his impulse to leave the city for a new start ends with the murder of the store’s proprietor. Eisner’s dynamic layouts — the legs of pursuers are seen under swinging doors when the killer ducks into a crowded saloon — enhance Feiffer’s punchy dialogue, which concludes with the Spirit musing to Police Commissioner Dolan, as they trudge up the subway steps after Freddy’s demise on the tracks, “I wonder just when it was that Freddy started on his crime career. ”

Feiffer continued writing Spirit stories until he was drafted into the Army, in 1951, where he spent time in the Signal Corps in New Jersey. He returned to civilian life as the Eisenhower years were gaining steam, a time when stifling conformity was the price much of the middle class paid for postwar prosperity. Feiffer looked around again for artists who were breaking various molds, such as the crew at the United Productions of America animation studio. “I loved their stuff. I loved their politics,” Feiffer said of the funky UPA studio, which was staffed largely with artisans who had left Disney during the 1941 animators’ strike. Eschewing Uncle Walt’s realism for broadly buoyant characters arrayed against bold, jazzily modernistic backgrounds, the studio made shorts for President Franklin Roosevelt’s re-election campaign, in 1944, and a 1946 cartoon for the United Auto Workers, entitled Brotherhood of Man. UPA introduced one of its most popular characters, the nearsighted bumbler Mr. Magoo, in 1949, and won an Academy Award for Gerald McBoing Boing in 1951. UPA’s go-for-broke style would soon influence Feiffer’s breakthrough work.

By 1956, Feiffer was peddling his ideas for a regular comic strip all over Manhattan, and while publishers reacted favorably to his offbeat characters, they were unsure how readers would react to Feiffer’s motley collection of beatniks, uptight businessmen, insecure introverts, and other urban denizens. Feiffer said he was told again and again, “We don’t know how to publish this. If your name was [Saul] Steinberg or [James] Thurber we’d publish it.” “They were telling me that I had to get famous before I could get published,” he said. “But on all their desks was this newspaper, the Village Voice, which I had only seen a couple times — it had been around for not even a year by that time. So I picked up the Voice and started looking at it, with the idea that if I could get in this paper they’ll think I’m famous — because they all read it.”

The gambit paid off — at least in terms of recognition. Voice founders Dan Wolf and Ed Fancher, as well as theater editor Jerry Tallmer, all liked Feiffer’s portfolio, so much so that, Feiffer said, “They were so enthusiastic that I began to get suspicious. ‘What do they want from me? What are they after? What’s going on here?’ My own insecurity was coming to the fore, the more they praised me. They said, ‘You can do anything you want.’ [But] I — who didn’t want guidelines — was asking them for guidelines because they were so enthusiastic. I didn’t know how to behave.”

Feiffer’s inaugural Sick, Sick, Sick strip appeared in the Voice’s first anniversary issue, on October 24, 1956. While the heavy, UPA-influenced ink contours would gradually become more fluid (Feiffer’s signature dancers would soon be leaping from panel to panel), the humor — voiced by characters who mixed confessional angst with self-defeating self-absorption — was already established. Any New Yorker who’d spent time in a crowded café and overheard snippets of first-date awkwardness, infatuated spooning, lovers’ quarrels, or armchair analysis at the next table could relate to Feiffer’s nervous blind daters, hopeful dreamers, blasé cads, and neurotic intellectuals.

That Feiffer offered to work for free may have had something to do with the Voice pooh-bahs’ enthusiasm for his strip, but by 1958 the cartoonist was packaging Sick, Sick, Sick and other strips into multiple collections — including The Explainers, Passionella, and Nixon: The Cartoon Presidency — that have sold well over the decades. (Although there are conflicting timelines, Feiffer told me he was not paid for his first twenty years at the Voice: “And everybody else was getting paid. I went in to Dan [Wolf, the editor], and he said, ‘What do you mean you want to get paid? You’re a mandarin.’ ” He laughed. “That’s a direct quote. And I loved Dan, but I said, ‘Dan, mandarins have to eat.’ ”)

Some of Feiffer’s characters in the Voice, such as the womanizing lout Huey and his milquetoast friend Bernard, would branch out into other publications, including Playboy. This was also a time when theatrical producers began showing interest in transforming Feiffer’s comics into plays. Although the cartoonist was impressed with how the characters came to life, he wasn’t convinced they were better than on paper. But soon, major social and political traumas compelled Feiffer to try his hand at outright playwriting: “I wrote Little Murders after the JFK assassination,” he told me. Feiffer, like many Americans, had been shocked by the murder of the president, and then further jolted by the subsequent killing of his alleged assassin by a mobbed-up nightclub owner. “The America I’d grown up in no longer existed,” Feiffer said. “Had been snuffed out within a week. I needed to write something, which had to be more than six or eight panels, and I thought, couldn’t be a comic strip, and there were no such things as graphic novels then.… So my life as a playwright really came out of the JFK assassination.”

As it was chockablock with muggings, random shootings, garbage strikes, and electrical blackouts, it is perhaps no surprise that Little Murders, Feiffer’s first play, flopped on Broadway, in 1967. But it did have a successful run in London, and a 1969 Off-Broadway production won an Obie award.

In 1969, Feiffer wrote a play that director Mike Nichols advised would work better as a movie. Carnal Knowledge was released in 1971 and follows the sexual adventures of a callous lothario, played by Jack Nicholson, and his more sensitive college roommate, portrayed by Art Garfunkel. In the early Eighties, Feiffer revisited this theme in a script for the Showtime channel, which featured the Bernard and Huey characters from his earlier Village Voice and Playboy comics. The screenplay got lost amid corporate shuffles, but has found new life in Mirvish’s film.

Bernard and Huey takes place in the now but flashes back to the college roommates twenty-five years earlier, asking questions about what becomes of both a satyr and a nebbish gone to seed. Feiffer said that Mirvish captured “the arc of my career…and the sense of the reality of my obsession with men and women and how they do or don’t get along over the years, and what they do with and to each other, over the years. You know, I always objected to the Thurber phrase ‘battle of the sexes,’ because I didn’t think it was about a battle, it was always a struggle to find yourself in someone else. And mostly failing.”

Indeed, in the present, when heavyset, inebriated Huey (played by David Koechner) shows up at the West Village apartment of wiry Bernard (Jim Rash), it seems pretty clear that the onetime heartthrob has been outdistanced by the pensive, divorced book editor with a smart and lovely steady, Roz. Yet, as in Feiffer’s comics, human relations can be a French farce of fast opening and slamming doors, some of which expose Bernard bedding Huey’s graphic-novelist daughter, Zelda (Mae Whitman), others concealing, for a time, Huey’s conquest of Roz, Bernard’s main squeeze. Koechner’s Huey leads with his gut, and with his porkpie hat at a raffish angle he imparts the nihilistic elan of the Popeye Doyle character in William Friedkin’s The French Connection. When I mentioned that Friedkin had been influenced by Eisner’s comics, Feiffer laughed and told me the director had once approached Eisner about doing a Spirit movie. Eisner in turn had asked Feiffer to write a treatment for a possible film. But, Feiffer said, “I met with Friedkin, who I didn’t like at all, and who didn’t like anything I had done for the scenario. And then this awful Spirit movie [written and directed by Frank Miller, in 2008] came out. Just a disgrace.”

Ahhhh. Dashed hopes. All the better for Feiffer’s characters to wallow in.

Bernard and Huey features dialogue at times lifted from comics that appeared in the pages of the Voice sixty years ago. In flashbacks, young actors capture the fresh-faced lust of college days. In one scene we get Columbia student Huey spending the morning wearily shooing beautiful young Mona out of his messy bedroom, where, she peevishly laments, “entirely too much time was spent on fucking.”

“OK,” he tells her. “Put on your shoes. I’ll walk you to the subway.”

“Don’t bother. I’ve never met anyone so crude in my life.”

“Yeah, crude. Now put on your shoes. I’ll walk you to the subway.”

“You want everything your own way. OK? You’re spoiled.”

“Yeah. Spoiled. Now put on your shoes. I’ll walk you to the subway.”

“I mean, I have needs too, you know.”

“Yeah. You need to put on your shoes. I’ll walk you to the subway.”

A little later, she says, “We practically just met, OK? Women hate to be used. I hate to be used.”

When he replies, “I’m hip. Put on your shoes,” hip does double duty, capturing the sardonic affectation of the late Eighties even as it repeats the 1958 newsprint exchange. Eternally bored and getting worn down by this morning-after call-and-response, Huey switches tactics, cajoling the unhappy girl into buying him breakfast. When she asks him what kind of bagels he wants, he coos, eyes drooping, “Baby. I trust you.”

Times change, rogues remain the same. And what goes around comes around in Feiffer’s Manhattan. In the film, Mona — now a quarter-century older, like Bernard and Huey — works at the same publishing house as Bernard. She is appalled by a portfolio of comics that Bernard has brought in for her to review. “This is shit,” she says. “Why are you pushing this girl?” Mona (played by Nancy Travis) turns to a page on which a man is castrated by closing subway doors. “Your girlfriend’s got a problem with men,” she observes. But she is even more appalled when she discovers that the comics are by Zelda, the daughter of the man with whom she’d had that physically enthralling and emotionally antagonistic fling in college.

Mona is not so appalled, however, that she doesn’t end up in Huey’s bed again, where she relives their raw romance on her own older and wiser terms. High heels in hand, she bumps into Bernard, returning early one morning from an assignation with Zelda to the apartment he now shares with Huey, who entertains a revolving troupe of noisy lovers. The women here give as good as they get, and Bernard finds himself devastated when 25-year-old Zelda cuts him loose for a more age-appropriate if equally self-absorbed media entrepreneur. In a later scene, after yet another bout of profligate overindulgence with Mona, Huey is stretched out on the sofa when Bernard confronts him about the decibel level from the night before. Huey, flat as a heavyweight down for the count, implores, “Bernie, keep it down, man. I’m a bit fragile.”

Like those other outer-borough natives Woody Allen and Neil Simon, Feiffer has never tired of the endless drama that is New York. Beginning with his comics of the 1950s and right up to his movies of today, Feiffer has illustrated the truth that, just as you can’t choose your family, there are some friends — usually met in the crucible of youth — who prove every bit as sticky as parents or siblings. Add the close quarters of Manhattan living, where strangers’ intimacies crowd in on you on packed subways and in overbooked restaurants and, for some New Yorkers, the witty Bernard and Huey may prove a bit of a busman’s holiday.

At the close of our interview, I asked Feiffer if any one thing stood out from his successful decades-long career. “Yes,” replied the 89-year-old, apparently never as fragile as any of his characters: “What I’m doing next.”

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