Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Jules Feiffer


Flashback: early 1963. I walk into Jack’s candy store in the shadow of the Auburndale Long Island Rail Road station (that’s between the Broadway and Bayside stations on the Port Washington line, for those who care). There are no new comics on display, and the digest-size mystery and sci-fi magazines (Ellery Queen, Galaxy, Fantasy and Science Fiction) fail to tantalize. So I head to the back of the shop where the paperbacks luridly reside, their sexy, violent covers starting to awaken certain eleven-year-old hormones.
One book stands out from the Erskine Caldwells and the Mickey Spillanes and the Ian Flemings: “Sick Sick Sick,” a collection of drawings by Jules Feiffer, published by Signet Books (“Complete and Unabridged”). The image on the cover shows two bespectacled people—a man and woman—sitting at a small table with coffee cups between them. The man looks away, eyes downcast, obviously depressed. The woman seems to want to know what his problem is.
By age eleven, I am aware that there are people who actually make their livelihood by cartooning. What a great way to make a buck, I think. There were the strips in the daily newspapers: Chester Gould with “Dick Tracy," Leonard Starr’s “Mary Perkins,” George Wunder (who’d taken over from the great Milton Caniff on “Terry and the Pirates”), Charles Schultz (especially Charles Schultz) and many more. I could even recognize some of the artists who contributed to The New Yorker, which my aunt and uncle had subscribed to for decades, but were slow to actually read. When I visited them in Park Slope, I’d grab a few issues from the totem-pole size pile of the magazine, skipping the articles but reading the cartoons. Peter Arno, Whitney Darrow Jr., Charles Addams, William Steig (whose work mystified me) had distinct styles (and distinct signatures), and were artists I remembered from issue to issue. Then there was the “usual gang of idiots” at Mad, including the great Jack Davis and Wally Wood.
As I slip “Sick Sick Sick” from a squeaking metal book rack, I ask myself, “Who’s this guy Feiffer?”
The answer was on the back cover, which declared that Feiffer drew his strip for the Village Voice and some 40 papers in syndication (at eleven, I didn’t read the Village Voice, nor the other places his work appeared: Playboy (which with its clever, titillating covers was beginning to catch my soon-to-be adolescent eyes), the New Republic, the Paris Herald-Tribune and the London Observer. He’d illustrated a children’s book, which meant little to me because even as a child I disliked children’s books (with the exception of the Hardy Boys). He’d won an Oscar for a cartoon short called “Munro.”Hadn’t seen it. I was about to return the book to the rack when I cracked it open and read the first panel, which showed a young boy, saying: “Eleven years old and I can’t play baseball.” Now I could play baseball in an adequate if unspectacular manner (good field, sporadic bat), but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that the kid in the cartoon was eleven—my age! I forked over 50 cents and brought the book home, thinking it was going to be about an eleven-year-old kid, kind of like “Peanuts.” I dove into the book, and soon discovered my mistake. But I wasn’t disappointed; “Sick Sick Sick” was the first really adult book I’d read, (let’s be honest: the James Bond novels didn’t count), a book in which the failings and craziness and meanness of grown-ups were prominently on display—failings and craziness and meanness I suspected existed but had no real proof . . . yet. Why an Irish Catholic kid from Queens was so interested in the neuroses and hypocrisies of so-called mature people remains a mystery, but I’m grateful to Feiffer for that early education. I certainly wasn’t getting it from the Sisters of Mercy.
In 1965, my admiration for Feiffer grew when he compiled, introduced and annotated “The Great Comic Book Heroes,” a spectacular collection of classic comics reproduced in full color. As is my wont, both Feiffer books remain on my bookshelves all these many years later. Like Charlton Heston and his rifles, they’ll have to pry each volume from my cold dead hands.
Now comes Jules Feiffer’s memoir, “Backing Into Forward.” Who knew that Feiffer, now 81, was related to the lizardly Roy Cohn (talk about different worlds)? The book is quite wonderful, relating his youth in the Bronx (Feiffer was definitely that kid from the strip who couldn’t play baseball), his parents and siblings (a difficult mother, to put it mildly), his early gift for art, adolescent struggles, apprenticeship working with the legendary Will Eisner, nutty Army duty. Feiffer’s description of New York in the 50s and 60s is as evocative as the best writing on the era (which includes fine books by Anatole Broyard, Dan Wakefield, Victor Navasky, Frank Conroy, and others). Feiffer’s world in these years is one of smoky cocktail parties crowded with writers and artists and journalists and actors (Mailer, Murray Kempton, Nichols and May, the Partisan Review and Commentary crowds, the Voice founders and early contributors, William Styron--even Marlene Dietrich--make appearances). Feiffer would go on to win a Pulitzer, an Obie for his play “Little Murders,” and author a variety of works, including the screenplay for “Carnal Knowledge.”
For me, what has always anchored Feiffer’s work is its humanness. We are far, far from perfect, Feiffer says. And there are bad people out there, a point he would make often in his barbs at politicians and the military industrial complex. But lots of us, lost and befuddled as we may be, keep going, beating those damn boats against the current. And sometimes just laughing at our foibles helps a hell of a lot.
“Backing Into Forward” is generously illustrated with Feiffer’s work. And I know just where the memoir is going: right between “Sick Sick Sick” and “The Great Comic Book Heroes,” acquired more than 45 years ago. Proof that Fitzgerald was right: we are "borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
There are worse places to be these days.

2 Comments:

Blogger Pamela Redmond said...

Hi Vince -- I just started thinking about you guys today and wondering what was up. Great blog. Never thought I'd find you blogging!

Anyway, would love to be in touch. I'm at prsatran@gmail.com and Dick's at dicksatran@gmail.com.

Love to all of you.

12:55 PM  
Blogger Robert said...

Hi Coz

You & I grew up together. Classmates at St Kevin's.
Like to re-connect.

Bob Carbone
rljmd@charter.net
rcc@rccco.com

6:18 PM  

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