Jules Feiffer is well known as a master of all trades and a jack of none when it comes to storytelling — a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, novelist, children’s book author and illustrator, Tony-nominated playwright, Academy Award-winning screenwriter — and a new autobiography celebrates his over 60-year career.
Feiffer’s memoir, “Backing Into Forward,” was released this year by Doubleday. He will make a Western Massachusetts appearance at the Eric Carle Museum for the Children’s Book Festival in Amherst on June 12, an all-day event featuring a talk by Feiffer at 2 p.m. He will be the subject of a major show at the Carle in the fall of 2011.
Feiffer, 81, boasts many high profile achievements — including authorship of the screenplays for “Carnal Knowledge” and “Popeye” — in a career that began more humbly in 1946 in the studio of revolutionary cartoonist Will Eisner, where Feiffer apprenticed for six years, starting at age 18. Eventually Feiffer ended up writing scripts for Eisner’s innovative detective series about The Spirit, a character recognizable to many people, thanks to the recent Frank Miller film.
“Eisner was instrumental in how I thought and how I learned to work — before I went to work for him he was one of my heroes,” Feiffer said in a recent interview. “I studied him, those early Spirit stories that were in newspapers.
“It was an extraordinary opportunity and a great education for me, just being around his office, as a kid who really was incapable of doing anything right for a long period of time until I accidentally backed into writing The Spirit stories. It was the one thing I could do in the office. I couldn’t do any of the drawings — I just wasn’t able to do that kind of comic book illustration — but I could write it. That surprised him and it surprised me.”
After leaving Eisner’s studio, Feiffer created a regular, more adult comic strip for the Village Voice, which began in 1956 and ran for 44 years. Initially known as “Sick, Sick, Sick,” the strip’s delivery has been compared to Lenny Bruce’s, consisting of sketchy and fluid figures monologuing about various aspects of modern living, with strong doses of commentary and satire. It set the tone for future strips like “Doonesbury” and functioned as a direct line when, 40 years later, Feiffer was tapped by The New York Times to create its first op-ed page comic strip.
In the 1990s, Feiffer’s work as a children’s book writer and illustrator won him renown with new generations — and in an entirely different market. He illustrated his first children’s book, “The Phantom Tollbooth,” written by Norton Juster and now considered a classic, in 1961.
“It was a favor to Norton Juster, who was then my roommate,” Feiffer said. “We had a duplex in Brooklyn Heights. He started writing this, and I started doing sketches. We were both young, and I was interested in other things, not illustrating books for children, and did this because I thought it would be a lark and Norton had written it. If he hadn’t written it, I never would’ve considered illustrating it.”
Feiffer almost stopped there.
“After I finished it, I turned my back on children’s books — I didn’t think I’d ever do another one. That was long before I had children. Within a few years, I was a father three times, and it changed my whole perspective on writing and drawing for children.”
Feiffer’s attitude about having kids mirrored his views on creating work for them, and these were all shaped by his own experience as a kid — and it did not add up to any sort of future writing or drawing children’s books.
“At the time of ‘The Phantom Tollbooth,’ I never envisioned having children,” he said. “I didn’t want children, I was opposed to having children, didn’t think I was very good with children. My parents weren’t very good with me. They did their best, but it was not much of a best. I thought I would be no better. Why should I be?”
Skip ahead 30 years when Feiffer’s first real effort for kids was the chapter book “The Man In The Ceiling.” This began as the seed of a failed collaboration and eventually gained a life of its own.
“I wrote it because a friend of mine, a wonderful illustrator named Edward Sorel, had suggested to me that I write a picture book for him, and then we had a falling out over what the story would be,” Feiffer said. “I got very angry with him and said OK, you write your picture book, I’ll write mine, and mine will be better than yours. That was what started this.
“I started to think in terms of what the subject would be and, as so often happens with your first books, it was autobiographical, and it was about a boy cartoonist. It became ‘The Man in the Ceiling’ and went from picture book to chapter book into a full-fledged novel.”
Feiffer followed with his first official picture book, “I Lost My Bear,” which was inspired by one of his daughters.
“She was about 3 or 4, wandering around the house, being unable to concentrate,” he said. “It was an idea I had that came out of watching her, and I saw how she couldn’t fulfill or complete one task or one job — that she’d go from one thing to another thing to another thing to another thing — and it occurred to me that one of the big differences between grown-ups and kids is that grown-ups have a beginning and a middle and an end to what they do. Kids don’t have that at all, and I thought that was worth experimenting with in a book.”
The transition to children’s books was easy for Feiffer — all he had to do was pull from what he had learned as a kid, reading the things he loved.
“The comic strips in newspapers I read as a kid, and the comic books I read, became the background material, the research material, for every children’s book I now illustrate,” he said. “I’ve got a huge library of reprinted works, and when I’m about to illustrate a new children’s book, whether by me or someone else, I go through my collection — I look to my masters — and see who I’m going to steal from this time.”
Much of what Feiffer took in as a kid served not only as entertainment, but also as training for his future career. He was a sponge for the various mechanics of storytelling, whatever the form.
“If there’s a form that I loved as a kid, whether it’s comic strips or movies or children’s books — or for that matter, plays — I seem to have incorporated part of the process of how to do it virtually from birth,” he said. “When I was reading my early comic strips in newspapers and comic books, I was reading them as a fan, but I was also reading them as a scholar of the form without even realizing it. I was studying how you did this — how do you tell the story this way? How do you build suspense? How do you use angle shots? I was thinking all of these things and analyzing it as I read and loved the work. I would go over it and over it and over it, again studying it. I’ve found, as an adult, a surprisingly natural and organic transition going from one form to another.”
Transition from one storytelling medium to another has been one of the constants in his career, and one of the reasons Feiffer is viewed as going against the grain. As a writer and artist, his impulse was to go where the creativity took him rather than to gear his output to one career track.
“Americans have never been comfortable with people shifting gears and changing careers, but they do it in other countries all the time,” Feiffer said. “We somehow are generally suspicious of it, and even hostile to it, and want people when they pick something to stay that way and live and die that way and screw it. But you don’t find that in Europe, and you don’t find that in other cultures. It’s very American. I’ve never gone along with that. If something interested me, I fiddled with it. If it turned out I could do it, I did it. If it turned out I couldn’t, I gave it up.”
As Feiffer moved into the area of picture books, he realized there wasn’t much difference in the themes and ideas behind his adult and children’s work. His job was to devise the proper way to express these to a younger audience.
“I just had to treat the subject matter and the voice I use in dealing with the subject matter differently because I was now talking to kids. So I had to find a voice accessible to kids, “ he said. “My experience as a playwright was very helpful, because in a sense the narration became dialogue. I found a character to speak the story — to tell the story — and with more innocence than my adult work would have — and went at it that way.”
Feiffer utilized that same skill for his recent memoir, which demanded the author fashion an entirely new narrative voice — his own — after years of affecting that of others. It was through this process that he realized so much of his writing over the years shared a common sleight-of-hand that is crucial to the act of authorship, and one that he finds delightful.
“It’s all an illusion, which is one of the things I love about writing,” Feiffer said. “That personal voice, including my own in the memoir, is both true but also a put-on, because I don’t really speak that well. If you just took my dialogue down in a phone call, it wouldn’t be nearly as well constructed as that voice in the book, which sounds like me but is a playwright who was constructing a voice made to sound like him. But it isn’t him. It’s a better version of him — a tighter, wittier, more interesting take of how I ramble on, as I do.”
Telling his own story in his own voice is really just a variation of the process and result of decades of writing.
“Nothing I’ve ever done has been, except for the memoir, deliberately autobiographical or confessional,” Feiffer said. “I always created the illusion that I was doing it about somebody else, and then sometimes, years later, I would look at this work and say, ‘Oh my God, how personal can you get? This is terrible!’ Not knowing that what I was putting on paper was my life. I always thought it was somebody else’s life. I conned myself over and over again.”
Throughout his career, Feiffer has never settled into the mindset of mainstream America, always functioning far on the outside and challenging the wisdom of the national status quo through his comic strips and stories. What has maintained the integrity of his work over decades — and united his adult material with his more recent work for children — is his understanding that children are the consistent counter culture in the country.
Feiffer’s work brings passionate adult rebellion and the natural questioning of the adult world by children into one career — he stands as a challenger to the uninspired norm for any age group.
“Kids at their best are also not mainstream middle America,” he said. “Kids at their best are suspicious of authority, want to have their own way, are in an underground struggle with the parents about values and identity and one thing or another, none of which is mainstream. Mainstream occurs after that battle is over, after the kid inside the kid has surrendered and become a grown-up, and becomes a stable member of society, meaning that you have joined the forces of darkness.”