Cartoonist Jules Feiffer didn’t feel confident enough to publish his first original graphic novel until he was in his 80s (he’s now 85). Over the decades, he’s worked in a staggering number of formats: he created Feiffer, a long-running Village Voice strip (recently collected in The Explainers from Fantagraphics), and he wrote the 1967 play Little Murders (adapted into film by Alan Arkin in 1971) and the screenplay for Robert Altman’s Popeye (1980).
At age 50, Feiffer wrote Tantrum, a “cartoon novel,” as he puts it, or a “novel-in-pictures,” in the words of his publisher, about a 42-year-old man who is transformed into a two-year-old boy. The book split the difference between his native comic-strip style and that of the graphic novel. But until Kill My Mother (Norton/Liveright, Aug.), he hadn’t fully embraced the graphic novel format.
It’s not for lack of experience with the medium. When Feiffer was 16 years old in the late 1940s, he began working as an assistant to cartoonist Will Eisner, creator of The Spirit, an innovative newspaper comic strip that revolutionized the comics medium (Eisner was also a pioneer of the long-form graphic novel). Feiffer parlayed that gig into Clifford, his own single-page strip. He admits that he was—and is—in awe of cartoonists like Eisner and Milton Caniff, the artistsbehind the beloved newspaper adventure strips Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon.
“Very early on,” Feiffer says, “I learned to my dismay that, while I adored Eisner and Caniff and would have liked nothing more than to have become them or to succeed them, I couldn’t draw the way they did. I didn’t have the facility with the brush and pen that they did, and I couldn’t do backgrounds and layouts the way they did. Every visual gift that they brought to the table that made their work exciting, I lacked entirely. I couldn’t come near any of it. I tried.”
Feiffer now sees those setbacks as the catalyst for the unique sketch and gestural inking style that has come to define his work on kids’ books, including Passionella, the 1959 Cinderella satire, and The Phantom Tollbooth, Norman Juster’s classic. “The truth is that the Feiffer cartoon—the social satire and the relationships [with authors] and all the things that made me famous—was initially a backup decision,” Feiffer says. “It’s what I decided to do because I wasn’t good enough to be Eisner and Caniff.”
The Village Voice offered Feiffer a comic strip in 1956 that allowed him to develop as a writer and become a leading voice of the burgeoning counterculture of the late 1950s and early ’60s. “I was part of a then-unknown small phalanx of mostly cabaret talent, beginning with Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, and Second City in Chicago,” Feiffer says. “This all happened within a couple of years. Before that, the humor was essentially from World War II or before. There was no such thing as social commentary in the cartoons in the New Yorker. They had great cartoonists, but they weren’t commenting on the politics or the social morays of the time.”
Feiffer’s strip gave the cartoonist a very public forum in which to develop his signature style. “The writing style was always in place,” he says. “That developed and improved, of course, but, essentially, a reader of the first strips in the first few weeks would be able to make a connection to what I was writing 10 years later, although he or she would not be able to recognize the drawing style. It was all different, and, week by week, it changed because I was floundering. The only way I could do it was to try something, see how it looked in the paper, and move on from there.”
The approach worked. Feiffer ran in the Village Voice for 42 years and earned the artist a Pulitzer Prize in 1986. In 1961, Feiffer won an Academy Award for his work on Munro, the Gene Deitch–directed animated short, and he has since been elected to the Comic Book Hall of Fame and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Writers Guild of America. It wasn’t until the late ’90s, when his Voice strip drew to a close, however, that Feiffer began to move toward creating the sort of work that had sparked his initial love affair with comics.
“The big evolution came when I moved out of the weekly comic strip and into writing and illustrating my own children’s books, particularly in color,” Feiffer says. “Illustrating my own books in color required a whole different approach than the cartoon did, and what I found through my life as a cartoonist is that how I work is governed entirely by the words and pictures that I write and draw. So, if the story I’m telling requires another look, another style, another approach, essentially I either have to learn to do it in that style or hire somebody else to do it.”
Feiffer is the author of a long list of acclaimed children’s books, among them, Bark, George; I Lost My Bear; and Rupert Can Dance, coming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in August. The new book reunites Feiffer with editor Michael di Capua—it’s the 11th title they’ve worked on together. Feiffer says that children’s books opened a new world of possibilities for his art, helping him to come up with Kill My Mother, arguably his most ambitious project to date.
In Kill My Mother, Feiffer plays with the conventions of the hard-boiled detective films of the 1930s and 1940s. “When I was a kid of eight, nine, and 10,” he says, “movies started coming out in a style that we now call ‘noir,’ directed by people like John Huston, Howard Hawks, and Billy Wilder, and very much informed by the writers I was reading at the time: Hammett, Chandler, James M. Cain. None of this [style] has ever entered any of my other works. Yet it was something that I’ve always loved and essentially stumbled onto in my 80s.” Feiffer says of Kill My Mother: “It looks different. It smells different. It’s done in a different style.... My [other cartoons] have no backgrounds in them. This book... has backgrounds and rainy streets with reflected light.”
Feiffer says he began the project with the title and a general desire to embrace the genre, then invested in a 65-in. TV to soak in period imagery from Turner Classic Movies and researched photos via Google. What developed was a complex plot involving the interwoven stories of several troubled characters—including, notably, a number of women. “I found myself centering on the female characters in the book, even though private eye stuff is [usually] all about men, and the women are just appendages or bad girls.”
Kill My Mother features a succession of classic noir characters. There’s the washed-up private eye; a plucky widow; a difficult, headstrong daughter; and a parade of prizefighters, crooked cops, and mysterious beautiful women—stock characters revitalized by Feiffer’s clever plotting, witty dialogue, and a surprise ending that delivers a bit of sex and shock value for good measure.
Feiffer and his editor at Liveright were so delighted with the results that the author opted to make Kill My Mother the first installment in a trilogy. He’s already begun work on the sequel. “It’s what I’m mostly going to do from now on,” Feiffer says, adding that the project has made him as happy as anything else he’s done so far. “It takes me back to what I loved as a little kid. And, when you’re 85, how nice it is to return to doing what you loved in the first place. For the first time, I have the career I planned at the beginning.”