“It’s truly been a labor love on every level,” said Jules Feiffer, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, author and award-winning screenwriter and playwright, about Kill My Mother, his first original graphic novel, slated to be published in August 2014 by the Liveright publishing division of W. W. Norton. In an exclusive interview with PW, the 84-year old Feiffer talked about working on the book and, essentially, what a kick it’s been for him.
Kill My Mother is Feiffer’s homage to the classic noir and detective movies of the 1930s—think the Maltese Falcon or Double Indemnity. In addition the book has reconnected Feiffer to his first culture heroes: pioneering comic book and newspaper strip artists such as the late Will Eisner, whom he worked for as a teenager in the 1930s during the early days of the American comic book industry.
“Kill My Mother embodies all the things I loved as a kid,” Feiffer said during a phone interview from his home on Long Island. “Now in my 80s, in my second or third childhood, I’ve come back to the noir influence,” he said. “When I was 9, 10, 11-years-old, I loved newspaper adventure comics strips like Eisner’s The Spirit. I loved them and emulated them but I found that while I could write in the noir mode, I couldn’t draw like that—the moody atmosphere, the cars. I was inept.” Feiffer said his inadequacies as a draftsman led him to social satire, which “made me famous. So, no complaints, but I longed to do this kind of work.”
The book is full of the stock characters of the classic noir detective genre—there’s the drunken loser of a private eye, a long-suffering but resourceful widow and her plucky teenage daughter (who also happens to hate her), prize fighters, tough guys chewing on cigars and, of course, a beautiful and mysterious woman. But the characterizations, relationships and, notably, the dialogue he’s created—a Feiffer specialty—are anything but stock in what is shaping up (PW got a sneak peak of the first 60 pages) as a lively and personal recreation of the noir genre in comics form.
For research, “I’ve got a 63-inch TV. Turner Classic Movies will get an acknowledgement in the book," he cracked. But the book also offered Feiffer some formal challenges. For his classic satirical comics (his Village Voice strip ran for 35 years) the Feiffer drawing style usually places a dynamic or static figure-drawing on an abstract field—“people in the act of explaining, rationalizing or lying,” he said—without conventional comics panels. But noir requires detailed settings. “Noir requires action and atmosphere, rain, fog, headlights and shadows against the wall,” Feiffer explained, “it turns us on. You see it in TV, movies and cable shows. It’s expressionistic and effective and you need comics panels to do it.”
While the book is drawn with Feiffer’s characteristic gestural line, Kill My Mother also offers a muted palette of grey ink washes and a large cast of “very defined characters who are all antagonistic to one another—betrayal lurks everywhere in noir,” he said with obvious delight. The book’s plot is based around a family—the teenage daughter hates her widowed mother, though years later they become friends—a key theme also found in Feiffer’s prize-winning plays. “The most important characters in the book are female and that’s unusual in noir, which usually only features the femme fatale,” Feiffer explained, “but their relationship leads to complications and the mother finds herself in new situations, much like in my plays. It’s allowed me to force feed myself into the noir world.”
Asked if he’s had any problems producing the book, Feiffer laughed and said, “age!” and noted he lost of month of working time after dental surgery. But he also emphasized “even in my dotage I’m having as much fun doing this as anything I’ve ever done.” He’s already planning a sequel, to be called Hooray for Hollywood. Asked about the ironic possibility that Kill My Mother, created in homage to classic Hollywood movies, might end up optioned for a contemporary movie deal? Feiffer just chuckled and said, “let’s hope so!”