Jules Feiffer and Neil Gaiman – whose careers have spanned genres that include writing for adults, children, and comics – spent an evening in conversation at the 92nd Y in New York City on May 14. The event celebrated the release of Out of Line: The Art of Jules Feiffer (Abrams, May 2015), a retrospective of the illustrator's career. Gaiman began the evening by mentioning that exactly 62 years ago, the first live public performance of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood was performed in the same space. And “the audience, sitting where you are,” were addressed by an employee who said, “You’re going to have to wait, the playwright is finishing,” as Thomas concluded his work on the play at a typewriter in the green room.
Turning his attention to Feiffer, Gaiman said, “I had a copy of The Explainers [an anthology of Feiffer’s weekly comic strip in the Village Voice, which ran from 1956–66] when I was about five. I didn’t understand a word of it,” to which Feiffer quipped: “Many adults can say that, too.” Gaiman’s early engagement with Feiffer’s work “made me want to do comics.” The author cited Feiffer’s uncompromising vision and the economy of his lines as formative for him. To which Feiffer said: “I’ve influenced many people, but I’ve been influenced by many more,” citing Little Nemo, Mutt and Jeff, and the comics of the 1930s as the work that had had an impact on him.
Feiffer also cited “magical and karmic things” surrounding his birth: in the same month he was born, so too, was Popeye, and the Adventure Strip, where the Tarzan comic and Buck Rogers got their start. To Feiffer, as a poor kid growing up in the Bronx during the Depression, “it was important to find escape, to look for comics with adventure, stuff outside that lifted your spirits.” Reading these comics quickly turned Feiffer to emulate them. The illustrator began “swiping, as it’s called in the trade,” comics: cutting them out and copying them, and then started to make his own. Early on in his career he befriended Crockett Johnson, creator of Harold and the Purple Crayon and the Barnaby strips, who helped him get an appointment at Harper & Brothers to show samples of his art.
Feiffer said he learned a lot when he began to work with Will Eisner. He recalled looking Eisner up in the phone book and went to the listed address, where he found Eisner drawing at a table in a darkened room. “He looked at my portfolio,” Feiffer recounted, “and told me it was rotten. But one thing I learned over the years when I didn’t like where the conversation was going, I turned it on them.... So I turned it on his younger work,” criticizing Eisner’s own early attempts at cartooning, while demonstrating Feiffer’s deep knowledge of Eisner’s body of work. “He was impressed by how impressed I was with him, [and] he had to hire me.”
Gaiman credits the discovery of Feiffer and Eisner’s work in U.K. comic shops during his youth with getting him started on his career. Seeing Feiffer’s script taught Gaiman how to write texts for comics. “I saw a reprint of a script by you,” he told Feiffer. “It was like finding the holy grail. I wanted to write comics, but didn’t know how. I had seen film scripts and plays in books, but never comics.” Feiffer asked Gaiman: “Why, with all the respectable forms of writing did you go for the lowest?” Gaiman responded that it was almost as if “the gutter flows into you, and you look up and think, someday I will reach the gutter.”
Gaiman also shared a story about speaking with a career advisor in his school. When asked what he wanted to do for a career, Gaiman responded “I would like to write American comics.” Feiffer said, “Long pause.” “It was a Jack Benny long pause,” Gaiman responded. “Have you thought about accountancy?” the careers advisor asked Gaiman. “ ‘Shall I show the next boy in?’ I asked. ‘I think you should,’ ” the advisor concluded.
Gaiman then asked about The Phantom Tollbooth. “Did you know when you started you were working on a classic?” “There were two reasons I did it,” Feiffer replied.” Norton [Juster] was my roommate – it was at 153 State Street in Brooklyn. There’s a plaque – recently we did a documentary, and I knocked on the door and it was the same old landlady.” Recognizing Feiffer, she said: “You left some drawings here.”
As Juster wrote by longhand the story that would become The Phantom Tollbooth, he would bring excerpts a paragraph at a time to read to Feiffer, who scribbled as he listened, and the illustrations began that way. Feiffer’s girlfriend at the time suggested that the pair take the book, “not to a kids’ publisher, but to Jason [Epstein] at Random House,” who was starting a new line, Looking Glass Library. “And [the book’s sales] never stopped.”
The pair then fielded questions from the audience, ranging from the various media that they’ve worked in, to satire, growing older (Feiffer: “I’m 86, I don’t want to stop. This is what I want to do forever”) and to trusting the writing process. Feiffer said, “I try not to plan, or I plan and then unplan. I write notes that I then throw out or lose. Organization skills have never been my strong point.”
Gaiman added that he sometimes just has to trust that the book will provide the answer. When working on The Graveyard Book, he started the story with a nursery rhyme, but had no idea how it would end. “But it was waiting for me at the end. It made me look so clever.”
As to what keeps the two working, Gaiman said that he wonders “what else can’t I do? Then I do that.” To which Feiffer added, “And that’s what keeps us happy.”