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Monday, March 29, 2010

Jules Feiffer "Backing" Up at the Museum of Cartoon and Comic Art

These days, if I decide to spend my limited resources on a book, it’s only because I need to read it right away. In this economic wallow we’re in, there’s just no sense in buying something just to take up space unless you’re going to eat it or sit on it. I’ve followed this imperative fairly well, though I long to return to the days when I read books the way the animated animals in “Fantastic Mr. Fox” take their meals: greedily, sloppily and noisily.

But whether in good times or bad, I still would have dropped everything to read Jules Feiffer’s new memoir, “Backing Into Forward” ($30, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday) (See for more information, plus art, reviews, etc.). In my personal Mount Rushmore of cartoonist-icons (Charles Schulz, Will Eisner, Chuck Jones and Walt Kelly), Feiffer may well stand out the most conspicuously for me, if only as a crucial gateway to What Was Hip. Throughout the early 1960s, his drawings disclosed, in elegant, accessible layers, a grown-up world where even superheroes were awkward with women, military leaders were baleful bullies and no politician’s word could be taken at face value.

Over a half-century of cartoon strips, plays, movies and children’s books through which my son came to value him as much as I did, Feiffer has followed his instincts, impervious to catcalls, even from those who otherwise seemed sympathetic to his politics. (Blockheads at both ends of the spectrum often accused him of being “too liberal.” At this hour in our history, I no longer think there’s any such thing.) I’ve never missed a chance to find out through the occasional interview or documentary how he did it for so long and so well. And when I first heard that he was finally getting around to a memoir (from him, in fact, two years ago during a phone interview he gave to me on Newsday’s dime from his Martha’s Vineyard summer house), I couldn’t wait for its appearance.

So far (I’m savoring it, not devouring it), everything seems to be here: Details of his sometimes rocky apprenticeship with Eisner; his tortuous military stint (which, however painful, called forth the masterpiece that is “Munro”); what it felt like to live, love and work in the Greenwich Village of the 1950s; the ups and downs of his theatrical work; the movies (for me, “Carnal Knowledge” – Overrated, somewhat, “Popeye”—Underrated, egregiously) and how he came up with such Feiffer fixtures as the Dancer. There’s also a lot of stuff I didn’t know before, much of it pertaining to his childhood and a mother who, even before the Army kicked his ass, helped honed a hostile edge that remains dangerously sharp to carry around, even/especially for an 84-year-old man.

Some of these stories were told March 24 at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in Lower Manhattan where Feiffer appeared for a standing-room-only slide-show/Q&A with writer-editor Danny Fingeroth. Asked if he did any research for “Backing Into Forward” to clarify or verify what he remembered, Feiffer replied dryly, “Research? I hate homework. What I remembered, I put down and what I didn’t, I left out.” (Is he sure his memory didn’t make up a few things, inadvertently or not? I wanted to ask, but didn’t.) He alluded to his most enduring movie idols, John Garfield (“The Jewish movie star.”) and Fred Astaire (“I had no interest in science-fiction or space travel. Fred Astaire. That was where my real fantasies were!”)

Of course, because it was an audience of comic aficionados, he had to engage in some art criticism and he made some insightful remarks about the artwork of Joe Shuster, who co-created Superman with Jerry Siegel. “It’s primitive and raw,” he said of Shuster’s artwork in the early Action Comics. “But when a punch is thrown, you feel the power of that punch in every panel. And nobody created the illusion of flight with as much simplicity of detail, yet as much force.”

This led to reminiscences of his aforementioned work with Eisner whose facility with creating atmosphere was matched only by Milton (“Steve Canyon”) Caniff. One can find more of these perceptions in Feiffer’s introduction to 1965’s groundbreaking anthology, “The Great Comic Book Heroes.” And he also mentioned the source of his timeless Dancer character, which he traced back to a youthful romance during the 1950s with a real-life modern dancer in the Village. (She’s identified in the book as Jill.)

The movie work also came up for discussion. Fingeroth seemed as under whelmed with Robert Altman’s 1980 movie musical of “Popeye” as most critics at the time were. Feiffer seems very happy with it, estimating that about fifty percent of his original dialogue ended up in the final cut – which, given Altman’s legendary propensity towards improvisation, might have exceeded his grandest expectations.

A few questions were fielded from the audience. With your kind indulgence, I’ll just share my own. I asked how he was able to keep the past so close to him when he wrote this memoir (and, for that matter, the children’s books, most especially his sort-of autobiographical novel, “The Face on the Ceiling.”) Are there any triggers to his memory, such as Proust’s madeleine?

“The triggers,” he replied, “come during the writing. If I’m in the middle of writing something, something else will occur to me that I hadn’t thought about for a long time. It’ll just turn up, completely different from the thing I’m working on at the moment. But I’ll always find a way of saving it and using it for something else along the way.”

So how does he keep up this vibrant activity? How does he keep his edge? It may have something to do with something he writes at the dedication of his new book; an admonition he repeated at the museum: “Do not let your judges define you.”

Gene Seymour

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