We in the comics world do not devote enough attention to the treasure who is Jules Feiffer.
I first encountered his work in the Sunday newspapers of my boyhood. where his Feiffer feature appeared weekly. I bought his 1979 proto-graphic-novel, Tantrum, and the next year I hied myself to the local cineplex to see Robert Altman’s film Popeye — lovingly written for the screen by Jules Feiffer. His 1993 illustrated novel, The Man in the Ceiling, was one of my memorable late-20th-Century reading experiences; a story about a boy who dreams of creating comic books, it strongly resonated with me, to the point where many friends and family members received copies as Christmas gifts that year. I delighted in his string of early-21st-Century children’s books with titles like I’m Not Bobby! and The House Across the Street. A decade ago I came full circle and bought Fantagraphics’s complete collection of Feiffer’s Village Voice strips that were the precursors to the material I first read as a youngster.
While Feiffer has devoted much of his career to drawing cartoons featuring normal, everyday men, women, and children and has rarely intersected with the adventure comics that remain at the heart of the business even today, it’s always been clear to me that Feiffer is One of Us, a comics geek who embraces the warp and woof of the medium and has absorbed the same “classics” that we have. If we had ever had the chance to share a drink with some of the notable talents with whom Feiffer has rubbed elbows — with Altman or Gay Talese or Mike Nichols — what would we say to them? What would we have in common with them? Ah, but if we had the opportunity to bend an elbow with Jules Feiffer, the conversation would likely flow faster than the bartender could fill our glasses. We’d talk about our favorite Caniff Terry and the Pirates sequences — compare and contrast the work of E.C. Segar and George Herriman — pull out of him the stories from his youngest days, just starting out in the business, when he assisted Will Eisner on The Spirit.
I understand that the odds I’ll ever shake hands with Feiffer are small, but I have been lucky enough to renew my acquaintance with him through his most recent works. I am taking this space to unreservedly recommend them to you. His two interconnected graphic novels, Kill My Mother and Cousin Joseph, are wonderful accomplishments that remind us anew of their creator’s singular talents.
These narratives span the 1930s through the War-years ’40s, following a cast of characters in a pair of noir stories primarily set in Bay City, California (a fictional locale based on Santa Monica that was originally created by Raymond Chandler, who used it in novels like his enduring classic, Farewell, My Lovely). Some of Feiffer’s cast die, some survive to change and, after a fashion, grow — in the best hard-boiled traditions, there are no perfectly happy endings. There are examinations of race relations and Depression-era union organizing (as well the exploration of Communism undertaken by several working-class Americans of the day), a brush-up against the early days of Hollywood, and a view of the way radio took hold as a mass-entertainment medium during this period in our history.
If you get the feeling these are ambitious works, you are right on the beam.
While still unmistakably the work of Feiffer, these books are laced with homages to the creators and fictional landscapes their creator so clearly loves. The hard-boiled themes of Cousin Joseph recalls those of Hammett and Chandler; Kill My Mother features is a touch of the salacious, in the best James M. Cain tradition. And if you think Feiffer ignores his favorite cartoonists, well, take a look at these excerpts:
What’s the civilian name of Eisner’s Spirit? Oh yeah, Denny Colt …
In his “Acknowledgements” at the back of Cousin Joseph, Feiffer tells us, “I found … a new career as a graphic novelist (no more than an extension of the adventure newspaper-strip cartoonist I wanted to be as a boy), [and it] now brings me as much or more pure joy than at any time in my life.”
That joy shows through in every page of these two books. And good news for readers everywhere, Feiffer has a third book in the series, titled The Ghost Script, slated for publication this summer. I guarantee I’ll be there, ready to gladly part with my money, the first day that new work goes on sale. There is still ample time for you to read Kill My Mother and Cousin Joseph and join me when The Ghost Script hits brick-and-mortar and on-line store shelves.