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Jules Feiffer (1929-)


American cartoonist, novelist, playwright, and screen writer. Feiffer's simple drawings have penetrated modern life, politics and the strange habits of people and attracted attention in newspapers and albums all over the world. His sparse style of drawing has also given rise to numerous imitators.

"The whole point to drawing was to make it up out of your own imagination. Even Father and Indiana Jones was made up. Father didn't say: "Draw me" to Jimmy. He would never have said it. And Jimmy would never have done it, because why be an artist if you are going to waste your talent drawing what was there in front of your nose? It didn't make sense." (from The Man in the Ceiling, 1993)

Jules Feiffer was born in the Bronx, New York City, the son of David Feiffer and Rhoda Davis Feiffer; they were both immigrant Jews. Rhoda Davis was a fashion designer. "Since my father perennially failed at business and his various other jobs didn’t last that long, it was my mother’s three-dollar sketches that brought us through hard times," he recalled in Backing Into Forward (2010). Feiffer began to draw at the age of 6. His early favorites were Flash Gordon, Popeye, and Terry and the Pirates. After studies at James Monroe High School, Feiffer entered the Art Students' League. "I was desperate to be a cartoonist."

From 1947 to 1951 Feiffer studied at the Pratt Institute while working as an assistant on Will Eisner's classical comic The Spirit. For the back page he created in 1949 his first own comic feature, Clifford. Feiffer has said that he grew up presuming the Spirit was Jewish.

During his army time Feiffer made animated cartoons for the Signal Corps. "The army made a satirist out of me," Feiffer wrote in his autobiography. "It didn't make a man of  me, as promised by my sergeants and lieutenants." After return to civilian life he worked at several jobs. Munro, his long cartoon about a four-year-old boy who gets drafted into the Army by mistake, arose partially as a reaction authoritarian structures. The Village Voice began in 1956 to print Feiffer's political cartoons with their uniquely neurotic characters of the Eisenhower-McCarthy Cold War era. The weekly comic strip, usually six to eight panels, was first called Sick Sick Sick with the subtitle A Guide to Non-Confident Living, and then Feiffer.

A number of protagonists appeared in the strip, but among the best known are the modern dancer in black and Bernard Mergendeiler, a victim-hero and psychological wreck devoured by tics and complexes, whom Feiffer depicted with the undertones of self-hatred and self-pity. Other characters are also more or less portrayed with black humour – the spineless men and neurotic and poisonous women. In 1958 several of the strips were published in book form under the title Sick, Sick, Sick. Since then the strips have been reprinted in both hardbound and paperback forms. Feiffer's comic strip antiheroes also appeared in a play, The Explainers, staged at Chicago's Playwrights Cabaret in 1961.

Feiffer's other productions include a novel, illustrations to children's books, and plays. In 1967 he gained fame with the musical comedy Little Murders (1968, also made into film). The play ends with the Newquist family gunning down passing pedestrians from their apartment window. However, he had been active in the theatre for a long time, but his works were usually short pieces in revue form. These include Crawling Around (1961) and Only When I Laugh  (1967). The White House Murder Case (1969) dealt with violence and madness, shifting the scene between the White House and a battlefield where American soldiers fight against Brazil. In the fantasy comedy Knock Knock  (1976) Joan of Arc changes the lives of two elderly recluses. The 1976 Broadway production starred Lynn Redgrave as St. Joan. Grownups (1981) was a marriage drama.

Carnal Knowledge (1971), for which Feiffer wrote the script, was banned in Georgia and subsequently became an issue in the U.S. Supreme Court (1974). In the film Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel are college seniors; their adventures are partly based on the The Village Voice characters Bernard and Huey. The film traces their sexual encounters from the repressive '50s through the free-love '60s. Feiffer had been sceptical about the star of Easy Rider playing Jonathan, a Jew from the Bronx, and a womanizer who uses sexual conquest as a substitute for love. "The first time I do it," says Nicholson, "I want her beautiful. I don't want to waste it on some beast." The director said: "Believe me when I say he's going to be the most important actor since Brando." In the end of the film Nicholson is a nearly impotent chauvinist and Garfunkel a middle-aged hippie. Feiffer was amazed at Nicholson's performance: "My recollection is that Jack got all of the stuff on the first take. Particularly, I remember watching the shacking-up scene. I couldn't believe Jack's directness and simplicity and intelligence. He got everything." (from Jack's Life by Patrick McGilligan, 1994)

Feiffer didn't want Nicholson for the role as a Jew from the Bronx, as the part was originally written. Mike Nichols, the director, fought Feiffer on the casting and finally convinced him to accept the actor. Ann-Margaret won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Bobbie. Popeye  (1980) was based on characters created by E.C. Segar, the most famous of which are a one-eyed, craggy-faced seadog named Popeye, J. Willington Wimpy, who exhibited a love of hamburgers, Swee'pea, Popeye's "adoptid infink", and Olive, his "sweet patootie". Feiffer's animated cartoon Munro won an Academy Award in 1961.

"Cartooning was supposed to be fun. If it couldn't be fun, why do it? If it was going to be a job, like his father's, why put up with it? What was the point of drawing cartoons when the fun was left out?" (from The Man in the Ceiling)

Feiffer's books for children include The Man in the Ceiling (1993), A Barrel of Laughs, a Vale of Tears (1995), Meanwhile (1997), I Lost My Bear  (1998), and Bark, George (1999), originally written for his daughter Julie. A Barrel of Laughs, a Vale of Tears was about a prince, Roger, whose sense of humor is too much for the king and his wizard. Feiffer comments on Roger's adventures, and tells the reader what will happen in the story. In The Man in the Ceiling, Feiffer returned to his own childhood feelings as an aspiring cartoonist – the protagonist Jimmy Jibbett has devoted himself to cartooning and has high hopes about his future. I Lost My Bear tells of a little girl, who experiences adventures while searching for her lost plaything. "The various sizes of Feiffer's hand-lettered scrawls play a crucial part in creating the emotional atmosphere of each scene. The tale is simple and universal enough for the youngest listeners to chuckle over, but it will probably please older readers too, even adults. For, as the recent narrowly averted international Winnie-the-Pooh crisis demonstrates (the original stuffed animals were threatened with leaving New York's Donnell Library Center and being returned to England), the appeal of the bear has nothing to do with age. Feiffer thus appears timely in topic and engagingly empathetic in knowing that a teddy bear is far more than a plaything and that certain children's toys are well aware of what is in the hearts of their owners." (Krystyna Poray Goddu in The New York Times, May 17, 1998)

In 1961 Feiffer married Judith Sheftel, a film production and publishing executive. They had met through the British theatre critic Kenneth Tynan, hired by The New Yorker to review plays. The marriage ended in divorce in 1983. With his second wife, the journalist Jenny Allen, Feiffer cooperated on The Long Chalkboard (2006), for which he created the illustrations.

As political cartoonist Feiffer was particularly unyielding in his attack on President Johnson's Vietnam politics and on Richard Nixon, who was his most constant target. One strip showed President Johnson looking from his Oval Office at peace demonstrators, who are dragged away by the White House police. "Freedom of speech is one of our most precious liberties," says the president. "Yes, Mr. President," answers Dean Rusk. In 1986 Feiffer received the Pulitzer Prize in editorial cartooning and in 2006 he was honored with the Benjamin Franklin Creativity Laureate Award. After 40 years of work in The Village Voice, Feiffer left the magazine in a salary dispute. Disillusioned with political affairs, Feiffer stopped making political cartoons in the late 1990s.

For further reading: Out of Line: The Art of Jules Feiffer by Martha Fay, Jules Feiffer and Leonard S. Marcus (2013); 100 Years of American Newspaper Comics, ed. by Maurice Horn (1996); McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of World Drama, Vol. 2, ed. by Stanley Hochman (1984)

Selected works:

  • Outer Space Spirit, by Will Eisner, Jules Feiffer, and Wally Wood, 1952
  • Passionella and Other Stories, 1957
  • Sick, Sick, Sick, 1958
  • The Explainers, 1960 (play)
  • Crawling Arnold, 1961 (play, staged at Spoleto's Festival of Two Worlds)
  • Boy, Girl, Boy, Girl, 1961
  • Feiffer's Album, 1963
  • Harry, the Rat with Women, 1963 (novel)
  • The Great Comic Book Heroes, 1965 (ed.)
  • Feiffer on Civil Rights, 1967
  • Feiffer's Marriage Manual, 1967
  • Only When I Laugh, 1967 (play)
  • God Bless, 1968 (play)
  • The Unexpurgated Memoirs of Bernard Mergendeiler, 1968 (play)
  • Little Murders, 1968 - Film 1971, dir, by Alan Arkin, starring Elliott Gould, Marcia Rodd, Elisabeth Wilson. A revenge story where a young photographer rises above all the urban horror of New York life, but when his wife is killed by a sniper, he takes to violence.
  • Feiffer's People, 1969
  • The White House Murder Case, 1969 (play)
  • Carnal Knowledge, 1971 (screen play) - Film directed by Mike Nichols, starring Jack Nicholson, Arthur Garfunkel, Candice Bergen, and Ann-Margret. A college student embarks on an enthusiastic and varied sex life but by middle-age finds his life empty and boring. Jack Nicholson and Arthur Garfunkel were too old to play themselves as teenages, but Ann-Margret had Academy award nomination.
  • Feiffer on Nixon: The Cartoon Presidency, 1974
  • Knock, Knock, 1976 (play)
  • Ackroyd, 1977 (novel)
  • Hold Me! An Entertainment, 1977 (play)
  • Tantrum: A Novel in Cartoons, 1979
  • Popeye, 1980 (screen play from characters created by E.C. Segar) - Film directed by Robert Altman, starring Robin Williams, Shelley Duval, Ray Walston and Paul Dooley. Popeye returns to Sweethaven in search of the father who abandoned him. The musical was based on E.C. Segar's classic comic strip. Originally the title part was offered to Dustin Hoffman. The Pirate's Cove sequence used the large special-effect tank at Kalkara that was previously used in The Bedford Incident (1965) and Orca (1977). The movie village of Sweethaven was built on the northwest coast of Malta. Bridget Terry's book The Popeye Story (1980) gives production background.
  • Grownups, 1981 (play)
  • Jules Feiffer's America, from Eisenhower to Reagan, 1982
  • A Think Piece, 1982 (play)
  • Marriage Is an Invasion of Privacvy, 1984
  • The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, 1988 (illustration)
  • Ronald Reagan in Movie America, 1988
  • The Collected Works, vol. 1.-2, 1989
  • The Collected Works, vol. 3, 1990
  • Eliot Loves, 1990 (play)
  • The Man in the Ceiling, 1993
  • Feiffer's Follies, 1993
  • A Barrel of Laughs, a Vale of Tears, 1995
  • Selected from Contemporary American Plays, 1996
  • Meanwhile, 1997
  • 5 novels: The Boy from Mars, Slave of Spiegel, the Snarkout Boys, the Avocado of Death, Last Guru, 1997 (with Daniel Pinkwater)
  • I Lost My Bear, 1998
  • Bark, George, 1999
  • Some Things Are SCARY by Florence Parry Heide, 2000
  • The Long Chalkboard, 2006 (illustrated by Jules Feiffer)
  • Explainers, 2008 (ed. by Gary Groth)
  • Which Puppy? by Kate Feiffer, 2009 (illustrared by Jules Feffer)
  • Backing Into Forward, 2010
  • The Odious Ogre, 2010 (with Norton Juster)

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