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Jules Feiffer has been drawing and writing—comic strips, children’s books, plays—since the 1940s. His illustrations brought “The Phantom Tollbooth” to life, and his satirical cartoons for The Village Voice ran for more than four decades. Now in his 80s, Feiffer says he is doing some of his best work—in a totally new genre for the artist: graphic novels. His newest is a noir thriller titled “Cousin Joseph,” the prequel to 2014’s “Kill My Mother.” Cartoonist Jules Feiffer joins Diane to talk about his late turn to graphic novels, what satire can mean for the nation and feeling like a kid at 87.
- Jules Feiffer Cartoonist, illustrator, graphic novelist, children's book author, and playwright
Featured Cartoons From "Cousin Joseph"
Excerpted from “Cousin Joseph” by Jules Feiffer. Copyright © 2016 by Jules Feiffer. With permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Jules Feiffer's unmistakable style has been a part of the American landscape of cartoon satire and illustration for more than a half century. Now, at age 87, the artist has given himself a new challenge in the form of a graphic novel trilogy. Feiffer say it's some of the most fun he's had in his long career and represents some of his best work.
MS. DIANE REHMHis newest is noir thriller titled "Cousin Joseph." Cartoonist and graphic novelist Jules Feiffer joins me from a studio in East Hampton, New York. And throughout the hour, I'll welcome your calls, questions, comments for Jules Feiffer, 800-433-8850. Send us an email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Jules Feiffer, it's great to see you again.
MR. JULES FEIFFERDiane, it's wonderful almost being there.
REHMAlmost being here. But at least I can see you and you can see me. You know, the last time you were on this program was on -- in 2010 for your memoir "Backing Into Forward," and now it would seem you've got a whole new career at 87.
FEIFFERWell, when I finished "Backing Into Forward," I just assumed that I was going to back into the sunset and...
FEIFFER...just let it all go. And it didn't happen that way. Once again, once I think I know what I'm doing, I don't.
REHMIsn't that wonderful?
FEIFFERAnd that's really been...
REHMIsn't that wonderful? Well, I want you to know that the producer for today's program, Alex Botti, said she had never had such fun pre-interviewing a guest as she had with you. So clearly, you've still got that.
FEIFFERYes, I think I blew our whole show with her so I'm sorry.
REHMAll right. So tell us how you came to find this new part of you, this new emphasis on graphic novel.
FEIFFERWell, it's -- in "Backing Into Forward," my memoir, I talked and awful lot about my limitations, all the things I couldn't do, basically making choices for me that I had no intention to make on my own. And that's pretty much how it happened. I mean, I was over the age of 80. I was still living in the upper west side of Manhattan and I, increasingly, found that the city, which I had lived in for over 30, 40 years, and adored and loved the challenge and the pace and the sense of coping and the fighting back -- and it goes back to those old Warner Brothers movies when John Garfield would get up from the canvas and say, I'll lick you yet.
FEIFFERAnd, you know, that sense, that Clifford Odetsian sense of making it work and finally reaching your zenith through fight and struggle and all of that. And I had made it work in this city. And then, I found that it wasn't working anymore. I had lost much of my hearing. Walking, which was a great pleasure and also a work tool of mine, I couldn't walk anymore and I kind of limped along, all the things that made the city a joy I could not enjoy any longer.
FEIFFERI couldn't take part in any longer. And every day, when I got up, instead of enjoying the fight, I realized I was losing the fight and I had to somehow escape this endless sense of defeat and rejection, rejection of myself by myself that I was getting every day. I had been teaching...
REHMAnd I gather one way you did that was to move out of the city.
FEIFFERWell, I had been working for some years at Stonybrook South Hampton College teaching a course, a humor writing course called humor and truth. And I loved it and I made a number of friends out there and when I realized I had to get out of the city, I had no place to go that was close enough to keep up my contact with the city because I still had publishers there and I still did some theater. And I had to be not too far away and I thought South Hampton, at first, was the logical choice because it was where I taught.
FEIFFERAnd I started renting crappy little bachelor apartments there, I mean, just awful. But, you know, it's the kind of thing, when you first get out of college and you go into this room and that's where I lived. And I had some assignments for children's books because I was basically -- I was doing mostly children's books illustration and writing stories at the time.
REHMI see, I see.
FEIFFERAnd I loved doing that, but I wanted to do more and I couldn't write for theater anymore, I thought, because, you know, I couldn't hear my own rehearsals. So I thought, what can I do? And I started fiddling around the idea with a noir book. And first, I started writing it without any images in mind and that was boring. So I thought, well, maybe I'll try a graphic novel. And as I started writing it, and writing it in script form as if it was a play or a screenplay cable series or whatever it was, things started popping.
FEIFFERAnd first, what I was doing, which I thought of as, essentially, as just something to do and then that work became more and more involved and more and more ambitious and I just fell in love with it. But I thought that I'm not equipped to draw this way. I don't know how to draw in this style. In my earliest years, you know, (unintelligible) I loved what was then called the adventure strip, the adventure comic strip in newspapers.
REHMOf course, yeah.
FEIFFERMilton Caniff's "Terry and the Pirates" and Roy Crane's "Wash Tubs and Captain Easy" and Alex Raymond's "Flash Gordon," and I wanted to be those guys. And I drew and imitated those guys when I was a kid because I was drawing always, always, always. And I never could master that style. Later, I went to work for my boyhood idol, Will Eisner who did "The Spirit" and he just lamented how badly I drew. I mean, I assumed that if I had a gift for cartooning at all it was not going to be in the field of adventure or realistic drawing.
FEIFFERAnd I couldn't draw cars. I couldn't draw street lamps or buildings or bridges, you know, all that stuff that you need for atmosphere. So I assumed I couldn't draw the book I had written and when I said that to the publisher, he said, nonsense, you have to do it.
REHMNonsense, of course.
FEIFFERDo a couple of sample pages. And I did and at 80, I discovered that I could draw what I couldn't draw when I was 20 or 15 or 18. I mean, suddenly, as always a very slow learning with almost no learning curve at all, I had mastered something that I'd wanted to do all my life.
FEIFFERAnd I can't tell you how happy and relieved and overjoyed I was.
REHMBut now, wait just a minute. You've got earphones on. You are hearing me clearly, I presume, what's happened to your hearing?
FEIFFERWell, the hearing still stinks, but when I have this headset on, which is how I watch TV all the time...
FEIFFER...I can hear. It doesn't work so much in the theater because they don’t have this good equipment.
FEIFFERAnd so I basically stopped going to plays. I mean, I saw "Hamilton," which I loved, and I heard very little of it. I saw Frank Langella in "The Father." They had this kind of headset on, a good one, and I heard it. So that the theaters just don't have the equipment, mostly, that allow me to hear the plays.
REHMSo this book "Kill My Mother," which is the first in your trilogy, you have dedicated to Milton Caniff, Will Eisner, Hammett and Chandler and Kane, John Huston, Bill Wilder, Howard Hawks and Joan Z. Holden. I mean, these are all names that have been part of your life for so long.
FEIFFERYes, yes. Well, you know, it's interesting. I found that the forms I could master early on or learned to master later on, were forms that I loved up until age of 12 or 13. After that, it was up for grabs. But the stuff that made an imprint on me, old-time radio comedy. I mean, I learned how to write funny by listening to Jack Benny and to Fred Allen and (word?) and I mean, I learned so much. I was a scholar of these forms that were pure entertainment to most people and I studied them to see how they did it.
FEIFFERI learned about timing by reading comic strips and seeing how, say, Milton Caniff used words and pictures and then didn't, you know, used silence panels to evoke time and continuity and emotion, how silence creates emotion. I mean, there is such a complicated, wonderful way of expressing yourself and bringing the reader along in these literary comic books, now called graphic novels.
REHMExactly. And what I must say I am enjoying about this, not only the storyline, but the manner in which you have created these characters that I am now involved in. We're going to take a short break here. When we come back, you can join us, 800-433-8850. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
REHMAnd welcome back. If you've just joined us, I'm talking today with Jules Feiffer. He's a cartoonist and illustrator, playwright, children's book author and now, at 87, graphic novelist. His newest graphic novel is called "Cousin Joseph." It's the prequel to his first title, "Kill My Mother." And he is now working on the third in the trilogy, and I must say I love the way you manage to move it forward so quickly. I'll just read one panel.
REHMA woman is speaking, and she says -- okay, she's looking for someone. She is looking for a woman who's very important to her. And she's dressed in a black suit and a black hat with a big, white bow-tie blouse, and she says -- in one panel she says, in each city I've hired detectives to find her. No one has come up with anything. And this Daschle Hammett-like character says, you must have a lot of money to throw around. And she in the next panel says, I'm married to a man who indulges me. And he says, I bet you're used to men indulging you. And she says, you're presumptuous. And he says, that bother you? And she says, not at all, rudeness is also taken for candor these days.
REHMNow you've got all that in just two panels, Jules Feiffer. You've squeezed lots into each panel. What are you thinking as you're doing these?
FEIFFERAh, that's the -- the answer to that is I'm not thinking.
REHMYou're not thinking.
FEIFFERWhat I've learned -- what I've learned over being in the cartoon business for several hundred years is that it doesn't come from the brain, and you don't think it out as you do it. It only works when you develop characters who say thank you very much, I'll take over now. And they start speaking out on their own. And what I do, having lived a life of, you know, of being in this business for many, many years and doing a six- or eight-panel comic strip, what I've learned, forced to learn, is how to be succinct and say a lot at the same time.
FEIFFEROne of my early and most important influences in the second or third year I was doing the voice -- Village Voice comic strip, which later appeared in the Washington Post and other papers, was to -- I was struck by reading Beckett's "Waiting for Godot," and reading the first few pages, I said oh my God, this is a comic book, this is a comic strip. Everything's so simple, and everything's so -- and nobody's saying anything, and yet it resonates, it has depth, it has dimension. How does he do that?
FEIFFERAnd I studied that over and over and over again, hoping that through osmosis I would learn how to say a lot by, you know, by saying virtually nothing or very little. And it -- you know, over the years, gradually you just accumulate the knowledge, the craft, it's all craft, to express these things which you didn't know how to do, and it just happens through your fingers. If it happens here, in my brain, it's not going to be very good.
FEIFFERIf the fingers are in control...
REHMHere's an email from RW, who says, I'm a children's book illustrator. I'm interested in Mr. Feiffer's process. Words or pictures first or together? Or does the process vary by theme or place in the story arc?
FEIFFERWell, the last is probably the best description of what I do. But in fact I don't have a method what -- other than improvising. And I learned an awful lot in -- back in the '50s when I started my comic strip and at one point traveled to Chicago and saw the early version, the early years, of innovators of Second City in Chicago and saw them work onstage exactly as I worked in my head.
FEIFFERYou know, they asked audience for suggestions, and they made things up as they went along, and they followed the process and follow the line that they -- without editing or shutting up, and that's what I did on paper that I'd have an opening line, it would lead to a next line or a third line, and if it didn't, I'd scrap it and go -- you'd do it all over again.
FEIFFERAnd so I learned that the unconscious or whatever it is that works tells you where to go, but you have to listen to it. You can't force it. You can edit it as you're writing it. You can't tell it what to do.
REHMBut you know, I was so taken by the title of the first graphic novel, "Kill My Mother." It sounds like a Hollywood film.
FEIFFERWell, that's what I hoped for. I had the title before I had the book. I thought -- I thought that's a great title for a book. Now what do I do? Because I didn't have characters, I didn't have a story. I didn't know which direction I was going to go on. I knew that I wanted a private eye because I wanted to re-create the Hammett Chandler universe.
FEIFFERAnd I even named the town that these -- I'm sorry, this detective works in as Bay City, which was a Raymond Chandler construct. I know all of his -- all through the book there are references to -- references to things I picked up from reading these guys or the movies that Howard Hawks or John Huston directed all -- they're all full of hidden salutes to these people who were in one way or another my heroes.
REHMSo Jules Feiffer, here's what I'd like to know. This has clearly been so exciting for you to establish a brand new way of delivering your love, your heart, your work, your excitement. What has it done for you?
FEIFFERIt's given me a life. I was, until I started doing these books, increasingly unhealthy. I had recurring health problems. I had pneumonia twice in one year. I had a lot of trouble breathing. I still have trouble breathing, but I handle it. I had -- I mean, I was getting infirm and slowing down and depressed and miserable, and I started doing this work, and it led to a whole new life because it -- I don't see it as work, I see it as a form of play, An extension of what I wanted to do from the time I was nine or 10 years old.
FEIFFERAnd for the first time in my life I'm given the opportunity to do it. So I think it's -- I think of it as a gift that was somehow given to me. That and living here on the east end of Long Island and the friends I've made and the love I've made has made me feel like a boy again, but I better not try out being a boy again because then I discover I'm not. But it's...
REHMOkay, tell me -- tell me now about your ability to walk.
FEIFFERWell, my inability to walk. I can walk a block or a block and a half when I used to walk miles every day. And I walk that block or block and a half with difficulty. And I hate it when I have to go into the city because then I know I have to bring a cane because I'm going to need the assistance of a cane. Normally I don't use one where I live. And all of that, I mean, all of that infirmity, all of that is just what old age does to you.
FEIFFERAnd there are other good parts. I can swim still, and I take inhalers, which keep me going, but, you know, I have all the tools that they give you that allow you to enjoy your age more than one could in the past.
FEIFFERBut most important...
REHMGo ahead, most important.
FEIFFERBut the most important tool I have is this gift of play that I've gotten now in my 80s, and it's a joy because, you know, that -- rather than feeling driven to finish up the work that I've started, and I have to show more, do more, I don't feel driven at all. I just feel happy, and I'm learning things all the time. The -- I start off each page, new page, as the writer of this manuscript that I've gotten typed up. I don't type, and I dictate to a typist and edit it, and there it is in front of me, and I start transferring it to a page, and I transfer the writer's material to the page, and I'm the writer.
FEIFFERAnd once I become illustrating it, I become all the actors, and the actors don't do exactly what the writer had in mind. And as the director, also, overseeing it all, I start cutting and trashing what the writer wrote. So I am everybody making this movie and playing all of the roles that actors and writers and directors play and contradicting each other and combatting each other. I cast my characters as you would an audition, by putting characters on paper who I haven't figured out how to look -- how they look yet.
FEIFFERAnd, you know, one -- if they don't look right, I say thank you, next, and keep auditioning until I have the face and body language, the body model that I want because everybody has a different kind of body and moves in a different way.
REHMExactly. All right, we've -- we've got a number of callers. I want to open the phones here for your fans, who would like to offer questions. First to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Howard, you're on the air.
HOWARDThank you, Diane, it's pretty rare to have two national treasures on radio at the same time.
HOWARDYou are both inspirations to many, many people for different reasons. Jules Feiffer's daughter wrote a fascinating play about -- and I have to assume because the references are too close to his real life, about her relationship with her dad. And it wasn't particularly complimentary. And yet in the acknowledgements she's very specific about thanking her father in the writing of this play. And I'm wondering what that was all about.
FEIFFERWell, my daughter Halley, first of all I have to tell you, is -- started out as a promising and then brilliant actress and then moved into playwriting, which she had always done a bit of but never very seriously at Wesleyan, where she went to college. And more and more she became consumed with the act of playwriting and wrote these semi-autobiographical plays, mostly fictional but in terms of the characters she found and the back and forth but with a core of autobiographical content in it, the way many of us do.
FEIFFERAnd I used to say that when I drew Richard Nixon, I was being autobiographical. And in the play she wrote about the father and the daughter, and I should be shot for this, but I can't remember the title, but Reed Birney, a wonderful actor who 25, 30 years earlier I had worked with, played the playwright, the alcoholic playwright father, who was a drunk and in a very competitive and angry relationship with his daughter, and she was drunk, too, and they went back and forth first in friendly fashion, which drew you in, and then suddenly he turned on her and said these vicious things, and it went back and forth that way.
FEIFFERAnd what was interesting and compelling to me was much of what he said to her in terms of advice about theater and talking about what was going to happen and giving him guidance about productions and one thing or another, were virtually direct quotes out of our past. But I wasn't that drunk. I sure drank a lot, but I was never competitive or hostile to her dreams or ambitions. I promoted it from the beginning, and I always loved it. She was writing a play, and this was the idea behind the play.
FEIFFERShe assured me before I saw it, please don't get upset, it's not autobiographical. Of course the lines were, but the character wasn't.
FEIFFERAnd when I saw Reed afterwards, he was very, very concerned that I might think it was about him, and I said I -- about me, and I said not at all, but I loved it, and I do love it.
REHMGood. And you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. We have another caller, Kyle from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. You're on the air.
KYLEThanks for taking my call, Diane.
KYLEI'm a big fan of the show. Mr. Feiffer, I just want to first say thank you for the inspiration. You and Ralph Steadman and Quentin Blake and other artists I've been following my whole life have helped me to free up the way I draw, and I've been an illustrator now for a while. And I -- we just returned from a conference, a biannual illustration conference, and we're wondering about the future of print media and the ability to just, as artists, have this freedom to draw and write and see it printed on the page and whether that's going to go away.
KYLEOf course we're worried about the -- all of the new media that's coming out, even with virtual reality now adding to video games and digital media and so on. And you've seen this world change, and I wanted to get your thoughts on it or what the future might be or how you feel about what kind of a life printed media will have for artists like myself and yourself, who really just love to draw.
FEIFFERYou're asking the wrong guy because you're talking to someone who calls himself a 19th-century cartoonist and has no technological gifts at all. I can barely use a computer. But I will say this to your question. When I started writing for theater back in the 1960s, when I wrote my first play, "Little Murders," the common thought was theater is dead, it's dying, only commercial theater will exist, only a lot of crap will exist in it and sitcom-style stuff.
FEIFFERAnd at the very moment it was dying, suddenly Edward Albee came along, and Samuel Beckett came along and off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway and Lanford Wilson and Jack Gelber and Arthur Kopit, and suddenly you had a rebirth. When these -- I discovered that you can't kill, no matter how hard you try, forms that people need to express themselves, and the need to express yourself exists no matter how digitalized and fragmented and technological we get so that these digital forms and ways of expressing -- and some wonderful ways of expressing, which I will never learn anything about and don't want to, will go on and on and on, but so will work on paper.
FEIFFERAnd just when you think it's out the window, and you can't do it anymore, and nobody wants it, it will have a rebirth. I mean, that's one of the things I've learned.
REHMAll right, I think that's a great learning and a great transmission to someone who is working in this field. You know, they kept saying the same thing about radio when television came along, and here we are with Jules Feiffer, on the radio, and we'll be right back.
REHMAnd today Jules Feiffer is on the line with me. He has the second in his trilogy of graphic novels, titled, "Cousin Joseph." The first, "Kill My Mother: A Graphic Novel." This is what Neil Gaiman has to say about it. He calls it, "A frenetic, funny, heartbreaking, intricately-plotted, glorious story, as good a book as you're likely to read." Jules Feiffer, what are you aiming to do with this trilogy?
FEIFFERWell, when I wrote the first one, "Kill My Mother," I was only aiming to give myself a good time, and hopefully readers a good time.
FEIFFERBut I had no ulterior motives. With "Cousin Joseph," where I went back to 1931, the early years of the depression, to tell the reader what happens to one of the main characters who's not in "Kill My Mother," who shows up dead on the first page of "Kill My Mother," to show how he died and what happened. Because he's a key character in that first book, although absent.
FEIFFERI found that I was getting more and more interested in the politics of early depression America and the subject of America First, that organization that Donald Trump now has that was a -- essentially an isolationist, anti-immigration, racist organization. And the politics…
REHMIn which Charles Lindbergh was involved.
FEIFFERYes. And the super-patriotic ethos that was informing much of the country and in particular I wrote -- I got interested in how it affected Hollywood and Hollywood movies. And so I created a story about that. And it became really about the different concepts of America. That there was the old guard, who we regretted everything that happened with the New Deal, thought the New Deal was some form of Bolshevism.
FEIFFERAnd wanted to go back and to get rid of every aspect of it. And what do you know, we have that this very day in Trumpism and the various forms of politics in the Republican Party. But that wasn't happening then. That's not what I was writing about. I was writing about then. And then I got more and more into this interesting aspect in "Cousin Joseph" of -- that Norman Rockwell vision of America, not the real Norman Rockwell's vision, but the kind of America that was drawn from it.
FEIFFERAs opposed to the real America, not the mythic America. The real America that people were living in, that had to do with struggle, that had to do with race, that had to do with all the things we know were there and how those two butt-up against each other and how my detective in this book, Sam Hannigan, starts off one way having one view, essentially the -- well, he's head of the Red squad in Bay City. And he has to quell a strike, which he does.
FEIFFERAnd moves further and further into the world of Cousin Joseph, this mysterious figure on the phone, who basically is his mentor and an ideologue who tells him what to think. And Sam buys that thinking until they reach a point where it changes him. And he moves in another direction, or begins to, which then leads to what happens to him. And I don't want to go into that.
REHMOf course not. And here we have an email from Howard in Maryland. "What exactly is the difference between comic strips and graphic novels? In which way are they the same? Is there a dividing line that sets one apart from the other?" Of course this -- these are books, hardbound books. That's certainly one difference.
FEIFFERYeah, the difference is the individual who does it. That's all. The way it is with novels, that you can read one thing called a novel and it's trash. And then you can read something which is a brilliant piece of literary work, which changes your life, and it's art. But it's both print -- they're both are print on paper. Both in terms of form, look like the same thing. But within a page, or for that matter within a sentence, you know the difference.
FEIFFERSame thing, the difference with graphic novels and Marvel comic books or DC comic books, some of which actually are ambitious and more ambitious. It's really about the ambition behind it. And the seriousness that one has in going about it.
REHMAll right. And here's…
FEIFFERThat's all. It's words and pictures.
REHM…a tweet from Faye. She says, "My dad showed me Jules Feiffer's work back in the late '40s. I'd never seen anything like his cartoons. I was an immediate fan." And then we ask, do you see your work as being quite different from the rest of the cartoon landscape or even from other graphic novels?
FEIFFERI don't think of it in those terms. I just think of it as an expression of what I need to say…
FEIFFER…at a particular time and what's the best form. When I was in the -- my hot period of doing children's picture books, I would write the book and then go through my library of old comic strips, old comic books from the 1920s, '30s, going back to Little Nemo by Winsor McCay, and thought, who do I steal my drawing style from for this book, because the writing would tell me. The writing, the text would tell me how it must be drawn. And it would determine the style.
REHMAll right. And here's an email from Helena. She said, "I want to share how Mr. Feiffer had an impact on my life's career. In the early 1970s I was sitting in a large lecture undergrad psyche class required for my then choice of becoming a biology high school teacher. The professor used several of Feiffer's illustrations to show principles of learning theory. I was so engaged by that presentation that I thought perhaps I was more interested in psychology than biology.
REHM"Today, I am a school psychologist, teaching at a university and often think back on how that interest began. Thank you, Mr. Feiffer, for the part you've played."
FEIFFERWell, I'm very grateful for that. Now, I learned to think this way. Not by reading psychology, which I did later on. But when I became a serious novel reader and discovered the Russians and started reading Chekhov short stories and -- but in particular Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, they made me aware of unconscious behavior and the unreliable narrator and all these aspects of contradictions by which everybody lived their lives.
FEIFFERI mean I was reading about 18th century and 19th century Russia, and they were talking about the Bronx, in which I lived in in the 1930s and '40s. And I thought, well, you know, I've got to do something like this. I've got to -- and that's what moved me into using words and pictures to try to capture the brilliant contradictions we all live, you know, I learned at an early age in my life in the Bronx, learned from my parents, learned from my teachers, that people spoke in code. And yet everybody understood what the code was, but if you blew the whistle on the code, if you exposed the code, they'd be furious.
FEIFFERWhen you said you don't really mean this, you mean that, if it was true they'd get angry and deny it. So I -- it turned out I made it my life's work to put on paper what everybody got mad at and make it a form of entertainment, make them laugh at it and try to seduce them into accepting what they didn't like to accept, in terms of a conversation.
REHMAll right. There are lots of folks asking about your play, "Little Murders." Here's an email from Janice. "Does Mr. Feiffer have any thoughts about how is play 'Little Murders' now seems as though it was prescient? I think about that play often in today's world."
FEIFFERWell, so do I, unfortunately. I mean it was a cautionary tale. It wasn't supposed to ever get that bad. And it got that bad.
REHMFor those of us who've not seen the play, tell us a little about it.
FEIFFERWell, the play "Little Murders," and later the movie, is about what I pretended was a typical American family at the time, but a kind of entertainment family, where there's a lot of goody-goody relationships between the perfect mom and the grouchy dad. And she picks on him and he puts up with it. And she's always cooking. She's a housewife and would never think of getting a job.
FEIFFERAnd they have this bustling super-woman of a daughter who is -- goes out and she's a go-getter. And she believes in everything getting better and everything's wonderful, as long as you try and believe in everything. And she has a boyfriend who's a nihilist, who believes nothing is going to happen, nothing's any good. And it's the conflict among all of them that makes the comedy, that makes the play, that makes the social comment.
FEIFFERBecause as they're playing out their family's story, all social conventions are disappearing in our society. All forms of authority are proving that they can't be relied on or trusted. And more and more chaos and murder and forms of violence occur. And this was in…
FEIFFERWell, I wrote the play in February of 1966, just as the Texas tower was happening in Houston. And I -- it got on in 1967 and, you know, it became a comment on the Vietnam War and the escalation of that. I mean, it became an allegory of much of what was going on. And I thought of it always as a post-assassination, a post-JFK assassination play about how that changed everything, that changed the America we were living in.
REHMChanged the whole country.
FEIFFERAnd one way or another I've been writing about that change ever since. And that's what these three graphic novels tend to be going.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Jan, in McLean, Va. You're on the air.
JANGood morning. And thank you so much. I'm just thrilled at the opportunity to thank you, Mr. Feiffer, for writing "A Barrel of Laughs, a Veil of Tears," Because I'm a teacher of 38 years. And for the last 20 I have been reading that book, opening the school year to my third and fourth graders. And I just want you to know that your humor has endured and that story is loved by young and old.
FEIFFERWell, I'm amazed. You know, I never thought third or fourth graders would get it. I thought it was maybe fifth and sixth graders, but I'm delighted. It was my second graphic novel. I'm not, I mean -- I don't mean second graphic. It was my second children's novel. And it was written as an act of desperation. My first book, "The Man in the Ceiling," was about to come out and I was nervous and terrified about what the reviews would be and whether I would be accepted, this boy cartoonist, as a serious children's book author.
FEIFFERAnd in order to stop worrying about it, I forced myself to write this book so that I'd have something real to write -- to worry about it. And that's what came out. And it was wonderful.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And now to Anita, in Detroit, Mich. You're on the air.
ANITAAnd it's a pleasure to be with you, Diane…
ANITA…and Mr. Feiffer. When I was in college in the late '60s and early '70s, I performed in a one-act from the "Unexpurgated Memoirs of Bernard Mergendeiler."
ANITAAnd, yeah, I wondered how much you were influenced by Philip Roth, as well, since it -- for those who don't know, it was a one-act play done in the dark, where Naomi convinces Bernard that sex is dirty. And he says I can enjoy it now, falls on her and the lights go out.
FEIFFERWell, Philip Roth and I were writing about at the same time on some of the same subject matter. When he -- when I was up at Yaddo, this writers' and artists' retreat in Saratoga Springs, he was writing "Portnoy's Complaint" and I was writing "Carnal Knowledge." So we, you know, it was the times that we lived in.
FEIFFERHe wrote hilariously and brilliantly in his own way, in his own style, about some of the things that all of us had on our mind. And you found it also in the works of Mike Nichols and Elaine May. We had different styles and different ways of expressing ourselves, but we had the same subject matter, which was America as life was being lived at that time.
REHMTell me about the third in the graphic novel, where it is now.
FEIFFERWell, the book is written, which means I have a typed text, which I'm transferring -- I'm about page 10 or 11 on doing the artwork, or rewriting as I draw the artwork. And it takes place in Hollywood in 1953. I got the idea for it at the beginning of working on the second book, "Cousin Joseph." It takes place and comes to a conclusion during the years of the Hollywood black list.
FEIFFERWhen I was in the Army, from 1951 and 1953, there was a House Un-American Activities Committee…
FEIFFER…hearing in New York. And I went to hear it when I was on leave. And I heard Jerome Robbins basically confess to the House Un-American Committee (sic) that he was a Red and named names. I later went to a memorial service for an actor named J. Edward Bromberg and heard Clifford Odets come up and give an absolutely inspirational speech. And a week later, turned in J. Edward Bromberg as the man who recruited him into the Communist Party before the -- before HUAC.
FEIFFERAll of these shocking and agonizing events shaped my politics, helped shaped my life and helped shaped my ambition. And I try to get -- deal with all of that in a farcical, allegorical way in the next book, which is called "The Ghost Script." I didn't want to do a documentary or a history of the black list because it's been done and done and done. And "Trumbo" was a wonderful film, but I wasn't going that way.
REHMAll right. Well, I'm afraid we'll have to leave it at that. Jules Feiffer, you've always been such an inspiration for all of us through your youth, and now at 87 you give us all hope for the future, as long as we allow ourselves to express our creativity. Thank you so, so much for joining me.
FEIFFERMight I say, Diane, you give us no less hope. You are (technical).
REHMThank you so much. And thanks, all, for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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