Backing Into Forward
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday: 450 pp., $30
Whether newspapers live or die, the prognosis for the comic strip doesn't look promising. The extinction of the form not much more than a century after its birth would represent only a very minor tragedy too, given the rise of the graphic novel -- who would shed a tear for "Hägar the Horrible" in the age of "Fun Home" and "Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth"? -- except it would also mean we no longer live in a world with a berth reserved for the likes of Jules Feiffer.
True, Feiffer created much more than just comic strips. He has written two novels and a handful of children's books, illustrated Norman Juster's children's classic "The Phantom Tollboth" and scripted off-Broadway plays as well as the films "Little Murder" and "Carnal Knowledge." His first collection of long-form comics, "Passionella and Other Stories," made the bestseller lists in 1959, and the animated short based on his military satire "Munro" garnered an Oscar. Yet Feiffer's legacy will be his Pulitzer Prize-winning comic strip, which ran weekly in the Village Voice and in some hundred other papers for more than four decades. As he declares in the expansive, charming memoir "Backing Into Forward," he was, from the start, "heart and soul, a newspaper strip man."
A fearful nebbish born half a year before the stock market collapse of 1929 -- "one of the few boys in the history of the Bronx who lived through an entire childhood without a bone fracture" -- Feiffer floundered in school but repeatedly charmed mentors into supporting him generously. Will Eisner permitted a teen Feiffer to pen scripts for "The Spirit" and then offered him a one-page strip of his own. During the Korean War, an enlightened supervisor of the Signal Corps Publications Agency encouraged the budding cartoonist to write and draw "Munro," his first longer comic-strip narrative, on the government's time.
Feiffer struggled in the early 1950s, pitching strips to syndicates and book publishers between nights out in Greenwich Village, and only out of desperation did he waltz into the offices of the newly founded Village Voice in the fall of 1956. The paper's editor, Dan Wolf, told Feiffer that, sure, they would print his comic strips as long as he didn't expect to be edited or paid for the work.
Telling the tale of his apprenticeships and teenage fantasies, the lusts and terrors of his early adulthood, Feiffer eschews the self-serving approach of some celebrity autobiographers, instead concentrating on just how rudderless he has been. "Time and again," he writes, "I discover how dismally dim I am about myself or how I really feel."
Feiffer trusted just one person: his shrink. Naturally, then, in his Voice strip, first titled "Sick Sick Sick" and later just "Feiffer," he scribbled disarmingly familiar characters batting around the neurotic bons mots and therapeutic jargon of the times. He knew whereof he parodied: In his early 20s, Feiffer reports having been too inhibited even to masturbate, let alone fornicate with a woman, and by the time his comics appeared in the Voice, he had already spent years in therapy, working through the rage and guilt he felt toward his mother, an overbearing fashion designer, and his milquetoast father, whom he describes as "not very significant in my life -- or his own."
Condensed and punched up, Feiffer's neuroses fueled the strips. An early example features Oedipus on an analyst's sofa, speaking in the vernacular ("Did I know she was my mother?"), and a couple of years later Feiffer published what he proudly calls "the first Jewish Mother cartoon," the punch line of which reads, inevitably, "But listen -- so long as he's happy." What Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Mike Nichols and Elaine May laid bare on stages, in other words, Feiffer distilled into his cartoons.
Success followed rapidly, with book deals, a monthly retainer from Playboy and invitations to the ritziest parties. The cartoonist kidded around with fellow artists David Levine and Maurice Sendak, cajoled Hugh Hefner to witness the 1968 Chicago riots up close and personal, and took breaks from stays at Yaddo to visit Bernard Malamud alongside Philip Roth. A pop culture junkie among the intellectuals, self-conscious about his lack of a college education, Feiffer relishes encounters between highbrows and pop stars in which the celebrities win: He gleefully recounts introducing a star-struck Norman Podhoretz, the Commentary editor, to Lauren Bacall, who promptly brushed him off.
The memoir covers vast swaths of time, skipping energetically from Feiffer's political activism to detailed accounts of his creative process to sweet asides about his kids, and then back again. He acknowledges, in three comic-strip pages that close the book, that he has neglected a few salient details, including his testimony at Lenny Bruce's New York obscenity trial. Leaving unmentioned his unremarkable, barely readable novel "Ackroyd" seems prudent, and he presumably avoids revealing much about his marriages for the sake of privacy. Others omissions remain baffling: Why not mention "Tantrum," a 1979 "novel-in-cartoons" that both Eisner and Neil Gaiman have cited as one of the finest graphic novels ever published? Given Feiffer's brutal honesty about his feuds and missteps, such lapses suggest no more than the eccentricity of an artist's memory and the inevitable structural flaws of a book composed in snatches, as Feiffer cheerily admits, between interruptions.
Delightful as this frank memoir is, one cannot help but wonder how much sharper "Backing Into Forward" might have been as an autobiography-in-comic-strips. The book brilliantly captures adolescent confusion and self-loathing, the ambitions and working life of an unconventional artist in an era uncertain about its arts, and the furies of a political radical who watched the United States descend into gloom, but -- as a review in this paper remarked on the publication of Roth's "Portnoy's Complaint" -- when it comes to these subjects, "all of it is better told in a Feiffer cartoon."
Lambert is Dorot assistant professor and faculty fellow in the department of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University, and the author of "American Jewish Fiction: A JPS Guide."