A man in a suit is talking on the telephone under an electricity pole and wire. Another man in a suit stands behind him.

Cousin Joseph: A Graphic Novel by Jules Feiffer

To begin to introduce Jules Feiffer, to any reader of cerebral comics older than fifty, is probably absurd.He has been around so long and played a handful of roles so central to the development of an evolving American comic art that it would be almost easier to define Feiffer without comics than comics without Feiffer. But the strange contours remain fascinating.

So let us try. Comic art took a considerable leap forward with The Spirit, a strip “packaged” by its creator, Will Eisner, for the daily press, and joined through the same creator to the firm Eisner and Iger, which similarly packaged (i.e.,actually did everything but print) comic books for a dozen or more firms during the apex of the field in the 1940s. Teenaged Jules Feiffer worked in this little factory setting, and has, in his way, borne the signs ever since. The Spirit was politically bland and reactionary, but its form was pretty revolutionary, cinematic, and theatrical (Eisner’s father was at times a set-designer for the Yiddish theater in the U.S.), with flowing motion and intriguing backdrops.

Feiffer, who later wrote a great little book of memoirs called The Comic Book Super Heroes, went on to serve in the Army during the Korean War. He created a satirical volume, Munro, about a little boy accidentally drafted and stuck in a military that could not get paperwork straightened out. (I read Munro at age 13 in a “stationary” store in Champaign, Illinois around 1958, sitting in a corner and never buying the book. Books were a sideline in store like this, but they were quality picture books. A vanished world.)

Fast forward to the early 1960s, and Feiffer had been drawing a comic with recurring characters for the Village Voice almost since its first issues, in the middle 1950s. The Voice never seemed to make it to the Midwest, save for sophisticated subscribers, but little paperbacks with Feiffer reprints carried satires of Beatnik life so curious and affectionate that Greenwich Village seemed to call for recruits from the hinterlands.

In quick succession, Feiffer wrote plays, continued to do his comic strips, and became part of a New York intellectual/artistic sect that rebelled against the existing order, albeit with a rising ambivalence toward the young radicals. Possibly, the tension was good for his work, but by the time he checked into the anti-Reagan Radical Humor Festival (my brainchild) at NYU in 1982, he seemed like a member of an ancient tribe still attached to old settings and sentiments. By 1990, he was the old timer on a panel at the Modern Art Museum where relative youngster-publisher Art Spiegelman denounced Pop Art uses of comic art as a crass manipulation and disgrace to good comic art. A few years later, Feiffer was the most famous person in the room at the memorial service of Harvey Kurtzman, founder of Mad and a friend for a half-century.

Feiffer tells us, with the second of a projected three volumes of new comics, that he could never have engaged this massive work without leaving Manhattan. Once a regular at Elaine’s in the Upper East Side, where famous writers met over dinner (few of his erstwhile companions are still alive), he shifted to distant Long Island and set himself to task. Kill My Mother appeared in 2014 and swiftly climbed to the New York Times best-seller list, a rare accomplishment indeed for original comic art. Cousin Joseph, a prequel, has just been released, and the last of the three seems to be due somewhere around the artist’s eighty-ninth birthday. Some longevity!

The critics at the Times and the slick magazines love this stuff, as they naturally would. Feiffer has been a New York celebrity for more than half-century now, and one of their own. I am wondering how many of them have read these dense character-studies closely. I ask because reading them is no easy thing, and without being read closely, they are pretty obtuse.

Said to be inspired by film noir, they are more talky than nearly any comic that comes to mind, or for that matter, the more restrained noir films (accounting for the different use of words in comics and movies). Moreover, they most notably lack narration, the key mechanism that kept the plot in film noir moving along, often through complex characters, psychological confusion, and an abundance of corpses.

They are dark in mood, coloring, and of course, in tone. Some pages appear to be watercolor creations, others not, but the technological advances of the field may render such distinctions moot. Perhaps “ink drawings with wash,” a fairly common artistic phrase, most closely captures Feiffer’s work. Figures actually dancing, almost dancing off the page, are my favorite pages because they recall the modern dancers of Feiffer’s 1950s-60s work: women clad in black leotards dancing neurotically seen by the artist kindly and humorously.

We come to the plot last because the storyline is so tangled, presumably by intent, and the thread often threatens to escape the reader. A private dick of the 1930s is sent on a mission, he has a dame who loves him, and he experiences the common adventures of his trade, like being in fistfights, hanging out in bars with tough guys, encountering mysteries and non-mysteries, and even anti-Semitism. (Jewish writers and actors rarely had the opportunity to deal with anti-Semitism until the 1950s, thanks to the Hollywood version of mainstream entertainment.)

One high point is a labor strike, and it fills six closely drawn pages before being crushed. Toward the end of the book, the arrival of the Second World War notably includes a Fifth Avenue parade of soldiers, which is quite the visual. And finally, there is an unraveling of mysteries in the final pages. Some of the best stuff woven through the plot that is actually rather marginal, has a kid who might even be a young, Jewish Feiffer, more likely a somewhat younger cousin.

This is not a performance that sets me on fire, but it is astounding in so many ways, as well as the envoi of a massively important career in American comics that anyone interested in the field will want to make a determined effort to take in every page and ponder their significance.

 

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Paul Buhle has edited 12 comic art books including Yiddishkeit.


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