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Saturday, March 20, 2010


When I was a wee lad, I borrowed a book called The Great Comic Book Heroes from the local Public Library. It was the first edition of this book, which has since been reprinted. I pored over this book with considerable fascination, as it was my first exposure to the Golden Age of Comics. As a pre-teen boy, I had no conception that there had been any such thing as a Golden Age of Comics. This is the period in the history of the medium corresponding to the end of the Great Depression through the Second World War, and it is the time when all the original archetypes of comic-book super-heroes were first coined. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Human Torch, the Sub-Mariner, Captain America, Captain Marvel (the one who yells “SHAZAM!”), Plastic Man, and the Justice Society of America (not the Justice League, the Justice Society) all first appeared during the Golden Age. So did the first iterations of the Flash, the Green Lantern, the Atom, and Hawkman. For comic books, those were critically important years.

The Great Comic Book Heroes contained reprinted examples of those formative super-hero adventures, including some of the work that came out of Timely Comics. As a matter of history, Timely Comics is the company that Marvel Comics was way back then. Timely became Atlas in the 1950s, and Atlas became Marvel in the 1960s at about the time Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the Fantastic Four. As a pre-teen boy, I couldn’t quite grasp what I was looking at when I saw the early Sub-Mariner and the original Human Torch. For one thing, this Torch wore red and was not one of the Fantastic Four; in fact there didn’t even seem to be a Fantastic Four! (Many years later, writer Roy Thomas had Johnny Storm, the Torch of the FF, switch from the blue-and-black FF uniform design to a red-and-yellow one inspired by that of his predecessor. There are some people who have a sentimental attachment to this version of Johnny’s outfit because it was the first version to which they were exposed. I have less than positive associations with it because it was also a depressing time in the series when Reed and Susan Richards were estranged, Medusa took Sue’s place in the team and wore a similarly non-traditional FF design, and it all seemed like just another hero team, which the FF really isn’t. I was relieved when Reed and Sue reconciled and Johnny went back to the team colors.) And I didn’t understand why the art looked so strange. Compared to the art of people whose work I enjoyed in contemporaneous Marvel Comics, like Jack Kirby, John Buscema, Gene Colan, and John Romita Sr., the drawing style of some of those old comics seemed a bit cartoony. Why does the Sub-Mariner look like that? I wondered. Why were those comics drawn that way?

Nonetheless, I never forgot the experience of reading The Great Comic Book Heroes and the window that it opened for me into the comics from the time before I was born. The reason I bring it up now is that Tuesday, just three nights ago as I write this, I got to hear a speech by, and later meet and shake hands with, the author of that book: the eminent cartoonist, playwright, and screenwriter Jules Feiffer. Jules gave a lecture at The Empire State Plaza, and I made a point of attending. Perhaps it was my small way, like Martin Sloan (Gig Young) in the Twilight Zone episode “Walking Distance,” of laying a claim to a part of my youth. Regardless, on learning that Jules Feiffer was coming to town, I wanted to see him and hear what he had to say.

Jules’s talk actually began about 19 minutes late because he had given another presentation earlier in the day and the people attending had taken him to dinner, which threw off the schedule a bit. But when he did at last take the stage, he proceeded directly into a reading of three chapters of his newly published memoir, Backing Into Forward. It would have been entertaining enough just to read the book, I’m sure, but hearing the author read it made it all the more so.

The chapters that Jules excerpted for us, in comic-book terms, might have collectively been called “The Origin of Jules Feiffer”. They covered his post-college life in Greenwich Village, culminating in his start as a cartoonist for The Village Voice. The first of the chapters he read dealt with his early sex life, his friendship with girls who were his intellectual peers, and his attraction to/pursuit of girls to whom he felt physically attracted, but with whom he had nothing in common. He actually accomplished the mission, so to speak, with young women that he found physically desirable, even though the relationships never amounted to anything. Or so many people would, think, anyway; to me, the enjoyment of and communion with beauty in any form in which you perceive it is a worthy purpose unto itself. (Even if, alas, nature has selected you to be a heterosexual man.) That’s because beauty in all things happens to be one of my absolute core values. But your opinion may vary.

More interesting, at least for me, was his segue into his early professional work in art studios--or, as Jules called it, his “hack work”. To pay the bills and keep himself off the street, he would get himself jobs at art studios and artists’ bullpens where he was expected not to be unique, to do work that was essentially interchangeable with that of the other artists around him. Jules described these people as not truly creative types, but rather a lot of pencil jockeys who were more interested in building lives of middle-class comfort and raising the proverbial 2.5 kids with the wife in the suburbs than in doing anything of real “meaning”. These artistic “Men in Grey Flannel Suits” tended to find Jules vaguely amusing, and enjoyed having him around because he entertained them. Jules didn’t have it in him to be an artist and a 1950s conformist at the same time (that was the decade when he started out), so he would do as he was told, but just to a point. Past that point, he would always start inserting his own individual ideas into what his art directors assigned him to do. As it turned out, the clients of the studios that employed Jules would always enjoy Jules’s non-conforming, individual concepts and his personal sense of humor, which was how Jules was able to keep working. Do I even need to spell out the lesson in that?

Hewing to the structure of the workplace was a problem for Jules. He didn’t like having to get up at a certain time, be at the office at a certain time, and go home at a certain time every day. (Go tell it on the mountain, Jules.) When called out by his bosses, he would tell them that to come up with the ideas that the clients liked, he needed to get up earlier at home and stay later at home in the morning to do brainstorming, and then he would have to go home earlier in the day for more brainstorming. He did his best brainstorming at home. Only the fact that clients actually did like Jules’s ideas kept him from getting the sack more often, and sooner, than he did. But his jobs never lasted because in the long run he would deliberately find ways to get himself fired.

He wanted to stay in a given job for no more than six months, you see, then get himself fired and coast for six months on unemployment and use that time and that money to devote himself to work that really mattered to him. So for a while his life was a cycle of having a job for half a year and being on unemployment for half a year (and going through the demeaning interrogations at the Unemployment Office about what he was doing to find work), which he called his personal “National Endowment for the Arts”. Living in Manhattan in the 1950s before the rents went into orbit, you apparently could actually do that. Jules described his experience with a company called Chartmakers, where he got himself fired by clandestinely going to movie screenings at The Museum of Modern Art during the business day; another artist from the bullpen had been assigned to shadow him and report back. This was someone that Jules actually liked, and considering his own motives Jules found it in himself not to resent this person. But at least it got him what he wanted, and they fired him at his requisite six-month interval.

Next came his experience with book editors, who loved his work as much as everyone else did, but didn’t want to offer him a publishing deal until he was “established”. Jules found himself in the position of needing to be already famous before he could be successful. This reminds me of something that I once read about Hollywood. I forget who said this, but someone once pointed out that Hollywood is a place/industry where no one wants to be the first, but everyone falls all over themselves trying to be the second. In other words, everyone wants to wait until someone else takes a risk before accepting or trying anything. (That tumult you hear coming from California right now is that of every movie studio in town trying to make another Avatar.) This, then, is the story of creative people’s lives. People will always pat you lovingly on the head and tell you what a good little artist/writer/whatever you are, and how much they truly love and believe in what you’re doing--”and we’ll show you lavishly just how much we believe in you and shower you with rewards for what you do, just as soon as someone else does!” It’s enough to make you want to strangle someone.

Well, Jules finally got what he wanted by going to the fledgeling Village Voice shortly after its founding, and offering to do his satirical and political comic strips for them for free to gain weekly exposure throughout New York. Among those who would see his work in print--and getting all that exposure--would be the selfsame book editors who didn’t want to accept what he offered them because he wasn’t already “a name”. See what you have to put yourself through? Jules had to give it away--investing all that time, care, and effort without seeing a cent--before he could sell it! This, while keeping up with his bill-paying “hack work”! At least it did, by the end of the 1960s, start getting him the book contracts he sought, which made him a publishing celebrity and a cartooning pioneer. Many people attribute the beginnings of what we now call the graphic novel to the work that Jules Feiffer did all those decades ago.

Jules talked about some of those early strips he did. One of them in particular sounded intriguing to me. It was called Sick, Sick, Sick, and was the story of a man so compelled to conform to the society around him (remember--1950s) that he actually began to take on other people’s traits and attributes. The whole idea reminded me of that clever Woody Allen movie, Zelig. I may actually have to look this up. Every so often I like to make a foray into comics outside the milieu of super-powered people in tight costumes--you just want to go exploring sometimes--and it’s been a while since my last such adventure. These detours from my usual path have at times turned up things I’ve enjoyed, so my next detour may just be into this Feiffer creation.

After the chapter readings came the requisite Q&A session. One audience member’s question touched on the movie Carnal Knowledge, which Jules originally wrote as a stage play after an experiment in which he wrote part of the play Oh Calcutta! The story of Carnal Knowledge traces the lives of two straight male best friends from college to retirement age, and how everything about their lives changes except their attitudes towards women and sex. In reminiscing about the making of the film, Jules remarked that it was about what he called “the narcissism and misogyny” of heterosexual men, the fact that, as he put it, “straight men don’t like women, they only like the sex that goes with women”. And he actually specified straight men, acknowledging that something exists besides heterosexuality, which not everyone does. (Neil Gaiman also impressed me in the Eternals miniseries when he had Sprite observe that Sersi had had sex with “all the straight male Eternals.” Not just all the male Eternals, all the straight male ones. You can’t take such acknowledgement for granted.) Hearing this from Jules, my ears perked up, my eyes widened, and I couldn’t suppress a smile. For I remembered my own early uncloseting, and my often unkind memories of the straight male friends and classmates of my past. How many times have I thought this very thing, that gay men actually like women better than straight men do? How many times, in fact, have I wished that straight people in general could distinguish liking the opposite sex from wanting the opposite sex? Indeed, I’ve thought more times than I can count that for lack of interest in women’s bodies, relatively speaking, we are free to appreciate women as people. I had this conversation with my old classmate Sven (not his real name) when I came out to him just to shut the coke-snorting pothead dullard up about the supposed women in my life: “We like women better than you do because we don’t want anything from them,” or words to that effect. I’m not proud of this fact, but when I first met The Gaylactic Network--the organization of gay science fiction fans to which my SF group, The Alternate Universe, once belonged--I was happy to have a space in my life where there were no straight men, at least not at the time.

I should hasten to point out that I am not a true heterophobe. I temper my less charitable thoughts about straight men by remembering that the ones important in my life--my brothers, my friends--are “not like that”. The Alternate Universe did admit straight men and I did welcome them, as witness my pal Danny B. in Corinth, NY. And my comic book dealer, a guy as straight as you please, was disgruntled over California banning gay marriage at the same time as Barack Obama won the White House. As Lionel (the late Mike Evans) on All in the Family once gently chided the uncomprehending Archie Bunker, “Don’t condemn a whole group of people for the actions of a few.” But hearing my own sentiments from the lips of the heterosexual Jules Feiffer (who has a 15-year-old daughter), I just had to smile. This man gets it!

For the record, Jules Feiffer’s personal comic-artist heroes include Walt Kelly, Hal Foster, Will Eisner, and Al Capp--at least until Capp went “right-wing” in the later years of Li’l Abner. He loves the work of Frank King, artist of Gasoline Alley. He loves the original Popeye strips of Segar. (He actually wrote the screenplay for the Popeye movie starring Robin Williams and Shelly Duvall.) And he laments the careless, thoughtless throwing out and destruction of innumerable comic strips after they were initially published, depriving the world of a vast treasure of beautifully rendered panel art. (Jules Feiffer, meet a generation of comic book fans who similarly mourn the callous treatment of the original art of Jack Kirby. Somewhere I have an issue of The Village Voice with a cover story about that.)

I topped off the evening by helping myself to the refreshments while other people stood in line for the book signing outside the auditorium, then going up to Jules after everyone else had finished and introducing myself, shaking his hand, and thanking him for my boyhood experience of The Great Comic Book Heroes. Remember, I don’t like standing in lines. The last person I stood in line to see was George Perez at a San Diego Comic Con, and that was because he was doing free sketches and I hadn’t seen him in twenty years! Seriously, you’d have to be Jack Kirby or Gene Roddenberry risen from the dead to get me to stand in a line to see you. So I waited till the book-signing line was gone, and helped myself to what Archie Bunker would have called “the horses’ ovaries” (his malaprop for hors d’oeuvres) to have my moment with Jules. I’m glad I did. I’m glad I took my Tuesday night out and recorded Lost while I was gone, and spent it seeing this inventive and accomplished man who has worked so well in so many different media. And it brought one moment of my boyhood full circle.


  1. Joe, thanks for writing about your experience attending Feiffer's talk and meeting him. What an enjoyable and thought provoking night it must have been. I enjoyed reading it.

  2. Glad you dug it, Joe. Good way to spend an evening.

  3. Great post, J.A. That book was also an intriguing and vital part of my intro to the golden age (which I was just starting to discover that summer, DC having initiated its 25 cent line with golden age reprints in the back). My parents were Feiffer fans--introduced me to his cartoons and took me to see Little Murders.