octogenarians are slowing down, settling into the
freedom of retirement — but not Jules Feiffer.
Instead, the playwright, illustrator, screenwriter and
Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist went back to the
drawing board — literally — to tackle a whole new
art form: the graphic novel.
having known how to work in this style, suddenly in my
80s, I discover I can," he says by phone from his
home on Long Island, N.Y. "I was both shocked and
appalled that I had assigned myself this 2 1/2-year job
of drudgery. It turned out to be fun, but at the time I
thought, ‘This is impossible, what am I doing?’"
result is his new graphic novel, "Kill My
Mother" (Liveright: 160 pages, $27.95), a noir tale
of dames and drunkards, wannabes and heroes, animosity
and motherhood. It leans an elbow on the bar of the
classics of pulp fiction and film: The story takes place
in Bay City, a Raymond Chandler locale; a fight includes
a line from "The Maltese Falcon"; and some
very bad things happen in Dietrichson Park, named for
Barbara Stanwyck’s character in "Double
more than 50 years, Feiffer has been the nation’s cool
creative older brother — charming, slightly cynical
and a few steps ahead of the culture. In the
rule-following 1950s, he questioned authority by
satirizing the military in his comic "Munro,"
which became an Oscar-winning short; in the 1960s, he
analyzed analysts, celebrated bohemians and eventually
prodded hippies with his quavery-lined editorial
cartoons in the Village Voice; in the 1970s, he took the
sexual revolution to uncomfortable extremes with
"Carnal Knowledge," which he scripted.
were a big influence on "Kill My Mother," as
were the other pop culture influences he was taking in
before he began creating his own. "It returned me
to a love I had of adventure comics and mysteries and
noir that I’ve had since even before I was a teenager,
stuff that I adored," he says. "Going full
circle in your dotage is nothing but fun."
asked if he is really in his dotage, he laughs and
assures, "I am in full dotage."
My Mother" was the first time in his seven-decade
career he’d tried to capture the filmic imagery of
noir on paper. "All noir demands street scenes,
cars at night with headlights, pouring down rain,"
he says. "I knew that I had to do that, I just didn’t
know how I was going to craft it, how I was going to
make it look convincing. Learning how to do that,
figuring it out, was both scary and very exciting."
there’s more to "Kill My Mother" than
(entirely delightful) noir nostalgia; it has a tightly
built, surprisingly contemporary plot and a style all
its own. Feiffer’s lines, as always, tremble, or
perhaps vibrate is better — the story drives ahead
with washes of grays and light yellows that evoke a
black and white film plus a little extra. There is
almost constant motion.
I get a chance to dance on paper, I adore it,"
Feiffer says. He did this with the modern dancer who
regularly appeared in his editorial cartoons; most of
the characters in "Kill My Mother" are
fleet-footed, including a boxer called the Dancing
there’s more dancing in his charming new children’s
book, "Rupert Can Dance" (Michael di Capua/Farrar,
Straus and Giroux: 32 pages, $17.95, ages 3-6), about a
girl and her cat who both dance. His East Hampton house
has two cats — an older one, whose tail he pulls, and
a younger feral adoptee who flirts but keeps her
moving to the Hamptons, Feiffer lived in New York City
for more than 50 years. "Four or five years ago I
found that the city was no longer lovable because it had
outlasted me," he says. "I could not walk the
way I used to, I couldn’t hear the way I used to, and
basically all the things that made the city possible and
exciting and a stimulating place to be now made it
and raised in the Bronx, Feiffer got his start as a
teenage apprentice to cartoon legend Will Eisner, then
was drafted into the Army. After he got back, he offered
his cartooning services to the newly established Village
Voice, which at first paid him nothing.
he remembers those days in the 1950s his Bronx accent
slips out — he was living on the second "floh-wah"
(floor) in Brooklyn Heights when he met his downstairs
neighbor throwing out the garbage. They became roommates
and Feiffer’s friend, procrastinating, read a story he
was writing aloud, and Feiffer began to draw.
never asked me to illustrate and I never thought about
doing it, it just evolved — he took it for granted and
I took it for granted. That’s how it came about,"
Feiffer says. "He" was Norton Juster, and the
result of their unplanned collaboration was "The
Phantom Tollbooth," the now-classic children’s
real children’s book editor would have said: too many
words, too complicated, kids won’t like it, they won’t
understand it, this is not a kids book," Feiffer
says. "It’s just one more example — as if we
need these examples — if you believe the experts you
almost always get into trouble."
is an essential component of how Feiffer views the
world. His older sister was a communist (dramatized in
his play "The Bad Friend") who was
disappointed he didn’t turn out to be party material;
a cousin was red-baiting Joseph McCarthy aide Roy Cohn.
Between those poles, questioning authority may have been
the only sane choice. When his Village Voice cartoons
became a venue for his social conscience, he was willing
to cast a critical eye at the Left, the Voice’s
is now — at 85 — at work on the "Kill My
Mother" sequel, which will actually be a prequel.
He hopes his editor likes it. "I’m living in a
house with a swimming pool for the first time in my
life, and I want to keep it," he says.
a lousy swimmer," he continues, laughing, "so
I’m afraid if I go into the pool over my head I’ll
drown. I used to be 6 feet one-quarter inch and now I’m
5-foot-10." Another hazard of age. But he’s OK
with that, and then some.
I go on the way I hope to," he quips. "I’ll
be only 5 feet."