Arts Desk

The Quotable Jules Feiffer: Highlights from the Cartoonist’s Talk at Politics and Prose

julesfeifferJules Feiffer spoke to a full, mostly gray-haired audience yesterday at Politics and Prose, after appearing on "The Diane Rehm Show" earlier in the day.  He read from his Backing into Forward, his new autobiography (pages 80-84, to be precise, and you can buy a CD recording from the bookstore if you want to hear him reading it) and then took questions. After the jump, some highlights from the question session:

"I needed the motivation [to read] and what school couldn't give me and never gave me, the form of comics gave me... and that love and devotion for the form has never left me, not to this day."

"The '50s and '60s was this time when all sorts of things were breaking out and the culture, this Cold War society which we lived in which was so repressive in so many ways was establishing leaks...  One of the things that opened up comically was the comedy of Lenny Bruce, and Lenny was impossible to understand unless you saw him in the flesh, which was very different from seeing him on film, or video, or hearing the records. Lenny was an extraordinary performer and a rather sexy presence on stage who talked about ... the culture and relationships and sex and was quite graphic about it, and he affected a whole generation of writers. I mean I have serious questions about whether Philip Roth would have the nerve to to write Portnoy['s Complaint], and I know certainly  I would not have had the nerve to think of Carnal Knowledge without getting permission from Lenny—his work opened the door for me."

"That particular thing that I thought was not being commented on I thought at the time [of Carnal Knowledge] was that heterosexual men did not like women. They liked sex, they liked to play around, but they'd rather hang out with the guys. They wanted to have the women to have the sex with, but then they wanted the guys to talk about the women they had the sex with."

"I had countless influences as a kid, from Segar's Popeye, which I later had the good fortune to write the screenplay for with Robin Williams. Popeye has a wonderful cartoony simplicity, but a great build, a great narrative structure and wild anarchic humor which was every bit in keeping, and every bit as good as what you saw on the screen in those years with the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields. He was a total original, E.C. Segar."

"Later on when I got older, and moved more directly into an interest in satire, I became much more involved with the early work, the underground work of William Steig, unacceptable to the New Yorker, but appearing in books like The Lonely Ones and The Agony in the Kindergarten... the great Robert Osborne, one of the great illustrators of all time in the cartoon form, who had a powerful heavy line and a graphic simplicity that was unadorned and very evocative.... Saul Steinberg, Andre Francois and Walt Kelly's Pogo..."

"I think most of the interesting work [in cartooning today] is done in the alternative field—Chris Ware, Craig Thompson of Blankets, David Small's book Stitches which is an extraordinary piece of work, Dan Clowes, Jeff Smith... there's just wonderful stuff being done today, but you just don't see it in the newspapers. Patrick McDonnell in Mutts is still charming and beautifully drawn and Trudeau remains Trudeau and to this day. I don't understand how he does it. Political cartoonists—you've got Tom Toles here in this town who is unrivaled, there's Jeff Danziger who's in syndication, there's the great Pat Oliphant, there's Tony Auth in Philadelphia and Nicole Hollander is still doing Sylvia in Chicago and it remains brilliant."

"[My graphic novel] Tantrum changed the way I drew, because up until then, and quite unhappily much of the time, I would draw my strips first penciling them out in pencil, and erasing and penciling and then inking them over, and almost never was I satisfied at the finished product because it looked too worked on and I wanted something that looked more immediate, and I faked immediacy. I would try to get a line that looked as if I hadn't traced over a pencil line. And with Tantrum, because it was such an ambitious project, it took over 100 pages, and all of it with backgrounds—I hate doing backgrounds—that I said I can't pencil it, I'll never do it. So I started inking straight away with one of these Pentel Rolling Writers on bond paper and it came out. I loved what I was doing. I liked the line better than anything I did in my regular weekly strip so I converted that to the strip. By that time we had photocopy machines that could blow things up, and reduce them, and had great quality, so I did my finished strips on scraps of paper, cut them out when I did a drawing I liked, laid it out, pasted it up and that's how I did it. It took much longer than when I penciled it, but the finished art looked much better. Now, unfortunately, thirty years later, those paste-ups have all disappeared, and the artwork is just brutalized and that's a shame. The original art is no longer worth looking at."

When asked the standard 'how do you get your ideas?' question, Feiffer said: "Oh Jesus Christ. I'm a cartoonist. Have you ever met cartoonists? They are weird people and they don't think like anyone else and they like not thinking like anyone else, but they wonder why they don't meet more girls that way."

When asked about Robert Crumb's Genesis: "He did a very beautiful book, and it's a beautiful graphic piece of work, but going back 45 years, I never liked Classics Illustrated or Classic Comics. I think that the roll of a cartoon is to be more anarchic and to be wilder and Crumb in his dotage, seems to be straightening out... on the other hand, a wonderful cartoonist named Peter Kuper did some Kafka adaptations, but he did them with great imagination and he took some liberties and I think those are wonderful."

The Q&A session closed out with the quintessentially D.C. question: What is Feiffer's opinion of President Barack Obama?

"I am still very high on Obama. I'm not very high on the Republican Party... this might come as a surprise to you... I think he has a lot to learn, and should have learned it faster.... I mean, I think what everybody thinks who's on the side that this audience is on, or you wouldn't be here, but it has not made me lose faith in him, or confidence in him. My God, I haven't liked anybody in the White House since Roosevelt. I think this is the smartest and most interesting guy, and those of you who have warm and nostalgic thoughts about Bill Clinton—I was never one of you."

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