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The Polymath: Celebrating The Many Careers Of Jules Feiffer

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Comic creator. Playwright. Historian. Screenwriter. Political commentator. Novelist. Illustrator. Educator. Cartoonist. Jules Feiffer has worn all these hats and more over his storied career, and in the process, become one of the most influential, versatile, and celebrated figures that the comics medium has ever known.

He’s won an Oscar, a Pulitzer, an Obie, and received numerous lifetime achievement awards. He’s written acclaimed R-rated movies, produced one of the first proper graphic novels, authored a long-running and hugely popular comic strip, and provided the art for one of the true classics of children’s literature. His 1965 book The Great Comic Book Heroes pioneered the concept of reprinting classic comic book stories in a high-quality format, and is generally acknowledged as the first major historical work about the comic book industry. And he still produces vital and groundbreaking work today, some seventy years after taking on his first professional comics job.

 

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Jules Feiffer was born in New York City on January 26 1929, and was drawing by the time he was three, to the delight of his mother, a fashion designer who supported her family by selling her design paintings and sketches to various clothing companies.

He fell in love with newspaper comics at first sight, and became obsessed with the then-formative medium of comic books, studying them intently, copying the parts he liked, and creating his own stapled pamphlets that he would sell or trade to other kids in his neighborhood.  He enrolled in the Art Students League while a teenager, and once he graduated high school in 1946, he went straight to the office of one of his favorite creators to seek employment in his chosen field.

 

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The creator in question was Will Eisner, and despite the fact that he wasn’t overly impressed with Feiffer’s drawing skills, he took on the young man as an all-purpose studio assistant. Feiffer handled a number of odd jobs on The Spirit newspaper supplement, doing erasing and clean-up on artwork, coloring, filling in dialogue, and eventually receiving his own one-page strip on the back page of each issue.

Over time, Feiffer’s responsibilities grew, and he slowly took over from Eisner as the primary writer on the main Spirit feature. In 1952, facing a decline in circulation and profits, Eisner brought in artist Wally Wood to team with Feiffer for a series of Spirit strips that sent the title character on a scientific mission to the moon. Sadly, the change in direction was too little, too late, and the final Spirit section ran in papers in October.

Meanwhile, Feiffer, who had been drafted into the Army Signal Corps, began creating an original cartoon story, Munro, about a four-year-old boy who is inadvertently drafted and can’t convince anyone in power that they’ve made a mistake.

 

A panel from Munro

 

Returning to civilian life in 1953, Feiffer worked a series of commercial art jobs, trying to make ends meet while honing his cartooning skills on the side. He did a short stint at the Terrytoons animation studio, and in 1956 offered his services to The Village Voice, creating a weekly strip that he wouldn’t charge for, but would be free from editorial interference.

This strip, initially named Sick, Sick, Sick (and later simply titled Feiffer) became an almost immediate sensation, and would run in the paper for the next forty years, creating a new standard for comic as social commentary.

 

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An early appearance of Feiffer’s trademark ‘dancer’ character

 

Within a short time, his cartoons were appearing in Playboy, the London Observer, and other publications. In 1958, he had the first collection of his Voice comics published by McGraw-Hill, and in 1959, followed that with Passionella And Other Stories, a collection of unpublished longer-form stories (including Munro).

In 1960, he re-teamed with his former Terrytoons boss Gene Deitch and adapted Munro into animated form, which won the Academy Award for Animated Short Film in 1961. Later in 1961, he created illustrations for Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, which received widespread critical acclaim and would quickly become recognized as a classic of children’s literature. His first staged work, The Explainers, was produced in Chicago that same year. He published his first novel, Harry, The Rat With Women, in 1963.

 

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An illustration from 1961’s The Phantom Tollbooth

 

In 1965, Feiffer teamed with Dial Press for the publication of The Great Comic Book Heroes, a hardcover book that served as the first mainstream work of comic book history, featuring an extended essay on the genesis of the form and the author’s own experiences in the field, and collecting a number of Golden Age comic stories (including early appearances of Superman, Batman, Hawkman, the original Flash, Wonder Woman, The Spectre, Captain America, and others).

While there had previously been a number of academic dissections and historical accounts of newspaper comics published, comic books were, at this time, still widely considered the juvenile younger sibling of the comic strip, not worthy of serious analysis. Feiffer’s book refuted that distinction, while also presenting some early classics of the form to a whole new audience — in the days before comic shops or conventions, and at a time where even fanzines were in their infancy, this was the first time most young readers had been exposed to the superhero stories of an earlier generation.

 

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His two-act comedy Little Murders was produced on Broadway in 1967, and though it closed after only a handful of performances, a London production by The Royal Shakespeare Company became a great success. The show was was remounted Off-Broadway in 1969, winning an Obie Award and an Outer Critics Circle Award. In 1970, his play The White House Murder Case premiered to critical acclaim, in a production led by director Alan Arkin, who would also direct the 1971 screen adaptation of Little Murders.

Feiffer then teamed with director Mike Nichols on 1971’s Carnal Knowledge, which became one of the most popular and acclaimed films of the decade. He returned to comic-centric territory when he wrote the screenplay for Robert Altman’s Popeye, channeling his love for E.C. Segar’s original Thimble Theater strip into a script that captured the comics’ offbeat humor perfectly, but confounded some viewers whose only familiarity with the franchise was the simplified spinach-swilling shenanigans of Saturday morning cartoons.

 

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1979 saw the release of Tantrum, a cartoon tale of a man regressing to childhood that is considered one of the first proper graphic novels. Through the ’80s and ’90s, Feiffer continued to produce work in all directions, penning plays, screenplays, and continuing his self-titled strip for the Village Voice until 1997, when he began contributing op-ed cartoons to the New York Times. In 1986, he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for political cartooning, and in 1996, his archives were acquired by the Library Of Congress.

 

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In the new millennium, he’s remained more active than most creators half his age – authoring and illustrating numerous children’s books, contributing reviews to National Public Radio, writing an autobiography, teaching courses at various colleges, releasing new compilations of his comic work, and mounting exhibitions at galleries around the world.

In 2004, he was inducted into the Eisner Hall Of Fame at San Diego Comic-Con, and also received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Cartoonists Society. In 2010, he was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Writers Guild of America. His graphic novel, Kill My Mother, was recognized as one of the best books of 2014 by Kirkus, Vanity Fair, and numerous other publications. And he continues to write, draw, attend conventions, and be one of the most vital all-around creative forces one could ever hope to witness.

 

A sequence from Kill My Mother
A sequence from Kill My Mother

 

So today, on the anniversary of his birth, it’s our great honor and pleasure to offer this small tribute to Jules Feiffer. Happy birthday, and may your dance continue for many years to come!

 

Next: Celebrating The Life & Work Of 'Popeye' Creator EC Segar

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