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Hamptons Life

Feb 24, 2009 2:40 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Social commentator's career a question of timing

Feb 24, 2009 2:40 PM

“Most of them don’t know who I am,” said Jules Feiffer of his students at Stony Brook Southampton. “They know I’m famous for something, but they’re not sure what.”

That should change if those students purchase a copy of “Explainers,” a collection of all of the comic strips that Mr. Feiffer wrote and illustrated for The Village Voice from 1956 to ’66. The volume, recently published by Fantagraphics Books, shows the emergence of one of the most original social and political commentators in America at a time when protests for civil rights and against the Vietnam War were beginning to change the country. His career with The Voice, which lasted for more than four decades, would include a Pulitzer Prize in 1986.

The Bronx-born Mr. Feiffer grew up enjoying comics and early on had ambitions of being a cartoonist. He was an assistant to Will Eisner when “The Spirit” strip was attracting attention. But, oddly, it was Mr. Feiffer’s hitch in the Army in the early 1950s that allowed him to evolve as an artist.

“The Army made a satirist out of me because it introduced me to uncontrollable rage,” he recalled. “Actually, I managed to control it because I was scared of my shadow, but without the Army I never would have had access to the anger that had been lurking within since I was a kid but that you can’t show to your parents and to your teachers who mean well. But the Army didn’t mean well. Not to me.”

He continued to write and draw while in the Army, channeling his rage into the work. When he was discharged, Mr. Feiffer made the rounds of the offices of publications in New York, hoping to be taken on as a cartoonist. Editors didn’t “get” his work, which was already out of the mainstream of Eisenhower-era political satire as well as targeting adults, not children. But the reaction was different at The Village Voice, whose founders wanted to reflect and encourage the political activity that was becoming more apparent around the country.

“Without the good fortune of The Voice being there and me picking it out at just the right moment, I’m not sure I would have had a career at all,” Mr. Feiffer said. “I can’t think now or subsequently of any publication that would have given me the same break at an appropriate time when I got out of the Army.

“There was this emergence of Joe McCarthy and the suppression and somnolence that represented those eight years of Eisenhower’s presidency. We’re in the middle of this Cold War presidency and there was no political left in the country. Not one of the people who influenced me most strongly, Murray Kempton in the New York Post and I.F. Stone, ever got on television because they were too outside the pale, and being outside the pale is what I wanted to be. I wanted to emulate these guys.”

Cartooning was a way for Mr. Feiffer to confront controversial issues in a different way. “Nobody was talking about this generation of post-Korean War young people, those in their 20s and 30s,” he said. “Nobody was talking about

sex. Nobody was talking about relationships. Nobody was talking about getting laid because you weren’t allowed to. Civil rights was not on the radar screen yet. And nobody was criticizing the Cold War because that made you an agent of the communist conspiracy.”

A new generation of cartoonists was tackling the tough topics, and newspapers were gradually allowing them the space on the editorial pages to do so. “Herblock was a great cartoonist, but for a while he was also the only one doing what he was doing,” Mr. Feiffer pointed out. “Then a few people began to emerge like Paul Conrad, who was with The Denver Post. Still, when I came along to do what I did, I was virtually alone.”

Mr. Feiffer said that he felt a close affinity to comedians who were becoming more controversial with their material, especially Mort Sahl and the duo of Mike Nichols and Elaine May. “Nobody represented us, so we started talking out of the frustration and we had to get a conversation going and it was that sense out there, people waiting to be talked to, people wanting somebody to sound the way they sounded in private, because they were afraid to talk that way in public,” Mr. Feiffer explained about the comics who were going beyond jokes.

Though a lifelong New Yorker, Mr. Feiffer has been one of the most well-known editorial cartoonists in the U.S. from the 1960s on. Having his strips syndicated certainly helped, but along the way his work has been available in 19 books and has additionally been published in Esquire, Playboy, The Nation, the Los Angeles Times, and (appropriately) The New Yorker.

He has also branched out into other fields. Among his successful stage works is “Little Murders,” which was adapted into a feature film. Nichols directed his screenplay of “Carnal Knowledge,” which starred Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel. Mr. Feiffer also wrote the screenplay for “Popeye,” directed by Robert Altman. One of his more popular works is a book for children, “The Phantom Tollbooth.”

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