How the legendary cartoonist got started at the Village Voice, and why his work struck a nerve in a decade when “liberals didn’t understand that they had First Amendment rights.”
Question: As you wrote your memoirs, which moment in your life was most fun to look back on?
Jules Feiffer: Well, look, I’m 81 years old. It’s got to be more than one. And it’s harder to define what fun was. I mean, there’s fun in private life, which is all sorts of things, including making out and sex. But this is a book that centers primarily on career, although it does involve some of that other stuff. In terms of career, it was getting to the Village Voice and getting printed for the first time because I had been trying, without success; to get into print for something like 4 ½, nearly five years, and nobody would touch me. So, that of course was very exciting. And then after that, discovering that I was going to write for the theater and the trajectory that moved me into that area and how that developed, and also how the excitement and euphoria that went with writing my first play.
Question: Which moment in your life was most challenging to write about?
Jules Feiffer: Oh well, when you do this kind of work, everything is challenging, but probably the most challenging thing is getting up in the morning and getting on with it because it’s so easy to stay in bed and not get on with it.
Question: How did you persist through rejection to get your start at The Village Voice?
Jules Feiffer: Well I had been trying to sell my stuff, which were books of satire, cartoon satire, which now would be called graphic novels or graphic novellas, there was no such term at that time. And I wasn’t interested in labels. There were things I wanted to talk about and write about in a satiric form and cartoons. This was at the height of the Cold War, the height of a form of domestic suppression where, in the days of Joe McCarthy, Senator Joe McCarthy, and the Eisenhower Administration, liberals and left-wing people in general were basically driven from the debate. They had no place in the national dialogue, or if they did, they were very, very cautious and careful about it and I had nothing to be cautious or careful about because my elders were afraid of losing their jobs. I didn’t have a job. They were afraid of losing their reputations. I didn’t have a reputation. I had zilch. So, I had the freedom, which unemployment gives you, and that was to behave as badly as I believed I should under the circumstances. And the circumstances were quite awful.
At the time, liberals didn’t understand that they had First Amendment rights. So, I was doing cartoons in this narrative cartoon form about subject surrounding that and as I was turned down by editor after editor at each publishing house, I began to notice on their desks this new newspaper called The Village Voice, which I then went and picked up and thought, well my god, these editors that were turning me down all, whom tell me how much they like my stuff, but they don’t know how to market it because nobody knows who I am. If I got into this paper, they would know who I am. And when editors say, “nobody knows,” what they really mean is, “I don’t know.” And once they got to know I thought something might happen, and that’s exactly what happened. I went to the Voice, I showed them my work, they loved it, they put it in the paper, it got on the editor’s desk, the editor’s say, “oh my god, he’s famous,” and they publish me.
So, it was a strategic decision that I made at the age of 26, or 27, that actually turned out well.
Question: Which of your Village Voice cartoons stirred the most controversy?
Jules Feiffer: Well, in the beginning, it was the form of them. I mean, it’s hard for me to answer that question because at the start of it, and for that matter to this day when I look back at the work, I really don’t understand what the fuss was about. So, I can’t say it’s about this or that. When people started reading me and talking to me about the work, they didn’t say how funny, or how satiric, or how brilliant, or how this or how that, they said, how’d you get away with it? How’d you get that into print? And apparently, addressing what I had said before, that liberals didn’t have First Amendment rights, that saying the sort of things that I said that my friends and I said in coffeehouses and bars to each other, these things were not generally said in public any more and hadn’t been in some years. So, I was saying it in a form that simply wasn’t familiar to anybody who was liberal, or on the left. And these people would read it and say, “Oh my god, this is the way I talk, how come it’s getting into print? Why isn’t he arrested?”
So it was the shock of recognition, probably, rather than the quality of the work. I mean, the quality may have been fine, but there’s a lot of fine work out there. It was the fact that I was doing something that at that time, nobody else was doing, except for say, Mort Saul out in San Francisco on The Hungry Eye, and “Second City” was emerging out in Chicago. Nothing in print. It was basically happening in cabaret and nothing in fiction. And certainly nothing in New York in cartoons.
Recorded on February 22, 2010
Interviewed by Austin rnAllen