As you might expect, Jules Feiffer, 85, has a long, impressive résumé, starting from his apprenticeship, from age 16, with comic industry legend Will Eisner. Raised in the Bronx, New York, Feiffer went on to publish dozens of books, plays, and screenplays—his animated short, Munro, won an Oscar in 1961. He also illustrated children’s books. (Exhibit A: The Phantom Tollbooth.) His syndicated strip in the weekly Village Voice, which ran for more than four decades, earned him a George Polk award in 1961 and a Pulitzer for editorial cartooning in 1986.
Despite his accomplishments, Feiffer had never really managed to pull off the style of long-form pictorial storytelling pioneered by Eisner and others—until now. Out next week, Kill My Mother, billed as his first graphic novel, is a hard-boiled mystery-romance-thriller that takes us from Depression-era Los Angeles to 1940s Hollywood to the jungles of the Tarawa Atoll during World War II. It’s a fun, not-safe-for-work tale, replete with plot twists and secret identities. Bonus: Badass women hold the reins in this story.
Mother Jones: Your publisher says this is your first graphic novel, yet Wikipedia credits you with writing one of the original graphic novels, Tantrum, back in 1979.
Jules Feiffer: There’s a vast difference. Tantrum was really an extension of the approach and humor I used in my Village Voice strip. Kill My Mother departs completely from anything I’ve ever done. I’d call it my first noir graphic novel. But it won’t be my last, because I’m working on another one! It’s a prequel and a sequel.
MJ: Kill My Mother is a pretty wild tale. The last few chapters feel downright Shakespearean. Why this story and why this era?
JF: I don’t have a clue. I start off with a premise, and whatever direction I think it may go, it often decides to go somewhere else on its own. To write a story is often a matter of stumbling along until the story does what it wants to. I’m simply the stenographer. Sometimes I try to sharpen them up with editing, but I don’t try to edit at all while I’m writing, I just let them go. Kill My Mother was going all kinds of different places in my head and in my notes than where it ended up.
MJ: Stylistically speaking, what new things did this format enable you to try?
JF: The thing that made me want to be a cartoonist in the first place, back in the 1930s, before comic books came on the scene, was adventure comic strips. The most exciting of the strip-layers was a guy named Milt Caniff, who did “Terry and the Pirates,” which was akin to a movie on paper. He built storyboards and he did very impressionistic work and real characters who were interesting and involved. He and Will Eisner were my role models. Those were the cartoonists I wanted to emulate in these adventure strips. I ended up writing Eisner’s “The Spirit” for three or four years, so I understood the form. But I couldn’t do the drawings. No matter how hard I tried, it was pitiful. It took me until age 80 to perfect a style that worked in that kind of genre. And I amazed myself! I thought, when I wrote this story, somebody else would have to illustrate it. The publisher tells me to try it, and so I try—and by God, things began to click!
MJ: That’s exciting!
JF: And terrifying. Each one of the 149 pages, I would sit down and say, “I’m not qualified to do this.” [Laughs.] And then I’d have to prove myself wrong. Every day was an act of excitement and an act of terror.
MJ: Four years ago, you told Mother Jones that you thought most graphic novels were “self-pitying confessionals.”
JF: Well, over the last 20 years there’s been the emergence of some extraordinary talents: Chris Ware, Dan Clowes. David Small did a brilliant book, which affected me very strongly, called Stitches. I’m not sure, had I not had Stitches, whether I would have gotten the idea to do my own book. Also, Craig Thompson has a book called Blankets. These are real stories with real characters, and artwork that’s not like anyone else’s and works like a dream. So I think this field is in its own golden age right now.
MJ: Your central characters here are these badass, highly motivated girls and women. The men are pretty much louts and losers. Was that a conscious decision?
JF: No, and it’s interesting you point that out. The only thing conscious about it was that the person I originally had in mind to do the illustrations was a woman who had worked as my assistant, and I thought it would be more interesting for her if the central characters were mostly women. Once I got into it, and it became clear she didn’t want to do the book because she had her own fish to fry—she was doing very well with it, her own fish—I just kept on with it. And I loved those characters.
MJ: You may not have seen this, but a female blogger was recently threatened with rape, among other indignities, after she criticized the depiction of women in a Teen Titans comic book. Has the comic world always treated women so badly?
JF: There’s no rap against comics that isn’t true. They were sexist, they were racist, you name it—and they kind of gloried in that. If someone attacked them, back in the time I was growing up reading comics in the ’40s and the ’50s, the purveyors would look at you not knowing what the hell you were talking about. This is just what they did: “What’s wrong with this?” Over the years, when the women’s movement got going, there was greater sensitivity about it, but by that time I’d stopped reading the commercial comics, Marvel and all of that. But there are a lot of women in the graphic-novel and alternative-comics fields taking things in a different direction.
MJ: I gather the audience is pretty different, too.
MJ: Speaking of changes, do you suppose you’ll will ever retire?
JF: When I gave up my strip, it was almost a full retirement because I was just doing things that came to my mind, like picture books for kids. And then, out of nowhere, I got involved in writing the book for a musical version of my first kids’ book The Man on the Ceiling—I’m working on that now. I mean, artists generally don’t retire. The great Al Hirschfeld died at 99 with his hands twitching because he wanted to draw. Much to my surprise, I had as much fun working on Kill My Mother as anything I’ve ever done. And this is what I’m going to concentrate on from here on in—depending on how much here on in there is before I start drooling and falling down stairs.