Monday, August 02, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 180 (8/2) -- Backing Into Forward by Jules Feiffer

Jules Feiffer, despite doing the same thing every week for over forty years -- his cartoon for the Village Voice, called various titles over the years -- has had an amazingly varied career at the same time, writing novels and plays and screenplays, books for young readers and agitprop for downtown audiences. One of the few things he hasn't written, up to the age of eighty, was anything directly about his own life.

Backing Into Forward corrects that oversight; it's a memoir of Feiffer's entire life, organized more-or-less chronologically (though it becomes scattershot once it hits about 1960, when Feiffer became successful, and covers the last three decades glancingly, when at all), from his Bronx childhood up to the current day. Feiffer wrote it in shot, unnumbered chapters, one for each idea or time or theme, so there's a certain inevitable amount of backing and filling.

And, as usual with the memoirs of creative types, the best and most interesting part comes right at the beginning, when Feiffer is describing his childhood and early manhood (his work as a teenager in Will Eisner's studio, a stint in the Army, the years of struggling to break in). The first section is "Gunslinger," which takes up nearly half the book, is a great account of how Feiffer became Feiffer, moving almost year-by-year from his birth in 1929 through the late '50s and the publication of his first few books.

From that point, though, Backing Into Forward wanders away from Feiffer's work for a long time, as he spends nearly fifty pages just namedropping -- who he met at this party, who he knew from this connection, and so forth -- and then never quite gets back to explaining either his personal or professional lives in any great detail. Somewhere in the middle, he gets married and divorced (without mentioning the specifics of either), and then has a long-term girlfriend who's tossed in only retrospectively. The fact that he has three daughters does come up, but more in the nature of a doting parent -- "Gosh, look at my beautiful and successful and accomplished daughters!"

So, if you want to know the details of any of Feiffer's comics work later than Passionella, you're probably out of luck -- he doesn't cover that, or even the ebb and flow of the Voice strip, in any detail. He does talk about the writing and filming of both Carnal Knowledge and Popeye (and it's another sign of how important Feiffer is, if you needed one, that he could write both of those movies and do them equally well), about several of his plays (particularly Little Murders), and about his late-in-life career as an author of books for young readers. (Though, there, it's not at all clear when that career started -- Feiffer really needed an editor who would say to him, "Dates, Jules, dates! When did any of this happen?")

However, to make up for the lack of dates, and the ways that Feiffer's stories careen off each other like pinballs, instead of following any more defined structure, Backing Into Forward contains lots and lots of great Feiffer art -- at least a couple of dozen Voice strips, some covers, early illustrations, and more. (Plus a number of photographs, of Feiffer and his family through the years.) And those strips remind the reader that Backing Into Forward has its own strain of that great, inimitable Feiffer voice -- though, in his comics afterword, Feiffer himself notes that his "cartoon voice" is different from his "writers voice," and he's right -- telling his own story in a way no one else could, and talking about the things that Feiffer brought out into public before anyone else.

He's a true American original, and his best work -- particularly the Voice strips, but also the plays and Carnal Knowledge screenplay -- cast light on things huge numbers of Americans were thinking and feeling, but never could see in public until Jules Feiffer's pen put them down into black and white.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

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