Saturday, July 12, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #193: Feiffer: The Collected Works Vol. 1: Clifford

I've got a weakness for ambitious publishing projects, even the unfeasibly large ones. I got all of the "Edgeworks" editions of Harlan Ellison from White Wolf in the '90s, even though I knew that could never end well. (And of course it didn't.) I'm a huge fan of the Library of America, even if I sometimes interpret their mission more strictly than they actually do themselves. And I like tracking down the pieces of failed ambitious publishing projects as well.

Jules Feiffer's "Collected Works" is one such -- dashed on the rocks of a disinterested public over the past couple of decades, after three volumes in a uniform size and one more (Passionella and Other Stories) disguised as a one-off book in a last attempt to drag in that public. But the late '80s and early '90s weren't a great time for major retrospective collections of comics artists of the past -- that needed the rise of the Internet, and another half-dozen or so more "Bang! Zoom! Comics Aren't for Kids Anymore!" articles in major media, before that audience was really primed and ready. And it remains to be seen if the audience that gobbled up Schulz's Peanuts and Gould's Dick Tracy and a dozen other strip reprint projects are ready for the much wider remit of Feiffer's collected works, which range from strip comics to novels to screenplays.

I still haven't found copies of the second and third volumes of the series -- they'll come, eventually; I know they're out there -- but I did have a copy of Feiffer: The Collected Works, Vol. 1: Clifford on hand, which does the useful job of showing where Feiffer came from in the first place. (The second volume, Munro, collects work from a couple of years later, right after Feiffer's stint in the army, and shows where he came from in the second place -- the time that stuck.)

Clifford is Feiffer's first creative work that was fully his, after three years of gradually more responsible assistant work on Will Eisner's Spirit newspaper insert. (Feiffer went from spotting blacks to writing and laying out the Spirit pages, so "gradually more responsible" is a slight understatement.) It's a single-page strip that ran on the back page of the Spirit insert weekly for about eighteen months, from the summer of '49 through the end of '50, when Feiffer went into the Army.

Clifford himself is a boy in New York, and the strip about him is in a general, crowd-pleasing mode popular at the time -- as Robert Fiore remarks in his introduction, Peanuts began in 1950 itself, and it wasn't alone, as millions of baby boomers were busy being born and their parents were looking for light entertainment. Clifford is a bit of a scamp, but his friends -- especially the deeply mischievous Seymour -- can be even worse, which is about what you want for a kid-focused strip.

I'll be honest: Clifford is journeyman work, the product of a very young man trying to fold his own just-ended childhood into a popular form, and doing better at "popular" than at "personal." It's amusing and pleasant -- and its particular joys are those of ethnic urban kids, particularly New Yorkers, which gave it an authenticity and the tiniest bit of grit that other kid-strips didn't have -- but it doesn't connect directly to Feiffer's later work. It's the thing he did before he became Feiffer, perhaps -- interesting for that reason, but otherwise off his main sequence.

So Clifford is an interesting bit of comics history, of several things intersecting: the kid strip, which would soon throw up Peanuts and Dennis the Menace; the declining but still vital Spirit section; and Feiffer's own career, soon to blossom after that ill-fated service to his country.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

No comments:

Post a Comment