Speaking for more than an hour at the Crest Theatre in Delray Beach yesterday, Jules Feiffer presented a lecture that was, appropriately, animated.
The legendary cartoonist, illustrator, playwright and screenwriter, whose credits include “The Phantom Tollbooth,” “Carnal Knowledge” and countless Village Voice political cartoons, accompanied his lecture with an exhaustive PowerPoint presentation of slides that projected his best work for all to see. It was a way of getting at the man through the fruits of his labor – to understand his personality through the pointed, caustic relationships that emerged from his simply drawn, text-heavy panels about aging, relationships and anxieties.
And as his cartoons evolved with the political times, he became a trenchant commentator targeting all sides of the ideological spectrum; looking at his observations about Kissinger, Nixon, Carter, Reagan and Clinton, it’s amazing how many of them apply today on subjects such as war, hypocrisy and political cowardice.
Here are a few of the highlights from this wonderful afternoon.
On the classic cartoonist mentality:
“These cartoonists would do this sort of work and never think of it as art – they’d never see themselves as artists, and didn’t want to be artists. They wanted to hang out with the alcoholic newspapermen. They thought making art was for pansies, and they were real men.”
On the joy of cartoons:
“They used the Sunday pages basically to play. This was a form of a play, and as a kid, the playfulness of comics, the adventure quality of the comics, the sense that unlike real life, which was mired in having to get up in the morning and do what your mother told you and deal with the quiet disapproval of your father and get to school, freedom had to be stolen from here or there, and for me it was stolen by learning from these guys."
On the cartooning trade:
“What I did is what other cartoonists did if they were big in comic books – I stole. What’s interesting is that when kids start out and start to draw and paint, they have a freshness. They have an originality. They have something that is their own essence. And when you go to school, like first and second grades, you see really exciting stuff on the wall. And as they get older, the stuff gets less exciting, because they start getting influenced. They were influenced by the kids around them, they start stealing from others, they’re told by teachers how to do it, and eventually would-be artists become non-artists and lose interest because the stuff becomes uninspiring. That’s a trajectory that happens all the time.”
On getting his first job:
“When I was in my early teens, I needed a job, and I looked up Will Eisner, my hero, in the phone book, and there he was. I went down to his office and knocked on the door. He was sitting right there, at his desk, drawing ‘The Spirit.’ And like all cartoonists doing their own work, he loved interruptions. He happily offered to see my work, and he happily offered to give his opinion of my work, which was to say that I basically had no talent at all. But I was used to rejections and bad news; I was a kid from the Bronx. I knew how to handle it. I knew I couldn’t tell him how good I was after he told me how bad I was. So I switched the subject to him and to his work. And he understood after about 30 seconds that I knew his entire career from the very beginning. I knew stuff that nobody else knew. I could talk in detail about things he did five, six, seven years ago. And so by the end of my monologue, he had no choice but to hire me.
“As a groupie, I started working with Eisner and was incapable of doing the simplest things in the office. The level of my ambition was only matched by the extraordinary level of my incompetence. The more things they gave me to try, the more things I failed at over and over again. But I loved working in the shop around these other cartoonists who were infinitely more proficient than I. I loved the talk. I loved the atmosphere, and finally I was so sure of myself that I ventured to say to Eisner one day that the stories he was writing in the mid-1940s were not nearly as good as what he wrote in ’40 and ’41, and why wasn’t he as good a writer as he used to be?
“I didn’t mean this as an insult. I thought it was a craft conversation. And I had no idea this was a ‘going to get my fired’ quote. What a schmuck I was. But to my wonder and his infinite credit, instead of yelling at me or putting me down, he said, ‘You think you can do better? Why don’t you write one?’ So I wrote one. And I was the writer on ‘The Spirit’ from that point on.”
On Henry Kissinger:
“Kissinger was one of the greatest gifts to satiric art, because he was such an original and yet he was so out of our tradition. He was both arrogant and wanted to make it in Hollywood.”
On his start in playwriting:
“While I was doing the cartoons, I started, in the mid’60s, some 35years before I gave up the cartoons, to write plays, because there things happening out there that six or eight panels in a comic strip couldn’t explain, and I had views on them and feelings about them. So I started to use theater as a way of talking about them.”
On the making of “Carnal Knowledge:”
“When [director] Mike Nichols had suggested [Jack] Nicholson for the lead, I said, ‘He’s not the character. I don’t see why you want him.’ And Mike said, ‘Trust me. He’s going to be the most important actor since Brando.’ And I did, and he was.”
On the making of “Popeye” (for which he wrote the screenplay):
One of the most impressive things about the movie was its incredible set, done by the brilliant designer Wolf Kroeger. At night, when I thought everything was falling apart and I was depressed, I would walk through this set and reel over and over again on what a cartoonist can do, really by accident, to create their own universe. When you’re feeling bad and things aren’t going right in your life, you can walk around your own creations and feel better because this is what you imagined.
On making movies vs. plays:
If you’re a playwright, you write a first draft, and you show it to the people you’re working with, on the basis of which you do revisions and the second draft, which makes it better. And then you go to work with a director and you keep making it better and better. My experience in film has been, you write the first draft, and then it goes to the powers that be and they gave you notes, and it’s worse. Then they give you more notes, and it comes out even worse, because in movies, it’s never about making it better. It’s all about control. It’s about being in charge and showing your power. None of it is really about the work.”