How do Jules Feiffer’s early comic strips hold up after half a century? For over 40 years, beginning in 1956, his provocative, often ironic cartoons appeared weekly in the Village Voice. Fantagraphics Books has just published Explainers ($28.99 hardcover), a complete collection of the first 10 years’ worth, from 1956 to 1966. The strips deal with politics and the battle of the sexes in an era when intellectuals obsessed about Marx and Freud and when humor might arise from observing hypocrisy in people’s politics and their intimate relationships.
Looking back at his own work, Mr. Feiffer finds the subject matter disconcertingly relevant. “On several fronts, very little has changed,” Mr. Feiffer said in an interview this week at his seasonal home in West Tisbury. “Relationships are no less fraught than when I began. Men and women are no more honest with each other. And these days when we live in a country whose citizens have quiescently accepted the concept of permanent war. The work I did in the 60s and 70s on Viet Nam is as valid today as it was then.”
As for race relations, Mr. Feiffer pointed to one of his favorite strips. Dated 1966, it’s a series showing a liberal cartoonist facing an editor’s concern that “trying to move too fast” will “threaten the great strides the Negro people had already made.” The running joke is that, from Booker T. Washington on through history, any black achievement risks alienating “his many white friends.”
“Now,” Mr. Feiffer said, “the Obama campaign every day demonstrates more and more how white America can find dozens of excuses to avoid voting for a black man. Of course, they have nothing against his race and color, but what if he’s a Muslim? They don’t care if he is black, but what if he’s an elitist and they certainly wouldn’t want to vote for an elitist. And on and on it goes with metaphors for blackness multiplied to the nth degree.”
Hinting at the type of material he might draw on if he were still writing the strip, Mr. Feiffer continued, “Only yesterday at an art opening I was speaking to an old friend who is a long-time liberal. She said that she is thinking seriously of voting for John McCain because she finds Obama too ‘arrogant’ — which is another word for ‘uppity,’ although she would be shocked to hear me say that. So if you look at the book and many of the cartoons on civil rights, much of the work done 40 or 50 years ago strikes the same notes that we hear today.”
In the early strips that deal with romantic impasses, Mr. Feiffer features two recurring characters, Bernard, a neurotic Woody Allen type, and Huey, a Marlon Brando-style narcissist. In this arena, he says, times have changed — slightly. “If the strips were written today, the language would change. Because of the women’s rights movement, sexism is less blatant.” Referring to the film Carnal Knowledge, for which he wrote the screenplay — Art Garfunkel plays the nerd and Jack Nicholson, the stud — Mr. Feiffer said, “I haven’t heard from anyone who finds the misogyny of the male leads dated. We progress slowly if at all.”
Asked about the role that psychotherapy plays in the early strips, often via extended confessions that only serve to reveal characters’ blindness to their own foibles, Mr. Feiffer said that the influence of analysis was incidental. “What interested me was taking the form I love, the comic strip, and treating it not like the funnies but like a short story or a novel. I tried to use the devices of fiction to get at internal contradictions — the rationales people use to explain themselves. So often people’s aim is to put the best face on their bad behavior. That’s why the book is called Explainers.”
Mr. Feiffer stopped drawing the Voice strip seven years ago. Fantagraphics’s publisher, Gary Groth, plans three more books with the later cartoons. In recent years, Mr. Feiffer has turned to writing more plays and children’s books. He said that he might write the text for a picture book only to discover that he is “unqualified for the drawing that’s required, so that I have to start over. Part of the fun of writing is feeling blissfully stupid, and educating myself as I go along.” The same process of discovery, he said, informed his early cartoons. “The day you do the work, you may think that it is exactly what it should be. Seeing it in print can change your impression of what you had done. You are always gaining experience. It never gets boring.”
As for the durability of his art, Mr. Feiffer did not claim any prescience. He said, “It does not make me proud that this work is still valid. Rather it makes me ashamed and sad for my country.”
Today, Friday, August 8, Jules Feiffer will discuss graphic novels with Paul Karasik at the West Tisbury Public Library at 5 p.m. With refreshments and book signing to follow.
Jules Feiffer also will sign Explainers on Sunday, August 10, from 5 to 7 p.m. at Simon Gallery on Main street in Vineyard Haven.