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Jules (Ralph) Feiffer (1929-) - Sidelights

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Decades before he published his first self-illustrated children's book in 1993, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Jules Feiffer was well known to young readers as the illustrator of Norman Juster's classic 1961 novel The Phantom Tollbooth. During the intervening years, he was known to adult readers as the creator of satiric cartoons published in hundreds of newspapers, while his plays have appeared on numerous stages and several, with the artist/playwright's screenplays, have been adapted for film. In the early 1990s Feiffer came full circle, beginning a new phase of his career as a children's book author, and with books such as By the Side of the Road and The House across the Street, has won new fans through his sketchy pen-and-ink drawings and quirky texts.


Born in the Bronx, New York, in 1929, Feiffer was the son of a Polish mother and a father whose unsuccessful business ventures caused money worries to haunt the Feiffer household. The trials of the Great Depression did not help matters in the Feiffer home, and young Jules reacted by escaping into books—more specifically comic books such as "Detective Comics"—and drawing. When Feiffer was approximately seven years of age, he won a gold medal in an art contest sponsored by a New York department store. Knowing that a good job would help him avoid the financial plight of his parents, he decided to become a cartoonist. As Feiffer recalled in The Great Comic Book Heroes: "I . . . drew sixty-four pages in two days, sometimes one day, stapled the product together, and took it out on the street where kids my age sat behind orange crates selling and trading comic books. Mine went for less because they weren't real."

Feiffer studied the comic strips in the pages of the New York Times and the World-Telegram his father brought home after work, salvaged newspapers from garbage cans, and got friends to bring him the comics sections from the newspapers their parents discarded. "To see 'Terry and the Pirates,'" Feiffer explained, "we'd have to get the Daily News, which my family wouldn't allow in the house." The reason: his parents–both Jewish and both Democrats–believed that the publisher of the New York Daily News was anti-Semitic.

At age fifteen Feiffer enrolled at the Art Students' League, then studied at the Pratt Institute for a year, taking night courses. Meanwhile, in 1946, through a stroke of luck, he became an assistant to noted cartoonist Will Eisner. "He said I was worth absolutely nothing, but if I wanted to hang out there, and erase pages or do gofer work, that was fine," Feiffer recalled to Gary Groth in Comics Journal. Eisner eventually assigned Feiffer the writing and layout for the comic strip "The Spirit," and in exchange let his young apprentice cartoonist have the space on the last page of his current strip. Thus, the "Clifford" comic strip was born.

"Clifford" came to a close in 1951, when Feiffer was drafted into the U.S. Army during the Korean War. His experiences as part of the military provided Feiffer with the subject he would satirize for most of his remaining career: the workings of the U.S. government. "It was the first time I was truly away from home for a long period of time," Feiffer explained to Groth, "and thrown into a world that was antagonistic to everything I believed in, on every conceivable level. In a war that I was out of sympathy with, and in an army that I despised; [an army that] displayed every rule of illogic and contempt for the individual and mindless exercise of power. [That] became my material."

Released from duty in 1953, Feiffer was at work creating a weekly comic strip for the Village Voice by 1956. "We cut a stiff deal," the cartoonist recalled to a writer for Dramatists Guild Quarterly of his early attempt to get published. "They would publish anything I wrote and drew as long as I didn't ask to be paid." As he planned, Feiffer got a call from an editor at a different publication, who, as the cartoonist recalled, "said, 'oh boy, this guy is good, he's in the Voice, ' and accepted the same stuff his company had turned down when I had come to their offices as an unpublished cartoonist."

With the security of regular cartoon assignments, Feiffer could now refine his style, which was already influenced by the work of illustrator William Steig. By the late 1950s, his cartoons appeared regularly in Playboy, the London Observer, and in newspapers across the United States. Many of these strips have been collected in books such as Feiffer's Album, Feiffer on Nixon, and Feiffer's Children. In 1986 Feiffer was honored with a Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning. He continued to create comic strips on a regular basis for several decades, finally ending his syndicated comic strip in the summer of 2000.

While working as a syndicated cartoonist, Feiffer also began penning plays, and his first drama, Little Murders, was produced on Broadway in 1967. The play was a popular and critical success, winning an Outer Critics Circle Award and a Village Voice Off-Broadway Award, among others. Through the 1980s Feiffer wrote a number of other plays, as well as several screenplays that were produced as major motion pictures. His film Popeye, starring Robin Williams, was released in 1980, and his stage works, which include the autobiographical Grown-ups, The White House Murder Case, and with A Bad Friend, have been produced both in the United States and in Europe.


Feiffer's debut as a children's author came in the early 1990s with The Man in the Ceiling, a story about ten-year-old Jimmy Jibbett and his efforts to win the friendship of the popular Charlie Beemer by expressing a willingness to translate Charlie's stories into cartoons. Cathryn M. Camper noted in Five Owls that The Man in the Ceiling "recognizes that a large part of the formation of an artist takes place in his or her youth. . . . Feiffer conveys . . . this with a sense of humor, combining samples of Jimmy's comics to help tell the tale."

Some of Feiffer's children's books feature their creator's characteristic mature satire even as they entertain younger readers with a humorous tale. His A Barrel of Laughs, a Vale of Tears was described by a Publishers Weekly contributor as "a sophisticatedly silly fairy tale that relaxes storytelling conventions." The topic of road rage prompted by long-distance family auto trips is the focus of By the Side of the Road, which finds the parents of an unruly eight year old making good on their threat: "If you don't stop that now you'll end up on the side of the road." Actually deposited on the side of the road and abandoned, the boy makes a new life for himself, is joined by another abandoned child, and grows to adulthood, occasionally visited by his family and becoming the subject of envy by his stay-at-home brother. While noting that By the Side of the Road is "really for parents," New York Times Book Review contributor Cynthia Zarin wrote that Feiffer "is in top form here."

Feiffer turns to more traditional tales for children with Meanwhile . . . , The Daddy Mountain, and Bark, George, the last a reversal of the old-lady-who-swallowed-a-fly story. Meanwhile . . . draws on a fantasy tradition of a modern sort, as comic-book fan Raymond, pursued by his angry mother, decides to pull the "Meanwhile. . ." dialogue balloon out of his comic book to see if it will transport him somewhere else in a hurry. "Frantic action and the clever theme make this a great read-aloud," concluded School Library Journal contributor Lisa S. Murphy. In The Daddy Mountain, which narrates a small girl's successful attempt at a daunting ascent up onto her father's shoulders, the author captures what Booklist reviewer Jennifer Mattson described as "daddies' special fondness for roughhousing" in illustrations that "are vintage Feiffer," according to Grace Oliff in School Library Journal. A young dog who goes "meow" instead of "arf" is the focus of Feiffer's award-winning Bark, George, which finds the pup's distressed mother hurrying her son off to the local vet to find the source of the problem: he has swallowed a cat. Praising Bark George as the "pairing of an ageless joke with a crisp contemporary look," a Publishers Weekly contributor dubbed Feiffer's simply drawn illustrations "striking" and "studies in minimalism and eloquence." Booklist reviewer Stephanie Zvirin praised Feiffer's "easy to follow" text and added that the author/illustrator's "characters are unforgettable . . . and the pictures burst with the sort of broad physical comedy that a lot of children just love."

I'm Not Bobby finds a young boy determined to be someone else. Refusing to respond to calls for Bobby, he pretends to be a horse, a car, a dinosaur, a giant, and even a space ship in an effort to tune out his mother's calls. Finally, dinner time and fatigue make being Bobby by far the best option, in a book that features "Feiffer's exuberantly drawn signature illustrations," according to a Horn Book contributor.

Dissatisfaction is also the subject of The House across the Street, which finds a young boy wishing he lived in the larger house of a neighborhood friend. While imagining that a wealth of wonderful toys, fabulous dogs, and even a dolphin-filled swimming pool must exist in that amazing house, the boy also conjures up a family in which parents never fight, happy friends come and go, and the house rings with laughter, giving The House across the Street a poignant note while it also captures the whining note of many a "common childhood tune," according to a Kirkus reviewer. Noting that Feiffer captures "a child's anger about . . . adult authority," Booklist contributor Hazel Rochman praised the book for also expressing "a child's loneliness and his soaring imaginative power."


Biographical and Critical Sources

BOOKS

Cohen, Sarah Blacher, editor, From Hester Street to Hollywood: The Jewish-American Stage and Screen, Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IN), 1983.

Contemporary Dramatists, 5th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1993.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 64, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1991.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 7: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, 1981, Volume 44: American Screenwriters, 1986.

DiGaetani, John L., editor, A Search for a Postmodern

Theater: Interviews with Contemporary Playwrights, Greenwood Press (New York, NY), 1991.

Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd edition, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.

Feiffer, Jules, The Great Comic Book Heroes, Dial (New York, NY), 1965.


PERIODICALS

American Theatre, May-June, 2003, "Twenty Questions: Jules Feiffer," p. 88.

Back Stage, June 27, 2003, Irene Backalenick, review of A Bad Friend, p. 48.

Booklist, November 15, 1993, Elizabeth Bush, review of The Man in the Ceiling, p. 620; December 1, 1997, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Meanwhile . . . , p. 636; August 19, 1999, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Bark, George, p. 2052; June 1, 2002, Hazel Rochman, review of By the Side of the Road, p. 1742; December 1, 2002, Hazel Rochman, review of The House across the Street, p. 673; May 1, 2004, Jennifer Mattson, review of The Daddy Mountain, p. 1562.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, December, 1993, pp. 120-121; February, 1996, p. 189.

Comics Journal, August, 1988, Gary Groth, "Memories of a Pro Bono Cartoonist"; winter, 2004, "A Thirst for Storytelling."

Dramatists Guild Quarterly, winter, 1987, Christopher Duran, "Jules Feiffer, Cartoonist-Playwright."

Editor & Publisher, May 31, 1986, David Astor, "An Unexpected Pulitzer for Jules Feiffer;" May 29, 2000, Dave Astor, "Feiffer Focus No Longer on Syndication," p. 35.

Five Owls, January-February, 1994, Cathryn M. Camper, review of The Man in the Ceiling, pp. 66-67.

Horn Book, September-October, 1997, p. 557; March-April, 1998, Lauren Adams, review of I Lost My Bear, p. 212; January, 2001, review of Some Things Are Scary, p. 83; November-December, 2001, review of I'm Not Bobby!, pp. 735-736; May-June, 2002, Kristi Beavin, review of The Man in the Ceiling, p. 353; May-June, 2004, Joanna Rudge Long, review of The Daddy Mountain, pp. 310-311.

Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 1997, p. 1110; March 15, 1998, p. 402; November 1, 2002, review of The House across the Street, p. 1611; April 1, 2004, review of The Daddy Mountain, p. 328.

Library Journal, July, 2003, Steve Raiteri, review of The Great Comic Book Heroes, pp. 69-70.

Los Angeles Times, September 30, 1993, Lawrence Christon, "Jules Feiffer Fine-toons His Career," p. E1; June 17, 2000, John J. Goldman, "Swan Song for Feiffer's Dancer," p. D1.

New Leader, July-August, 2003, Stefan Kanfer, "Family Affairs," pp. 41-43.

New York Post, May 26, 2002, "Still Quick on the Draw," p. 62.

New York Times, May 29, 1997, Elisabeth Bumiller, "Jules Feiffer Draws the Line at No Pay from The Voice, " p. B1; January 23, 2000, Josh Schonwald, "Laughs and Learning with Jules Feiffer," p. P2; June 17, 2000, Sarah Boxer, "Jules Feiffer, at Seventy-one, Slows down to a Gallop," p. B1; March 4, 2003, Mel Gussow, "Jules Feiffer, Freed of His Comic Strip Duties, Finds a New Visibility," p. E1; June 10, 2003, Bruce Weber, "Uncle Joe Smiles down on a Family of Old Lefties," p. E1.

New York Times Book Review, November 14, 1993, Jonathan Fast, review of The Man in the Ceiling, p. 57; December 31, 1995, Daniel Pinkwater, review of A Barrel of Laughs, a Vale of Tears; March 15, 1998, Constance L. Hays, review of Meanwhile . . . , p. 24; May 17, 1998, Krystyna Poray Goddu, review of I Lost My Bear, p. 22; August 15, 1999, review of Bark, George, p. 24; November 19, 2000, Jeanne P. Binder, "Things That Go Squish in the Night," p. 44; November 18, 2001, Dwight Garner, "'Better Not Call Me Again. I'm a Monster,'" p. 25; September 29, 2002, Cynthia Zarin, "The Boy Who Willed One Thing," p. 27; October 29, 2002, Cynthia Zarin, review of By the Side of the Road; June 8, 2003, Andrea Stevens, "Jules Feiffer's Communist Manifesto," p. 5; June 27, 2004, p. 14.

New York Times Magazine, May 16, 1976, Robin Brantley, "'Knock Knock' 'Who's There?' 'Feiffer'"; June 15, 2003, Deborah Solomon, "Playing with History," p. 13.

Print, May-June, 1998, Steven Heller, interview with Feiffer, pp. 40-41; May-June, 1999, Carol Stevens, "Baby Teeth," p. 50; September, 2000, Steven Heller, "Feiffer's Last Dance," p. 26.

Publishers Weekly, October 25, 1993, review of The Man in the Ceiling, p. 62; November 27, 1995, review of A Barrel of Laughs, a Vale of Tears, p. 70; January 26, 1998, review of I Lost My Bear, p. 91; June 21, 1999, review of Bark, George, p. 66; October, 2000, review of Some Things Are Scary, p. 76; August 20, 2001, review of I'm Not Bobby, p. 78; May 13, 2002, review of By the Side of the Road, p. 69; October 14, 2002, review of The House across the Street, p. 82; June 30, 2003, review of The Great Comic Book Heroes, p. 59; April 5, 2004, review of The Daddy Mountain, p. 60.

Quill & Quire, November, 1993, p. 40.

School Library Journal, January, 1996, p. 108; September, 1997, Lisa S. Murphy, review of Meanwhile . . . , p. 180; March, 1998, Julie Cummins, review of I Lost My Bear, p. 179; September, 1999, p. 182; January 1, 2001, Maryann H. Owen, review of Some Things Are Scary, p. 101; November, 2001, review of I'm Not Bobby!, pp. 119-120; May, 2002, Wendy Lukehart, review of By the Side of the Road, p. 152; February, 2003, Wendy Lukehart, review of The House across the Street, p. 111; May, 2003, Steve Weiner, "A Found Feiffer," p. 33; June, 2004, Grace Oliff, review of The Daddy Mountain, p. 108.

Time, May 21, 2001, Francine Russo, "A Matter of Medium," p. G8.

ONLINE

Jules Feiffer Online, http://www.julesfeiffer.com (February 1, 2005).

Public Broadcasting System Web site, http://www.pbs.org/ (March 15, 1998), "The Art of Jules Feiffer"; (August 10, 2000) "Power of the Pen."*

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