When friends of Jules Feiffer discuss Jules Feiffer they tend to sound like
the followers of a Jules Feiffer cult.
For instance, asked how Feiffer was doing the other day, considering he's 83 and had just had five teeth pulled, his assistant said: "Jules is happy as a clam! He's a national treasure! It's an honor to be around him!" In March, at a dinner in the South Loop after he received the Fischetti Lifetime Achievement Award for editorial cartooning from Columbia College Chicago, Feiffer began doodling on butcher paper laid across the table. Jean Albano, of Jean Albano Gallery in the River North neighborhood, who represents Feiffer's artwork, leaped up, ripped the scribbles from the table and quickly sold them to other attendees.
The problem with joining the cult of Feiffer, however, is deciding which branch to join: The editorial wing is largest, considering that his loose, deceptively airy comics about hypocrisy and anxiety ran for 42 years in the Village Voice, were syndicated nationally and earned him a Pulitzer in 1986. There's also the cult that regards him as an illustrator of children's classics ("The Phantom Tollbooth"), the cult that thinks of him as an underrated screenwriter ("Carnal Knowledge") and playwright ("Little Murders") and the cult that sees Feiffer, a protege of Will Eisner and author of a classic tract ("The Great Comics Book Heroes"), as a comic book legend.
Then there's Feiffer himself, a guy who pinballed Zelig-like through a hilariously vast array of seminal political and cultural moments -- he sincerely sees his defining work still ahead of him. If his charming, well-received 2010 memoir, "Backing Into Forward," recently reissued by University of Chicago Press, is any indication, that's more than wishful thinking. Feiffer will appear at the Printers Row Lit Fest and has a show of several dozen of his drawings opening at the Albano Gallery on June 8. He spoke by phone from his home in New York. The following is an edited version of a longer conversation.
Q: You've been so associated with New York for so long that, reading your memoir, it's surprising how much of your professional life actually comes together in Chicago.
A: Chicago was absolutely vital to me, yes. It began with Hugh Hefner, who was the first person to pay me for my work. He got me a national audience before I had syndication. He helped make me famous, basically. I was amazed at how I started getting college speaking dates within a year of appearing in Playboy. I haven't seen him in years. He was like Super Hef the last time I ran into him. Still, he was never any different, always low-key, sweet, curious. Personality-wise, he was a rarity in the magazine world. I remember he took me to 1340 North State, the mansion. One day we went to a bar. I ordered a drink and he ordered a Pepsi, then said to me, "What do you think of this place? It's going to be the Playboy Club."
Q: Considering how politically minded you are, were you hesitant about working for Playboy?
A: Was I snobbish about it? Of course. I was worried about my reputation. I didn't want to work for a girly magazine. Then I discovered in the process of dealing with Hefner over many years, I liked them. I would submit rough drafts, which I never did with the Village Voice, which just ran everything. But Hefner would send them back with point by point edits, what the dialogue
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