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Jules Feiffer Q&A: Unfinished Business

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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 should be, what this should be. At first I was deeply offended. But he was right about everything. It was amazing how considerate he was. He wasn't taking apart my work to fit a Playboy point of view. He was trying to make the point of my cartoons stronger.

Q: But theater-wise, you also got started here, right?

A: I did in a way. I was in Chicago for the publication of "Passionella," my second book, and got a call from this woman, Barbara Siegel, who later started Barbara's Bookstore. She picked me up and started driving me around and introduced me to Studs Terkel, took me to Second City, which I had never heard of. They had heard of me, though. I became friendly with Second City. At one point, Paul Sills (Second City's first director) was in New York and told me they were going to open a place in Old Town called Playwrights at Second City and wanted me to be the first playwright represented. I told him I had never written a play. He said he wanted a play based around my cartoons. It was the first attempt at theatricalizing my work. Del Close was in it, Hamilton Camp. It got pretty good reviews, and the audience loved it. I wasn't that crazy about it. I thought my comics didn't play well on stage. I said if I ever did it again, I would write original work.

Q: Did you feel you've been treated fairly by the theater world, considering how many works you wrote and had success with, and works that are fairly obscure now and rarely produced?

A: Overall, I think I was treated exactly as I should have been. "Little Murders," if it hadn't been a hit in London, it would not have played in New York later. With Alan Arkin directing, no less. That was full of Second City actors, actually. I hope my plays will someday be recognized for what they are, because I do think my reputation as a cartoonist hurt my reputation as a playwright. Early on, my plays were kind of greeted as an example of loftiness -- like, "Who does this cartoonist think he is?" But I still have people who tell me how much they liked "Elliott Loves," which Mike Nichols first directed at the Goodman Theatre. And Frank Rich (former theater critic of the New York Times) also killed. But others, I can't blame on critics.

Q: What's happening with the Broadway adaptation of your children's book "The Man in the Ceiling"? Seems like it was announced a long, long time ago, then nothing.

A: I've written about three drafts and (composer) Andrew Lippa did a score. We had two readings for Disney. The first went like gangbusters. The second one didn't. I started getting more and more notes from people and it started to feel less like a theater experience and more like a Hollywood experience. This took so long the option (bought by Disney) lapsed. So now Andrew and I trying to put it back together again.

Q: How did the death of Maurice Sendak affect you?

A: When you said his name my heart sank. I loved him. We rarely saw each other because he was in Connecticut. But we had deep affection for each other. When he had his first heart attack, he was in London and I happened to be in London, so I spent time with him. But we were very different in temperament. He was much more of a Russian Jew than I was, much more given to doubts of depression and grimness, and I never entirely lost some of the giddy boy-cartoonist traits I've always had. We would sit for hours and talk.

Q: And like Maurice, you seem too acidic to write children's books.

A: True. (Children's books) were a means to an end, a way to make me a living. Children's books were not a passion. That's how I felt in the '50s -- once I met Maurice, I didn't think I would dare compete with him. But years later, after one of my plays,"Grown Ups," got beat up badly, I thought I needed another obsession. My idea was about this kid cartoonist, and that became "The Man in the Ceiling." I wrote it, then I called Maurice, and he gave me the name of his editor, Michael di Capua, and I've been with Michael ever since.

Q: Did you read "Peanuts"? It seems like the kind of jaundiced comic you might have created.

A: That's a good point. I started a strip named "Clifford" that ran on the back page of Will Eisner's (comic book) "The Spirit." I was trying to do the sort of thing Schulz did later so much better. I was nervous and working for approval, and he just went ahead with the kind of odd, personal strip he thought he should make.

Q: You're working on a graphic novel named "Kill My Mother"?

A: Yes, thought I could write a graphic novel, someone else could illustrate it. But as it developed, it ended up being long, starting in 1933, then switching to 1943, going from the Depression to World War II. And I couldn't find anyone to draw it right. For this kind of Chandler-Hammett noir thing, you need shadows, rain. So I had to learn how to do it. Fortunately, I have Turner Classic Movies. I record all this film noir,"The Maltese Falcon,""The Big Sleep," and hit pause on my remote. That's been my research medium. It will not be drawn (in a) traditional Feiffer style. I stole from Eisner. I hope it will be finished by the end of next year.

Q: You've done so many different things -- where do your biggest royalty checks come from?

A: (Laughs.) A diversity of places. Mostly children's books, I suppose. A lot of it comes from "The Phantom Tollbooth," the book I did with Norton Juster. That book has become a great annuity for me, a sizable one. It just celebrated its 50th anniversary, and it's amazing how well it still sells. It's also amazed me how much the book and my art has been remembered. At the time, in the early '60s, it was work that I didn't really appreciate that much. I had difficulty doing it and didn't feel like I was a natural at that kind of thing.

Q: Was it hard because so much of "Phantom Tollbooth" feels abstract?

A: No. Maurice, in the new edition, wrote that I was one of the few cartoonists who can illustrate ideas. I've always felt that illustrating the abstract -- drawing ideas -- is one of the primary jobs of the cartoonist.

Q: It's hilarious how often you crossed paths with big cultural figures of the past century. One of the most surprising connections in your memoir is probably your friendship with Philip Roth.

A: Whom I haven't seen in years. We had been good friends, then, for whatever reasons I never really understood, it just stopped. Which saddened me. Philip was one of the funniest people I've known. He was falling-on-the-floor funny. Philip and I were great at parties. You couldn't guess that from his books, though.

Q: Also, Stanley Kubrick talked to you about writing "Dr. Strangelove"? How did you meet?

A: I forget. We were both from the Bronx. I knew him casually at first. When he was shooting "Spartacus," he got in touch with me about a movie based on my modern dancer cartoons. He had a dancer girlfriend. That was the first of several times we met about making a movie together. But we had different sensibilities. He was always the guy in the charge, even beyond the ordinary need of a director to be controlling. He approached me about "Strangelove," but I wasn't going to be a stenographer. I wouldn't have used his broad strokes -- that Mad magazine approach. (Writer) Terry Southern eventually did an amazing job, though.

Q: And you claim to have introduced Jack Nicholson to Warren Beatty? OK, now, come on.

A: Ask Jack! I wrote "Carnal Knowledge." We were shooting in Vancouver -- Robert Altman was a good friend and was stuck in this small town making "McCabe & Mrs. Miller." He threw a party. I brought Jack and Arty (Garfunkel). We stood on the outskirts of the room. Jack was apprehensive. He was saying about Warren, "He's got the right height for a movie star, the right looks." He said it as a joke, but not really. Warren, of course, stood at the center of the room, being the kind of guy he is, always at the center of every room.

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