Backing Into Forward: A Memoir
by Jules Feiffer
Reviewed by Nancy Rommelmann
This past February, cartoonist and author Jules Feiffer delivered the eulogy for his friend, and my stepfather, The New York Review of Books caricaturist David Levine, explaining that Dave assumed the mantle that every serious satirist must, that of "the artist as the happy bomb thrower."
Anyone who's followed editorial cartooning for the past five decades knows Feiffer as a fellow saboteur. Best-known for his weekly syndicated strip in the Village Voice, for 42 years he tracked and shot down our politics, our hang-ups, our sexual mores. And while he claims, in Backing Into Forward, his vivid, hilarious and brutally self-analytic memoir, to have "happened to be standing there when the door to America's crisis of identity started. So I walked through," don't believe him. As he makes clear, Feiffer created every opportunity he ever got, not tapping into the zeitgeist so much as sinking his teeth into it.
How does a poor boy from the Bronx get the courage to take on the culture? He starts by trying, and failing, to take on his domineering mother, who never once stands up for him; who gives away his dog; who, when Feiffer asks if just one of the hundreds invited to his bar mitzvah party can be a friend of his, snaps, "Don't be selfish."
Feiffer fights back with his pen. He humors the schoolyard bullies with sketches of Popeye and Dick Tracy, and at 16 persuades his comic book artist hero, Will Eisner, to give him an apprenticeship. A two-year stint in the Army turns Feiffer into "an enraged satirist."
"I was twenty-seven and I wanted to blow the cover on what was holding us back," he writes, of the 1956 debut of "Sick, Sick, Sick," his strip for the Voice, "eight-or-ten-panel monologues -- unwinding, self-serving kvetches in which my 'I' character gives away more than he means to, exposes what he'd rather keep hidden. It could be comic strip psychotherapy, laugh while you wince, wince while you laugh."
He winces and laughs his way to a Pulitzer (for "Sick, Sick, Sick"), an Obie (Little Murders) and an Oscar (the animated film Munro). He writes Carnal Knowledge. For 40 years, he operates at the highest levels of art and editorial, and with this comes the spoils. He drinks at Elaine's, dines at George Plimpton's with Truman Capote and Gore Vidal, retreats to Yaddo with Philip Roth. He coaxes Hugh Hefner into the riot-torn streets of Chicago during the 1968 Democratic Convention (where Hef gets whapped on the butt with a nightstick), and goes chest-to-chest with Dustin Hoffman, who is trying to pull out of playing the role of "Popeye," a film Feiffer wrote:
"I urged, I cajoled, he would not bite ... we ended up in a screaming match. In my rage, I picked up a script that happened to be lying on the coffee table in the sitting room of the suite where we met. I screamed, 'You make me jump through hoops to find out why you won't do my beautiful screenplay, and instead you're going to do this...?'"
The script Feiffer was waving in his hand was Kramer vs. Kramer
Here is Feiffer wincing and laughing at himself. At 80, he is content to survey with tenderness his children, his grandchild, his wife; to teach and write children's books; to caricature himself in the end pages as Fred Astaire, in top hat and tails, dancing himself right off the margin ....
But wait! One last grenade, aimed at a new editor of the Village Voice
, who says he's willing to pay pennies for "Sick, Sick, Sick" in syndication, but as for a job, Feiffer is out. Feiffer titles the chapter, "Voiceless."
The decline of newsprint almost certainly heralds the end of the must-see editorial cartoon, the water-cooler cartoon. And it makes me wonder: what replaces the lacerating wit and cultural commentary of a Feiffer, a Levine (eased out the door, too, at The New York Review
, relieved of a salary after more than 40 years)? Television's screaming heads?