ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
A critic once called Jules Feiffer one of the best cartoonists now writing and the best writer now cartooning. That quote is in "Out Of Line," a new book about Feiffer, a man who does both words and pictures.
JULES FEIFFER: It was the combination of words and pictures that fascinated me from the beginning, that encouraged me to learn how to read so I could figure out what the hell these people were talking about.
SIEGEL: At age 86, Jules Feiffer is into his umpteenth career. In the 1940s, he drew comic strips. In the '50s, he started a strip for The Village Voice that would run for four decades. In 1961, Feiffer illustrated his friend Norton Juster's story, "The Phantom Tollbooth," the first of several children's books he's worked on. By the '70s, he had written a couple of novels and a few plays, some of which became movies, most famously, "Carnal Knowledge." Jules Feiffer is now working in a genre that didn't exist when he started out - the graphic novel. Last year, he published "Kill My Mother," and now he's working on the prequel.
FEIFFER: Here's the hero of the book, who was dead at the beginning of "Kill My Mother." He's Sam.
SIEGEL: This is the father of...
FEIFFER: The husband at the beginning of "Kill My Mother..."
SIEGEL: The husband of Elsie and the father of...
FEIFFER: Yeah, yes. And the prequel is about how he dies.
SIEGEL: Jules Feiffer met us at our New York bureau with a stack of oversized drawings, a bigger stack of memories and a copy of the new book about him, "Out Of Line." It includes his crayon drawing of Mickey Mouse from 1934. Jules was a 5-year-old kid in the Bronx.
FEIFFER: Five. Oh, I had to be better than this at 5.
SIEGEL: (Laughter). I don't think that's a bad Mickey Mouse for a 5-year-old.
FEIFFER: Four, perhaps but 5, it's - I'm a little worried about his future.
SIEGEL: You (laughter) you were just drawing for amusement all the time at that age already?
FEIFFER: I did nothing else. I mean, it - first of all, I was born in 1929 when all sorts of things happened. The Depression hit, but also the adventure comic strip hit. "Tarzan" started as a comic strip. "Buck Rogers" started. So in a way, this was a comic birth that I - all the things that affected me came about in the first few minutes of my birth. And...
SIEGEL: Just been working out the details for the past 86 years.
FEIFFER: With some problems.
FEIFFER: We were scrambling for money to pay the rent. There was a sense of tension in the household always, as it were in most poor people's households. The kids aren't told anything because you're not ready to hear this stuff, and parents kept secrets in those days. You know, everything was a secret. So in order to make my own secrets in a way, to establish my own way out of things I couldn't understand, you draw. And it's a way of not just escape, but of survival.
SIEGEL: In the book "Out Of Line: The Art Of Jules Feiffer," there's some art by your mother, and you brought me some of these drawings.
FEIFFER: The drawings that you're looking at now were drawings at the time they were done that I hated because they seemed to diminish me. My mother had to make the family living during the Depression, so she was at her drawing board all day long doing these fashion drawings. And she would look at store windows dragging me along to - you know, and pointing out details of clothing in Saks Fifth Avenue or Bergdorf.
SIEGEL: You were deeply interested in this I bet.
FEIFFER: I was screamingly bored and thought she was doing this to torture me. And in fact, I saw it as torture. She would do these sketches and she would take them down to the rag trade on 7th Avenue and go door-to-door to manufacturers, where she had some customers, and they would pick a design and give her $3 for it, then out of which they'd make a coat. So it required a lot of skill, none of which I appreciated until I became aged.
SIEGEL: Until you became aged, (laughter) I see.
FEIFFER: Yes, it's a wonderful - you know, dotage does a lot for you, in terms of forgiving your mother.
SIEGEL: When I think of you, I think of the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I think of this as your natural habitat. You're now out in the - you're now living out in the Hamptons these days.
SIEGEL: Is it anything like Manhattan?
FEIFFER: Robert, your audience can't see, but take a look at me. You're looking at an 86-year-old man. An 86-year-old man can't do what a 50-year-old man did. I can't walk a block anymore because it's hard. I have trouble breathing. I can't hear anymore. I have these two hearing aids which work on alternate days, alternate ears.
FEIFFER: I am an old man. And as an old man, not having to walk to the grocery, but to get in the car and drive, when I don't hit something...
SIEGEL: Yeah. (Laughter).
FEIFFER: ...Is a boon.
SIEGEL: That's an important...
FEIFFER: And since I had to move somewhere and I had been teaching at Stony Brook Southampton College and had lots of friends out there, I started to look around there to live. And then I had to figure out what career I could have out here when theater - because you can't write a play and not hear it. So the natural instinct was to pull together all of the forms that I had loved and then it occurred to me to go back to noir, which I had also - you know, the Hammett and Chandler and those guys who I - and do a graphic novel - a little - and use all the talents that I had picked up over the years, but I didn't have to leave the house.
SIEGEL: Despite this - all this old man stuff - Martha Fay writes about this in "Out Of Line" - in 1997, you're 68 years old, you'd been drawing for The Village Voice for over 40 years, and the voice decides that they could have your strip for 200-a-week through a syndicate.
FEIFFER: They were paying me too much.
SIEGEL: They were paying you $75,000.
SIEGEL: You're fired - fired at age 68 and I must say, your response to that event was not to go be an old man someplace.
FEIFFER: My response to that was first to get as drunk as I could.
SIEGEL: (Laughter). Yes?
FEIFFER: And then, you know, various things happened because I had friends. So within five days of being fired by The Village Voice, I'm hired by The New York Times. That's not bad - and Vanity Fair. Somebody else makes a call and Vanity Fair gives me some money to do virtually nothing because they never published me, or published me once or twice. But suddenly, people who, it turns out, were fond of me over the years decide that they're going to save my ass, and they did.
SIEGEL: There's this statement that's always regarded as being very wise - that there are no second acts in American life. But I have to say that you've had a few acts, you know?
FEIFFER: Yes, yeah. Well, I've had endless acts because I ran out of steam on one thing or because life happened on another thing. And I developed the resourcefulness and where I would just look around for some other way to do what I wanted to do. If it happens too fast, you don't build these - what I used to call these rejection deltoids and (laughter) - where you are so used to being hit in the face that you just get up again automatically. The kids who were successful in high school from the beginning didn't know how to do that, so they would take a couple of slaps and they'd go into their father's business.
SIEGEL: Instead, you've been an emotional bodybuilder all this time - psychological bodybuilder.
FEIFFER: The only part of bodybuilding I've ever done...
FEIFFER: ...Is with my hand and my pen.
SIEGEL: Jules Feiffer, thanks a lot for talking.
FEIFFER: This was a lot of fun, Robert. Thank you.
SIEGEL: We've been talking with Jules Feiffer about "Out Of Line: The Art Of Jules Feiffer" by Martha Fay.
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