Now here, at home in the Hamptons at age 85, Jules Feiffer — the Pulitzer Prize-winning author/artist/screenwriter/playwright — humbly says he has at last learned to draw, a world away from Wall Street and world wars away from his ’40s artistic entree into the famed studio of graphic-novel pioneer and “The Spirit” creator Will Eisner.
And so it is not only a treat but also a prudent rarity that this weekend, Jules Feiffer will walk among us carefully in suburban Washington at the two-day Small Press Expo, where the longtime Village Voice fixture is set to be saluted and celebrated as the godfather of the alternative-weekly cartoon. (He will speak tonight at 7 at Politics & Prose.) For its 20th birthday, SPX, as it’s known, is shining a spotlight on great alt-weekly artists, including Lynda Barry, Charles Burns, Ben Katchor and Tom Tomorrow — all of whom will be in conversation with Feiffer come noon Saturday at the North Bethesda Marriott Hotel & Convention Center. And all along that panel, praise is sure to flow toward the godfather.
“Jules Feiffer is the man who invented the genre we now call ‘alt-weekly cartooning,’ and everyone who came after him owes him an immense, unpayable debt of gratitude,” says Tom Tomorrow, the nom-de-toon of Dan Perkins, the Herblock Prize-winning creator of “This Modern World.” “Without Jules, there would probably have been no Matt Groening (“Life in Hell,” “The Simpsons”) or Lynda Barry (“Ernie Pook’s Comeek”), and there would certainly have not been a Tom Tomorrow.
“As a writer and an artist, he’s in a class by himself — a genuine American icon.”
So you could say, in a way, that without a Jules Feiffer, there may not be a Homer Simpson. Yet we can definitively declare that without Feiffer, we would not have his 1961 Academy Award-winning animated short “Munro,” or his ’70s films “Carnal Knowledge” or “Little Murders” — let alone his two new works, the illustrated children’s book “Rupert Can Dance” and his latest graphic novel, the Depression-set, film noir-inspired “Kill My Mother.”
Feiffer, it seems, has tapped a new vein of prolific creativity. Turns out, the city that long ignited him had begun to dampen him, and the departure has rekindled his creativity.
“It has to do with age. I no longer live in the city — I can’t walk in the city for miles,” says the Bronx-born Feiffer, who worked in Manhattan during his near-half-century with the Village Voice. “I would come up with ideas while I walked, and sitting in the park, I would be writing scenes. And I can’t do that now. I can’t walk a block without stopping to catch a breath. It’s the lungs, the asthma. And I can’t hear [so well] anymore. I love going to the theater and going to movies — my daughter [Halley Feiffer] acts in them and writes them, but I can’t go to them.
“The city is now a challenge that beats the crap out of me,” he says by phone. “That level of masochism, I can’t take.”
Yet a chance winter stay in the Hamptons through a student of his at Stony Brook Southampton — “I discovered I loved living out here” — has brought a physical peace and an artistic rebirth.
“Sitting at my drafting table here, I’m drawing in my 80s better than in my 50s or 30s,” says Feiffer, whose loose, graceful line in his syndicated strip “Feiffer” influenced generations of artists, including “Doonesbury’s” Garry Trudeau. “My writing is as good or better than it ever was. … My earlier ambition was to be [Hall of Fame cartoonist] Milton Caniff and to be as a successful as Eisner, but I couldn’t draw like those guys — I didn’t have the facility with a brush. … I couldn’t draw backgrounds — the stuff I tried was pathetic.
“Finally at 80, I learned drawing in my own style,” Feiffer says with a laugh. “Only I know what a fraud I am.”
Feiffer jokes to acknowledge that as a teen apprentice, he was in the workday presence of groundbreaking comics legends. But after what he calls a “long adolescence,” he began finding his own footing.
“I was born in the Bronx with paranoid Jewish parents who grew up under the threat of pogroms. My mother was always afraid of her shadow,” Feiffer says. But in 1950, he hitchhiked across the country, and the journey was life-changing. “I walked into a Frank Capra movie. Everybody was smart, and there were only one or two small threats. … It just altered my sense of who I was and what I am. It changed me radically.”
A few years later, after a stint in the military, he sensed a postwar generation needed to be heard, and he found voice at the fledgling Village Voice. “It was an extraordinary time, and the Voice gave extraordinary [editorial] freedom that hadn’t existed. … There was a need for this public discourse, and I was one of the few [like satirist Mort Sahl] doing this. … My audience had assumed they didn’t have First Amendment rights.”
Feiffer took on everything from presidents to nuclear arms to the Vietnam War, his sharp satire cutting against the grain of his fluid line.
“Once I did the strip, and realized how much freedom I had, it just took off,” he says. “If the Voice hadn’t existed, I wouldn’t have had the career I had. I would be an artistic director somewhere, and I would have been miserable.”
Instead, the Voice was a springboard to theater and film and novels and graphic novels and university teaching. He is in the Comic Book Hall of Fame: is one of only three strip cartoonists ever to win the Pulitzer for Editorial Cartooning; and his papers and illustration live in the Library of Congress.
Now, just up the road from the library, Washington can appreciate the icon anew for a weekend.
“This will be the first time in quite a while I’ve traveled,” Feiffer says. “I’ve developed a bronchial condition … And about 30 to 35 percent of the time, I get the beginnings of pneumonia [when I travel].”
And then Feiffer says, with his characteristic humorous zing: “It’s one of those things, since I have an immunity system of zilch.”
MICHAEL CAVNA will appear on the SPX panel “Pro Tips: How to Get Reviewed,” Saturday at 2 p.m.