AFTER SEVEN steady decades at the drafting board, Jules Feiffer believes he’s doing some of his best work these days. And still, as he turns 89 today, what he sometimes renders most intensely is judgment toward his earlier, wobblier artistic self, back when he was trying to figure everything out.
Perhaps that blunt self-criticism is just the stuff, however, required to propel yourself to the apogee of your art.
The Bronx-born artist who broke into comics as a teenager indeed reached that summit, sustaining higher elevations for so long that it gives rise to the question: For breadth and longevity, is Feiffer our greatest living cartoonist?
“He’s certainly near the very pinnacle, wherever that is,” says Art Spiegelman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Maus” and “Breakdowns,” and editor of the recent “Si Lewen’s Parade: An Artist’s Odyssey.”
Part of the impressiveness of Feiffer’s career lies in its sheer eclecticism. His peripatetic creativity found its first nest at age 17 at the studio of the legendary Will Eisner, and the artistically green Feiffer would work on Eisner’s “The Spirit” alongside such other comics greats as Jack Cole and Wally Wood.
Then, in the mid-1950s, came Feiffer’s perfectly timed hiring at the Village Voice, where for four decades his self-titled strip was a creative space to hone his counterculture voice and distinctive style. “Feiffer” not only brought him a Pulitzer but also proved influential to the next generation.
“Jules is at the top, and I’m not even slightly put off by the fact that he’d probably agree,” says Garry Trudeau, the Pulitzer-winning creator of “Doonesbury,” which launched into syndication in 1970. “He had a huge influence on me, to the exclusion of many other greats, I’m sure, so we may both be wrong.”
Once established at the alt-weekly Voice, Feiffer seemed only to spread his wings, authoring not only “Sick, Sick, Sick” cartoon collections but also plays (“Little Murders”) and screenplays (“Carnal Knowledge”), novels (“Harry, the Rat With Women”) and graphic novels (“Tantrum”), children’s books (“The Phantom Tollbooth” art) and animated film shorts (the Oscar-winning “Munro”).
And now, in recent years, Feiffer has found fertile terrain with the noir graphic novels “Kill My Mother” and “Cousin Joseph.” He told me in 2015 of his belief that within in the panels of his noir, he has hit a new gear.
There are still numerous legendary cartoonists among us, including such generational peers of Feiffer’s as MAD artist Al Jaffee. So where might Feiffer rank on that “greatest” list?
“I can’t put a number on his back — and it may be apples and oranges to compare him to a bumper crop of brilliant young cartoonists whose careers are only beginning — but Feiffer could easily rank in the top 10 of living American cartoonists,” says Scott McCloud, the comics scholar (“Understanding Comics”) and graphic novelist (“The Sculptor”).
“My general impression of Feiffer, though, is that I’m struck by his youthful exuberance for the form, awareness of contemporary trends, and his good-hearted appreciation for fellow travelers of previous generations.
“A resilient, adaptable mind, but with unshakable convictions. It’s a nice combination.”
May Jules the Great continue to create with such youthful exuberance, as a nonagenarian next year and for years to come.