Jules Feiffer: 'I was a child of the Great Depression, so the world was in black and white and cartoons were in color.'

Late in life, the famed cartoonist-playwright-author is looking to complete the project he's always wanted to do.

June 18, 2012

Download Story

As a child, I spent years enraptured with The Phantom Tollbooth, the classic young adult novel that just celebrated its 50th anniversary. Though the story itself was breathtaking, a huge draw was the illustrations, especially that famous map that so elloquently did what words could not to ellucidate the world author Norton Juster had created. I'd play games with it, pretending that I was in that world and using the map as my guide.

It wasn't until years later that I learned that that map was drawn by cartoonist Jules Feiffer, and not until just a few weeks ago did I learn that it almost didn't happen. Apparently, Feiffer was roommates with Juster at the time, and drew the illustrations and his version of the Tollbooth land as a favor to his friend.

"I might not have done it if a publisher had presented it to me," Feiffer recalls. "And until the 50th anniversary [of the book], I was not that proud of it. It never seemed natural to me. It was something I was reaching for."

He also said he's met many readers like me who fixated on the map — but that they shouldn't.

"The map — all I did was copy Norton’s sketch for the map. I can’t read maps. I get lost anytime I look at a road map. All of these things that readers glom onto still are a kind of foreign language to me."

Feiffer was in Chicago recently for the Printer's Row book festival, where he spoke about his memoir, Backing into Forward. The book was lauded when it came out in 2010 (it just came in paperback). But he also got to discuss a new project, a noir-style graphic novel that he says he just "fell into, with an ease that I never expected." 

"It's been far less work than I anticipated." Feiffer continued, when I spoke to him by phone before his trip to Chicago. He describes this project as a big departure from his first "cartoony" graphic novel, Tantrum, which was published in the 1970s and has been described as one of the first of the genre.

Feiffer says that now, he's doing the work he wanted to do when he first started cartooning.

"A frustrating thing I have that I finally overcame was that the very works that most excited me about comic strips and newspaper strips — the adventure strips — these very exciting, realistic adventure strips, which drew me more than any other form...that was the one form I was lousy at," he said. "I could not draw in that style. And as I came to that realization I kind of moved my interests in other directions, which led to the kind of career that I had. The oddity is that now, in my 80s, a year or so ago, I completed a script for a graphic novel....And it turned out at 82 that I knew how to draw at a form I couldn’t [when I was younger]. I finally figured out how to do it when I’m 80. And I’m having a ball."

Feiffer doesn't read a lot of graphics novels — "Some of the stuff, like everything else, isn’t very good," he says — but he has crossed numerous art boundaries. He's also written plays and won an Oscar for an animated short he did in the 1960s. None of this though, was anything he planned.

"You wake up, oddly enough, knowing something that you didn’t know the day before. How that inclination registers on you is a mystery to me."

That goes as well for his memoir, which was praised by David Carr (among others) for being a particularly truthful version of the genre. “Reading Feiffer, you know where the truth lies because it is there on every page — resonant, self-­lacerating and frequently hilarious,” he wrote when it first came out. Feiffer doesn't see it quite that way though.

"It may be a comment on me or other memoirs, but when reviewers said how honest and true it was and how hard I was on myself, my first reaction was, 'Well great, wonderful, I don’t know what they’re talking about. I was just conducting myself the way I always conducted myself in cartoons."

You can see more of Feiffer's work at the Jean Albano Gallery through July 7, and listen to his full interview with Tony Sarabia above.