Jules Feiffer came of age as a cartoonist during the Eisenhower era—a time of middle-class conformity and prosperity, with the threat of the bomb brewing beneath the bland surface. “We took Ike to work and to bed. He gave us complacency and a nervous stomach,” wrote Feiffer. Then and now, Feiffer addresses the anxieties of the nervous stomach. A versatile social satirist, he delves into unrequited love, urban neurosis, self-analysis, sexual frustration, communication breakdown, and—a defining political preoccupation—the stupidity of power. Explaining the origins of his art, Feiffer told an interviewer: “Back then [in the ’50s] comedy . . . was mired in insults and gags. It was Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, Burns and Allen, Ozzie and Harriet. There was no such thing as comedy about relationships, nothing about the newly urban and collegiate Americans. What I was interested in was using humor as a reflection of one’s own confusion, ambivalence and dilemma, dealing with sexual life as one knew it to be.”
Born in the Bronx in 1929, Feiffer took to drawing early, and upon winning a gold medal in an art contest at age five, he set his course. Throughout high school, he excelled in art, and after graduation he took classes at the Art Students League of New York and the Pratt Institute. Feiffer approached one of his boyhood idols, Will Eisner, (creator of the cartoon The Spirit) who employed Feiffer until he was drafted in 1951. As a member of the Signal Corps (1951-53), he belonged to the animation unit. During that time, Feiffer created his first political cartoon, Munro, about a four-year-old boy mistakenly drafted into the military. (Later, Feiffer adapted Munro into an animated cartoon, which received a 1961 Academy Award).
In 1956, Feiffer offered some cartoons for free to a fledgling Greenwich Village paper, The Village Voice, and thus initiated a 41-year relationship, which ended in 1997. Originally titled Sick, Sick, Sick, his weekly strip became Feiffer when he tired of explaining that it wasn’t his humor that was sick—as Newsweek and Time had claimed—but society itself. He collected these cartoons for his first book in 1958; in 1960 his work entered into major syndication, featuring signature characters such as his ruefully introspective and ever-rejected Bernard Mergendeiler and his often depressed but ultimately resilient Dancer.
In addition to his cartoons, which earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1986 and have been collected in several books, Feiffer has been active in the theatre. His plays are demanding, intentionally so: “I found that when a play didn’t ask of me anything but to love it, I almost never loved it. But when a play attacked me, confused me, made me wonder about myself and my attitudes, I found that, in the end, most entertaining and most edifying. . . . And that was the kind of theatre I was hoping that I could learn to write.” Feiffer’s scripts include Little Murders (1967), The White House Murder Case (1970), and Carnal Knowledge (1970).
Extending his talents, Feiffer turned to writing and illustrating children’s books, a decision that grew out of reading to his daughters. Says Feiffer of his foray into children’s literature, “I fell madly in love with it—just as I did with playwriting in my 30s.” These works range from The Man in the Ceiling (1993) to Meanwhile (1997), his first all-color picture book.
Feiffer’s satirist’s pen remains sharp. The first cartoonist whose work appeared in The New York Times, he contributes a monthly strip to the paper’s Op-Ed page. His work is also featured in The New Yorker and Vanity Fair.
Feiffer: The Collected Works (1989)
Sick, Sick, Sick (1958)
Knock Knock (1976)
Little Murders (1967)
Carnal Knowledge (1971)
Harry, the Rat with Women (1963)
I Lost My Bear (1998)
The Man in the Ceiling (1993)
The Phantom Tollbooth (by Norton Juster, 1961, illustrator)
Feiffer replaced Maurice Sendak, who cancelled due to illness.