Explainers by Jules Feiffer – Introduction by Gary Groth



In 1956, Jules Feiffer was a 27-year-old aspiring cartoonist with lofty goals and a hunger to see his work in print. He had previously apprenticed with Will Eisner for six years (1946-1952), eventually writing Eisner’s “Spirit” strip — and, even, in 1949, securing a gig writing and drawing a one-page kid strip, “Clifford,” that ran in the same comics supplement that featured “The Spirit.” Aside from this one pro bono slot (Eisner did not consider it worth paying for), he went unpublished until 1956, discovering in the interim that book publishers were not receptive to the kind of cartooning he wanted to do. He wasn’t interested in gag cartoons and at any rate lacked the technical polish to appear in The New Yorker. He was most interested in drawing long comic stories for an adult readership. He started his now legendary comics story “Munro” — about a small child drafted into the U.S. Army due to a bureaucratic error — in 1951 (while still in the Army), but struggled with its story line, finishing it two years later in 1953. But there was no market at the time for a 50-page satirical comic story aimed at adults. None. (He didn’t even bother hitting up the then-extant comic book publishers: “What I did had nothing to do with what they did.”) The straits that an aspiring cartoonist with grand ambitions found himself in at that time were indeed dire. Feiffer described his life’s circumstances after his two-year stint in the Army in 1952 thusly: “I went on unemployment, and was getting money from the Army, and rented an apartment and tried to become a cartoonist. Then I’d run out of money, and get a job for six months with a schlock art studio, until I had enough time to be able to go on unemployment — you had to be fired to be eligible, so I managed to get myself fired. That was never hard.”

And so it went.

Feiffer was a devotee of the aesthetic pleasures of cartooning, but he wanted to use the form to confront and comment on the hurly-burly of the life he was watching unfold around him: A Cold War that dominated American foreign policy and became an inviolable political status quo; the oppressive social aftermath of McCarthyism; President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s mealy-mouthed hesitance to support the inchoate civil rights movement; postwar affluence leading to an exodus to the suburbs, heightened postwar manufacturing capability, and the ascendancy of the consumer culture leading to The Organization Man and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit; the militarization of American life (against which Eisenhower so presciently cautioned the American public); and the overwhelming failure of the popular media to honestly reflect the reality of relations between men and women.

Feiffer wanted to use comics to stir things up and to get into the thick of the fray, but there wasn’t much of a fray to be in the thick of in the mid-’50s. Media outlets reflected and reinforced the political status quo, and journalism was generally tepid. Dissent was marginalized and appeared in small magazines such as Dissent, Partisan Review or I. F. Stone’s Weekly (begun in 1953). “I was part of a generation,” said Feiffer. “I identified with that generation and I was curious about what made us all tick. I was also outraged by the politics of the time, the acquiescence to the oppressiveness of the time and the willingness of people to be censored or to self-censor. And if you read the mass media or the mainstream magazines like The New Yorker, you didn’t seem to notice anything going against the grain. Certainly you never saw it in cartoons, although there were some brilliant cartoonists, but they weren’t touching on these subjects.”


Serendipitously, the Village Voice published its first issue on October 25, 1955. The Voice was founded by Ed Fancher (the publisher), Dan Wolf (the editor), and Norman Mailer (silent financial backer, who also came up not only with cash but with the name of the paper). According to Wolf, in a 1962 essay, the Voice was created at a time “when the vulgarities of McCarthyism had withered the possibilities of a true dialogue between people.” The Voice‘s mission, perforce, was to reinvigorate the possibilities of journalism, and toward that goal it published gutsy investigative journalism of a leftish bent and, perhaps more importantly, cultivated a passel of individualistic writers who were encouraged to maintain their own distinctive voices and points of view and who wrote about everything from the arts to politics (and which originally included Jonas Mekas, Nat Hentoff, and, of course, Mailer, among many others). The Voice represented a radical departure from the gentleman journalism and consensus thinking that prevailed in most newspapers and magazines, and presaged the New Journalism that would become a force in the ’60s. It both reflected and represented an optimism among its contributors — and maybe its constituency — that the times they were a-changin’; in a 1956 Voice column, Mailer wrote that “I feel the hints, the clues, the whispers of a new time coming.”

When he saw the Voice, Feiffer felt those same hints, clues, and whispers of a new time coming — and a career opportunity as well. “My approach to the Voice was totally cynical,” he said. “I had been turned down over and over again by book publishers. ‘Munro’ was turned down. The book I called Sick, Sick, Sick was turned down. …It was a Catch-22 situation. I had no name, so who was going to buy this work that looked like children’s drawings, but was very adult material? Now, if my name were Steig, it would be marketable. If my name were Steinberg, then they could sell it. If my name were Thurber, no problem. So I had to figure out a way of becoming Steig, Steinberg or Thurber in order to get what I wanted into print. I thought of all sorts of things. I could kill somebody, and then get famous that way, and then I could get published. I could commit suicide… suicide was not yet established as a form of self-promotion, as it later became with several poets. But short of suicide or murder, I didn’t know what to do until the Voice came along.”