Feiffer’s Darker Half
By Christian McLean
Jules Feiffer lets his stories steer their own course. Years ago he started writing a picture book for his youngest daughter, Julie. Quickly he understood the language wasn’t allowing it to be a picture book and soon he was embarking on the full length children’s novel, A Room with a Zoo. His newest endeavor is uncharted territory for the 84-year-old writer and artist who has accrued a Pulitzer for his serial comic strip Feiffer, an Academy Award for his short film Munro, and two Obies. The graphic novel, Kill My Mother, began as a 1940s noir detective novel.
He’s 113 pages into illustrating what will be around 160 pages when it’s finished and the genre is posing some new, and enjoyable, challenges. The fullness of the images has forced Feiffer to reinvent his style. Feiffer’s work has never been known for background art. Now the settings range from the lush green jungles of the South Pacific to the cold streets of noir’s Bay City. It’s not just a smattering of atmosphere, these illustrations bleed to the edges of each cell. If you know Feiffer’s other works you’ll note his drawings usually have a whimsical or casual look, like he sketched them in 10 seconds. It’s a style he has perfected over the past 60 years.
Kill My Mother is different. The nature of the book required Feiffer to retrain his hand and draw more realistic, gritty, sometimes violent characters. The tone had to adhere to the world of noir, echoing Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler – smug wise guys and femme fatales.
A seasoned screenwriter (Popeye, Carnal Knowledge), Feiffer wrote the first draft as a script. The terse, hard language of the genre propelled the story, but it wasn’t until he physically drew the characters that he realized much of the dialogue had to be rewritten.
“Once I knew what they looked like, I knew how they talked,” the author said in a recent interview.
As the pages are drawn, the dialogue continues to evolve. His current draft of text has enough squiggles and ink on it to rival the illustrations.
Aside from the dialogue, drawing the characters enlightened something else about the story.
“Relationships began to develop on paper that didn’t quite flower on the printed [text] page. . . I discovered very quickly, that I was actually directing a movie on paper,” said Feiffer.
The blocking, the positioning of the characters became incredibly important. It was all designed to heighten the emotion behind the dialogue. But he needed to do it without the reader’s awareness. It couldn’t be overly dramatic, because then the drama would take away from the storytelling.
“You’re not showing off page by page, you’re telling a story. You want the reader to have to follow it. If this book I’m doing is not a page-turner, then it fails.”
This July, Feiffer will be teaching a workshop on Visual Storytelling at the Southampton Children’s Literature Conference. He’s been a faculty member of the MFA in Creative Writing program at Stony Brook Southampton for years now, but this summer he’s taking what he knows about comics, picture books and, yes, graphic novels and sharing it. The workshop sounds very simple, teach them how to tell a story with words and pictures. For Feiffer, there is no separating the two. But they both have to work together to move the story along. He feels that sometimes very eager artists forget this and over illustrate to show off their talent. If it doesn’t serve the book, no matter how beautiful the work, Feiffer believes the book as a whole will fall short.
Creating Kill My Mother is, in many ways, the culmination of Feiffer’s life. As an unathletic kid growing up in the Bronx during the Great Depression, he had little respite outside books, radio and the cinema. He devoured comics like Will Eisner’s comic The Spirit, authors like Hammett and reveled in the films of Howard Hawks and the footwork of Fred Astaire.
The Spirit created a “dark atmospheric reality that influenced the whole field and certainly influences this book I’m working on right now. The graphic novel never could have been the way it is without Eisner,” said Feiffer.
In Astaire, he learned something even more important.
“My approach to work, since I was a kid, has been influenced by Fred Astaire and his dancing,” Feiffer said. “Where he looks like he is doing nothing, and it looks like he just thought it up — it looks totally easy. Then you read that it took three months for him to do this dance and figure it out. For this to work, it’s got to look like it’s effortless. And that’s where the effort goes.”
What else is Feiffer working on? He just finished Rupert Can Dance a children’s picture book about a cat that dances up a storm every time his owner goes to bed. Feiffer’s dancers have been a strong current in his work for over half a century, but this is the first opportunity he’s had to include them in a children’s book. It’s scheduled to come out on the same day as Kill My Mother – Mother’s Day 2014. Disney has also picked up Man in the Ceiling, Feiffer’s first children’s novel, for Broadway production. Andrew Lippa (Big Fish, Addams Family) has been brought on to do the composition and lyrics and Feiffer will be writing the book. Also, some of his new drawings will be on display at 4 North Main St. Gallery in Southampton as part of a collective show (reception on July 6th). And somehow, even after all these years, he still makes it look effortless.