Explainers by Jules Feiffer – Introduction by Gary Groth

Feiffer’s strategy was simple: The Voice was read by everyone in New York publishing circles. If he could appear in it on a regular basis, such exposure could give him enough cachet to publish books. “My expectations were simply to get into print, to impress book publishers that there was an audience for my work, and to eventually get these longer cartoon narratives published. It was not at all my ambition to do a sixpanel strip.”

As Feiffer describes it, he just dropped by the Voice office in September or October, 1956, and introduced himself. There were only four people who worked there at the time: Fancher, Wolf, and two editors, John Wilcock and Jerry Tallmer. He spoke first to Tallmer, who also wrote theatrical reviews. Feiffer brought three or four dummies of books he had put together and shown book publishers — including “Munro” and Sick, Sick, Sick — all of which had been rejected, and showed them to Tallmer, who passed them around to the other three. Wilcock, who had been writing a column called “The Village Square” beginning in the first issue, remembers “the day Jules came into the office and we all clustered around and loved his work.” They basically gave Feiffer carte blanche on the spot to do whatever he wanted (presumably within reason, but maybe not) — an unheard-of editorial freedom then, as now, and one of which Feiffer took full advantage by creating a revolutionary comic strip unlike any that had preceded it.


From the first strip, which appeared on October 24, 1956, Feiffer wasted no time confronting the social and psychological, the private and public issues that defined his generation, described by Auden as the postwar generation living in the Age of Anxiety. His first strip’s protagonist symbolizes the frightened office drone caught up in the rat race; two weeks later, Feiffer illustrates the disconnectedness and alienation of modern urban life; the following week he tackles the inherent duplicity of modern marketing strategies. He was, from the beginning, a relentless observer of what was going on around him, and the 10 years of strips in this book are practically an encyclopedia of issues preoccupying the public intellectual from 1956 to 1966. Feiffer cites a number of writers who crossed boundaries from the sociological to the cultural and the literary who “influenced me in terms of my politics and my political courage.” The most important of these were I.F. Stone, the independent, contrarian investigative journalist who exposed the hidden machinations of power politics from the Truman administration through Nixon’s; and Murray Kempton, first a reporter, then a columnist for the (then) liberal New York Post, known for his iconoclasm and stylistic virtuosity. Feiffer also read and profited from Dwight Macdonald (Against the American Grain), Edgar Friedenberg (Coming of Age in America), Paul Goodman (Growing up Absurd), Eric Fromm (The Sane Society), and Lewis Mumford (The Conduct of Life). (He also admired Norman Mailer, who was writing a column in the Voice when they started publishing his strip. “I thought he was one of the most exciting American writers on the scene. Maybe the most exciting young writer on the scene.”) None of them were theorists or academics who wrote obscure treatises or abstruse essays; they were, to a man, thoroughly committed to explicating the most vexing issues of their day and wrestling insights out of them, usually in elegant prose. (The March 9, 1960 strip is practically a catalogue of contemporary intellectual preoccupations.)


Originally, Feiffer claims that he intended to explore more personal and psychological afflictions because in terms of cartooning “that was something that was in the air at the time,” probably referring to such works as William Steig’s The Rejected Lovers and The Lonely Ones. His detour into and eventual commitment to political commentary was borne out of a combination of rage and moral imperative: “I by no means thought of myself as wanting to be a political cartoonist,” Feiffer said, “although my politics were very well-defined on a personal level and I thought of myself as very much on the left. I never thought of myself as a political cartoonist until some months in when Eisenhower so enraged me with his comment on the Brown vs. Board of Education decision where he basically said, ‘It’s a lousy ruling, but it’s the law of the land, so I guess we have to back it up.’ And once I started in politics I couldn’t stop. Much of what I was going after was what government did with language, — the double-speak that Orwell wrote about so brilliantly in 1984. That was very much a part of Eisenhower’s administration. It’s a part of most administrations, but I particularly became aware of it as I came of age in Eisenhower’s time: McCarthyism and post-McCarthyism, the ‘witch hunts,’ the Atomic Energy Program and nuclear testing. How government said one thing which meant something else.”

Feiffer’s other major subject was male-female relations (known these days as the gender wars) though the author does not necessarily draw a firm line between politics and personal relationships; indeed, private neurosis tends to blend seamlessly into the political realm in Feiffer’s world (note the March 13, 1957 strip where the man’s political conscience is neutered by psychoanalysis). Perhaps this made it easier for Feiffer — and the reader — to move from one to the other without missing a beat.