Explainers by Jules Feiffer – Introduction by Gary Groth

This is where Feiffer’s two modern masculine archetypes first appeared — Bernard (timid, insecure, sensitive, neurotically reflective, i.e., couldn’t score) on November 13, 1957, and Huey (testosterone-driven, confident, oblivious, i.e., scored all the time) on March 12, 1958. They represented the twin poles of male immaturity, and achieved their dramatic apotheosis in Carnal Knowledge as Jonathan and Sandy (written first as a play, then a 1971 film, directed by Mike Nichols). “It was important to me,” says Feiffer of Bernard, “that I was different from other cartoonists and other strips in that I was not going to have any established characters, and I think Jerry Tallmer loved the ineffectual guys I was doing and he may have suggested that I make him a permanent character; he didn’t say, Give him a name, but he didn’t have to [because] that’s what he was saying. I thought, well, why not? I’ll have one guy who the readers can identify with, because it’s false to make it a different guy each week when it’s the same character.” And Huey? “I was at a party in the Village and I was more or less the Bernard character looking at all these gorgeous Radcliffe girls and all these gorgeous Hunter girls and all these gorgeous Swarthmore girls, all of them feminists, all of them intellectuals — it was before feminism but they were feminists anyhow — and all of them draping themselves over these imitation Brando types who were big, muscular, illiterate thugs — big and sexy and disheveled and wearing T-shirts and jeans, the worst dressed guys at the party who couldn’t say much more than ‘duh.’ And these women were all over them. Huey came from that.”


Although Feiffer may have identified more with Bernard, he was an equal opportunity satirist and as hard on Bernard as he was on Huey — in one strip (August 31, 1961), in a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde act, Bernard practically turns into Huey. He was also equally hard on the women — those who browbeat Bernard or gave him the bum’s rush and those who were mesmerized by Huey’s sexual magnetism and oafishness. Feiffer admits that “women at the time would chew me out; they’d say, ‘I love your work but you’re very hard on women and you’re very critical of women,’ and I would say back at them, ‘Show me where I’m nicer to men than I am to the women.’ [Such criticism from women] irritated me because it seemed to me that it misunderstood what I was doing. I saw my work as very pro-women.” If anything, his depiction of women — and of men, politicians, just about everything — got more acid over the years. His most devastating strip about women’s taste in men appears on March 12, 1966; without even the help of Huey or Bernard, women are depicted as specifically choosing brutish characteristics for their ideal man — with a kicker in the last panel that savages the Hueys of the world and even takes a parting shot at the exploitation of labor, a small masterpiece of formal concision and comic timing.


Feiffer is right, though: He’s at least as hard on men as he is on women, and probably harder: Men’s treatment of and attitudes toward women are skewered throughout (see November 19, 1961), and there are several strips that I’d call proto-Carnal Knowledge (March 26, 1958 is the earliest) in which the themes Feiffer expanded upon in that screenplay are first rehearsed. His commentary in the strips about married couples is particularly toxic (as it was in Carnal Knowledge), not toward the institution so much as the stubborn and tragic inability of couples in marriages to connect: “The alienation between men and women who needed each other and, on some level, were passionate about each other, yet what set in was a restlessness and dissatisfaction that lead to the kind of cartoons I did. I think what I was talking about was what marriages would fall into when couples. Both partners discovering that they had unrequited needs and no one doing anything about it. It’s the unrequited needs that build up the resentment, the hostility and the eventual rage that leads to this distance or sometimes violence or finally ending the relationship.”

The reader should be reminded that Feiffer’s view of marriage and relationships, as displayed in these strips, is relentlessly bleak because he was working in a satirical mode and not writing sociological treatises; he does not pretend to present a rounded portrait of marriage. “Why,” he asks rhetorically, “would I do a strip about a marriage that worked? Where’s the humor?” Equally obviously, he saw splintered marriages and fractured relationships as worthy of social comment because of their ubiquity.