Explainers by Jules Feiffer – Introduction by Gary Groth

Feiffer’s satiric sensibilities were in place from the get-go, and while his technique evolved over time, his command of both the medium itself (both visually and verbally) and his satirical focus become sharper and more assured at an astonishing velocity. (For example, his first strip about gender relations appears on January 2, 1957, about a sad sack verbally abused by a shrill, unattractive woman; his second strip on the same subject a month later has considerably more finesse and bite, and makes a more devastating and cogent comment on male egoism.) He had between six and 12 panels to explicate a political point, delineate characters, and dramatize a dialogue (or a monologue). At the beginning, he “was floundering for a drawing style and if you look at the work it was basically a borrowed UPA style.” Feiffer had worked for United Productions of America, an animation studio that introduced a distinctive, slightly jazzy visual slant to animation and produced such features as Tom Terrific, Mr. Magoo, and Gerald McBoing Boing, the last of which is the most relevant influence on Feiffer’s initial style. But Feiffer was a comics aficionado too and the pen and ink technique of the earliest strips in this book looks as if it was also influenced by the William Steig of The Lonely Ones and the French cartoonist André François. The inking was initially scratchy and the drawing angular, but in just three months, with the January 23, 1957 strip, the graphic style changed abruptly: the inking is looser and more fluid, the forms become more rounded, the line takes on a spontaneous quality. Feiffer attributes this to finally finding an inking tool that gave him the kind of line he wanted: wooden dowel sticks. Wooden dowel sticks? Yes, the strip’s look might have evolved differently if Feiffer had been a vegetarian: “I guess what happened was I bought a steak and it was in the steak and I said, ‘This is interesting. It’s got a point. Sharpened like a pencil. Let’s put it in some ink and see what happens.’ And I loved what happened, so that became my medium. It gave a line for the first time that I liked, strong, dry and brush-like. I didn’t like using a brush. It gave my work too conventional a look, and I lacked control. The line I got from the wooden sticks was more artful and eccentric. It gave weight to my drawing, which it ordinarily lacked. That’s how I drew for a long, long time. I used sticks for years, but it became increasingly tedious. I finally got fed up with the eccentricity, which drew me to them in the first place. I reverted back to pen and ink.” (Feiffer’s unsure if he stopped using his wooden dowels before the last strip in this volume [December 26, 1966], but if I had to guess, I’d choose the October 20, 1966 strip as the one where he switched over to a pen.)


Feiffer was always more confident in the writing than the drawing. “I was very critical of my art in those early years. The writing I thought I had control of and I was pleased with, but I was never satisfied with the drawing.” Although the drawing has since become iconic, an easily recognizable trademark of Feiffer’s oeuvre — the drawing is essential, of course, but one can imagine a different stylistic approach— it’s the writing that distinguishes the strip and makes it a unique landmark in the history of cartooning. No other comic strip had tackled such a wide array of adult concerns straightforwardly and confrontationally as Feiffer did week in and week out. It’s generally more text heavy than any strip that preceded it, though the amount of text never seems to throw the strip off balance — due, in no small part, to the unique — and uniquely appropriate — equilibrium Feiffer achieved between the highly charged text and the subtle, gestural drawing. About this, Feiffer said, “I thought [the visuals] were stylistically subordinate; words and pictures are what a comic strip is all about, so you can’t say what’s more important or less. They work together. I wanted the focus on the language, and on where I was taking the reader in six or eight panels through this deceptive, inverse logic that I was using. The drawing had to be minimalist. If I used angle shots and complicated artwork, it would deflect the reader. I didn’t want the drawings to be noticed at all. I worked hard making sure that they wouldn’t be noticed.”

Feiffer nailed the visual approach to the strip in three months or so, but the writing kept getting more sophisticated over the first several years as Feiffer honed the timing and rhythms of the panel to panel continuity. And as he became more assured, the dialogue and speeches and monologues became longer and more complex, the tempo picked up, the language became richer and more potent, and a wider array of voices proliferated — urban professionals, of course, but middle-aged mothers and housewives, bigots and reactionaries and good ol’ boys, kids, military personnel, not to mention dead-on parodies of Ike, Nixon, JFK, LBJ, Jack Paar, and other public figures — all of which in turn gave the strip a genuinely, singularly theatrical flavor.