Explainers by Jules Feiffer – Introduction by Gary Groth

Feiffer considered himself a radical in contradistinction to liberalism, which he felt was insufficiently principled. “The liberalism as espoused in the 1950s and ’60s was couched in an official anti-communism and a fear of being termed a ‘red’ or ‘pinko’ that made liberals shy away from positions one would have expected them to take. Liberals had to be dragged kicking and screaming to take positions on the issues that seemed obvious to me.”

Feiffer published a strip about LBJ (April 16, 1964) in which a friend of Johnson’s relates going on a reckless joyride with him. Considering that Johnson would later fall victim to some of Feiffer’s most biting commentary, I was puzzled by the opacity of this strip. “Here was my problem with Johnson in those first nine months in office after the [JFK] assassination: I thought he was brilliant, our most reform-minded President since FDR: The Voting Rights Act, the Poverty Program…all I could come up with as subject matter was his stylistic excesses. My hands were tied. I had a President I liked!

“And then he ran for president as a peace candidate against the dangerous Barry Goldwater, and within no time after his election victory, escalated the war in Vietnam. As a result of what I took to be a personal betrayal, I became a much improved political cartoonist.”

Six weeks after the assassination, Feiffer wrote and drew his last strip about JFK (January 2, 1964). It is one of Feiffer’s most masterfully constructed arguments (in the voice of a child reading a fairy tale), so succinctly dramatized that it would take longer to explain it than to read it. He appeared to assert that Kennedy’s election inaugurated a reinvigorated period of public debate over political and social issues. Was this a fair reading? “Yes, [the Kennedy administration] did that,” Feiffer confirmed. “There was a lot that I was in disagreement about, but there was no question that it brought us out of the Eisenhower years. Eisenhower’s acquiescence to the paranoid phobia of McCarthyism muzzled serious debate, disenfranchised the left, terrified liberals, and lead to a state of eight-year somnambulance that JFK drop-kicked us out of. He let Americans act like Americans again, almost as if we were a free people, something we had lost sight of. Kennedy woke us up: the Prince kissed Sleeping Beauty, she came awake again but instead of living happily ever after, we started quarreling over all those issues we so long suppressed. But the quarrel was lively, far more interesting in terms of social and foreign policy, much more instrumental about bringing about change.”


Most of Feiffer’s strips have a clearly identifiable subject — or target; about the ostensible subject, some are gut-punches and some are wry, telling, tragic-comic insights. But occasionally he’ll come up with something that’s not so easily categorizable, such as his seasonal dancer, who can express everything from joy to suffering. The April 21, 1966 strip is so brutal I was taken aback upon first reading it; it may be the single most fatalistic comic strip I’ve ever encountered in some 40 odd years of reading comics. A woman laments man’s capacity to befoul life and, seeking solace, goes for a stroll in the country where she can watch the flowers grow, and — well, you’ll just have to read it. I asked Feiffer what was going on in his life, or the life around him, that prompted him to express this level of despair:

“In February [1966] I had finished a first draft of Little Murders. My impression of the United States was that we had entered a period of unacknowledged nervous breakdown out of which came random violence in the non-political arena. And in the political arena, we were moralizing, misbehaving, and mangling Vietnam. We were in an escalating war, and while the protests hadn’t taken shape in the way they would in a year or so, they were in formation. I thought the country was coming unglued and that many of the values that we sentimentalized had this dark side that we chose not to reveal to ourselves. I was commenting on the state of our society which I thought was indulging itself in voguish tunnelvisioned idealism, existing side by side with selfrighteousness, war crimes, and the disintegration of our values.”

My initial reaction, I think, was mistaken: the strip was not so much fatalistic as a cry against fatalism or a cautionary lament at the fatalism that Feiffer saw everywhere around him at that anguished moment in American history, and therefore something borne of rage, frustration, and even optimism. About this observation, he said:

“Everything I was doing then was born out of rage and optimism. There was a lot of anger, as you can see, and I believed the role of the cartoonist was to be angry.”

This volume should single-handedly as it were confirm Feiffer’s place as one of the 20th century’s greatest satirical artists. Asked how he would compare the period in American history when he was drawing the strips in this book to today’s political circumstances, he couldn’t help but draw a contrast between his optimism then and his pessimism today. This may explain why he had changed course and moved from his satirical mode — which did not survive into the 21st century — into a form about which he can display his more optimistic spirit, the children’s book. His response struck me as one of personal regret and public elegy:

“In the ’60s I was doing these cartoons in a time when I thought they were warning signals. These were cautionary cartoons and my plays were cautionary plays saying, ‘This is where we’re headed. This is not us. We can do something about it. We can change.’ So, they were me working in my satirical form and trying to alert and force attention to things that weren’t getting nearly enough attention. I was living in anger and despair over what was going on. But nonetheless I believed as a citizen that these were situations we would eventually do something about: The differences between rich and poor, racism, education… We end up with great talking points, a lot of lip service, but essentially we go along. That’s why I think our culture today is drowning in the worship of trivia, gossip, and celebrity. Entertainment has taken over because we’ve stopped believing in change, in fixing our problems. We believe in The Fix, and there’s not much to do about it but switch channels.