The Explainers

When 27-year-old Jules Feiffer presented himself at the office of New York?s alternative news tabloid The Village Voice in 1956, he had little idea that his weekly comic strip, which was quickly accepted, would come to define that very paper for many readers. Hip and unlike any other cartoons on the literary horizon, Feiffer?s word-heavy narratives relied on minimalist graphics, often six or eight drawings of the same character kvetching about his or her lonely place in the universe. A far cry from the slick humor of The New Yorker or the simple gags of the daily newspapers. Feiffer?s strips came to define a generation of New Yorkers, the same neurotics who people the novels of Philip Roth or the skits of Nichols and May. This fat anthology collects the first decade of Feiffer?s 40-year tenure at the Voice. And if the laughs are more often chuckles, and the ironies seem heavy-handed, remember just what Feiffer?s world was about: a time of nuclear panic, McCarthyite investigations, and mind-numbing conformity. Feiffer punctures as many liberal platitudes as he inflates: he?s down on suburbia and consumerism, up on civil rights and protest. He documents the ongoing war between the sexes with a post-Thurber twist: everyone loses. We meet whiny Bernard, a thin and meek nebbish; barrel-chested Huey, a smooth-talking make-out artist; and — my favorite — the dancer in black tights who always manages to express herself in tune with the seasons. As the decade progresses, so do Feiffer?s political concerns — a turn that will be apparent, no doubt, in the next three welcome volumes.