Subversive, funny, and effortlessly droll, Jules Feiffer’s cartoons were all over New York in the 1960s and ’70s—featured in the Village Voice, but also cut out and pinned to bulletin boards in offices and on refrigerators at home. Feiffer describes himself as “lucking into the zeitgeist,” and there’s some truth to the sentiment; Feiffer’s brand of satire reflected Americans’ ambivalence about the Vietnam War, changing social mores, and much more.
Feiffer’s memoir, Backing into Forward, like his cartoons, is sharply perceptive with a distinctive bite of mordant humor. Beginning with his childhood in Brooklyn, Feiffer paints a picture of a troubled kid with an overbearing mother and a host of crippling anxieties. From there, he discusses his apprenticeship with his hero, Will Eisner, and his time serving in the military during the Korean War, which saw him both feigning a breakdown and penning a cartoon narrative called “Munro” that solidified his distinctive aesthetic as an artist. While Feiffer’s voice grounds the book, the sheer scope of his artistic accomplishment, from his cartoons turning up in the New Yorker, Playboy, and the Nation to his plays and film scripts, is remarkable and keeps the narrative bouncing along at a speedy clip. A compelling combination of a natural sense of humor and a ruthless dedication to authenticity, Backing into Forward is full of wit and verve, often moving but never sentimental.
“Jules Feiffer’s original and neurotic voice. . . . reinvented comics in the 1950s and made possible what’s now called the ‘graphic novel.’ His engaging new memoir is told in that same witty and perceptive New York cadence, mellowed and laced with wisdom. He’s an inspiration.”—Art Spiegelman
|Publisher:||University of Chicago Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
Jules Feiffer is a cartoonist, playwright, screenwriter, and children’s book author and illustrator. He has taught at the Yale School of Drama, Northwestern University, and Dartmouth College, and currently teaches at Stony Brook Southampton College. Over the course of his career, he has won a Pulitzer Prize and a George Polk Award for his cartoons; an Obie for his plays; an Academy Award for the animation of his cartoon satire, Munro; and Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Writers Guild of American and the National Cartoonist Society.
Hometown:New York, New York
Date of Birth:January 26, 1929
Place of Birth:New York, New York
Education:The Pratt Institute, 1951
Read an Excerpt
Backing Into ForwardA Memoir
By Jules Feiffer
Nan A. TaleseCopyright © 2010 Jules Feiffer
All right reserved.
Food was out to get me. Food devoured me with every mouthful I took. I chewed for minutes without being able to swallow. I gagged, spit up into a napkin, then secretly shook the remains into the garbage when my mother’s back was turned. She didn’t suspect.
Much in the manner of immigrant Jewish mothers of her time and circumstance, my mother placed all her hopes and dreams on me. She wanted me to be big and healthy. But I wouldn’t cooperate. I was small for my age and underweight for any age. I could count my own ribs when I stripped down to my shorts.
“It’s good for you,” was her unpersuasive catch phrase as she tried to shovel noodle pudding down my throat. “It’s your favorite,” she insisted against the evidence of my tightly sealed lips. “I have no time for this,” she pleaded.
She had anointed me, the only male child in the family, to succeed where she had not. But at the rate I was going, I had three months to live. Or so my mother worried. I knew I’d do fine if I could only get away from her noodle pudding. I despised her noodle pudding.
My mother had failed to live up to her early promise as a fashion designer. It was never clear why her career had goneflat, but what was clear, much too clear, was how she toiled, night and day, over her drawing table stationed in a corner of our living room, sandwiched between the piano no one knew how to play and the bookcase stacked with Russian, French, and English novels (read by my father) and uplifting essays by Emerson and others (studied by my mother). She drew her fashion sketches, cloaks and suits they were called, in pencil and lightly tinted watercolor. Three days a week she packed them up and subwayed down to the Garment District on Seventh Avenue, where she peddled them door-to-door to dress manufacturers. Each sketch earned her three dollars. Since my father perennially failed at business and his various other jobs didn’t last that long, it was my mother’s three-dollar sketches that brought us through hard times.
She performed dutifully the roles of breadwinner, wife, and mother, unsought obligations inflicted on her by a bad choice in husbands and the Great Depression. She was said to be good at design, but how was I to know? Except for superheroes in tights and capes, I was indifferent to fashion. But from an early age I was forced to observe how absent pleasure was from her work, how often she mentioned the strain, her headaches, her throbbing temples—
I was meant to grow up to right the wrong of her stalled career, undermined by my grandparents, who prodded her into marrying Dave Feiffer. So much had been taken from her, small wonder the anxiety she brought to raising me. Her offers of food felled me like a battering ram. She pushed, cajoled, browbeat, destroyed my appetite for the very things she offered. “Eat, it’s delicious,” “You’ll love this, you know you’ll love this.” This is not the job she wanted. What she wanted was to get on with the day, get back to her drawing board, dive deep into the world of fashion, which, though it offered few rewards, remained her single escape from this marriage she was drafted into. Her aim was to stuff me at least to the extent that I wasn’t a physical embarrassment to the neighbors, a reproach to her reputation as a mother, forty pounds at seven years, my reminder of her failure.
I had my appetites, not for food but for comics. I didn’t see that food had anything in it to sustain me. I ate only because I wanted to be a good boy. I wanted to keep my mother happy. Not that I, or anyone else, could keep her happy. But more about not keeping my mother happy later.
Comics: I ate them, I breathed them, I thought about them day and night. I learned to read only so that I could read comics. Nothing else was worth the effort. Marginalized from every aspect of the Bronx world I inhabited, my only escape was a life of escapism: reading comics, going to movies, listening to radio serials and favored comedians — Jack Armstrong, I Love a Mystery, Fibber McGee and Molly, Charlie McCarthy, Jack Benny, Burns and Allen — each transporting me out of real life into a totally impossible fantasy reality that I bought as a metaphor for my future.
My alternate dream was to someday work myself into the ranks of the great cartoonists. Getting to the top, where I’d be invited to hang out with Milton Caniff of Terry and the Pirates, Will Eisner of The Spirit, Roy Crane of Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy, E. C. Segar of Popeye, Raeburn Van Buren of Abbie an’ Slats, Alex Raymond of Flash Gordon, Al Capp of Li’l Abner . . .
These men were heroes! Brilliance in four-paneled daily strips and full-page gloriously colored Sunday extravaganzas that they routinely created. I loved the look, the dazzling interplay of words and pictures that leaped off the comics page at me, a preferred universe to the one I was mired in. But not for long. If I had anything to say about it. I lived in circumstances where I was poor (a drawback in real life, an incitement to high adventure and rags to riches in comics), where I was small and powerless, so inadequate that I couldn’t bat, throw, or catch a ball (a disaster in real life, but in comics a self-imposed limitation that hid my superpowers from evildoers).
I could have used superpowers. If you grew up poor in the Bronx during the Great Depression, missing out on the joys of boyhood as others knew them — baseball, football, basketball (fun for others, failed challenges for me) — then what was my way out? A fantasy of fame and fortune as a cartoonist! So went my exit strategy.
The scenario begins with my own Bronx version of a movie Western shootout. It’s Saturday. It’s summer. It’s Stratford Avenue in the Soundview area of the East Bronx. Five- and six-story dreary brick apartment houses line the streets. Brown, gray, and rust are the colors that dominate. On the corner of Stratford and Westchester, the Lexington Avenue El clatters by, noticeably noisiest in the middle of the night. Kaminkowitz’s drugstore is on the corner of Stratford, next to Horowitz’s vegetable store, next to a vacant lot. I worked at Kaminkowitz’s as a delivery boy when I was eleven and twelve.
Pensky’s candy store is across the street, the near corner. Pensky was important to my life because his store was where I scanned comic books before buying them. Pensky also had a soda fountain and gum ball machines and, in a booth at the back of the store, one of the few phones on the block. If my mother got a call, Pensky sent a kid (in the store for a candy or a soda), up Stratford to our house, 1235, to call my mother to the window. “Mrs. Feiffer, you’re wanted on the phone!” the kid shouted from the street.
My mother walked three flights down, meandered to the store (she had two speeds: slow and slower), ambled into Pensky’s, said, “I have a phone call, Mr. Pensky?” as if it had to be a mistake, thanked Pensky correctly but without feeling (he was a tradesman, she was a snob), and then, no matter how hot the day, closed herself off in the phone booth to take the call.
My mother minded her own business and wanted Pensky to mind his. And her children to mind ours. She kept secrets, who knew how many and of what gravity? Secrets about finances, about family, about family and finances, about disappointments, about betrayals, about debt and more debts, about so much that she couldn’t let on, could only hint at: “You’re not old enough. I’ll tell you when you’re old enough.”
My mother’s secrets gave depth to her rigidity. And God knows, for a woman who started out a blithe spirit, the abuses that broke but did not bend her succeeded in alienating all three of her children, who were incipient blithe spirits themselves.
She was not affectionate. Not a hugger, a holder, a kisser, a squeezer, or a pincher. She didn’t go in for bodily contact, certainly not with my father. I’ve suspected for a long time that mine was a virginal birth. I can’t prove it. But in my life I’ve never been in much of a position to prove anything. My motto has been: Even if you have to make it up, move on. That’s just one of my mottos. My other motto is: Duck!
So I’m back in the Bronx in the 1930s, which I’m told was a fine place to be if you were a different kind of poor Jewish boy than I was. I hear, now and again, from Bronx nostalgia associations and Web sites set up for expats who remember their Bronx childhoods fondly, romantically, a bit misty-eyed. That’s not how I remember it: Walking down three flights of narrow stairs from Apartment 2-F at 1235 Stratford. I have a piece of chalk in my hand instead of a gun. But walking down those stairs and out the door into the sunlight is a little like walking down a lone Western street through the swinging doors of a saloon. Gunfighters everywhere — they know they can take me. I know they can take me. My three-year-old sister, Alice, who worships the ground I walk on, even she knows they can take me.
But of course it’s not a saloon, it’s the very block I live on. My enemies are armed not with guns but with balls and baseball gloves and broomsticks. And they know when they see me walking out my front door (if they do see me, which I doubt), that I am of absolutely no consequence. I can’t hit, I can’t throw, I can’t catch.
I was missing a basic Bronx gene, the ball-playing gene. It seemed that every kid had it but me. Later, John F. Kennedy was to famously say, “Life is not fair.” He was never to know that, a generation earlier, I had proved his point over and over again.
Anyhow, back to the scenario: I have chalk, that’s my weapon. They have balls and sticks and gloves. They outsize, outweigh, and outgun me. I don’t know what I’m doing out here. I wouldn’t be here, but my mother made me. “You can’t stay in the house and draw all day.” “You need fresh air.” “Go out and play.”
Play? If she paid attention to anything but her own rules, she’d know that I can’t play. I am physically at odds with sports. My body has been fitted with a hand that can draw but can’t catch or field a ball. She is sending her only son out to die.
Hence the piece of chalk in my hand. At seven I have begun to strategize. If no one else, not my mother, not my father, is aware enough to look after my survival, then it’s up to me. Chalk is my weapon, the sidewalk my battleground. While they, the other, the enemy, the kids with size and muscles and coordination, take over the street, a dozen or more, batting balls, fielding base hits in and around traffic, I establish my terrain, down on my knees on the sidewalk. I draw in large, brash strokes. I don’t know what it is until I’ve laid down the first lines. Its . . . Popeye. Next I do Wimpy. I do a better Popeye than a Wimpy, but it beats any Wimpy these jocks can draw.
One or two of the athletes wander over. They trot off their turf, the street, over to my gallery on the sidewalk.
“Hey, it’s Popeye.”
“Can you draw Dick Tracy?”
I can and I do. And I am fast. They are startled by my speed.
“Can you draw Tom Mix?”
Tom Mix is a favorite cowboy star of the thirties. I draw a ten-gallon- hatted gunslinger firing with both barrels. It doesn’t matter that it doesn’t look like Tom Mix. The growing crowd is responding to me, the fastest chalk in the West.
Of course, after five or ten minutes they are bored and go back to their game. Besides, I have a limited repertoire, only so many cowboys and cartoon characters that I know how to draw or fake draw. But it doesn’t matter, I’ve made my point, I’ve taken my ground: the sidewalk. And on that sidewalk I’ve carved out a niche for myself in the neighborhood. I’m the artist.
I’ve won respect if not acceptance. Admiration if not friendship.
I’ve drawn myself into the pecking order. It’s an early use — perhaps my earliest — of a basic survivor’s technique: backing into recognition.
I figured out what the jocks couldn’t do that I could. I could draw. They couldn’t. I used their lack of talent to prove that even though I wasn’t a ball player I was visible, I existed! Inadvertently, I had stumbled onto the use of comics as judo. Talk about epiphanies.
Excerpted from Backing Into Forward by Jules Feiffer Copyright © 2010 by Jules Feiffer. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
The Bar Mitzvah Hostage
A Jewish Mother Joke
“Jules, What Are You Doing Here?”
I Ain’t A-Gonna Be Treated This A-Way
The Secret of My Success; Or, Over the Cliff
Part Two: Famous
A Dance to Spring
Odets is Back!
Lucking into the Zeitgeist
The Mating Dance
Heckle and Jeckle Meet Mike and Elaine
Playboy at the Second City
Alex and Al
The Warrior Liberal
Hall of Fame
Part Three: Another Country
The Assassination of Cary Grant
Harry, The Rat
What I Did on My Summer Vacation
The Comeback Kid
Pro Bono Playwright
The Jewish Mother Cabal
No Sense of Direction; Or, How to Get from Carnal Knowledge to Bark, George
The Professor of I Don’t Know Where I’m Going with This but Let’s Find Out
Bedtime for Memoir
And in Conclusion
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Jules Feiffer's easily recognizable cartoons are a favorite for us all. But how did he get to where he was going....by backing into forward. The title of his book, in spite of its repetition throughout, only hit me over the head when I got about half way through. Don't we all have lives like Jules? Forget about the 5 year plan, the 10 year plan, any plan at all. Life is something we back into as he describes. Jules' self-deprecating style makes him all the more likeable. In spite of no college education, his prose suggests a most erudite man. His colleagues run the range from writers, cartoonists, politicians and even a spy thrown in for good measure. A great read which helps us examine our own path in life.
I've always been a fan and this book doesn't disappoint. Warm, engaging and often very funny, I felt as if I was listening to a great conversationalist.
I had a very hard time reading this book -- I started it, read it in fits and starts, abandoned it in the trunk of my car, and finally forced my way through it.It's not that "Backing into Forward" is hard to read; Feiffer has an breezy, easy-going style made even more accessible by short chapters. It's not that the content is shocking or controversial; Feiffer takes pains to point out, as a young man, all the sex he wasn' t having. His biggest revolt against this parents seems to be a cross-country hitchhiking trip. Rather, I think I was put off by Feiffer's potshots at his mother and father, his too-knowing attitude about politics and culture, and the too-obvious name-dropping of famous actors and writers.Which is not to say there aren't enjoyable and even laugh-out-loud moments -- the aforementioned hitchhiking trip was particularly evocative and well-written, and I would have enjoyed reading more about the inspirations for Feiffer's children's books. But there is plenty of fluff that could have been excised from the book's 440 pages.
I have been a fan of Jules Feiffer's illustrations and humor for a long time. I've shared his children's books (like "Bark George") with my kids and they laugh with glee. This book is a great insight into Mr. Feiffer's world and history and I highly recomend it for his fans and people who love interesting modern biographies. There are also a whle slew of illustrations in this book for the lovers of his sketches like myself.Just so you know, I received this in a Library Thing Early Reviewers giveaway.
Funny, honest and revealing...not simply about Jules Feiffer but about the changing American landscape from the 1930s up to now. Feiffer brings us back to New York in the 50s and 60s, rubbing elbows with everyone from Will Eisner to Mike Nichols, and ends on a note that manages to be sentimental without being saccharine. If you're already a fan, you'll need no persuading to pick this book up. If you're not familiar with Jules Feiffer, it will pique your interest and have you tracking down his work.
Loved this book. Engaging, easy to read, interesting. Most intrigued by his early years. His fears, his mother, his aunt, the Army. His quest to do what he loved. How he dealt with what he feared. Any person aspiring to devote their life to be the best in their craft would learn much from Jules Feiffer's life journey.
I had a very hard time with Jules Feiffer's memoir. The book kept sinking lower and lower in my "to-read" pile. There was always another tome more interesting than this one, and if I had not gotten the copy as part of the Early Reviewers program, I would have never slogged through the boring first half. I kept thinking, "whatever prompted him to write this?" Didn't he have an editor to tell him to fix this mess?I am a huge fan of Feiffer's cartoons (and a serious collector of his work, with both the major works and some arcana in my collection). And I kept looking for the influences that would have sparked the brilliance and insight that showed up in his Village Voice work over four decades. But what Feiffer gives us is...that he hated his mother; that his father was a loser; that his sister was an ardent Leftist; that he hated his time in the army; and that we was a wisecracking New York Jew, although he didn't practice the religion. Yawn.It's nearly 200 pages in, before he defines the purview and perspective that would engage him for his productive adult years.Feiffer lucks into the zeitgeist of the Fifties, and when he pinpoints the anxiety of the age, and the self-pity of the post-war types locked into social conformity, that his genius began to blossom. By the Sixties, the work had evolved to political involvement, and the chapter explaining Feiffer's anit-Vietnam War stance is excellent. The book is very well written. Feiffer is obviously a very erudite man, and can be pithy or succinct when needs be. Writing dialogue to a cartoon requires an ability to self-edit; and writing dialogue for a play or movie requires both a good ear and the ability to capture the cadences of language. I have not enjoyed Feiffer's novels that much, but the clarity of vision in the second half of the memoir shows that he also has a writer's ability to expand and expound. Feiffer includes an excerpt of a speech given to the American Civil Liberties Union, during Ronald Reagen's first term in office that is a model of prosody.So I recommend that you stay with the book until the second half. That is where it gets interesting. Read quickly during the sections where Feiffer name-drops all the famous people he lucked into meeting, and instead slow down during the sections where he explains the times and social age he has lived in. The memoir provides some true insights into the second half of the 20th century.
Jules Feiffer's autobiography, Backing Into Forward, is a story of a boy who started drawing comic book characters at a very young age and then became a cartoonist before he became a man. The tale starts slowly and in short sentences without much adornment but explains some of the motivation for Feiffer to stay in his room and draw. The Feiffer family was Jewish. Jules' mother badgered him to be a success in life and she hovered over him giving him no leeway to be his own boy. He did not adjust to school work showing no interest in anything but cartoons. He drew his own comic book when he was eleven. Much like Albert Einstein he made only passing grades in school and yet after he completed high school, he soon became a genius. He was fortunate to land a job with Will Eisner who began drawing "The Spirit" strip in the early 1940's and is considered one of the founding artists of comic book and comic strip greats. Jules landed that job when he was 16 and was one of the unpaid helpers for Eisner, but he persevered and before being drafted into the Army when he was eighteen, he was drawing a comic strip on the back page of "The Spirit".Jules was fearful of the Army because it required the private soldier to become a robot doing only what he is told and when he will do it. Somehow Jules was able to survive boot camp partly by teaming up with another Jewish private to paint the helmet liners of the non commissioned officers conducting the training. After basic training Jules was sent to Camp Gordon (Fort Gordon now) in Augusta, Georgia to radio repair school. Jules says he was unable to understand any of the training and could not duplicate the simple tasks that he was given. I believe Jules stretches the truth in not being able to understand these instructions that the other students were adsorbing easily. I guess it makes for a better story. Fate comes to bail Jules out of the radio repair school and into a training publications unit in Fort Monmouth, NJ. Here Jules gets the idea for Munro, a 4 year old kid who is accidently inducted into the Army. Jules produces the cartoon narrative that Jules writes was "to determine the direction of my work for the next forty years". Jules' autobiography jumps back and forth in time and while he is telling of one incident that happened to him he also tells you what that incident taught him in drawing cartoons twenty years later or twenty years previously. Jules' develops a contrarian view of life. He must heed what he is told to do at his own peril. Whatever advice he is given he must do the opposite. If he is told some new cartoon character he has drawn will definitely be a success, he must scratch that character and draw one entirely different. Jules says that this philosophy has served him well.After the army and a couple of years of not finding anything he wants to do and will get paid for doing it, Jules turns to the Village Voice newspaper, a new alternative weekly started in 1955. He gets a job drawing occasional cartoons that develops into a weekly strip and Jules becomes the darling satirist of comic strips. He draws these cartoons for the next 40 years but Jules wants more. He turns to writing plays in the late sixties. His first play, Little Murders, opens on Broadway on Tuesday, receives punishing reviews Wednesday and expires Saturday. Feiffer continues to tell you about every famous cartoonist, comic, director, writer and B-flat trumpeter that he has worked with, talked to, drawn with or associated in any manner with. He does this either to explain his improbable success as a cartoonist or to keep his tale interesting for the masses. Jules says this was a play that was written before its scene on the stage was ready for it.Jules is rescued two years later when Alan Arkin directs the same Little Murders and it is given a good review by the critics and a two year run on Broadway. After another couple of plays that go nowhere, Jules finds another career of writing and drawi
Loved loved loved this book. I knew nothing about Jules Feiffer when I started it and immediately fell in love with his narrative voice. His talent, his life and his worldview are all completely absorbing. I highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys any of the following things: bios, memoirs, art, creative non-fiction, a good book. You will not be disappointed.
Amazing! Please continue! -Dauntless's Author P. S. I saw your post at Jigsaw all results. That story is by me! Chapter Nine will be from Bearpaw's perspective, or Jaypaw, maybe... not sure yet!
Jules Feiffer's autobiography, Backing Into Forward, is the story of a boy who started drawing comic book characters at a very young age and then became a cartoonist before he became a man. The tale starts slowly and in short sentences without much adornment but explains some of the motivation for Feiffer to stay in his room and draw. The Feiffer family was Jewish. Jules' mother badgered him to be a success in life and she hovered over him giving him no leeway to be his own boy. He did not adjust to school work showing no interest in anything but cartoons. He drew his own comic book when he was eleven. Much like Albert Einstein he made only passing grades in school and yet after he completed high school, he soon became a genius. He was fortunate to land a job with Will Eisner, an early cartoonist master. Jules landed that job when he was 16 and was one of the unpaid helpers for Eisner, but he persevered and before being drafted into the Army when he was eighteen, he was drawing a comic strip on the back page of "The Spirit". Jules develops a contrarian view of life. He must heed what he is told to do at his own peril. Whatever advice he is given he must do the opposite. If he is told some new cartoon character he has drawn will definitely be a success, he must scratch that character and draw one entirely different. Jules says that this philosophy has served him well. Jules joins the Village Voice newspaper, a new alternative weekly and begins drawing a weekly cartoon strip and with this strip Jules becomes the darling satirist of comic strips. He draws these cartoons for the next 40 years. He turns to writing plays in the late sixties. His first play, Little Murders, opens on Broadway on Tuesday, receives punishing reviews Wednesday and expires Saturday. Feiffer continues to tell you about every famous cartoonist, comic, director, writer and B-flat trumpeter that he has worked with, talked to, drawn with or associated in any manner with. He does this either to explain his improbable success as a cartoonist or to keep his tale interesting for the masses. Jules is rescued two years later when Alan Arkin directs the same Little Murders and it is given a good review by the critics and a two year run on Broadway. After another couple of plays that go nowhere, Jules finds another career of writing and drawing children's books and he adds another trophy to his life. Jules Feiffer has displayed his art, his comic strips and his editorial cartoons on the printed pages of newspapers and magazines with a flair and a knack for the human being. He manages to reveal that genius in the autobiography that he has written.