It’s ironic that 85-year-old Jules Feiffer, Pulitzer Prize, Academy, Obie and Lifetime Achievement award-winning cartoonist, illustrator, playwright, screenwriter, children’s book author and now graphic novelist, had a hard time when he started out, trying to illustrate gritty, dark-palette atmospheric noir. He could write noir but felt he couldn’t draw in its moody style.
“I was inept,” is how he put it in a recent interview in Publisher’s Weekly. His “inadequacies as a draftsman” in the noir mode led him to divert to social satire. And those panels for the old Village Voice (originally called “Sick, Sick, Sick”) of wavy line neurotics, often dancers, led him to his signature style, and to fame. Now, decades later, he has returned to his life-long passion to narrate and illustrate crime fiction in the hardboiled, pulp tradition of his “culture heroes”—to whom his just-published graphic novel, Kill My Mother (Norton Liveright) is dedicated: Will Eisner (The Spirit, Mad Magazine), Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates, Steve Canyon), Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and on the film side—John Huston, Billy Wilder and Howard Hawks. Feiffer grew up in The Depression years when comics provided “elaborate escapes, because they were much more attractive than real life.”
The term “graphic novel” is attributed to Eisner who used it in a story collection published in 1978, A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories, and it gained ground with the success of Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Unlike a comic book, a graphic novel has plot, characters, setting and, in the case of noir, a theme about the pervasiveness of violence and evil. That malevolence could be overcome by a triumphant individual (a rarity in today’s complex, high-tech global village) no doubt accounts for the nostalgia comics evoke, though Feiffer invests the black and white world of pulp fiction with plenty of grey (all senses). Noir, he has said, “requires action and atmosphere, rain, fog, headlights and shadows against the wall.”
In an acknowledgment, he thanks those who helped him get images from the ’30s and ’40s—pictures of cars, guns, bars and streets, menacing guys and sexy dolls, planes, clothing, including uniforms, trench coats, hats, sunglasses, not to mention visual snatches of blues and jazz. Characters posture with exaggerated grimaces and body twists. Femmes look fatale, thugs chomp cigars, detectives are alcohol-fueled. The surprise is that noir suggests stock characters and situations, but nothing in Kill My Mother, while paying homage to the genre, is predictable. The title alone takes on ambiguity as one of the main female figures undergoes a change of heart. Admittedly, some of the morphing may confuse, as readers try to figure out who’s who in this narrative where women rule. Typically, in the comics of old, women tended to be secondary characters or tepid love interests. Here, along with male characters, they fiercely engage in murder and mayhem and undergo identity changes. Most are neither good nor bad, just…peculiar. “How disappointing,” one gal remarks of a Hollywood agent, “All this time I thought he was a gangster.” Everyone in Feiffer’s world is some kind of imposter. A Communist liquor store owner behaves only with politics in mind, a taxi driver believes that his passenger is Jean Harlow, a boxer becomes a Hollywood star and then…someone else. In Part II, Hooray for Hollywood, set in 1943, the narrative grows even more bizarre, if not sardonic. (Part I is called Bay City Blues and is set in 1933.) Laugh track letters in response to a radio sitcom are superimposed over background war raging in the jungles of Tarawa Island (the real-life scene of a battle that was the first American offensive in the critical central Pacific region). One is reminded of the subversive history of comics and cartoons.
Kill My Mother is odd but familiar. Those tall, angular figures dancing modern, tap and jitterbug, their open-mouthed expressions of anguish, horror or menacing humor, could come from no one else. Strange juxtapositions? The mid ’40s were the war years but also the height of the American Songbook and heroic movies. So don’t look for neat progressions or clear heroes in Kill My Mother when you can’t find them in real life. The European and South Pacific killing fields were stages for U.S.O. entertainment, while the streets of American cities could overflow with blood and the detritus of immigrant poverty. A slinky starlet sings at the end “Invent your own story/ I’m done telling mine.” Q.E.D. —Jules Feiffer.