IN THE EARLY 1950s, Jules Feiffer was in the Army, stationed at an office in New Jersey. He hated conformity. He was offered a promotion from private to private first class. He turned it down, despite the offered pay raise, because he didn’t want to give an inch to a system he despised. He sat at a desk, where he wrote and drew “Munro,” a story about a four-year-old boy who is drafted into service. Although Feiffer had been working in comics for years — he anonymously wrote several of Will Eisner’s late The Spirit stories — “Munro,” a satire of American militarism, drawn like a UPA (United Productions of America) cartoon, marked the beginning of the Feiffer we know. In his long-running Village Voice strip, his magazine short stories, plays, screenplays, essays, and prose, he would become a chronicler of the American savage. With a strong but eccentric line, his characters would reveal the weight of their sexual id, their surrender to cultural fads, and their fear of the bomb. His fans would include Bayard Rustin, who wrote admirably of Feiffer’s deconstruction of the white liberal; Stanley Kubrick, who courted Feiffer as a collaborator on Dr. Strangelove (1964); Hugh Hefner, who closely edited some of Feiffer’s best sex comedies; and Philip Roth, with whom Feiffer entertained small audiences at parties. In her book Why Comics? From Underground to Everywhere (2017), Hillary Chute calls Feiffer “arguably America’s first literary cartoonist.”
Feiffer belongs in a pantheon alongside Roth, Mike Nichols, Elaine May, and Woody Allen — Jewish comic geniuses whose unkind judgments of baby boomers were accepted and celebrated as the fair and honest words of smart, if sometimes mean, older cousins. But unlike Roth and Allen, Feiffer’s sex comedies are angrily critical of the male ego, almost proto-feminist; and his political outrage is more righteous than theirs. Mention Feiffer’s name to anyone 65 or older, and there’s a good chance they can recite at least one of his strips verbatim.
My generation knows Feiffer best as the illustrator of Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth (1961), though he may be experiencing a major revival. Feiffer has lately been enjoying a new career as a graphic novelist with a trilogy of noir comedies: Kill My Mother in 2014, Cousin Joseph in 2016, and now The Ghost Script, which has just appeared. The Feiffer voice is all there and he’s having a hell of a lot of fun. His lithe, effervescent bodies still dance across gutters and from one panel to the next. They still rewrite our notions of gender and sexuality. And Feiffer is still indulging a leftist rage while remaining brutally critical of leftist hypocrisy.
Feiffer announces The Ghost Script as a more serious book than the previous two. In his foreword to The Ghost Script, Feiffer writes about his own life in 1953, around which time the book is set, when he was “shaped as a political being.” He doesn’t mention “Munro,” but he talks about McCarthyism. He witnessed the Jew-hating, fairy-baiting questioning of Jerome Robbins before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He saw Clifford Odets first heroically oppose the blacklist, and then capitulate and name names. At age 89, Feiffer is struggling and attempting to come to peace with the terror of these formative years, and the moral compromises of his friends and friendly acquaintances. He has written about the McCarthy era before, most recently in his 2003 play A Bad Friend and in his 2010 memoir Backing into Forward. The Ghost Script, Feiffer says, is his final word on McCarthyism.
In the decades following “Munro,” Feiffer reinvented the comics strip and the comics short story. His graphic novel trilogy offers yet one more opportunity for him to reassess the comics medium, its possibilities, and its shortcomings. In this regard, The Ghost Script is about the important work Feiffer was not able to accomplish in his extraordinary career.
A decent summary of the intricate plot of The Ghost Script would require spoilers not only of the book, but of the previous installments in the trilogy. As in Kill My Mother and Cousin Joseph — the first set in 1933 and 1943, and the second, a prequel to the first, set in 1931 — we have a cast of characters, none of them great, most at best adequate, and some outright terrible. Each book is divided into several short chapters, most about two or three pages in length. These chapters take the form of short vignettes, mini-strips, mostly without punch lines. The title of The Ghost Script refers to a screenplay supposedly written by blacklisted screenwriters about blacklisted screenwriters. The script, we soon find out, doesn’t actually exist (or does it?!), but everyone — producers afraid that they will be exposed, communist stalwarts who want to make sure the script is ideologically correct — is paying or killing or both to get their hands on the thing.
There are two ways to go about reading The Ghost Script. In the first, you pay close attention to the plot, enjoying the clever but completely logical 180-degree or 45-degree turns. In the second, my preferred method, you treat The Ghost Script as you might The Big Sleep or some other work of noir fiction, and enjoy a parade of grotesqueries in a comical nightmare.
The Ghost Script opens on a high-angle shot of Archie Goldman, whom we last saw in Cousin Joseph. There he was an insecure working-class Jewish kid, discovering the world of sex from an older girl who wants to see his circumcised penis and from the thugs who use her. Now he’s an adult, a little stocky, an uncool private eye. He’s walking by a group of union demonstrators. Archie comments on the “going-nowhere demands of left-wing unions.” Look closely at Feiffer’s faint lettering and you can see that the signs demand not only better pay, but an end to segregation, nuclear war, and male oppression — the closest thing 1953 has to intersectionality. Counterdemonstrators show up with clubs and attack Archie. “One look at me and every right-wing union goon — can smell my mother’s a socialist.” On the first page, Archie is a man apart from the crowd. On the second, he is monologuing against a blank white background. “And do they give me a chance to explain that I don’t share her politics? And anyhow, she’s an anti-communist? No! Or do the cops raise a finger to help? No!” He’s no longer the man apart but the Jew alone, silently pleading with the idiot mob for some acknowledgment of complexity, for a system that might maintain at least a faint grip on some moral order. It’s all useless. By the final panel, Archie has disappeared, and there are only two scrawled comic-book words on the blank white panel: “POW! WHACK!”
Feiffer’s depictions of savagery can be a little pat, his funniest jokes a little too easy. Lola, a blacklisted actress, is pressured into prostitution and feeds information to Archie. On page 30, we see her dressed as a dominatrix with a commie theme, with Feiffer emphasizing the slight folds of flab on her stomach where the underwear pulls at her skin. She entertains an old reactionary:
On your knees, capitalist swine! I am your brute Bolshevik, Lolichka! Lover of Lenin, Mistress of Stalin! I come from Moscow as your Soviet enslaver, you sniveling running-dog of capitalism! Prepare to obey my every command! Crawl to me, pig!
The scene is less Robert Crumb than a parody of the pornographic cartoons that ran alongside Feiffer’s work in Playboy.
The abuse the women suffer is rarely so comical. Feiffer has no patience for the misogyny of the noir genre, and his trilogy often seems like a catalog for the various forms of violence a woman can suffer at the hands of a husband, a boyfriend, a stranger, or even a son. But Feiffer also takes his customary shots at the middle-of-the-road liberals he has been attacking throughout his career, and hardcore communists prove themselves hypocrites in their own way. One of Feiffer’s more sympathetic characters says her 15-year-old keeps a swastika framed on his bedroom wall, and though we’re pretty sure she’s speaking literally, we don’t know for sure.
It may be obnoxious this late in its history to use any review of a graphic novel as an opportunity to meditate on the form, its purpose and its function. Does anyone need to talk about the purpose of the novel when they review the latest Zadie Smith? But it’s hard to avoid such a mediation in the case of Feiffer’s work. Feiffer spent a 70-year-long career reinventing the supposedly low forms of the comics medium in an effort to make the comic strip literary. His decision to approach the graphic novel so late in his career is momentous.
In my 2009 interview with Feiffer for Bookslut, five years before he published Kill My Mother, he spoke highly of the “graphic novel,” a term he hated, as an “alternative form.” “This is stuff on a level that didn’t exist in the great years of the comic strips, newspaper strips,” he said.
These are personal statements, but done in a form that’s based on the old tradition of a combination of newspaper strip and comic book. The storytelling techniques come right out of old comic books and come right out of movies.
He went on to list some of his favorite graphic novelists: Daniel Clowes, David Small, Art Spiegelman, and Craig Thompson. These are the graphic novels we’ve come to celebrate, the ones that demand slow reading and don’t resist monotony. The reader studies the pages carefully as they work through the narrative.
But when it came time for Feiffer to sit down and write his own graphic novels, he ended up looking back, as always, to his old heroes Eisner and Milton Caniff, as well as to the classics of film noir. He studied their canted angles, their fast-paced compositions, their energetic narratives. His Micron pen allowed him to imitate the brush strokes of Golden Age comics, to depict fist fights and car chases with immediacy. In his trilogy, Feiffer experiments with often bizarre compositions: a single panel contains the same figure at a bar in three separate moments, all to depict what must be just a minute or so of conversation. He ended up producing books that, rough and sometimes hilarious, meditate on the use of violence in the comics medium and the threat of violence in the United States.
I’ll confess that I’m in the minority of comics scholars who prefer the strip and the comic book to what we call the graphic novel. I like Alison Bechdel’s “Dykes to Watch Out For” more than her Fun Home (2006). I prefer Clowes’s “Needledick the Bug-Fucker” to his Ghost World (1997). And I prefer “Munro” and Feiffer’s Village Voice strip to Kill My Mother, Cousin Joseph, and The Ghost Script. “Munro,” with its fairy-tale voice and grim satire, can make you cry and cackle, but the trilogy, for all its attempts to shock you with the betrayals of spouses, children, parents, and friends, doesn’t carry the same pathos. In a famous strip published in April 1966, a woman searches out peace in nature, far away from war and environmental degradation. A rifle emerges from the ground, growing like a plant, and shoots her in the face. You can forget the gut punch at the end of The Ghost Script, but no one who has seen it has ever forgotten the death of that poor woman.
At its best, Feiffer’s graphic novel trilogy suggests the capacity of the comic strip to do things that the more literary graphic novel cannot. Feiffer’s characters live in our idea of a great graphic novel, in which the three-dimensional and complicated questions about sex, gender, and politics are raised but remain unanswered. But they also, like me, read comic strips and comic books and watch genre films, in which the characters are two-dimensional and the punch lines carry the suggestion of finality. After a fist fight, Archie Goldman compares himself to the Spirit — a character, beloved by the young Archie, who was not invincible and often lost his fights. “Did I win that one?” Archie asks. “Do I know the difference between losing and winning? Can you live your life without knowing the difference? Is that something important to know?”
The two-dimensionality of superheroes, at least in their early years, was part of their appeal. It allowed readers to inscribe themselves into these characters, to become imaginative thinkers of their own. As such, Archie is just one more superhero fan filling in the blanks. Feiffer himself tried to fill in those blanks in his 1965 book The Great Comic Book Heroes, in which he attempted to make sense not only of the Spirit — who was already far more rounded than his fellow Golden Age heroes, thanks in part to Feiffer’s own contribution — but of the violent world the Spirit inhabited. “When one Eisner character slugged another, a real fist hit real flesh,” he wrote. “Violence was no externalized plot exercise, it was the gut of his style. Massive and indigestible, it curdled, lava-like, from the page.” Feiffer went on to argue that the “Spirit’s violence often turned in on itself, proved nothing, became, simply, an existential exercise; part of somebody else’s game.”
This is the world of violence that Feiffer has spent his career satirizing, and his satire has always contained a note of exasperation. Do you really need someone, let alone a comics artist, to tell you that beating up leftist union organizers is wrong; that napalming babies is wrong; that punching women in the face is wrong; that antisemitism, homophobia, misogyny, and racism are not only wrong but deadly?
The other superhero comics Feiffer read, those besides The Spirit, tried, even if they failed, to give violence meaning. “Munro” was the beginning of his realization that violence, and the machinery behind it, makes everyone stupid. Those brutal lines on a thin comic book page, those lines studied by kids and teenagers who read The Spirit in the 1940s and by highbrow graphic novel fans today, may have shocked readers, but did they teach them anything?
Other graphic novelists may do a better job making sense of the berserk. The comics journalist Joe Sacco is currently working on a project that utilizes the insights of evolutionary psychologists to explain the atrocities he has spent decades documenting. But in The Ghost Script, Feiffer suggests that even the graphic novel, the comics form most associated with subtlety of thought and expression, can’t — even with the assistance of his clever, elliptical dialogue — make any sense of violence, let alone stop violence. And hey, if you can explain violence but not stop it, is that something important to know?
I suggest that everyone interested in Feiffer’s comics work read two collections, both published by Fantagraphics Books: Passionella and Other Stories (2006) and Explainers: The Complete Village Voice Strips (1956–1966) (2008). Feiffer’s graphic novel trilogy may not be as innovative or culturally impactive, but it’s still great — better and more interesting than most graphic novels that will be published this year — and, yes, important. Like Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger (1916), The Ghost Script is a letter from an American comic genius grown older, angrier, and more liberated, who has seen his country “progress,” only to watch helplessly, in his final years, as his fellow citizens fuck each other in one more bloody orgy.
Paul Morton recently received his PhD from the Department of Comparative Literature, Cinema and Media at the University of Washington, where he completed a dissertation on the Zagreb School of Animation.