A brief account of my acquaintance with the work of Jules Feiffer:
I first became aware of Jules Feiffer through his phenomenal, and phenomenally funny, picture book Bark, George (1999). I didn’t know anything about the book or the author–I think my wife brought it home to read to the kids–but I immediately fell in love with it, and started reading it as often as I could at storytimes (both at home and at the library). A couple years later, it turns up, quite rightly in my opinion, as the ninth best picture book of all time on Betsy Bird’s Picture Book Poll for SLJ. I read a few other pictures books of Feiffer’s which were good but not great, and didn’t think much more about him.
Flash forward to January of this year. I’m looking for a book to listen to on my bike ride to work and somehow I stumble across a middle grade novel by Feiffer called A Barrel of Laughs, A Vale of Tears (1995), which turns out to be every bit as funny as Bark, George. But I still didn’t look into his career in more detail until I happened across his picture in a book about the history of comic books. It turns out he was a young (16-year-old) protege of Will Eisner, working on the famous comic The Spirit. After working with Eisner, he went on to write comics for the Village Voice. My mind was suitably blown, first because he worked with one of the gods of comic books, and second because with the copyright dates of the first two books I read in the 1990s, I had no idea he had been writing and drawing since the 1940s.
Now I started paying attention, putting out interlibrary loan requests for his collections of comics from the Village Voice, as well as Tantrum, which can probably lay claim to being one of the first true “Graphic Novels” since it came out the year after Eisner’s Contract With God established that term. The comics are urbane and witty, in a very 60s Village Voice style, but what is clear is that Feiffer has an entirely unique style of drawing and sense of humor, and those are what have kept him going up through the present decade.
Which brings us to the work at hand. This year, Feiffer has come out with a new graphic novel, which hearkens back to his days with Eisner and The Spirit, with its noir trappings and intricate structuring. Read the review below, but suffice to say I think this is a fantastic read. It is also, by the way, is the graphic novel I mentioned back in June as having been published too late in the year to make our Best of the Year, So Far list.
FEIFFER, Jules. Kill My Mother. illus. by author. 160p. Liveright. Aug. 2014. Tr $27.95. ISBN 9780871403148. LC 2014005844.
Newly widowed and dealing with a young daughter determined to hate her, Elsie takes up a job with her husband’s ex-partner, now a private detective, in the hopes that he will help her solve her husband’s murder. Instead, she becomes embroiled in a case involving a femme fatale named Mae and her estranged sister; and when they get too close to the truth, Elsie’s boss ends up dead as well. Flash forward 10 years and these two families of women are still entangled: Elsie works for a Hollywood studio where Mae is managing an up-and-coming star; and Elsie’s daughter Annie—now the writer of a famous radio show—befriends Mae’s sister. In a complicated set of plot machinations, the entire cast ends up at a USO show on a small island in the Pacific Ocean during World War II, and the soap opera–esque revelations begin to fly. It’s all just as silly as it sounds, as are the story’s hard-boiled, film noir trappings. But it’s also very funny and genuinely moving. Feiffer’s layouts owe much to his mentor, Will Eisner, but his spidery art and absurdist prose are all his own. Teens who have never encountered Feiffer’s style may find it off-putting at first, but the propulsive story should suck them in long enough to fully appreciate the his utterly unique talent.—Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA