Jules Ralph Feiffer

American artist and writer Jules Ralph Feiffer (born 1929) was best known for his satirical cartoons, but his artistic creations and acclaim also extended to plays, screenplays, and novels.

Jules Feiffer, who was born on January 26, 1929, in Bronx, New York, to David and Rhoda (nee Davis) Feiffer, always had an interest in drawing. By age five he had won a gold medal in a contest sponsored by John Wanamaker's department store in New York for his picture of Tom Mix arresting outlaws. After graduating from high school, Feiffer studied at the Art Students League and Pratt Institute. From 1946 to 1951 he worked as an assistant to legendary cartoonist Will Eisner, creator of the popular comic book "The Spirit." Feiffer so impressed Eisner with his writing ability that he was given responsibility for scripting "The Spirit." During this period Feiffer also created a comic strip of his own called "Clifford," a Sunday cartoon-page feature about the adventures of a little boy and his dog. His budding career was interrupted in 1951 when he was drafted into the Army. Although military service was repugnant to Feiffer, the two-year hitch actually changed the course of his work.


The Satirist

Before the service, Feiffer said his ambition "was no more and no less than to do a daily comic strip and a Sunday page in whatever style I found." His anger at being in the Army and his rage against authority, however, led him to satire and the desire to make pointed social and political comments through his art. Feiffer's first effort in that direction was the creation of "Munro," the story of a four-year-old boy mistakenly drafted into the Army.

After leaving the military, though, Feiffer had difficulty getting started as a satirist. Unable to interest a publisher in his book of cartoons about "Munro," he drifted from one art job to another between periods of unemployment. Then, in 1956, Feiffer took some of his cartoons to the Village Voice, the weekly newspaper in New York's Greenwich Village that was just getting started. Although it could not pay, the Voice provided Feiffer with a platform and complete freedom to express his thoughts. Feiffer's simple drawings, which combined the commentary of editorial cartoons with the multi-panel structure of comic strips, were an instant success. After two years Feiffer's cartoons from the Voice were compiled into a best-selling book called Sick, Sick, Sick. Then Playboy magazine put him on a $500-a-week retainer and his career was firmly launched.

Feiffer's cartoons attracted attention and a devoted following because they differed so markedly from the norm. His work looked like comic strips, but instead of gags and preposterous situations, Feiffer offered biting vignettes of contemporary life in an attempt to expose society's ills and do something about them. Feiffer spoke of "writing" his cartoons because he believed in the supremacy of wording over illustration. Indeed, while drawing the cartoons came easily, he sometimes rewrote his captions fifteen times.


Characters and Themes

The characters in Feiffer's sharp pen drawings, which included introspective adults, precocious children, nonconformists, politicians, and army generals, experienced and explained emotional anxiety and political upheaval. Feiffer was once described as being "at war with complacency, with the cliche mongers who provide society with meaningless slogans to live by, with the pomposity of officialdom, and with the carefully cultivated dullness of our carefully protected daily lives." Summarizing his own work, Feiffer said that it dealt "with going up against authority and conventional wisdom, and how people use language not to communicate, and the use of power in relationships." Feiffer used his signature character, the dancer in the black leotard, to offer a ray of optimism. He said of her: "Whatever the problems and disasters, and however often hope is dashed, she rises up and dances again. She'll never be defeated by the realities."

Beginning in the 1960s, Feiffer, an outspoken liberal, increasingly concentrated on political themes such as race relations, Vietnam, and the presidency. Of the latter he said, "I really go after the presidents and seem to have a good time slapping them around." Explaining why Reagan was a special target, he said, "I rage at his smugness, ignorance and ideological blindness." Feiffer's rage at presidents and the problems he saw in America, even after nearly four decades of cartooning, never moderated. "When I see something that makes me angry, drawing a cartoon about it provides a temporary 'fix'," he said. "When the system is not corrected overnight—or even in twenty-five years—my temper tends to rise again."


Awards and Publications

In addition to appearing in the Village Voice and Playboy, Feiffer's cartoons were syndicated to more than a hundred newspapers in the United States and abroad and were compiled into numerous books. His work earned him a Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning in 1986, a special George Polk Memorial Award, a Newspaper Guild Page One Award, an Overseas Press Club Award, and a Capital Press Club Award. In 1995 he was elected into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Besides these honors, Feiffer influenced a generation of cartoonists, including "Doonesbury" creator Garry Trudeau, who always credited Feiffer as his guru.

Although cartooning was his anchor, Feiffer's artistic creations and acclaim were wide-ranging. He also wrote plays, screenplays, novels, and teleplays as well as doing illustrations for several books. He won an Academy Award for his 1961 animated feature, "Munro," and wrote the screenplays for "Carnal Knowledge," "Little Murders," "Popeye," and "I Want To Go Home," which was made and released in France. His plays, which included "Little Murders," "The White House Murder Case," and "Elliott Loves," won him two Outer Circle Critics Awards, an Obie, and the London Theatre Critics Award. Feiffer was also named most promising playwright of the 1966-1967 season by New York drama critics. His novels include Harry, the Rat with Women and Ackroyd. Recently he has focued on writing children's books. In 1993 he published The Man in the Ceiling and A Barrel of Laughs, A Vale of Tears was published in 1995. In 1996 Feiffer donated his papers and drawings to the Library of Congress.

Feiffer always tried to be innovative in whatever artistic endeavor he attempted. He once said that as both writer and cartoonist, he enjoyed "understanding, acknowledging, respecting, and then ignoring the limitations of the different mediums I'm working in."


Further Reading on Jules Ralph Feiffer

There are numerous books of Feiffer's cartoons, including: Ronald Reagan in Movie America: A Jules Feiffer Production; Feiffer's Children; Marriage Is an Invasion of Privacy and Other Dangerous Views.