By Annette Hinkle
You’d think that with an Academy Award, a Pulitzer Prize, two Obies and a Guild Hall Lifetime Achievement Award under his belt (the latter occurring just last week), cartoonist/playwright/screenwriter/filmmaker Jules Feiffer wouldn’t be afraid to try anything.
But you’d be wrong.
Up until last summer, Mr. Feiffer, who just turned 86, had never tackled the noir style comic, that genre of crime literature where tough talking detectives hook up with sassy dames who aren’t quite on the level and together, they solve murders in bleak, black and white settings.
It’s a genre Mr. Feiffer has loved since he was a child.
“So much of the American writing style comes out of the prose first introduced in magazines of the ‘30s and ‘40s — Dashiell Hammett and people like that,” says Mr. Feiffer. “It’s a period in terms of the work that never left me and I think in many ways never left society.”
“It’s amazing how it sticks,” he adds. “Like ‘Breaking Bad,’ over and over it’s the references to that time and that style. I just watched ‘Better Call Saul,’ and it wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for that genre.”
Perhaps this resurgence of noir is what finally gave Mr. Feiffer, who lives in East Hampton and teaches humor writing at Stony Brook Southampton, the push he needed to write (and of course illustrate) “Kill My Mother,” his first graphic novel. The book was published last August and, as you might expect, it comes with a twist — the detective is a hopeless screw up and it’s the woman who gets him out of one jam after another.
“I thought I just don’t want to do another tough good guy who speaks rough and gets beaten up and finds the killer in the end,” explains Mr. Feiffer. “What if my private eye had the look and toughness and is incompetent — a drunk, a has been, over the hill?”
“So who saves his ass?” he asks. “It has to be the assistant — the Effie Perrine to Sam Spade.”
In “Kill Your Mother,” that woman is Elsie. Her husband, a cop, has been killed and she now works for the detective who was his best friend.
“Of course, she has to have a teenage daughter,” adds Mr. Feiffer, “and all teenage daughters want to kill their parents. I know, I’ve been there. I have three daughters.”
Currently, fans of noir comics in general and Jules Feiffer in particular have the opportunity to enjoy both at the Parrish Art Museum where the original artwork from “Kill My Mother” is on view — all 147 pages of it.
The exhibit, “Jules Feiffer: Kill My Mother” runs through April 26 as part of Parrish Perspectives, a new series in which the museum looks at a specific body of work by an artist in depth. As part of the exhibit, this Friday, Mr. Feiffer will be at the museum to talk about his work with museum director Terrie Sultan.
For Feiffer, seeing his illustrations on the walls of the Parrish was quite an eye opener.
“I went to the museum and they showed me the framed artwork and it staggered me,” admits Mr. Feiffer. “I couldn’t believe I did this – it looks like art. It’s astonishing.”
One thing viewers won’t see in the original artwork is the words. That’s because the speech balloons were added to the book digitally after the fact. So in order give viewers some guidance, Mr. Feiffer has added his own wall notes to explain the overarching plot of the novel.
Which leads to a natural question — for someone like Mr. Feiffer, who is adept at both writing and illustration, what came first with “Kill Your Mother,” the words or the pictures?
“I wrote it the way you’d write a screenplay or comics,” he explains. “Panel one describes the action and dialogue. A lot of comics are written by people who don’t illustrate it. That’s how I got it past the publisher and got an advance.”
There are also two ways to write a story — particularly a mystery — front to back or back to front. Mr. Feiffer has done it both ways.
“I used to work back to front, but I found that boring after a while,” he admits. “I wanted to be surprised like a member of the audience.”
But with this book the real surprise, for Mr. Feiffer at least, came once the script was written and the illustrating began.
“The drawings refused to acknowledge the text. I was like a movie director who trashed the screenplay because it has its own ideas,” he says. “As I began to visualize it on the page, certain lines or ways of setting up dialogue seemed wrong. At least half the book is rewritten. It’s still the same story and characters do what they’re supposed to do, but the way they talk and they act is different.”
When the illustrated characters start telling Mr. Feiffer what to do, he knows he’s on to something.
“Casting in a comic book is like casting actors,” he adds. “When deciding how he or she should look, you’re scribbling faces and bodies. How do they lean and walk? You look at it and say, ‘Thank you… next.’ Then I get another performer on the page until I find someone who could do the job.”
“I deliberately don’t think – I try not to use my brain and find a character and let them dictate to me,” he says. “I’m the stenographer.”
Though it sounds counterintuitive, not thinking is a skill Mr. Feiffer seeks to impress upon his writing students at Stony Brook Southampton.
“I talk about that a lot,” he says. “Don’t use your brain. It’s the least effective aspect of your art. It should come from the gut. Follow orders and make mistakes. Nobody knows your screw ups and sometimes the screw ups lead to more interesting places.”
Ultimately, those places are where the true magic is to be found — even if it’s on a questionable street in bad neighborhood where everything is seen in shades of black and white, as is the case in “Kill Your Mother.”
“In the end everything I do is words and pictures,” offers Mr. Feiffer. “That’s what the book is – and every page and panel is about story. Is the person saying the line prominent or is he the one hearing it? Expressions, body language, background, how will it reflect on the story? There’s nothing in the book that is gratuitous and there just because it looks good.”
But in fact, it does look good — especially hanging on the walls of the Parrish Art Museum. So now that he has successfully competed his first graphic novel (and gotten an art exhibit to boot), what can we expect next from Jules Feiffer?
“I have to finish the prequel for ‘Kill Your Mother,’” explains Mr. Feiffer. “It took me more than half my lifetime to get to this form I loved as kid and I’m not giving it up. It’s a combination of things I learned to do over the years — comics, playwrighting, screenwriting — and I put them all in a blender.”
“I’m referencing from the time I was 10 to 15 – when you’re 86 and go back to being 10, it’s not bad,” says Mr. Feiffer. “I’ll be doing this the rest of life.”
On Friday, March 20, at 6 p.m., Jules Feiffer joins Parrish Art Museum Director Terrie Sultan for a spirited conversation at the museum. Afterwards, Mr. Feiffer will sign copies of “Kill My Mother.” Books are available for pre-purchase ($30) on the Parrish website and will be held at the visitors services desk for pre-purchasers on the day of the program. Also on view in Parrish Perspectives is “Robert Dash: Theme and Variations” and “Joe Zucker: Life & Times of an Orb Weaver.”