SAN DIEGO — "I'm not the first to say that what serves me best as a cartoonist is a disaster for everybody else," says Pulitzer Prize winner Jules Feiffer. "In terms of my future as a political cartoonist, there's no question that George Bush should be my candidate of choice."
As one the most respected editorial cartoonists in America, Feiffer has spent the last 30 years finding humor in political disasters and social problems. He is here to speak Sunday at the San Diego Comic-Con, an annual convention, art show and sale devoted to comic books, comic strips and cartoons being held at the Convention and Performing Arts Center.
The roles of social critic and dramatist have intermingled in Feiffer's career since 1956, when his weekly strip, "Feiffer" made its debut in the Village Voice. His play "Little Murders" won both an Obie and an Outer Circle Drama Critics' award. He wrote the screenplays for "Little Murders," "Carnal Knowledge" and "Popeye," and the animated version of "Munro," his story about a 4-year-old boy who is mistakenly drafted--won an Oscar in 1961.
But he has had his greatest success as an editorial cartoonist, culminating with his Pulitzer in 1986, and cartooning remains his first love.
Feiffer's first job as a teen-ager was as an unpaid assistant to Will Eisner, creator of the popular comic book, "The Spirit." Feiffer says Eisner "grew frustrated over my lack of talent as a comic book artist, but I was too cheap to fire."
Although he was unable to copy Eisner's stark film noir drawings, Feiffer displayed an early talent for writing, and soon took over scripting "The Spirit." In 1949, he added a strip of his own to the comic. "Clifford," the adventures of a little boy and his dog, ran through 1951, when Feiffer was drafted. After his military service, he left comic books for newspaper cartooning.
In his newspaper work, Feiffer developed a hybrid format that combined the political commentary of editorial cartoons with the multipanel structure of comic strips. His extensive use of dialogue and repeated simple images has been an important influence on such contemporary artists as Garry Trudeau ("Doonesbury") and Berke Breathed ("Bloom County").
Although many of his early cartoons satirized the manners and mores of the '50s, Feiffer quickly established a reputation as an outspoken liberal--a position he's maintained since the second Eisenhower Administration. He praises many of cartoonists who have emerged since then--The Times' Paul Conrad plus Tony Auth, Pat Oliphant, Doug Marlette, Jeff MacNelly--and contrasts the strength of their work with the milder editorial cartoons of the '50s.
"Political cartoons made strong statements back at the turn of the century, through the '20s. But during the Cold War '50s, that kind of powerful commentary disappeared--with the exceptions of Herblock and Bill Mauldin," Feiffer said. "It wasn't really until the Vietnam years that there was a broad base of strong comment from a group of young, better educated cartoonists whose politics emerged from their response to Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement.
"The cartoonists were the strongest critics--and about the only effective liberal voices you could find on the Op-Ed pages during the Reagan years," he adds. "For some reason, many columnists and editorial writers were befuddled by Reagan's popularity. Now, after Iran-Contra and other scandals, the writers are more focused on Reagan. 'Disgusting' is too mild a term to describe discovering, after all these years, what was obvious after six months."
For the past eight years, Reagan has been Feiffer's favorite target. In the introduction to his most recent collection of cartoons, he summed up his ambivalence toward a President whose positions he despises, but who provides a wonderful subject for satire.
"Though I rage at his smugness, ignorance and ideological blindness, I worry about losing him--our first President not to lie out of convenience or defensiveness, but in the service of a higher truth, a right-wing faith that . . . I rancorously and joyously sink my teeth into."
Unlike many commentators and humorists, Feiffer does not see the presidential race between Michael Dukakis and George Bush as too dull to offer much opportunity for satire.
"The material is what Jesse (Jackson) will do on the left and how he will bring a focus to the campaign that will enliven it," he said. "I think Bush and Dukakis, left to themselves, would fight a deadly boring right wing-mainstream campaign that would simply disenfranchise huge segments of the American people."
As his thoughts move from the coming election, which he predicts Dukakis will win "by a landslide," Feiffer grows more serious.
"We have to decide whether this country is going to consist of a small group of the very rich--who will have to protect themselves with some kind of militia against the growing numbers of the very poor who have not been integrated or educated or found jobs for," he said. "Unless we start doing something to move the burgeoning Hispanic and black communities and other minorities into the middle class and upper middle class, we're going to have cultural and class apartheid here. And we'll have it within the next generation."
Feiffer's anger with the problems he sees in America remains undimmed after more than three decades of outspoken commentary. But as a political cartoonist, he has a vehicle for his ire that few angry people enjoy.
"When I see something that makes me angry, drawing a cartoon about it provides a temporary 'fix,' " he says. "When . . . the system is not corrected overnight--or even in 25 years--my temper tends to rise again."