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Jules Feiffer Fine-Toons His Career : His political cartoons still sizzle but it's children's art he loves. Now, an L.A. retrospective proves it isn't just kid stuff.

September 30, 1993|LAWRENCE CHRISTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For nearly four decades Jules Feiffer's cartoon strips have dependably given us an ironic afterword for whatever issue or personality is in the news, or else have caught an inside ripple in the white water of current events.

Though he still has plenty of work cut out for him, Feiffer at 64 is rounding into that period of his life when he can start a bit of summing up. On Tuesday, Every Picture Tells a Story art gallery in Los Angeles unveiled a retrospective of his strips and drawings--including some original charcoal sketches of dancers and drawings from "The Phantom Tollbooth," and new pieces from his upcoming children's book, "The Man in the Ceiling." Feiffer will be on hand Saturday for a reception at the gallery.

Has a New Age Administration re-sharpened his pen?

"I was a lot more sage in the '50s and '60s," Feiffer said by telephone from New York. "I'm more aware of how stupid I am now. I knew absolutely what needed to be said about the Cold War, Nixon, Johnson, Kennedy and Eisenhower. But I can't make anything of Clinton's health plan. I know we should do something about Bosnia, but I don't know what to tell him. I knew what to do about Vietnam, but I don't know what to do about the recession.

"I knew how to solve everything in the '60s. Everything seemed decipherable and measurable. Now we seem in a free fall. All we can hope is that it'll become a free lift. All I know is that I feel more dopey than at any time in my professional life."

It's only natural that, as dependent as we've become on the shock of the new, Feiffer should generate less cutting-edge interest than he used to. But his sense of irony, which tends to curdle in his plays, is untarnished in his strips, and he can still bring some heat and unpredictability to turbulent issues. When the National Endowment for the Arts censorship issue came to a boil, for example, who among his artist confreres would have expected him to draw an angry picket asserting his right to unrestricted artistic freedom as well as his anti-Establishment contempt, only to proclaim at screed's end, "FUND ME!!!"

A relatively recent strip took in both the temper of current female complaint and our general feeling of political letdown when a young woman talked of the man who lied to her, showed up late, told her she was crazy when she caught him in a deception, and concludes, "I wish I had known that when I voted for Bill Clinton, I wasn't getting a president . . . but another sick relationship."

(In typical Feiffer style, he shuffled through the presidential receiving line at Martha's Vineyard this summer and now says, "I think he knew about the strip. I didn't get the double handshake. I didn't get the clasp. It was light and quick. Now I feel abused.")

*

No one had ever seen anything quite like his strips that began appearing in New York's Village Voice in 1956. Cartoons and comic books of all had long been entrenched in American pop culture, and still are. But the wan, squiggly, vaguely horror-stricken shapes that seemed to writhe in eyeball-popping limbo, though altogether new, seemed instantly familiar.

Conventional wisdom recalls the '50s as the decade of the Deep Snooze, of gray flannel suits entraining daily to work in monolithic corporations, which at dusk disgorged them back to fresh-faced wives and children at home in metastasizing suburbs.

Jules Feiffer's nerve-wracked people gave us a more microscopic look at the America coalescing into a lonely crowd. His inability to draw backgrounds (which persists) seemed more of a virtue than a handicap as the postwar alarms of racial and sexual tension, the fallout from McCarthyism, The Bomb, and the insidious, inescapable presence of a hostile Communist bloc, seemed in his strips to blend into a vast backdrop of featureless anxiety.

It was the age of Individualism Reconsidered as well, where the argot of psychoanalysis--repression, paranoia, guilt, neurosis, rejection--filtered into the vocabulary of the urban middle-class, whose troubled self-regard took the foreground of Feiffer's strips. And it was an age in which anyone who challenged the order of things was called "sick." ("Sick, Sick, Sick" was in fact the name of the book of Feiffer cartoons that came out two years later).

Over the years he's written 14 cartoon books; nine published (and six unpublished) plays; five screenplays, including "Carnal Knowledge" and "Popeye"; two teleplays; and provided several contributions as illustrator to volumes such as "The Phantom Tollbooth" and "The Excalibur and the Rose." He's won a special George Polk Memorial Award, two Outer Circle Critics Awards, an Obie, an Oscar (for his 1961 animated feature, "Munro") and a Pulitzer Prize, in 1986, for editorial cartooning--which has remained his base.

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