Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Power (S)trips: Feiffer's Explainers

Rob reviews the first volume of the complete run of Jules Feiffer strips from the Village Voice, EXPLAINERS.

In my review of the Jules Feiffer collection PASSIONELLA, I noted Feiffer's tendency to cynically examine relationships in terms of power. Upon reading the first volume of his complete Village Voice strips, EXPLAINERS, it's clear that Feiffer chooses to examine all aspects of human interaction in terms of power relations. It's not unlike the historian & philosopher Michel Foucault's point of view, a perspective on humanity that is bleak, cynical and yet so very accurate. In Feiffer's comics, who has power over whom informs every strip, be it about sex, relationships, the state, civil rights, industry, friendships or child/parent interactions. Even in his solo laments, the characters frequently express their frustration over their lack of control.

There's a lot of anger in Feiffer's work, but if one had to boil down exactly what he was angry at, one might say it's lies. While he may oversell his point about the nature of relationships being a series of power struggles, what's obvious is that he resents polite society not acknowledging the obvious. Husbands and wives frequently lie to each other about their feelings for each other, often as a way of getting the upper hand. The state exercises frequently arbitrary and ruthless means of making sure that its citizens stay in line. Parents lie to their children and create arbitrary rules to keep them under control. Employees are not rewarded for loyalty by increasingly faceless corporations. The very act of parceling out sex and affection is a sort of marketplace of deception and manipulation. Feiffer exposes the ways that people cover up this very brutal, basic way that humans interact with each other in strips that become increasingly vicious.

Reading the first eleven years of Feiffer's Voice strips (his column was initially titled Sick, Sick, Sick but was later retitled simply Feiffer) is a bracing experience. One sees the development of an artist's style over the years, as Feiffer quickly abandoned typical comic strip panels and word balloons and went to a more free-flowing and spare kind of composition. He went from the thick, angular UPA animation style to a scratchy, sketchy line that had a wonderfully tremulous quality to it. What's interesting about this approach is how well it serves his material. While many comics use a consciously cinematic approach, with the idea of camera angles and such influencing both the artist's process and the reader's perception, Feiffer's comics are staged more like plays. The character monologues are set up like stage monologues. When characters interact, there's very little in the way of backgrounds or "props" to distract the reader; it's very much like watching two character on an empty stage. As such, Feiffer's best strips are all about body language. He's the master of the slouching character, beaten down by the world. He love depicting more unctuous characters invading the personal space of others. When Feiffer is at his best, the expressiveness of his figures perfectly conveys his text.

Feiffer's less successful strips in the book are those that depend on political caricature as well as the talking head strips that don't vary much from image to image. There's always the problem of datedness when one works in political caricature, and that contrast becomes even more acute when one compares those strips to the other pages in the book. Even though some of the strips are over fifty years old, they feel frighteningly modern. That's partly because Feiffer dared to address a number of issues that weren't widely being discussed, even by the liberals of the era. Feiffer is skeptical of both political parties and spares no venom for what he referred to as "the radical middle". He was constantly battling the hypocrisy of liberals who supported civil rights so long as it didn't cause them any personal discomfort. He also mocked white liberal guilt in one memorable strip where a black man berates a group of white men, only to reveal that they had paid him to do it and wanted him to come back a week later. Of course, the many strips that satirically addressed supressing debate during a supposed time of emergency unfortunately ring all too true today.

Feiffer's most memorable strips revolve around his two recurring characters, Huey and Bernard. Huey is a brute and a cad who has no trouble getting women. Bernard is a schlub who is sensitive and caring but also self-pitying and needy. Of course, he is never happy with women. Feiffer gets at various aspects of male behavior through these characters, establishing his ideas about the nature of power dynamics through their actions and misadventures. Huey the brute gets what he wants because brute force is not only what usually wins the day, it's what a lot of people respond to. "Nice guy" Bernard is weak and knows it, resenting everyone around him but finding himself unable to change. Bernard is a wonderfully-designed character, all slouches and shrugs and furrowed brows. By August of 1961, Feiffer's line was growing ever more confident and bold even as he was gaining a greater week-to-week consistency.

While Feiffer's takes on civil rights, government hypocrisy and the reaction to various crises are all amusing in their own way, none of them quite drew blood the way his strips on relationships did. There's such a rawness of feeling there as though Feiffer was putting down on paper observations about gender that were taboo. He saved his greatest venom for marriage, and the many horrible reasons why people get married and the misery they put themselves through as a result. The way people talk past, around and through each other is a particular focus for Feiffer. Controlling communication is perhaps the greatest key to wielding power, and finding ways to talk without actually saying anything (all while controlling the nature of the discourse) is the most disingenuous act of all. That strangled form of communication was especially in effect in the 1950s. It'll be interesting to see how much Feiffer's approach changes in the late 60s, especially during the Nixon presidency. There's no question that he's the godfather of the independent weekly cartoon and one of the most important cartoonists of the 20th century. Having the bulk of the work that made such an impact on the culture's consciousness in one series of volumes is a great thing for fans of the medium.

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