This article was originally published at sequart.com in 2006.
There’s a case to be made that Jules Feiffer was the first prototype of the underground/alternative cartoonist. A comics lifer, he started out as Will Eisner’s assistant on The Spirit and eventually wrote a number of Denny Colt stories. Like Eisner, he shared the feeling that comics were capable of being so much more than merely crude entertainment for sub-literates. The difference was that Eisner abandoned comics for a number of years to design illustrated training manuals for the army before he returned to comics in 1978, whereas Feiffer persisted and invented his own market.
While Eisner would later go on to write for a bookstore market, his art was always more accomplished and sophisticated than his writing. With Feiffer, it was quite the opposite. Though his art is lively and expressive, his minimalist & sketchy style was completely unlike what people expected from comics at the time. His drawings were just the frame from which he hung biting, nasty and incisive satire of modern life and politics. If Harvey Kurtzman wrote satire for kids in the pages of MAD, Feiffer did it for adults in the pages of his primary employer, the Village Voice. In the book’s introduction, Gary Groth mentions William Steig (among others) as influences for Feiffer. Given the tone of his stories, the sheer bluntness and exaggeration of line, another influence would seem to be James Thurber. Thurber was perhaps the most influential humorist of the first half of the 20th century, and it can be argued that Feiffer was the most influential in the second half. Both men were writers who drew, who loved the impact that their art provided when paired with their text.
This hardback collection (another beneficiary of the Peanuts dividend) collects a number of strips and stories from various magazines and an earlier book collection. Feiffer has dabbled in all sorts of media and has written a number of plays. “Superman” is both a strip and a play. The strip involves Supes getting deconstructed by a woman and winding up with an office job and a house in the suburbs. The play takes the concept a little further, but both have the memorable plea “But you will admit that I’m better than average?” “The Cutting Edgists” is a pointed attack on satirists of the day that he viewed as engaging in little more than harmless, self-congratulatory commentary that was not a real critique of society. It’s a dangerous exercise for a satirist to attack other satirists, but the play lands a number of direct hits.
Of the comics in this collection, the most interesting are the title strip, “The Lonely Machine” and “The Relationship”. The latter is a classic Feiffer silent strip: two lovers, sitting hunched over and despairing, with their backs to each other. When the man accidentally kills a flower and despairs even further, the woman feels his pain and there is a brief rapprochement. The feeling fades, as the two inevitably return to their initial solipsism. There is no real empathy here, just two people wrapped up in themselves. That self-centeredness is further examined in “The Lonely Machine”, a witty indictment of the “Playboy philosophy” about a man rejected by the world who builds a machine to love him and for him to dominate. Feiffer would do Michel Foucault proud in his analysis of relationships in the modern world as nothing more than power struggles. Any real attempt at feeling and empathy is discouraged by a philosophy that emphasizes materialism and false connections.
“Passionella” is a slightly more light-hearted tale of a plain chimney-sweep named Ella who wants nothing more than to be a movie star. Her fairy godmother (manifesting through a TV screen, of course) makes her beautiful and gives her a deluxe breast enhancement, and soon she becomes Passionella. Of course, the only problem is that she’s only beautiful during the evening, and must run off before the Late Late Show ends and she turns back into plain ol’ Ella.
Ella is lonely, however. When she turns to her Fairy Godmother, she is told “My field is strictly public relations. You’ll have to handle your own emotional problems”. She meets the perfect man, disaffected movie star Flip Charming. As Ella is obviously a Marilyn Monroe stand-in, so is Flip a James Dean clone. He encourages her to try acting in real roles, and so she talks her studio into a gritty, “realistic” film about a chimneysweep, which she acts in as Ella. When she winds up marrying Flip, she finds out that he has a secret too. The story is a clever attack on Hollywood that still manages to have a very sweet and funny ending.
The danger of collecting satire is its natural expiration date. Indeed, the weaker pieces in the book are those that address a particular time and place. Luckily, Feiffer’s commentary for the most part remains remarkably fresh. Alienation, jingoism and materialism never seem to go out of style.