Backing into Forward: A Memoir

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9780226240350: Backing into Forward: A Memoir

Subversive, funny, and effortlessly droll, Jules Feiffer’s cartoons were all over New York in the 1960s and ’70s—featured in the Village Voice, but also cut out and pinned to bulletin boards in offices and on refrigerators at home. Feiffer describes himself as “lucking into the zeitgeist,” and there’s some truth to the sentiment; Feiffer’s brand of satire reflected Americans’ ambivalence about the Vietnam War, changing social mores, and much more.

Feiffer’s memoir, Backing into Forward, like his cartoons, is sharply perceptive with a distinctive bite of mordant humor. Beginning with his childhood in Brooklyn, Feiffer paints a picture of a troubled kid with an overbearing mother and a host of crippling anxieties. From there, he discusses his apprenticeship with his hero, Will Eisner, and his time serving in the military during the Korean War, which saw him both feigning a breakdown and penning a cartoon narrative called “Munro” that solidified his distinctive aesthetic as an artist. While Feiffer’s voice grounds the book, the sheer scope of his artistic accomplishment, from his cartoons turning up in the New Yorker, Playboy, and the Nation to his plays and film scripts, is remarkable and keeps the narrative bouncing along at a speedy clip. A compelling combination of a natural sense of humor and a ruthless dedication to authenticity, Backing into Forward is full of wit and verve, often moving but never sentimental.

“Jules Feiffer’s original and neurotic voice. . . . reinvented comics in the 1950s and made possible what’s now called the ‘graphic novel.’ His engaging new memoir is told in that same witty and perceptive New York cadence, mellowed and laced with wisdom. He’s an inspiration.”—Art Spiegelman

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About the Author:

Jules Feiffer is a cartoonist, playwright, screenwriter, and children’s book author and illustrator. He has taught at the Yale School of Drama, Northwestern University, and Dartmouth College, and currently teaches at Stony Brook Southampton College. Over the course of his career, he has won a Pulitzer Prize and a George Polk Award for his cartoons; an Obie for his plays; an Academy Award for the animation of his cartoon satire, Munro; and Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Writers Guild of American and the National Cartoonist Society.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1
BOY CARTOONIST


Food was out to get me. Food devoured me with every mouthful I took. I chewed for minutes without being able to swallow. I gagged, spit up into a napkin, then secretly shook the remains into the garbage when my mother’s back was turned. She didn’t suspect.

Much in the manner of immigrant Jewish mothers of her time and circumstance, my mother placed all her hopes and dreams on me. She wanted me to be big and healthy. But I wouldn’t cooperate. I was small for my age and underweight for any age. I could count my own ribs when I stripped down to my shorts.

“It’s good for you,” was her unpersuasive catch phrase as she tried to shovel noodle pudding down my throat. “It’s your favorite,” she insisted against the evidence of my tightly sealed lips. “I have no time for this,” she pleaded.

She had anointed me, the only male child in the family, to succeed where she had not. But at the rate I was going, I had three months to live. Or so my mother worried. I knew I’d do fine if I could only get away from her noodle pudding. I despised her noodle pudding.

My mother had failed to live up to her early promise as a fashion designer. It was never clear why her career had gone flat, but what was clear, much too clear, was how she toiled, night and day, over her drawing table stationed in a corner of our living room, sandwiched between the piano no one knew how to play and the bookcase stacked with Russian, French, and English novels (read by my father) and uplifting essays by Emerson and others (studied by my mother). She drew her fashion sketches, cloaks and suits they were called, in pencil and lightly tinted watercolor. Three days a week she packed them up and subwayed down to the Garment District on Seventh Avenue, where she peddled them door-to-door to dress manufacturers. Each sketch earned her three dollars. Since my father perennially failed at business and his various other jobs didn’t last that long, it was my mother’s three-dollar sketches that brought us through hard times.

She performed dutifully the roles of breadwinner, wife, and mother, unsought obligations inflicted on her by a bad choice in husbands and the Great Depression. She was said to be good at design, but how was I to know? Except for superheroes in tights and capes, I was indifferent to fashion. But from an early age I was forced to observe how absent pleasure was from her work, how often she mentioned the strain, her headaches, her throbbing temples—

I was meant to grow up to right the wrong of her stalled career, undermined by my grandparents, who prodded her into marrying Dave Feiffer. So much had been taken from her, small wonder the anxiety she brought to raising me. Her offers of food felled me like a battering ram. She pushed, cajoled, browbeat, destroyed my appetite for the very things she offered. “Eat, it’s delicious,” “You’ll love this, you know you’ll love this.” This is not the job she wanted. What she wanted was to get on with the day, get back to her drawing board, dive deep into the world of fashion, which, though it offered few rewards, remained her single escape from this marriage she was drafted into. Her aim was to stuff me at least to the extent that I wasn’t a physical embarrassment to the neighbors, a reproach to her reputation as a mother, forty pounds at seven years, my reminder of her failure.

I had my appetites, not for food but for comics. I didn’t see that food had anything in it to sustain me. I ate only because I wanted to be a good boy. I wanted to keep my mother happy. Not that I, or anyone else, could keep her happy. But more about not keeping my mother happy later.

Comics: I ate them, I breathed them, I thought about them day and night. I learned to read only so that I could read comics. Nothing else was worth the effort. Marginalized from every aspect of the Bronx world I inhabited, my only escape was a life of escapism: reading comics, going to movies, listening to radio serials and favored comedians — Jack Armstrong, I Love a Mystery, Fibber McGee and Molly, Charlie McCarthy, Jack Benny, Burns and Allen — each transporting me out of real life into a totally impossible fantasy reality that I bought as a metaphor for my future.
   
My alternate dream was to someday work myself into the ranks of the great cartoonists. Getting to the top, where I’d be invited to hang out with Milton Caniff of Terry and the Pirates, Will Eisner of The Spirit, Roy Crane of Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy, E. C. Segar of Popeye, Raeburn Van Buren of Abbie an’ Slats, Alex Raymond of Flash Gordon, Al Capp of Li’l Abner . . .
   
These men were heroes! Brilliance in four-paneled daily strips and full-page gloriously colored Sunday extravaganzas that they routinely created. I loved the look, the dazzling interplay of words and pictures that leaped off the comics page at me, a preferred universe to the one I was mired in. But not for long. If I had anything to say about it. I lived in circumstances where I was poor (a drawback in real life, an incitement to high adventure and rags to riches in comics), where I was small and powerless, so inadequate that I couldn’t bat, throw, or catch a ball (a disaster in real life, but in comics a self-imposed limitation that hid my superpowers from evildoers).
   
I could have used superpowers. If you grew up poor in the Bronx during the Great Depression, missing out on the joys of boyhood as others knew them — baseball, football, basketball (fun for others, failed challenges for me) — then what was my way out? A fantasy of fame and fortune as a cartoonist! So went my exit strategy.
   
The scenario begins with my own Bronx version of a movie Western shootout. It’s Saturday. It’s summer. It’s Stratford Avenue in the Soundview area of the East Bronx. Five- and six-story dreary brick apartment houses line the streets. Brown, gray, and rust are the colors that dominate. On the corner of Stratford and Westchester, the Lexington Avenue El clatters by, noticeably noisiest in the middle of the night. Kaminkowitz’s drugstore is on the corner of Stratford, next to Horowitz’s vegetable store, next to a vacant lot. I worked at Kaminkowitz’s as a delivery boy when I was eleven and twelve.
   
Pensky’s candy store is across the street, the near corner. Pensky was important to my life because his store was where I scanned comic books before buying them. Pensky also had a soda fountain and gum ball machines and, in a booth at the back of the store, one of the few phones on the block. If my mother got a call, Pensky sent a kid (in the store for a candy or a soda), up Stratford to our house, 1235, to call my mother to the window. “Mrs. Feiffer, you’re wanted on the phone!” the kid shouted from the street.
   
My mother walked three flights down, meandered to the store (she had two speeds: slow and slower), ambled into Pensky’s, said, “I have a phone call, Mr. Pensky?” as if it had to be a mistake, thanked Pensky correctly but without feeling (he was a tradesman, she was a snob), and then, no matter how hot the day, closed herself off in the phone booth to take the call.
   
My mother minded her own business and wanted Pensky to mind his. And her children to mind ours. She kept secrets, who knew how many and of what gravity? Secrets about finances, about family, about family and finances, about disappointments, about betrayals, about debt and more debts, about so much that she couldn’t let on, could only hint at: “You’re not old enough. I’ll tell you when you’re old enough.”
   My mother’s secrets gave depth to her rigidity. And God knows, for a woman who started out a blithe spirit, the abuses that broke but did not bend her succeeded in alienating all three of her children, who were incipient blithe spirits themselves.
   
   She was not affectionate. Not a hugger, a holder, a kisser, a squeezer, or a pincher. She didn’t go in for bodily contact, certainly not with my father. I’ve suspected for a long time that mine was a virginal birth. I can’t prove it. But in my life I’ve never been in much of a position to prove anything. My motto has been: Even if you have to make it up, move on. That’s just one of my mottos. My other motto is: Duck!
   
So I’m back in the Bronx in the 1930s, which I’m told was a fine place to be if you were a different kind of poor Jewish boy than I was. I hear, now and again, from Bronx nostalgia associations and Web sites set up for expats who remember their Bronx childhoods fondly, romantically, a bit misty-eyed. That’s not how I remember it: Walking down three flights of narrow stairs from Apartment 2-F at 1235 Stratford. I have a piece of chalk in my hand instead of a gun. But walking down those stairs and out the door into the sunlight is a little like walking down a lone Western street through the swinging doors of a saloon. Gunfighters everywhere — they know they can take me. I know they can take me. My three-year-old sister, Alice, who worships the ground I walk on, even she knows they can take me.
    
But of course it’s not a saloon, it’s the very block I live on. My enemies are armed not with guns but with balls and baseball gloves and broomsticks. And they know when they see me walking out my front door (if they do see me, which I doubt), that I am of absolutely no consequence. I can’t hit, I can’t throw, I can’t catch.
    
I was missing a basic Bronx gene, the ball-playing gene. It seemed ...

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