Jules Feiffer tackles drawing a page of comics much in the way that a painter tackles a canvas. He gets in there with a muscular expressive line and then it’s all, wow, Feiffer has landed another punch, all with such graceful fluidity. You most likely know Jules Feiffer as the writer of one of your favorite books from childhood, 1961’s “The Phantom Tollbooth.” Well, Mr. Feiffer maintains quite an output of stories both drawn and written or strictly in prose. One of his most celebrated plays, and a favorite of mine, is the 1967 dark comedy, “Little Murders.”
I’ve always admired Feiffer’s work and his quirky style of drawing. When he said in an interview that he is only now mastering the art of drawing, I could understand the modesty. It was similar to Akira Kurosawa making a similar comment about filmmaking. Feiffer was adamant about it. Kurosawa was just as humble. Great artists are their own worst critics. Feiffer was saying this in regards to his entry into the world of graphic novels. With the recently released “Cousin Joseph,” Feiffer is midway through a noir trilogy with a spirited plot and a gritty vibe reminiscent of the work of Milton Caniff. I can assure you, the master is doing a fine job here.
What you need to keep in mind about Feiffer is that he is equal parts writer and artist. Perhaps, if he had to choose, he would only be a writer. That’s just to say that his writing is of a caliber that it can certainly stand alone. However, the drawings cannot be denied. A graphic novel, at least a good one, results when the attraction between the words and images becomes so overwhelming that a union is inevitable, essential. That’s what I conclude from reading “Cousin Joseph.” I can see that Feiffer’s narrative is bubbling with ideas. Sometimes an extended prose passage needs proper venting. But, for the most part, this is a dance between word and image.
Feiffer is an artist in his eighties in good health and still creating marvelous work. Much like his dear friend and fellow cartooning legend, Edward Sorel, he continues to gain strength and joy from his work. Cartoonists, like many other artists, tend to live long lives. Cartoonists, in particular, seem to have really got it figured out. But getting back to the book, the story makes for a great stand alone, no prior knowledge of the first volume is needed. The main character is Sam, a police detective who seems alright with skirting the law in favor of working for a mysterious client.
The mysterious client that Sam works for is simply known as, “Cousin Joseph.” He has a murky agenda that Sam has never questioned. In fact, as far as Sam’s concerned, the big guy in the mansion was actually doing some good, instilling solid American values. It’s America in the 1930s. Bread lines blur into persistent threats of Communists lurking in the shadows. Somebody’s gotta do something, right? That notion seems to stick for a while. Gradually, it dawns on Sam that the big guy is not the patriot he makes out to be. Feiffer paints a compelling portrait of Sam, a man with his own dark side.
Another flawed character is Valerie, the teenaged daughter of the owner of a factory who is none too keen on unionizing. Valeries’s weakness is a sex addiction. She can’t help herself from preying upon any underage boy she can get her hands on. Later, she turns to any man who she can entice. While a little older than the boys she lures into her web, Valerie is nothing more than a child herself. She, and the boys, provide an opportunity for Feiffer to do what he does so well, to speak to the often betrayed and wounded heart of childhood. The story, as a whole, speaks to betrayed and wounded hearts everywhere.
‘Cousin Joseph: A Graphic Novel’ is a 128-page hardcover, black & white with tones, published by the Liveright imprint. For more details, visit W.W. Norton & Co. right here.