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  • Backing Into Forward
  • Written by Jules Feiffer
  • Format: eBook | ISBN: 9780385531597
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Backing Into Forward

A Memoir

Written by Jules FeifferAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Jules Feiffer


List Price: $15.99


On Sale: March 16, 2010
Pages: 384 | ISBN: 978-0-385-53159-7
Published by : Knopf Group E-Books Knopf
Backing Into Forward Cover

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The award-winning cartoonist, playwright, and author delivers a witty, illustrated rendition of his life, from his childhood as a wimpy kid in the Bronx to his legendary career in the arts.

 A gifted storyteller who has delighted readers and theater audiences for decades, Jules Feiffer now turns his talents to the tale of his own life.

 Plagued by learning problems, a controlling mother, and a debilitating sense of fear, Feiffer embarked on his first cartoon apprenticeship at the age of seventeen, emboldened only by a passion for success and an aptitude for failure. He vividly recalls those transformative years working under the legendary Will Eisner, and later, after he was drafted into the army, his evolution from “smart-ass kid into an enraged satirist.” Backing into Forward also traces Feiffer's love life, from a doomed hitchhiking trip to reclaim his high-school sweetheart to losing his virginity in Greenwich Village, and his road to marriage and fatherhood.

 At the center of this journey is Feiffer's prolific creativity. In dazzling detail, he recounts the birth of his subversive graphic novella Munro, his entrée into New York's literary salons, collaborations with film greats Mike Nichols, Robert Altman, and Jack Nicholson, and other major turning points. Brimming with wry punch lines, slices of Americana, and pithy social commentary, Backing into Forward charts Feiffer's rise as an unlikely and incisive provocateur during the conformist fifties and the Vietnam and Civil Rights sixties and seventies.

From the Hardcover edition.


Chapter 1

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 that every kid had it but me. Later, John F. Kennedy was to famously say, “Life is not fair.” He was never to know that, a generation earlier, I had proved his point over and over again.
Anyhow, back to the scenario: I have chalk, that’s my weapon. They have balls and sticks and gloves. They outsize, outweigh, and outgun me. I don’t know what I’m doing out here. I wouldn’t be here, but my mother made me. “You can’t stay in the house and draw all day.” “You need fresh air.” “Go out and play.”
    Play? If she paid attention to anything but her own rules, she’d know that I can’t play. I am physically at odds with sports. My body has been fitted with a hand that can draw but can’t catch or field a ball. She is sending her only son out to die.
    Hence the piece of chalk in my hand. At seven I have begun to strategize. If no one else, not my mother, not my father, is aware enough to look after my survival, then it’s up to me. Chalk is my weapon, the sidewalk my battleground. While they, the other, the enemy, the kids with size and muscles and coordination, take over the street, a dozen or more, batting balls, fielding base hits in and around traffic, I establish my terrain, down on my knees on the sidewalk. I draw in large, brash strokes. I don’t know what it is until I’ve laid down the first lines. Its . . . Popeye. Next I do Wimpy. I do a better Popeye than a Wimpy, but it beats any Wimpy these jocks can draw.
One or two of the athletes wander over. They trot off their turf, the street, over to my gallery on the sidewalk.
“Hey, it’s Popeye.”
“Can you draw Dick Tracy?”
I can and I do. And I am fast. They are startled by my speed.
“Can you draw Tom Mix?”
Tom Mix is a favorite cowboy star of the thirties. I draw a ten-gallon- hatted gunslinger firing with both barrels. It doesn’t matter that it doesn’t look like Tom Mix. The growing crowd is responding to me, the fastest chalk in the West.
Of course, after five or ten minutes they are bored and go back to their game. Besides, I have a limited repertoire, only so many cowboys and cartoon characters that I know how to draw or fake draw. But it doesn’t matter, I’ve made my point, I’ve taken my ground: the sidewalk. And on that sidewalk I’ve carved out a niche for myself in the neighborhood. I’m the artist.
I’ve won respect if not acceptance. Admiration if not friendship.
I’ve drawn myself into the pecking order. It’s an early use — perhaps my earliest — of a basic survivor’s technique: backing into recognition.
I figured out what the jocks couldn’t do that I could. I could draw. They couldn’t. I used their lack of talent to prove that even though I wasn’t a ball player I was visible, I existed! Inadvertently, I had stumbled onto the use of comics as judo. Talk about epiphanies.

From the Hardcover edition.
Jules Feiffer

About Jules Feiffer

Jules Feiffer - Backing Into Forward

Photo © Seth Kushner Photography

JULES FEIFFER's Pulitzer-winning comic strip ran for forty-two years in the Village Voice and one hundred other papers. He is the author of a wide range of additional creative work, including the Obie Award-winning play Little Murders, the screenplay for Carnal Knowledge, and the Oscar-winning short animation, Munro. Other works include the plays Knock Knock (a Tony award nominee) and Grown-Ups; the novels Harry, the Rat with Women and Ackroyd; the screenplays Popeye and I Want to Go Home (winner of the best screenplay award at the Venice Film Festival); and the children's books The Man in the Ceiling, Bark, George, and the illustrations for Which Puppy? by his daughter, Kate, and the children’s classic The Phantom Tollbooth.


National Jewish Book Award Finalist!

"Resonant, self-­lacerating and frequently hilarious . . . . The voice in Backing Into Forward is not spry, not pretty energetic for an old person, but youthful, full of insouciance, vanity and playfulness. While other accomplished men bronze their success or dip it in amber, Feiffer treats his own as one big, wonderful caper.” 
The New York Times Book Review

“[Backing Into Forward] succeeds in sounding like the best of Mr. Feiffer’s cartoons: funny, acerbic, subversive, fiercely attuned to the absurdities in his own life and in the country at large.”
Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“Writing with wit, angst,  honesty, and self-insights, Feiffer shares a vast and complex interior emotional landscape. Intimate and entertaining, his autobiography is a revelatory evocation of fear, ambition, dread, failure, rage, and, eventually, success.”
Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Feiffer is a fantastic raconteur, a thoroughly engaging narrator of his life, whether recollecting 1950s Greenwich Village and Brooklyn, his false starts at love and sex, his failed first marriage, his (happy) remarriage or parenthood. However entertaining his anecdotes are, nothing is more absorbing than the passages in which Feiffer talks about his struggles and triumphs as an artist. It's fascinating to read about his process, which is intuitive and spontaneous rather than analytical . . . . Best of all, a number of Feiffer's drawings, from various stages of his life, are interspersed throughout the book. His writing voice, just like his drawing style, is loose and accessible, making you feel as though you've spent time in his charming presence.”
The Dallas Morning News

“Lively and engaging . . . . Backing Into Forward is a fine companion to [Feiffer’s] art. It's also an illuminating book about the creative process, an entertaining read, and a cautionary tale about an era that really doesn't deserve a memorial.”
The Village Voice
“At 81, [Feiffer’s] time has come. Again. And this wonderfully weird and revealing book proves it. [Backing Into Forward] has all the neurotic splendor and self-protective disingenuousness of truth. It's by turns entertaining and gripping about the life of a wildly talented man who was bad at sports, bad at school (he never went to college and wasted years fearing discovery) and by his own cheerful admission, not all that great at drawing either. But look at the deeply neurotic and emaciated lines in any characteristic Feiffer cartoon. No one ever drew late-20th century urban American civilization any better. In memoir form, he's grand company.”
The Buffalo News

“People usually read the memoirs of famous people for a front-row seat to an important life, but Feiffer’s rambunctious, rambling autobiography treats this notion with satire and self-deprecation . . . . Consequently, Backing Into Forward isn’t a portrait of the artist. But it is a remarkable you-are-there remembrance of the times that created the author, and the verbosity and rage that fueled him.”
Time Out New York

"Feiffer's book is as penetrating and lacerating as his strips have always been, except that here, Feiffer's target is Feiffer himself. He writes like he draws—loosely, almost casually, yet somehow with precision."

"Vivid, hilarious and brutally self-analytic."

“A book that pulls the witty, subversive and celebrated writer-cartoonist into sharp focus . . . . By the end, I was circling passages and wondering about the nature of genius . . . . Peppering the book are reprints of Feiffer’s cartoons and illustrations, though my favorite are the newly made “last panels” with which he closes the memoir . . . . Full of movement and energy, the drawings make an elegant finish to a book I can tell will stick with me like a good friend.”
Cleveland Plain Dealer

"Jules Feiffer's account of his multifaceted career will delight that generation of readers for whom his whimsical, sardonic and often politically barbed Village Voice cartoons were a cultural touchstone."
The Washington Post

 “A thoughtful, introspective cartoonist who can also write beautifully? Yes, it is possible. Backing into Forward is vivid, buoyant, and even a little discomfiting in its candor. I couldn't put down.”
Chris Ware

“Jules Feiffer, prolific hand and eye behind so many brilliant comics, screenplays, novels, illustrations and now this fine, humane autobiography, remains one of the signature voices of a long era of American satire and dissent, the bridge from Lenny Bruce to The Simpsons.”
Jonathan Lethem
“Jules Feiffer’s original and neurotic voice—expressing the whiny child in every adult and the world-weary sophisticate inside every kid—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, now mellowed and laced with wisdom. He’s an inspiration.”
Art Spiegelman
Backing into Forward is dark and charming, touching and barbed and crackling with wit. An important book by a critical artist that sheds light on his fascinating life and the most vibrant period in the life of American culture.”
Michael Chabon
“Self-lacerating and hilarious, well written, smart—in short, unfailing Feiffer.”
Peter Matthiessen

“For those of us for whom Sick Sick Sick was the first glimmer of cool, who fled to the Village Voice for forty years to get Feiffer's take on our American disasters, and who learned the dark truth about men from Carnal Knowledge, this is the book that finally explains how one guy did all that. Backing into Forward is not only a hilarious memoir by the dazzling, discomfiting comet that is Jules Feiffer, but a rambunctious and vivid cultural history by an American master.”
Honor Moore
"Jules Feiffer has done the unthinkable—he's written a completely honest, tell-it-like-it-is let-it-all-hang-out memoir. But it's totally in character.  He's been nailing the bad guys with his pen for decades."
Seymour Hersh
“Can you smile and grit your teeth at the same time? That's what Jules Feiffer's hilarious, savage memoir makes you want to do. Don't miss it.”
Anthony Lewis

From the Hardcover edition.

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