Karla Araujo talks with Jules Feiffer


Read an excerpt of Kill My Mother following Karla Araujo’s interview with Jules Feiffer. 

Jules Feiffer bass been up to no good.

Blending the pulp-inspired noir films and adventure comic strips of his youth, the 85-year-old Feiffer has concocted a dark and deftly comical melodrama, chock-full of murder, menace, and madcap action in the form of his first graphic novel.

That’s right, his first graphic novel.

Ten Years, Gaffney.

An early sketch for Kill My Mother

A few years ago, Feiffer, a Pulitzer Prize–winning cartoonist, Obie award– winning playwright, celebrated screenwriter, beloved children’s book author and illustrator, and life-long Fred Astaire wanna-be, decided to try something new. As a result, Feiffer’s 160-page illustrated noir-novel Kill My Mother, was published this August.

In a blurb for the book noting this particular accomplishment, cartoonist Art Spiegelman wrote, “The most astonishing plot twist in this hard-boiled musical melodrama chock-full of shifting identities and relationships involves seeing Jules Feiffer — the old master who reinvented the newspaper comic strip in the middle of the twentieth century — now reinvents himself as an ambitious young graphic novelist!

Already, Kill My Mother has garnered an impressive amount of attention, with a splashy, front–page review in The New York Times Book Review and starred reviews in Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, and Publishers Weekly. It appears that Feiffer, who didn’t think he knew what he was doing — to the point of asking other illustrators to do the book (they all said no) — may have known what he was doing after all.

Teaching, traveling, and above all, creating at a pace that would put twenty-somethings to shame, the longtime New Yorker and, until recently, seasonal Martha’s Vineyard resident, paused for a moment to chat with Karla Araujo about Kill My Mother and a lifetime of arts and ideas.

Karla Araujo: What made you decide to try your hand at a graphic novel?

Jules Feiffer: I backed into it, like everything else I’ve done. I didn’t plan anything this ambitious, first thinking it would be all text. I didn’t think I was the right artist. It required atmosphere, background. It was no accident that my old books had no background, but a noir novel is all about atmosphere. I found, to my surprise, that in my eighties I could draw this way.

KA: What were your major influences in creating Kill My Mother?

JF: Cartoonists Will Eisner (The Spirit) and Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates) were my guideposts. Movies like The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, and Double Indemnity. I watched them over and over on Turner Classic Movies, pushing the pause button to try to recreate that noir time period. I love the toughness and dialogue. It was fun to write in a voice not quite my own, and it gave me my first chance to combine all the work I love and am influenced by in one form.

KA: What were the most challenging aspects of developing the book?

JF: The art. I knew I could write it. It would be a challenge, but I had mastered that through theater and screenplay. I had no confidence at all in the art. I knew I was unqualified to do it. I finished one page at a time.

KA: Tell me about the creative process with this project.

Kill My Mother, Sketch

An early sketch for Kill My Mother

JF: I put together a script, like a comic book script, panel by panel. Then dialogue. Comic books are often done by different writers and artists. The writer tells the illustrator what he wants. I submitted the script, making it as visual as possible. Once I agreed to serve as illustrator, I became like the director of a film. I decided that the writing was inadequate once I started drawing it, so I made changes in the script. The process took me much longer than I expected.

KA: Do you worry about your audience when you create?

JF: I never worry about audience. I always assumed that someone would identify with my work. I focus on story. I’m the audience that counts. If it pleases me, it should find others. I write from the inside out, not the outside in.

KA: What pleases you most about the finished product?

JF: I’ve gone back to my first love [comic books] from childhood. Now at 85 I’ve returned completely to my childhood and teenage years and made sense of it professionally.

KA: Did you find any surprises as you created it?

JF: On every page. The rewriting continually surprised me. Schmuck — why didn’t you think of this in the first place? The characters guide you. The writing is successful when I lose control and the characters take over. I become just the stenographer.

KA: How long did it take to develop, from concept to completion?

JF: Three times as long as projected. I had pneumonia twice. And basic insecurity. The drawing took longer than anticipated. I was unfamiliar with the style of the work — the art. So it was about two and a half years total.

KA: Do you work on more than one project at a time?

JF: Yes, it’s not unlike being a parent to small children. You juggle. Multiple projects energize one another. Comic strips, plays, each factored as supplement to the other. Each voice created greater concentration and more energy. I say it’s my system of avoidances: productive procrastination.

KA: What other projects are you currently developing?

JF: The first kids’ book I wrote, The Man in the Ceiling, about a boy cartoonist, is being adapted to a Broadway musical. I also revised an old play from the 1970s. I have a new kids’ book, Rupert Can Dance, which I think is one of the best I’ve done. And I spent the past spring in Berlin on a fellowship working on a sequel to Kill My Mother.

KA: You’ve achieved success in so many realms. Is there a common thread that runs through your work, a style, or creative method?

JF: It started with Munro (click for film), a four-year-old character I created [in 1961] who gets drafted into the Army by mistake. A recurring theme seems to be the individual as he deals in the world that is always out to trip him up. My earliest cartoons applied humor and satire to parents, government, the military, or authority that automatically nicked you. They used language to obscure you. No one said what they meant. My approach or attitude must have started at home during the Depression, then through the Cold War and McCarthyism. I tried to get deeper and deeper into what we really mean when we don’t say what we really mean.

KA: Has your productivity changed over the years?

JF: I’ve been more productive the last few years than ever. I feel reinvigorated. Work is a form of play to me. It’s difficult, but it’s play. My brain could explode tomorrow. I draw better than I used to. I’m thinking as well as ever. My writing and sense of direction have improved. I don’t think I could have pulled off Kill My Mother twenty years ago.

KA: Do you feel any sense of risk or fear of failure at this point in life?

JF: If you’re not creating with the thought of taking a risk at all times — not [solely] for the daringness of taking a risk — the work will become rote and formulaic. I hated drawing ads so I quit it. I stopped writing commercial screenplays. Part of the fun is in taking chances. I never took physical chances, driving fast cars or skiing. I’m not an athlete. The loop-de-loops I go on are all on paper. It’s quite enough thrill for me. Of course you fail. Failure is part of the process.

KA: What’s the moral of Kill My Mother?

JF: I like storytelling. I’ve never liked morals.

KA: How do you feel when people say you’ve been a major influence on their lives or work?

JF: For years I thought it was nuts. Wonderful to hear, but not real. But teaching offered me a one-on-one experience. I could see how students’ writing would change in my classes. I appreciated it. It was rewarding. Thrilling. Then I knew it existed. I never dared react to it. It was too much of a responsibility to take it on.

KA: Tell me about your relationship with your own mother. Did it influence this project?

JF: No, no influence. I wrote about it in my memoir (Backing into Forward: A Memoir). I talked about my parents’ fear, particularly my mother’s. She was a pogrom Jew and new in this country. As a result, she was afraid to confront authority here. Kill My Mother was about that world. My mother’s advice was often wrong. I often say that when I stopped listening to her, I got famous.

KA: You were known as a political commentator with your cartoons in The Village Voice. Do you miss the role you played?

JF: I stopped my weekly cartoon because I felt I was no longer having any effect at all. In the fifties and sixties I had the illusion that I informed others. I did it to help change things. Since the Reagan Revolution, things began to change back to the way they were. Americans pined for what was. We may never evolve out of it. I’m no longer the optimist about the world. I’m an optimist in my personal life. At 85, I have the right to have fun. I hope others scream, yell, and point the finger. I want to just be an old fogey. I’ve earned it.

KA: All the awards you’ve earned — have they been meaningful to you as an artist?

JF: One by one, it’s always nice to get them, but they never changed my work. In aggregate, now they make an impression. When I was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences — I abhor science — I had an “I demand a recount!” reaction.

KA: Where do your ideas come from, and how do you stay fresh?

JF: I watch the news, read a lot of opinions. Not to keep up, but growing up in the Depression years, you had a sense that you didn’t just belong to your family, but to the country at large. You’re a citizen. Now that has disappeared among young people. There’s not a sense of one America, but of fifty to two hundred and fifty Americas instead. The late twenties, early thirties generation and wars made you aware of things. It made it important to know things. I need to know what’s going on out there and in my own life. It’s a constant flow back and forth, the interchange between public and private. Now I’m an older man. Leave me alone. I need a f—ing break. [He chuckles.] There’s always something to work on. Whether I’m aware of it or not. A couple of years ago I took two to three months off without work. I was happy. I retired. I kind of liked it. Then I got up one day and didn’t like it anymore. I don’t feel I’m a workaholic. But work is a form of play. Some people like golf or tennis. I never did. This is my sport.


Kill My Mother: A Graphic Novel by Jules Feiffer.

Copyright 2014 by B. Mergendeiler Corp., Published by Liveright Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.


Jules Feiffer – Kill My Mother Chapter 4, page 1


Jules Feiffer – Kill My Mother Chapter 4, page 2


Jules Feiffer – Kill My Mother Chapter 4, page 3



Jules Feiffer – Kill My Mother Chapter 4, page 4

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