This may be shallow but I was first influenced in a liberal direction by Gary Trudeau’s comic strip “Doonesbury“. I was around 12 at the time, and it forced me to read the paper to get some of its humor. I also loved Bloom County,a comic strip by Berkely Breathed, but it was always better as an inciscive commentary on pop culture while it’s political commentary always seemed soft to me. When I went to college, I bought an issue of the Comics Journal with an interview of Jules Feiffer, and that interview was my first real exposure to radical leftist thought. After reading his interview, I checked out from the library “Jules Feiffer’s America“, a collection of Feiffer’s cartoons from the Eisenhower era to the Reagan era, and it really influenced the way I saw politics.
The Comics Journal interview, conducted by magazine founder Gary Groth, touched on the range of Jules Feiffer’s life: his early work under famed comic book artist Will Eisner; his books, plays and screenplays; and especially his editorial cartoons for the Village Voice. His cartoons at first seemed like they are quick scrawls on paper, but they show real drawing skill: his characters are finely delineated and show individuality and personality. The Feiffer cartoons are done in a fine thin line during the 1960s and 1970s, but as the 1980s roll in, it looks like the cartoons are done in marker. His cartoon characters are lonely, neurotic people, feeling a bit overwhelmed by the problems of society. The villians of the cartoon are the demogogues, politicians, and national leaders. Feiffer’s cartoons aren’t laugh out loud funny. They are more introspective, like the musings of a sensitive philosopher, pondering the state of the world and the apparent contradictions of racism, poverty, and the monopoly of power within a few hands.
My favorite Feiffer cartoons are those that catch the contradictions between what our politicians tell us and what they actually do. Even though I’m a big RFK fan, I especially enjoy Feiffer’s Bobby twins cartoons. They contrast the good Bobby image of the compassionate liberal icon with the bad Bobby that approved wire taps on Martin Luther King and worked for Joe McCarthy. The cartoon caption went as follows:
These are the Bobby Twins.
One is a Good Bobby.
One is a Bad Bobby.
The Good Bobby is a courageous reformer.
The Bad Bobby makes deals.
The Good Bobby sent federal troops down South to enforce civil rights.
The Bad Bobby appointed racist judges down South to enforce civil rights.
The Good Bobby is a fervent civil Libertarian.
The Bad Bobby is a fervent wire tapper.
The Good Bobby is ill at ease with liberals.
The Bad Bobby is ill at ease with grownups.
If you want one Bobby to be your president you will have to take both… for Bobbies are widely noted for their family unity.
Feiffer’s cartoons on the Presidents are very insightful. Nixon is hunched at the shoulders, as if Nixon forgot to take out the hanger before he put on his coat, his body language is stiff, and his monologues are selfpitying and sad. Ford is a simpleton with a can perpetually on his head. Carter is a smaller than life figure, constantly begging for attention from an America that barely notices him. Reagan is bold and movie star strong, indifferent to the plight of the poor as long as his policies look good on t.v. He teaches us not to have too much confidence in our leaders, that even our political heroes have the same human frailties and foolishness as the rest of us.
From reading Feiffer’s America, I had my first exposure to far left politics. As a radical influenced by the leftist struggles of the 1930s and 1940s, Feiffer was able to give a nuanced view of the various grassroots movements that moved America in the past 40 or so years. The civil rights movement, the rise of the New Left students movement of the 1960s, the feminist movement, the Black Power movement, the generation gap, the frailties in the relationships between men and women,… I learned a lot about the changes in America from reading Feiffer’s America. Jules Feiffer wrote a nice ending on why he did his cartoons.
“Surviving our leaders is not just a struggle, it is a joy; that is the irony of the work I do. The more outraged I am as a citizen, the more fun I find as a cartoonist. In the long and short run, I may not affect much but the state of my own sanity. The cartoon keeps it in bounds, it continues the illustion of hope, it raises for me the distant possibility of actual solutions to some of our problems. That possiblity of actual solutions to some of our problems. That possibility is my muse. It gets me out of bed in the morning, it makes me read the papers, it forces my mind off unpaid bills and the writing of plays, it humanizes me, it galvanizes me into combat.”