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Sunday, July 12, 2009

re: re-re-re-re-reading

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Every day, I read just a few more pages of Jules Feiffer's America. This is the 25th anniversary collection of his comic strips. Inimitable, though often imitated, they are amazingly concentrated and powerful stuff.

Feiffer was already an experienced professional who had worked for Will Eisner by the time he hit the ground running during the Eisenhower administration. His drawings shimmered from one style to another briefly before settling into a style so direct and unvarnished it sometimes seems like no style at all. Though famous for his talking heads, his action drawings are full of life, especially his dancers (male and female), caught at moments of poise and release, like key drawings by a great animator.

Typically existing for about eight panels, his characters breathe nervous life. He sets up small slices of them speaking to us, panel leading to panel, until they have unwittingly revealed their hearts. Sometimes they are us, and the recognition is not always comfortable. Sometimes they are the evil others, only they look and sound a bit more like us than we would like.

They are history lessons for moderns who think the 50s were a sitcom, the 60s were a love-in, and our current problems are something entirely new and novel. His Eisenhower-era strips are insightful, and I'd read many of them so often before that I can't recall them being a revelation. His Kennedy strips are a jolt of cold water to Camelot fantasists. His JFK was vital, sharp, alive, and also shallow and poll-driven. Feiffer stuck it to him mercilessly, depicting him as a choreographed dancer "doin' the Frontier drag." LBJ was a shining knight until he revealed too much of himself; then he was a particularly disappointing political hack. Nixon -- well, we all know Nixon. So did he. Jerry Ford? "Shut up and ski, Jerry." Carter was Jimmy the Cloud.

I haven't been quoting (except for Jerry) because if I start, I won't stop. It's all too good.

I can't recommend this 25th-anniversary collection too highly. It's been more than 25 years since it came out, and I wish he'd do a follow-up. I don't know if reading all his strips in order without the filter of the creator choosing what to include would match the impact of this set, but I'd be willing to find out. Fantagraphics has started the ball rolling, and the volume they've done calls to me from the store shelves. Would that I were wealthier.
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1 comment:

lostfortcollins said...

My parents left one of his books around the house for us when we were growing up. It became as much a part of our child culture as network TV. But in retrospect it was so much smarter. I remember one story about a little boy who gets sucked into the military, and nobody believes him when he says he's just a little boy. The point was that everybody was too bureaucratic to open their eyes and see that it was just a little boy.