Jules Feiffer’s new memoir is the portrait of the cartoonist as a young man, growing up in the Bronx with an overbearing family, drafted against his will into the army, writing for the Broadway stage, and most of all, cartooning. Feiffer’s obsession with the newspaper-comics heroes of his youth—Alex Raymond of Flash Gordon, Milton Caniff of Terry And The Pirates, and Will Eisner of The Spirit—suffuses Backing Into Forward, and not just because Feiffer spent four years out of high school working in Eisner’s shop, helping script the Spirit’s adventures and later taking on his own gag series, Clifford. Feiffer talks about his favorite artists with loving, detailed critical attention—at certain points in his unhappy youth, they were practically his only comfort.
Growing up, Feiffer was a free spirit in a home stifled by decorum. An overbearing aunt is the star of a stunning anecdote: She takes over his bar mitzvah, then breaks the watch that is his prize gift. (His family refuses to believe he didn’t do it.) He finds freedom in hitchhiking, then, oddly enough, in the army, where he and a friend get out of basic training by using their art skills to decorate the camp officers’ headgear. Feiffer recounts a great story about resorting to Vaseline to salvage a wrecked shellac job: “Gently, as if fitting the emperor for his new clothes, Harry and I lowered the helmet liner on Captain Green. Reflexively he lifted a gloved hand to adjust it. We shouted, ‘Don’t!’”
Feiffer is an astute observer of his own working processes. “It turned out to be more natural for me to write an episode of The Spirit than to write and draw my own comic strip,” he says of Clifford, which ran at the back of the Spirit pull-out section of Sunday newspapers. Later, he sums up both his personal and professional strategy: “I make up knowledge by the same method that I make up cartoons and stories and dramatic scenes: by committing myself without any sure sense of what comes next until it comes next and keeps on coming, right or wrong. One thought or idea follows another, leading I don’t know where until, moments later, it dawns on me that I know where I’m headed, and it’s the right place.” That freewheeling sensibility guides the book as well: Like its title, it moves in roundabout fashion, but gets where it’s going.