Jules Feiffer has been selling books since Eisenhower was president. It’s possible that you’ve never heard his name before, though it’s also possible that you remember the eponymous strip Feiffer, which ran for 42 years in The Village Voice and was syndicated across the country.
Some of the press materials hail Kill My Mother as Feiffer’s first graphic novel—which it isn’t, by any definition of that dog-eared phrase. But it is important, nevertheless.
The closest corollary to Kill My Mother from recent years is Robert Crumb’s adaptation of The Book Of Genesis in 2009. Although Feiffer is 14 years Crumb’s senior, they occupy similar positions in the newly constructed comics zeitgeist: elder statesmen speaking from positions of great authority as forerunners of the current critical status quo. On paper The Book Of Genesis had all the ingredients to be a hit. Here was one of our great living cartoonists, settling down to finally create some kind of great statement. The ad copy wrote itself. Almost all of Crumb’s work throughout his long career has come in the form of short stories and sketches, so the idea of him producing his first extended narrative, his first “graphic novel” if we have to use the phrase—and a retelling of one of the primary documents of Western civilization—was simply too good to be true.
And it was. Crumb himself later admitted in the pages of The Comics Journal that the book was a mistake. The finished project, while beautifully illustrated from front to back, was also a stilted slog (much like the experience of reading The Book Of Genesis itself). Despite all the talk about Crumb’s scholarship and agnostic approach to the subject matter, the result was very much in the vein of a traditional depiction of the first book of the Bible, albeit without fig leaves to hide the conspicuous nudity.
Flash forward five years later and the same dynamic is still in place, albeit even more consolidated. The first decade of the 21st century saw comics’ public esteem rise precipitously in a way that might be difficult to explain to anyone who doesn’t remember the world before roughly 2000. That was the annus mirablis for the re-creation of the comics industry after a rough decade of diminishing returns. The initial release of Chris Ware’s collected Jimmy Corrigan and the first X-Men movie, while in reality two completely different events, were both important in terms of the way they broadcast the fact that comics were suddenly worth paying attention to by two mutually exclusive audiences: the literary cognoscenti who opened the doors for Ware, and the Hollywood financiers who opened their wallets for Marvel. As much as we may rail against the misguided cultural shorthand that links “comics” with “superheroes” as an intrinsic property—at least in the English-speaking world—the emergence of those simultaneous phenomena contributed to the increasingly higher profile that the medium enjoyed from that point onward.
So now we live in a world where éminences grises receive fat advances for their latest books, where cartoonists win MacArthur “genius” fellowships as a matter of course, and graphic memoirs are shortlisted for the National Book Award without any real comment. It’s a different world than it was in 1992 when Art Spiegelman won a special Pulitzer for Maus, which has always struck me as being akin to a category for “Best Dancing Bear”—to the awards committee, it probably didn’t matter how well the bear could dance, they were simply applauding the fact that it had learned the steps. Am I saying this in order to minimize Feiffer’s work? Is he another archetypal “lion in winter” who deserves thunderous applause merely for stepping on stage, accepting 70 years’ worth of praise for his last round of (inferior) output?
The temptation exists to put a book like Kill Your Mother on a pedestal simply for existing: Feiffer is 85 years old, after all. Shouldn’t we give him the benefit of the doubt? No, we shouldn’t, anymore than Tempest should be anyone’s favorite Bob Dylan album out of respect. The worst thing Liveright could have done for Kill Your Mother was to spackle the dust jacket with high praise from the likes of Spiegelman, Ware, Neil Gaiman, Paul Levitz, David Small, and Stan Lee—and of course, that’s exactly what they did. Anyone with even a layman’s understanding of comics scans that list and immediately sees the respect Feiffer’s name commands.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Fieffer has few peers left who retain first-hand memories of life during the waning days of the Golden Age of comics, when Feiffer worked for Will Eisner on The Spirit. It’s also not an exaggeration to say that Feiffer is one of a handful of key figures in American comics to pave the way for later practitioners such as the aforementioned Spiegelman, Gaiman, and Ware—the whole “comics ain’t just for kids” crowd. He was one of the medium’s first historians (his The Great Comic Book Heroes appears to be once again out of print, but remains indispensable).
The worst and inevitable way to frame any review of Kill Your Mother would be to place it in context with Feiffer’s life’s work. Kill Your Mother doesn’t deserve to carry the weight of its creator’s long and storied career on its back. It certainly doesn’t need the dubious honor of being held up as the late-career work that catalyzes a renewed appreciation for a distinguished veteran. It deserves to stand or fall on its own merits.
Thankfully, Kill Your Mother is good. Really good. It has a few tricks up its sleeve, but it’s not overly concerned with reinventing the wheel. It seems on first blush as if it’s going to be a pallid, sepia-toned period piece, but it dodges that bullet (so to speak) by maintaining a jaunty, skeptical tone throughout. It bills itself as a modern noir, down to the brutal title and gray scale ink-wash art, but it’s not, not really.
The book isn’t strictly a pastiche, but it nevertheless has a lot of fun shifting in and out of recognizable—some might say well-worn—genre tropes. The first half, true to billing, is indeed noir, or at least mostly. Even though the book starts with a low-class private eye and his (seemingly) hapless girl Friday, it also splices in a subplot about teenagers left to their own devices to stumble around Depression-era “Bay City,” committing petty crime and meeting strange hobos. This series of seemingly unconnected events culminate in a murder, and the book jumps forward 10 years from 1933 to 1943.
When the story resumes, the cosmetic elements of noir have been mostly swept aside in favor of a mixture of Hollywood satire and family melodrama. Describing the narrative in terms of genre signifiers makes sense because the book itself shifts gears every time it noticeably shifts genres. The stakes change for each character involved in the central mystery according to which part of the story they think they’re inhabiting at any given moment, be it murder mystery, romance, show-business tragedy, or even an old-fashioned “issues” melodrama.
One of the most satisfying moments in the book occurs when a heavy from the first half, a thuggish caricature of a noir thug with a granite face and butcher-block hands, steps into the literal sunlight of Los Angeles, diving into a swimming pool with his clothes on and emerging naked, as if to say, “I’m stepping out of that old genre and into the new.” Sure enough, the book ends in World War II, with every outstanding mystery having been drawn together in a neat bow by the deus ex machina of a Japanese raid on a USO performance attended by all the major players.
To say anything more might risk giving away too many of the plot’s hard-earned twists and turns. But for all its fun with genre, the book gains its power from its strong and memorable characters. This is a book about women, most importantly; the men are window dressing, one-dimensional menaces, brutes or wannabes who exist for the purpose of fulfilling or failing the willful women who guide their trajectories.
If this were a new graphic novel by a rookie talent, this would be the part of the review where I said that this was a frighteningly well-constructed story by a preternaturally confident artist. But that’s not what this is, and the great tragedy is that Feiffer’s own reputation might obscure the degree to which Kill Your Mother really is a triumph. If it were by anyone but an acknowledged master of the form, it might be a much bigger deal than it is.
There’s been a bit of discussion in recent months regarding the pejorative term “pap-pap comics,” a phrase that sprang into being in the comments section for The Comics Journal’s website to describe old comics being discussed by old timers with an obvious historical bias. This emerged in the context of a long-running discussion on the nature of criticism in comics discourse, a discussion that naturally led toward a description of all the demographics currently being excluded by the dominant discourse, a group that includes women, minorities, the LGBT community, and just generally anyone under the age of, oh, 40 or 50, who doesn’t believe that Terry And The Pirates should remain a timeless benchmark for everything that follows.
I worry that a book like Kill Your Mother might be easily overlooked in a critical climate eager not to be taken in by the kind of late-career hype that scuttled The Book Of Genesis. This isn’t just an example of some old graybeard showing up with their latest dose of pap-pap for an appreciative audience of similar graybeards. This is someone who by all rights should be living a peaceful retirement crashing the party and straight-up embarrassing cartoonists one-quarter his age. Kill Your Mother is a wonder of a book that, rather than using its author’s reputation as cover for its deficiencies, dares the reader to imagine another book this year, by any other cartoonist, feeling quite so vibrant and daring.