Cover of paperback collection. Artist: Jules Feiffer.


Original Medium: Newspaper Comics
Published by: The Village Voice
First Appeared: 1956
Creator: Jules Feiffer
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One of the most highly-regarded comic strips in history achieved that position despite the fact that many, possibly a majority, of its devotees don't even think of it as a comic strip. It appeared in places that usually weren't thought of as comic strip outlets, it didn't look very much like the average comics, and — most of all — these were the sort of folks who were …

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… far too snobbish to think of themselves as fans of anything as low on the intellectual totem pole as a common, ordinary comic strip.

The strip appeared weekly in New York's Village Voice, a journal catering to alternative thinkers, starting in October, 1956. Its original name was Sick Sick Sick (sub-titled "A Guide to Non-Confident Living"), in keeping with a '50s style of humor that played on a character's self-destructive psychological problems. Charlie Brown and Flebus are examples of that sort of character. But after a few years, tastes shifted and the cartoonist got tired of explaining that he meant the word in a "good" way. Besides, the strip began being syndicated, and thus was reaching a larger but less sophisticated audience. So the name was changed to that of the artist himself — first Feiffer's Fables and then simply Feiffer.

Jules Feiffer (born January 26, 1929) had entered the business in the mid-1940s as assistant to Will Eisner (Hawks of the Seas), writing scripts for The Spirit. When he launched a strip of his own, Clifford, it didn't catch on and rapidly disappeared. It was when he began one without continuing characters, for an audience where he could write without fear of violating their expectations (the careful, precise writing overwhelmed the art from the beginning) that he began to flourish. Tho he'd produced it without pay for the Voice, it was soon picked up by Hall Syndicate (Dennis the Menace, Pogo) and his income began to soar.

Before long, Feiffer came to the notice of an elite crowd, the kind who enjoy poignant satire, humor with an original point of view, sardonic commentary, and suchlike, and don't mind getting it in comics form. His work was appearing in unexpected places, such as Playboy magazine, which published his neurotic hero, Bernard Mergendeiler (who later became the superhero Hostileman). In fact, he became one of the few cartoonists ever to appear in The New York Times, which is notorious for never allowing anything as lowbrow as a comic strip to sully its weighty, meaningful pages. His cartoon-format short story, Munro, about a four-year-old drafted into the U.S. Army, which refused to notice he didn't meet age requirements, was made into an animated cartoon, which won the 1960 Academy Award in that category.

Sick Sick Sick/Feiffer didn't remain entirely without continuing characters. A few months after it began he introduced an interpretive dancer who used her art to welcome the Spring. She returned to welcome Summer, Fall, and Winter, and kept on doing so for more than 40 years. It also didn't remain entirely on the newspaper page. The first of his many books, also titled Sick Sick Sick, published in 1958, consisted of reprints from the strip. It was followed by Passionella & Other Stories, The Explainers, The Unexpurgated Memoirs of Bernard Mergendeiler, and over a dozen more of what would be called graphic novels today.

Feiffer also branched out writing plays, some of which were filmed. He did political cartoons — which, by the way, won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1986. He wrote novels, including, starting in the 1990s, children's literature. In 1995, he was elected to The American Academy of Arts and Letters, a rare achievement indeed for an author who started out as a cartoonist. In 1989, Fantagraphics Books (Prince Valiant, Little Orphan Annie) began collecting his work in matching volumes, as it had earlier done with R. Crumb.

Through it all, the Feiffer comic continued. But in 2000, he dropped it, citing the difficulty of maintaining it every single week after all those years. "It is very hard work trying to make Al Gore and George W. Bush funny," he said of the shift in his workload. The last four episodes featured a continuing conversation between him and his interpretive dancer, whom he'd just informed of the loss of her venue. The final strip appeared on June 18 of that year.

Tho he was over 70 years of age when it ended, Feiffer wasn't retiring. He's maintained his output of screenplays, novels, etc. ever since.


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Text ©2007-10 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Jules Feiffer.