Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Jules Feiffer at the Carle

Jeannine and I went to the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art last Saturday to see the opening of the Jule's Feiffer show, "Growing Every Which Way But Up: The Children’s Book Art of Jules Feiffer" and hear Feiffer interviewed on stage.

I've long admired Jules Feiffer's work, at least the stuff that I was most familiar with, his social/political commentary cartoon strips in "The Village Voice".  Although his "controlled chaos" style of drawing is far from the style of cartooning to which I am usually attracted, I always liked the energy in the gestures of his drawing, as well as the wealth of emotion he could get into what appeared to be some simple wiggly lines -- something that appears to be easy, but in truth is very difficult. I didn't really know much about his children's book work, so this was a good chance to rectify that oversight.

The show had many of Feiffer's illustrations on display, but I have to confess that while most of it was his color children's book work, I was most intrigued by what was at the beginning of the show. These were two stapled-together penciled homemade comic books which Feiffer had done in his youth, aping the style of the "Golden Age" superhero/adventure comics he read as a boy, right down to the style of the cover layouts. (I wish it had been possible to see what was INSIDE the comics, but sadly that was not part of the exhibit.)

Jeannine and I were introduced to Feiffer by Alexandra Kennedy, the museum's Executive Director, and I was fortunate enough to get a chance to chat with him alone for about five minutes. Having noticed a Will Eisner "Spirit" page as part of the exhibit (right next to those childhood comics I mentioned earlier), I asked him what part he had in that -- had he done some inking on it?

It turned out that on that particular page in the exhibit, he had not done anything -- it was just included to illustrate his time apprenticing in the Eisner studio. (Actually, my memory might be failing me here -- I am pretty sure he said that the page in question was not one he had anything to do with, but it's possible that he said he had nothing to do with the ART, but he did have something to do with the WRITING.) He told me that he had done some drawing work when he was employed by Eisner, but mostly he wrote stuff, including some "Spirit" stories.

Of course, knowing that my hero Jack Kirby had also once worked for Eisner, I had to ask if Feiffer had ever met Kirby. He replied that he had met him once, but offered no cool stories about that meeting. Oh, well…

Feiffer was most interested in talking about his upcoming graphic novel, which he described to me as something like a hard-boiled noir detective tale. And he said he's drawing it in a style which is very different from his usual stuff, which sounded intriguing. I will have to keep an eye out for that one.

Following that, I perused the gallery display of his children's book illustrations. I have to be honest here and say that, while they were all quite colorful (except for the black and white ones, of course) and showed his typically energetic (yet, curiously, simultaneously laid-back) line, there was nothing particularly mind-blowing about them -- nothing at all as captivating (to me, at least) as the exhibit in the gallery in the next room, where the work of Barbara McClintock was displayed.

In my opinion, his work is far bettered suited to pithy observations about modern life and mores, as exemplified in his work for "The Village Voice". But that's just me. Apparently, there are a lot of people who really like his children's book work.

And as part of the talk later, one particular such book was in the spotlight: "The Phantom Tollbooth", written and illustrated fifty years ago by Norton Juster and Feiffer, respectively.

        I've heard about this book for years, and had never read it, but decided after hearing Jules Feiffer speak about it that I probably should. So yesterday, while at Barnes and Noble, I picked up a copy and started reading it last night. I'm up to page fifty-two as of this writing.


I've got roughly another two hundred pages to go, so it is possible that by the time I've read those pages, I may see what some people say elevates this book to the level of classics such as "The Wizard of Oz" and "Alice in Wonderland". But so far, I'm not seeing it. What I've read so far has an air of forced whimsy to it, which is never terribly appealing.

But I am keeping an open mind, and maybe the whole will turn out to be greater than the sum of its parts. -- PL


Brookslyn said...

Ah the phantom toll booth. I remember that was part of the curriculum in the Amherst school system. I remember the illustrations more than the story.

usagiguy said...

I read The Phantom Toll Booth as a kid, but don't remember much of it--just a boy driving into the toll booth to another land. It did not leave any type of impression on me. Maybe because I grew up in Hawaii, and had no idea what a toll booth was.

Stan Sakai

mikeandraph87 said...

I have not heard of it but from what you wrote it does sound interesting. Please do let us know your final thoughts with minimal spoilers of course!

If I may say when I saw the picture of Jules Feiffer I saw a passing resemblance of you to him.

PL said...

"usagiguy said...
I read The Phantom Toll Booth as a kid, but don't remember much of it--just a boy driving into the toll booth to another land. It did not leave any type of impression on me. Maybe because I grew up in Hawaii, and had no idea what a toll booth was.

Stan Sakai"

Good point, Stan! And I have to say that so far, the Toll Booth itself has little to do with the story -- it's just a way to get the characters from one reality to another. It's kind of like titling "The Wizard of Oz" as "The Mysterious Tornado", or "Alice in Wonderland" as "The Weird Rabbit Hole". -- PL

Sarah The Anime Librarian said...

I liked this book as a kid, but I was more a fan of Alice and Wizard myself. I was however in the staged production in Turneres Falls back in 2007 where I got to play the dodecahedron and I thought it worked as a staged play really well...the humor was more front and center. :)