Illustration • Inspiration Jules Feiffer Is Still Having Fun

We begin our survey of recently published graphic novels by interviewing the legendary Jules Feiffer, writer and illustrator of The Ghost Script.

It feels like comic books have been around forever, but Famous Funnies—the prototypical modern comic book—was published in 1933. While Spandexed superheroes dominate comic shop shelves, graphic novels (long-form, book length volumes) are where you'll find meatier storylines and, frequently, more challenging content.

To kick off Adobe Create's multi-part survey of recently published graphic novels, I spoke to one of the most-celebrated people working in the genre: Jules Feiffer. Feiffer is a Pulitzer-Prize cartoonist, satirist, author, playwright, and screenwriter. He also published his first graphic novel, Tantrum, in 1979.

Ninety-one years old (and going strong!), Feiffer recently released The Ghost Script, the final entry in his Kill My Mother trilogy published by Liveright. It's a murder mystery set in 1953, in which the recently deceased is the main character, gumshoe Sam Hannigan. While it certainly helps to have read the preceding entries in the series—Kill My Mother and its prequel/sequel, Cousin JosephThe Ghost Script stands on its own as a highly atypical, lavishly illustrated noir thriller that is unlike anything else in the medium.

Feiffer, a living legend in both his output and his inimitable style, eases into the third entry in his trilogy with a looser than usual, almost scribbly style that bears the confidence of a master craftsman creating a labor of love simply because he wants to. That he makes such a tremendous work feel so effortless in its arrival is only part of what makes The Ghost Script so entertaining. Featuring a recurring cast of characters, The Ghost Script is complex, occasionally confusing, robustly scripted (those playwright skills at work) and satisfying to consume.

Create: Your Kill My Mother trilogy is something you’ve been wanting to do for a long time, fulfilling your desire to craft a multi-part mystery that recalls the pulp noir crime thrillers of your childhood. As a seasoned playwright and author, did you plot out the contents of the three books in advance, or did you draw them one by one?

Jules Feiffer: I am an involuntary creator of chaos. So nothing quite happens as I plan it. In the case of Kill My Mother, it started as all text. I got bored after two or three pages of writing, decided to change it into words and pictures; that is, a graphic novel. But since I didn’t, at that time, believe I knew how to draw in the required style, I was hoping that my assistant at the time would do the illustration, while I did the copy. And since I wanted to entangle her in this project, and she was almost six feet tall, I thought if I made it about six-foot-tall women, I could con her into the job. [Editor’s note: The trilogy does feature some tall, blonde characters.] But it turned out that after a few stabs at it, she decided it wasn’t right for her—and I was stuck with a storyline that I kind of liked, but no one to draw it but me. Basically, everything that happened thereafter grew out of that mistake.

“I am an involuntary creator of chaos. So nothing quite happens as I plan it. In the case of Kill My Mother, it started as all text.”


Create: The trilogy is non-sequential: Kill Your Mother the first book; Cousin Joseph the sequel/prequel; The Ghost Script the third and final book. What was the thought process behind this storytelling structure? In your foreword to The Ghost Script you note that the trilogy “was never meant to be political.” But clearly things informed the series as you went along. When did inspiration strike and cause you to deviate from your initial avoidance, if you can call it that, of politics?

Feiffer: I learned years ago, beginning with the Village Voice cartoons, and then plays and children’s books, that once I had a basic idea, the less planning ahead I did, the better. In my teaching days, I always told my classes, “When you sit down to write, don’t use your brain, use your gut.” I find, generally, that my best work is, by and large, improvisational. I may have a vague idea of the story I intend to tell, but then I try to get myself out of the way and let the story write itself any way it wants to. At that point, I go back, re-read, and use my brain for cleaning up the mess I created and turning it professional. This has increased the amount of fun I have with my work enormously, and now when I sit down to write and draw, I think of it as playtime.

“When you sit down to write, don’t use your brain, use your gut.”


So the politics in Kill My Mother sprouted, unintentionally, from the time period I was working with, and the story I had slipped into telling. And since, in essence, radical left politics has always been an organic part of my makeup, the politics in Kill My Mother, while never planned, was always predictable.

Create: Your artwork through the decades differs depending on the project and era. The work you did on The Spirit and Clifford might be described as more traditional, whereas your style in the Kill My Mother series is closer to your editorial cartoons of your work in The Village Voice. I would describe it as ‘jazzy.’ The visual structure of the trilogy is also pretty jazzy, often eschewing panels altogether. What were you shooting for, artistically, in this free-flowing style?

Feiffer: The free-flowing style was meant to be me imitating Will Eisner [The Spirit], or [Terry and the Pirates creator] Milton Caniff. They were my boyhood heroes, and taught me the rules and regulations of creating an adventure strip by the time I was nine or ten. But though I would have been more than happy to draw like them, I was stuck at being my best imitation of them. And an important part of that was my natural inclination to spontaneity and improvisation. In all three Kill My Mother books my essential idea about the art was that it leap off the page at the reader, with a sense of immediacy, as if the ink was not quite dry at the moment you came upon it. I loved the trick of making a story that dates from the 1930s into the 1950s fool the reader into thinking it was happening right at that moment in front of their eyes.

“My essential idea about the art was that it leap off the page at the reader, with a sense of immediacy, as if the ink was not quite dry at the moment you came upon it.”


Create: What is it about the graphic novel format that made you realize this story as an illustrated series of books? As an author, obviously you could have written this purely as a novel, but you must have chosen graphic novels as your preferred outlet for a reason.

Feiffer: With my advanced age (I am now 91) came a loss of hearing. This meant that I could no longer write plays, because one has to hear what goes on at rehearsals, run-throughs, and previews. So I opted for a form that I saw, basically, as creating movies on paper. Dramatized storyboards in which I was screenwriter, director, editor, and all of the actors. If there’s anything that’s more fun than that, I don’t know what it could be.

Check out the second installment of this series: "A Graphic Novel for the #MeToo Era." The entire series will eventually be accessible from the series landing page.

You may also like