Best-known for his eponymous long-running cartoon strip, legendary cartoonist Jules Feiffer has recently turned his hand to the graphic novel. The third in a trilogy, “The Ghost Script” (Liveright, 149 pp., $27.95), tells the story of a hard-boiled private eye making his way in the shadowy, treacherous milieu of early 1950s Hollywood. Speaking by telephone from his Shelter Island home, Feiffer, 89, talked about the challenges of a new format, the contemporary relevance of the blacklist and why film noir never goes out of style. He'll be discussing the book at Canio's Books in Sag Harbor on Saturday, June 28.
I very much enjoyed “The Ghost Script.” I thought it was absolutely masterful.
Thank you. I just reread it a few days ago, after leaving it alone for six months or so. And I was just amazed that it did all the things that I wanted it to do. Much to my surprise, because I had a lot of trouble with it along the way.
Well, it's hard for me to imagine, because it's so absorbing and falls together so seamlessly.
Well, that's the trick. [Laughs] What I learned when I started writing plays, beginning with “Little Murders,” years ago, when I was breaking with the form of the comic strip, was that to write scenes, to get two and then three and then four people in action together, was a kind of sleight of hand, a magic act. It’s a game. I never played sports, you see, because I have lousy hand-eye coordination. This is my sport.
A lot of our readers think of you as being associated with New York City. Has living on Long Island these past few years changed the way you work? Or the way you see the world?
Well, no. What changed was going into my 80s, and still living in the city, and feeling demoralized every time I left the apartment and walked into the street and saw how much faster everyone walked than I did, and how much better hearing everybody else had than I did. All the city reminded me of was my impending death — which seemed to be 15 minutes from then.
In “The Ghost Script,” when you look at Sen. Joseph McCarthy's communist witch-hunt and the fear and paranoia in American society at the time, you can't help but think about the toxic political atmosphere today. Was that parallel in your mind at all?
It was not a parallel at the time. First of all, I write the script long before I illustrate it. At the time I was writing it, I was in Berlin, at the American Academy in Berlin. It was way before Donald Trump; it was way before any speculation about Donald Trump. When I began the series, with “Kill My Mother,” I had no intention of being political. I just wrote, and let it take me where it took me, and it took me in this direction. I wanted to show that the blacklist was an attack on our entire civilization, on our notion of ourselves as a country, by people who were trying to save it for themselves and only themselves. That's the parallel to the age of Trump. But the age of Trump hadn't descended upon us yet.
As a fan of film noir, what struck me was how these books make a perfect visual analogue to movies like “The Maltese Falcon” or the original “Scarface.” You know, the moody lighting and the vignettes, the sense of menace and the atmospheric nature of it.
When noir came about, at the end of World War II, there was this surge of patriotism and go-get-em-ness that won the war. And the odd thing, that came after the victory, was that what quickly succeeded it was the kind of paranoia and self-doubt that came into sci-fi movies. Creatures from outer space, creature from the black lagoon. And noir. Apparently, underneath the sense of triumph, there was that spell of what next? What now? And what's out to get us? And if we didn't have enemies, we invented them. That spirit of noir is in some ways the single most important innovation that American literary creativity has given us. Because it captured something that we still feel all these many years later. It framed in its time the feeling of insecurity and doubt that we had, and it seemed perfect to me, for this time where there's a lot of insecurity and doubt going on, to work in that vein.
WHAT Jules Feiffer discusses "The Ghost Script"
WHEN | WHERE 5 p.m., Saturday, July 28, Canio’s Books, 290 Main St., Sag Harbor
INFO 631-725-4926, caniosbooks.com