September 23, 2019

Jules Feiffer’s ‘Kill My Mother’: You’ll Die Laughing

Last week, I happened to catch the 1971 movie “Little Murders,” adapted by Jules Feiffer from his stage play. It’s a black comedy, mordant but full of insight into the American psyche and the zeitgeist of the era, and it reminded me of the role that Feiffer, and especially his distinctive cartoon strips, have played in America’s contemplation of itself.

Not by coincidence, I suspect, the screening of “Little Murders” coincides with the publication of a graphic novel by the 85-year-old master, “Kill My Mother: A Graphic Novel” (Liveright), his first new book since the publication of his memoir in 2010. Art Spiegelman, one of the artists who grew up when Feiffer was at the height of his influence, credits Feiffer with “reinventing himself as an ambitious young graphic novelist,” but the fact is that Feiffer dabbled in the genre as far back as 1979, when he published a book titled “Tantrum” and described it as a “novel in pictures.”  

The story that he tells in “Kill My Mother” is a hardboiled mystery set in that most noirish of places, Southern California in the 1930s and ’40s.  Significantly, Feiffer dedicates the book to such inventors and masters of the form as “Hammett and Chandler and Cain” and John Huston, Billy Wilder and Howard Hawks, among others. To his credit, Feiffer has produced not merely a pastiche, but a taut and thrilling tale that confirms what his artwork suggests — Feiffer is undiminished as an artist who uses the drawn image and the dialogue box with the same mastery that a great director brings to a movie.   

The first few panels are a joy to behold and something of an inside joke precisely because they conjure up Feiffer’s trademark image of a young woman expressing herself through dance. (“A Dance to Spring” is the archetypal example — Google it!)  The dancer in “Kill My Mother,” however, is a jitter-bugging adolescent named Annie with a bad mother complex. “I could kill my mother,” she announces to her boyfriend, but when she finds herself in trouble with the law, she is quick to cry out: “I want my mother!”

The mother is Elsie, and she works in the office of “some idiot of a private detective,” a hard-drinking dick who needs her to remind him of the names of his clients. “I love it when you sound like a detective out of the pulps,” she tells him, deftly dodging his invitation to show him “what else you got” in the flea-bag hotel across the street. Elsie is the Girl Friday who keeps him in business, and what she wants in return is rough justice for the man who killed her husband; their dance, as it turns out, is full of subtle moves.

The artwork in “Kill My Mother” is its real glory.  Some images put me in mind of the Edward Hopper canvases from the 1930s that I’ve seen over and over again at the Whitney Museum; at other moments, Feiffer uses the camera’s eye to show us his characters in depth and detail. For example, he depicts what appears to be Elsie’s poignant, if also drunken, monologue in a series of thumbnail sketches, and then suddenly widens the frame to show us that she is actually the object of an ardent seduction by a handsome man: “You’re a movie star,” she says. “You never tell the truth.” And then, in the final panel, Feiffer reveals for the first time that she has already shed all of her clothing: “My first impression of you is,” she tells her seducer, “what does it mean that I’m the only one out here naked?”

Both Elsie and Annie have a role to play in Neil Hammond’s latest case, a woman who is trying to find her former acting teacher, or so she says. Her motives are dark and only grow darker; indeed, Feiffer is capable of shocking and surprising us even within the confines of a genre that is often as predictable as Kabuki. He fast-forwards us from the boxing ring to the broadcast studio, from back alleys of “Bay City” to the front lines of World War II, and the plot is impossible to summarize without spoilers. Suffice it to say that the pace and logic of the graphic novel and the motion picture are the same, and they come fully alive in “Kill My Mother.”