by Harry Brod
The press release for Jules Feiffer’s Kill My Mother touts it as “his first graphic novel.” This is either quibbling about words or astounding and willful historical amnesia. Feiffer published Tantrum in 1979, a work of strong thematic resonance with the 1961 Academy Award-winning animated short film Munro, written and storyboarded by Feiffer and adapted from his book Passionella and Other Stories. The two works come close to being mirror images of each other: Munro is about a boy wrongly treated like a man by the army, while Tantrum features a man who physically regresses to infancy. Feiffer was exploring the man-as-child theme long before the current wave of Apatowesque films.
Tantrum was certainly a graphic novel by any definition of the term. It’s just that the term wasn’t in common use at the time. Will Eisner’s A Contract with God, sometimes called the first graphic novel — but more accurately the first to popularize the term — had first appeared only the previous year. The jacket on Tantrum calls it “a novel-in-cartoons.” The false publisher’s claim that Kill My Mother is Feiffer’s first graphic novel has unfortunately been unfactcheckedly repeated by numerous reviews of the book. Fortunately we have this blog to set the record straight.
The historically flawed press release gets it right when describing Kill My Mother as a work of “noir-action-romance.” The plot — really, plots — follows intergenerational stories of women and men pursuing and being pursued by each other for all sorts of reasons: lust, greed, revenge, and even honor and plain curiosity, all in “Bay City” of the 1930s and then Hollywood and the Pacific Theater of World War II. The twisted lines in which Feiffer draws his characters draw the many plot twists into each panel; these people are curlicued both visually and behaviorally. Feiffer’s sympathy for the complexity of his characters’ motivations infuses the work with that noir atmosphere in which we wouldn’t call characters twisted, because that’s too condemnatory; instead, we recognize the many-layered ambiguities of the world they inhabit. Because one expects the plot twists typical of noir, those aren’t all that startling when they occur — though the precise direction of the turns are indeed appropriately surprising — but the sex and violence do have unexpected twists which make them particularly interesting and enjoyable.
Feiffer’s wonderfully jingly-jangly lines make his characters dance on the page even when they’re standing still, so imagine how he goes to town on characters who really move, like lead male character Eddie Longo, a boxer called “the Dancing Master” who becomes a singer/dancer. The energy of his moves goes spinning out through the full dimensions of the page, and thence out to the reader. Eddie and detective Neil Hammond are the main male leads, but the story’s driving forces are really mother-daughter Elsie and Annie, entertainingly reversing the genre’s usual gender polarities.
By this point you can tell that I’m a fan (right?), so let me now note what is the least successful part of the work. It’s where Feiffer goes literally noir, darkening the entre page. It feels gimmicky, making some of the drawing harder to discern, thereby slowing down the work, not really interrupting but still interfering with the narrative flow. We learn here that if one is going to attempt to translate the visual aspect of the shadowed and shady world of noir (with its characteristic nighttime atmospherics) into a graphic novel of this style, one is probably better off going to the stark black vs. white of a Wally Wood or Frank Miller than the sepia tones Feiffer employs here.
Jules Feiffer’s new venture in the action form in which he got his start, lo those many years ago in Will Eisner’s studio, is a very welcome return for him to the adventure format. One wishes many happy returns for author and reader.
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