~by Jules Feiffer
It's been over a year (fifteen months to be exact), but it has finally happened--the Almighty Algorithm has once again deemed me worthy to receive a book through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program! I was chosen for Jules Feiffer's memoir Backing into Forward. I requested a copy because it seemed like I really should have known who Feiffer was even though I couldn't quite seem to place him despite his work looking vaguely familiar to me. I mean, Feiffer has won a Pulitzer for his comic strip in the Village Voice which ran for over four decades; he has also won awards for his plays and screenwriting. He has written novels and children's books, which he has also illustrated. Like Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth. (Aha!--I think to myself--That's why I know him!) And in his early days, he worked under Will Eisner himself on The Spirit. (Well, heck. How cool is that?) So, I was looking forward to reading Feiffer's memoir and learning more about this player in comics that I had completely failed to recognize.
Feiffer tells his story in what basically amounts to a long series of vignettes with the addition of photographs, clippings, and a small selection of his comics and illustrations. All of this is roughly divided into three main parts: "Gunslinger," "Famous," and "Another Country." The first part mainly concerns Feiffer's childhood and young adulthood, his early work in comics and his rise in the industry. Both Parts Two and Three look at Feiffer's continued success and work in comics, but also how he often found himself "backing into" other areas of expression--novels, film, children's books, theatre, teaching and lecturing, deliberate political activism, and now a memoir, to name a few. The man has led a very busy and interesting life.
The advantage to using vignettes is that each short chapter packs its own discrete punch of visceral wit and charm. The problem is that it left the book feeling disjointed, especially as the end approached. Chronology is only vaguely followed from one chapter to the next and each section could, and often did, cover decades. The book doesn't read well as a cohesive whole, but approaching each chapter as a stand alone entry helps and works. But, it also feels like quite a bit is missing or left out. Feiffer also has a tendency to drop names which is fine if you can recognize them, and I sometimes did, but some segments seem to devolve into listing all of the famous people that he know or happened to meet in passing. In addition to the name dropping, some references that were being made or that weren't fully explained I just didn't completely get. Perhaps I'm just too young.
I really enjoyed the first third or so of Backing into Forward but the book started to drag for me in the last half. Part of this may be due to the fact that personally I am more interested in comics than I am in theatre and film. I absolutely loved the inclusion of some of Feiffers' Village Voice comics, which I hadn't actually read before and which exhibited a wit and humor that I appreciated greatly. I also very much enjoyed Feiffer's writing style which was heavy on sarcasm and self-effacing humor with some elements greatly exaggerated to good effect (although, occasionally this would obscure the truth of the matter being discussed). While I didn't every really laugh out loud, I did find myself consistently and happily amused. Overall, Backing into Forward was an entertaining read and I hope to track down more of Feiffer's comics since I particularly enjoyed those.