Backing Into Forward : A memoir

by Jules Feiffer

Hardcover, 2010




New York : Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2010.


The award-winning cartoonist, playwright, and author delivers a witty, illustrated rendition of his life, from his childhood as a wimpy kid in the Bronx to his legendary career in the arts

Media reviews

Feiffer did not wait for fame to find him at a lunch counter or in a mailroom. He sought it out, anticipating its every aspect, and when it came his way, he grabbed it with both hands. It is a good life he’s had, and in “Backing Into Forward,” well told in every respect.
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Feiffer's legacy will be his Pulitzer Prize-winning comic strip, which ran weekly in the Village Voice and in some hundred other papers for more than four decades. As he declares in the expansive, charming memoir "Backing Into Forward," he was, from the start, "heart and soul, a newspaper strip man."

User reviews

LibraryThing member drjahnke
Funny, honest and revealing...not simply about Jules Feiffer but about the changing American landscape from the 1930s up to now. Feiffer brings us back to New York in the 50s and 60s, rubbing elbows with everyone from Will Eisner to Mike Nichols, and ends on a note that manages to be sentimental without being saccharine. If you're already a fan, you'll need no persuading to pick this book up. If you're not familiar with Jules Feiffer, it will pique your interest and have you tracking down his work.… (more)
LibraryThing member SeaBill1
I had a very hard time with Jules Feiffer's memoir. The book kept sinking lower and lower in my "to-read" pile. There was always another tome more interesting than this one, and if I had not gotten the copy as part of the Early Reviewers program, I would have never slogged through the boring first half. I kept thinking, "whatever prompted him to write this?" Didn't he have an editor to tell him to fix this mess?

I am a huge fan of Feiffer's cartoons (and a serious collector of his work, with both the major works and some arcana in my collection). And I kept looking for the influences that would have sparked the brilliance and insight that showed up in his Village Voice work over four decades. But what Feiffer gives us is...that he hated his mother; that his father was a loser; that his sister was an ardent Leftist; that he hated his time in the army; and that we was a wisecracking New York Jew, although he didn't practice the religion. Yawn.

It's nearly 200 pages in, before he defines the purview and perspective that would engage him for his productive adult years.Feiffer lucks into the zeitgeist of the Fifties, and when he pinpoints the anxiety of the age, and the self-pity of the post-war types locked into social conformity, that his genius began to blossom. By the Sixties, the work had evolved to political involvement, and the chapter explaining Feiffer's anit-Vietnam War stance is excellent.

The book is very well written. Feiffer is obviously a very erudite man, and can be pithy or succinct when needs be. Writing dialogue to a cartoon requires an ability to self-edit; and writing dialogue for a play or movie requires both a good ear and the ability to capture the cadences of language. I have not enjoyed Feiffer's novels that much, but the clarity of vision in the second half of the memoir shows that he also has a writer's ability to expand and expound. Feiffer includes an excerpt of a speech given to the American Civil Liberties Union, during Ronald Reagen's first term in office that is a model of prosody.

So I recommend that you stay with the book until the second half. That is where it gets interesting. Read quickly during the sections where Feiffer name-drops all the famous people he lucked into meeting, and instead slow down during the sections where he explains the times and social age he has lived in. The memoir provides some true insights into the second half of the 20th century.
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LibraryThing member tdmatthews
My mark of a great memoir is one that is engaging no matter your familiarity with the subject. I have an interest in art, cartooning, writing, but knew very little about Feiffer as an artist or person when I began the book. Unfortunately, the length of the book, lack of editing and tone left me wondering why I should continue. I would recommend this work for those who are already fans of Feiffer, but if you have a general interest in the cartooning industry, history and work of Feiffer, there are likely other better options.… (more)
LibraryThing member mrkurtz
Jules Feiffer's autobiography, Backing Into Forward, is a story of a boy who started drawing comic book characters at a very young age and then became a cartoonist before he became a man. The tale starts slowly and in short sentences without much adornment but explains some of the motivation for Feiffer to stay in his room and draw. The Feiffer family was Jewish. Jules' mother badgered him to be a success in life and she hovered over him giving him no leeway to be his own boy. He did not adjust to school work showing no interest in anything but cartoons. He drew his own comic book when he was eleven. Much like Albert Einstein he made only passing grades in school and yet after he completed high school, he soon became a genius. He was fortunate to land a job with Will Eisner who began drawing "The Spirit" strip in the early 1940's and is considered one of the founding artists of comic book and comic strip greats. Jules landed that job when he was 16 and was one of the unpaid helpers for Eisner, but he persevered and before being drafted into the Army when he was eighteen, he was drawing a comic strip on the back page of "The Spirit".
Jules was fearful of the Army because it required the private soldier to become a robot doing only what he is told and when he will do it. Somehow Jules was able to survive boot camp partly by teaming up with another Jewish private to paint the helmet liners of the non commissioned officers conducting the training. After basic training Jules was sent to Camp Gordon (Fort Gordon now) in Augusta, Georgia to radio repair school. Jules says he was unable to understand any of the training and could not duplicate the simple tasks that he was given. I believe Jules stretches the truth in not being able to understand these instructions that the other students were adsorbing easily. I guess it makes for a better story. Fate comes to bail Jules out of the radio repair school and into a training publications unit in Fort Monmouth, NJ. Here Jules gets the idea for Munro, a 4 year old kid who is accidently inducted into the Army. Jules produces the cartoon narrative that Jules writes was "to determine the direction of my work for the next forty years".
Jules' autobiography jumps back and forth in time and while he is telling of one incident that happened to him he also tells you what that incident taught him in drawing cartoons twenty years later or twenty years previously. Jules' develops a contrarian view of life. He must heed what he is told to do at his own peril. Whatever advice he is given he must do the opposite. If he is told some new cartoon character he has drawn will definitely be a success, he must scratch that character and draw one entirely different. Jules says that this philosophy has served him well.
After the army and a couple of years of not finding anything he wants to do and will get paid for doing it, Jules turns to the Village Voice newspaper, a new alternative weekly started in 1955. He gets a job drawing occasional cartoons that develops into a weekly strip and Jules becomes the darling satirist of comic strips. He draws these cartoons for the next 40 years but Jules wants more. He turns to writing plays in the late sixties. His first play, Little Murders, opens on Broadway on Tuesday, receives punishing reviews Wednesday and expires Saturday. Feiffer continues to tell you about every famous cartoonist, comic, director, writer and B-flat trumpeter that he has worked with, talked to, drawn with or associated in any manner with. He does this either to explain his improbable success as a cartoonist or to keep his tale interesting for the masses. Jules says this was a play that was written before its scene on the stage was ready for it.
Jules is rescued two years later when Alan Arkin directs the same Little Murders and it is given a good review by the critics and a two year run on Broadway. After another couple of plays that go nowhere, Jules finds another career of writing and drawing children's books and he adds another trophy to his life.
I have quibbled with some of Jules Feiffer's autobiography but this is a great book. Jules Feiffer has displayed his art, his comic strips and his editorial cartoons on the printed pages of newspapers and magazines with a flair and a knack for the human being. He manages to reveal that genius in the autobiography that he has written.
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LibraryThing member AsYouKnow_Bob
Remarkable stuff. Not surprisingly, Jules Feiffer is an entertaining storyteller. From the Bronx in the '30s to Martha's Vineyard in the 21st century, he seems to have encountered everyone. It's remarkable what a small town mid-century New York City actually was - improbably enough, Feiffer turns out to be a cousin of Roy Cohn.

His rise from awkward child, to unlikely draftee, to young man looking for his place in the world, and finally to (relatively...) successful author and screenwriter makes a fascinating story.
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LibraryThing member speakfreelynow
Loved loved loved this book. I knew nothing about Jules Feiffer when I started it and immediately fell in love with his narrative voice. His talent, his life and his worldview are all completely absorbing. I highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys any of the following things: bios, memoirs, art, creative non-fiction, a good book. You will not be disappointed.… (more)
LibraryThing member antmusic
I have been a fan of Jules Feiffer's illustrations and humor for a long time. I've shared his children's books (like "Bark George") with my kids and they laugh with glee.
This book is a great insight into Mr. Feiffer's world and history and I highly recomend it for his fans and people who love interesting modern biographies.

There are also a whle slew of illustrations in this book for the lovers of his sketches like myself.

Just so you know, I received this in a Library Thing Early Reviewers giveaway.
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LibraryThing member Devil_llama
An autobiography by the cartoonist/playwright, Jules Feiffer. He recounts growing up as a skinny Jewish boy in the Depression; his one big love was cartoons. He was fortunate to get the opportunity to work with Will Eisner. He spends most of his time on his early years, breezing through the last four decades of his life, which is OK, because that part of the book lost some of the sparkle of the earlier pages, and the author seemed on the verge of going from acerbic with into maudlin sentimentality. This is the sort of autobiography where you don't stop and ask yourself if it's true, or if the other people in his life would see it the same way. This book reads like a novel, enormously funny and moving. You don't care how much of it's true, it's so fun to read.… (more)
LibraryThing member PhoenixTerran
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 Feiffer's 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.

Experiments in Reading
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LibraryThing member ilovemycat1
Loved this book. Engaging, easy to read, interesting. Most intrigued by his early years. His fears, his mother, his aunt, the Army. His quest to do what he loved. How he dealt with what he feared. Any person aspiring to devote their life to be the best in their craft would learn much from Jules Feiffer's life journey.
LibraryThing member sullijo
I had a very hard time reading this book -- I started it, read it in fits and starts, abandoned it in the trunk of my car, and finally forced my way through it.

It's not that "Backing into Forward" is hard to read; Feiffer has an breezy, easy-going style made even more accessible by short chapters. It's not that the content is shocking or controversial; Feiffer takes pains to point out, as a young man, all the sex he wasn' t having. His biggest revolt against this parents seems to be a cross-country hitchhiking trip. Rather, I think I was put off by Feiffer's potshots at his mother and father, his too-knowing attitude about politics and culture, and the too-obvious name-dropping of famous actors and writers.

Which is not to say there aren't enjoyable and even laugh-out-loud moments -- the aforementioned hitchhiking trip was particularly evocative and well-written, and I would have enjoyed reading more about the inspirations for Feiffer's children's books. But there is plenty of fluff that could have been excised from the book's 440 pages.
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