Jules Feiffer, a stubborn pooch, and a children’s counting book

The indefatigable cartoonist talks about how he resisted drawing animals, and how he finally wrote the sequel to his picture book, “Bark, George.”

JZ Holden
Jules Feiffer is the author of numerous books; he wrote the weekly comic strip “Sick, Sick, Sick” in The Village Voice. His latest children's book, "Smart George," has recently been released.

As a boy coming of age in the 1930s and ’40s, Jules Feiffer had his head buried in the funny pages.

“My earliest ambition, my earliest dreams, and my earliest joy was in looking at, particularly, the Sunday supplements – the color supplements,” says Mr. Feiffer, who in time became a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist. “It was pure and beautiful and innocent in a time when innocence was allowed.”

Forging his own path in the field of cartooning, however, Mr. Feiffer often gravitated toward dark, biting satire. He maintained a weekly comic strip in The Village Voice from 1956 to 1997. The comic strips were collected into books, and the title of one such volume demonstrated his acidic take on politics and society: “Sick, Sick, Sick.”

Comics historian Brian Walker situates Mr. Feiffer within a tradition of 1950s-era antiestablishmentarians, including comedian Lenny Bruce and the Beat writers. “They used to call it ‘sick humor’ – that term was used almost in a derogatory way about this new, topical, confessional humor,” Mr. Walker says.

In 1993, however, Mr. Feiffer decided to try a genre that would ultimately reconnect him with his beloved Sunday supplements: children’s literature. HarperCollins has just published “Smart George,” a sequel to one of Mr. Feiffer’s most enduringly popular books, “Bark, George,” from 1999. The original book, which focused on a canine named George who barks only after much prodding, has sold more than 300,000 copies.

Courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers
“Smart George” by Jules Feiffer, Michael di Capua Books, 40 pp.

The long-deferred sequel centers on the same stubborn pooch: This time, George, struggling with his addition, dreams that he is schooled in math by a cat, a gaggle of farm animals, and a mustachioed veterinarian who will be familiar from the earlier book. The concept sounds straightforward enough, but Mr. Feiffer had long struggled with a sequel.

Several years ago, as he was about to embark on a long car ride from his home outside New York City, he resolved to produce an outline before the trip was over. “I fiddled and faddled and wrote notes in my head and jotted things down,” he says. “And, my God, by the time I got to the city, I had the sequel.”

To longtime readers of his Village Voice strip, Mr. Feiffer’s late-career turn toward children’s literature might have come as a surprise. In the quarter-century since his debut in this genre, a young adult novel, “The Man in the Ceiling,” Mr. Feiffer has churned out a steady stream of works for younger readers. “Combining visual and verbal storytelling from his very first Village Voice strip, doing picture books just seems like a natural outcome,” says Michael di Capua, Mr. Feiffer’s editor. 

At first, Mr. Feiffer resisted drawing animals. “But, somewhere along the line, it became fun,” he says. 

He says that he instructs young cartoonists to follow their instincts. “I’m not so much the author of these things,” he says. “I’m experiencing the book as it happens, and I just happen to be the guy pushing the pencil or pen or brush around,” he says.

Mr. Feiffer – currently working on another sequel, “Park George” – has no plans to put away his drawing tools anytime soon. “I’m 91 now,”  he says. “When I sit down at my drawing table, I can do anything that I’ve ever done, it turns out.”

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