Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Kill My Mother, Cousin Joseph, and The Ghost Script, by Jules Feiffer

We are fortunate indeed that Jules Feiffer, now in his late 80s, has turned his hand to noir. His take isn’t cops-and-robbers, it’s Reds and corporate goons, in the entertainment industry in New York and Hollywood. His loose but evocative drawing style makes each character instantly recognizable, as their family ties and associations create fault lines they must cross, with violent results.

These graphic novels are adult matter – not just sex, the original “adult theme,” but politics, calculated violence, difficult choices, art, and the struggle to get by. Kill My Mother focuses on certain women: strong, gender-bending, resourceful. Along with them, we meet the rest of our cast, who will develop through the series, through the decades.

Cousin Joseph is a hit-man with many shady associations. He seems untouchable, knows everyone and what they’re doing and to whom they owe fealty and favors. He’s a tough guy’s tough guy, remorseless and relentless. The fact that he’s “cousin” Joseph suggests the depth of his hold on those he manipulates – he calls in favors you would only do for kin.

The Ghost Script is about blacklisted writers and performers. The writers make the point that Hollywood does buy their work, but at a steep discount because they’re “forbidden.” Some have the cynical strength to laugh at their situation, while anger and despair consume them.

The through-lines of revenge, disguise, and struggle are developed, and yes, converge at the finale for a noir-worthy ending. Feiffer paints them in many shades of reds – one character is a Trotskyite, deeply offended to be called a Communist because she hates them. Likewise, the socialists resist the Communist label, and trade-unionists, accused of being Commies, battle the corruption at the top in their organizations. Their sworn enemies are corporate big-wigs who hire goons – not just strike-breakers but thugs who track them in their daily lives, beating them up often and without mercy. These are not happy stories.

As he writes in his Acknowledgements at the end of The Ghost Script, Feiffer says: “But more than all the others, I owe this book to Kazan and Odets [two who testified before HUAC and named every name they could think of], who caused in me an undiluted rage, new to me in the 1950s, and almost as vivid today for the life-souring lessons they taught me about America, and political and personal betrayal.”

Where this series differs from most noir is that Feiffer tracks all the ugliness back to political roots. Unlike the fiction we enjoy on film, of Everyman characters who take a step off the straight-and-narrow only to find themselves swept into a maelstrom of increasingly ugly crimes and nasty customers, these stories, while fictionalized, are true about the America we’d rather not see. Where our film noir protagonists blunder into a house of horrors, Feiffer’s were targeted, forced there, and escape only in death.

If your interest in noir goes beyond entertainment, these books will open your eyes, and disturb you.