Jules Feiffer’s memoir is a compelling Bronx tale, tracing his development from a daydreaming would-be auteur of action comic books to world-renowned house cartoonist of the Village Voice, intellectual, political activist, novelist, screenwriter, playwright, and, in his later years, after discovering that he was far more adept at pleasing children than New York drama critics, author of children’s books.
Told in brief anecdotal sections reminiscent of his Voice comic strip and written in a direct, biting tone, Backing into Forward is distinctly Feiffer, describing with disarming candor incidents such as how his mother gave away his pet dog Rex and his schemes, worthy of Catch-22, to avoid basic training (and, later, a posting to Korea) in the U.S. Army. The book is a particular pleasure for the intellectual voyeur, as Feiffer finds himself unexpectedly in the center of New York’s artistic and intellectual life in the 1960’s and beyond, crossing paths and trading bon mots with the likes of Mike Nichols, Marlene Dietrich, and Duke Ellington.
Undergirding the whole is Feiffer’s recurrent fantasy of himself as a superhero, aspiring to alter egos so far from his own reality— a skinny, perpetually frightened Jewish youngster from the Bronx — as Superman, Cary Grant, and Fred Astaire. It is a delight to watch Feiffer gradually outgrow this youthful anxiety to become his own kind of superhero and equally delightful to see him preserve without compromise his leftist political leanings throughout his life — he was mugged by reality at an early age, and never turned back. But then, having grown up in the shadow of his much-favored cousin, Roy Cohn, how could he have done otherwise?