The finale of Jules Feiffer’s “Kill My Mother” trilogy, THE GHOST SCRIPT (Liveright, $26.95), plunges into the world of 1950s Hollywood and its infamous blacklist. Feiffer luxuriates in the ironies, as when an ostensibly banished female screenwriter goes undercover and looks for work: Behind facial hair and pseudonym, her bespectacled face like a Feiffer self-portrait, she bites back laughter when a producer unwittingly offers rewrite duties on a script that she originally wrote.
Her transformation is just the latest in a trilogy overflowing with them. As an artist, Feiffer himself can’t be pinned down, like the dancers he loved to draw in his Pulitzer Prize-winning strip for The Village Voice. At 89, he’s been famous since approximately forever. While still a teenager, he apprenticed for a fellow Jew from the Bronx, the pioneering cartoonist Will Eisner, and was soon writing the breakneck adventures of Eisner’s masked crime-stopper known as the Spirit. After a stint in the Army, he mordantly dissected the anxieties of the liberal mind for The Voice, in a run that outlasted the Cold War. And even if you’ve never consciously read him before, you’ve been Feiffered if you ever devoured Norton Juster’s “The Phantom Tollbooth” as a kid, or watched Jack Nicholson fall apart in the acid bath of “Carnal Knowledge.” Feiffer illustrated the former, and wrote the latter’s screenplay. (It was composed at Yaddo, he tells us in his 2010 memoir, at the same time Philip Roth was writing “Portnoy’s Complaint” there.)
“Kill My Mother” (2014), Feiffer’s first long-form graphic novel, swung for the fences. It tracked the fates of two families, entwined by chance: the three tall women comprising the Hughes sisters, and the widowed Elsie Hannigan and her spitfire daughter, Annie. Using a moody, silver-screen palette and characters who sometimes appeared sculpted from wire, the story nodded to the hard-boiled tradition, but the book’s gonzo climax is more farce than noir: a set piece involving a U.S.O. show run amok, with a gender-bending twist so good it fooled me twice. The crisper prequel, “Cousin Joseph” (2016), revealed the double life of the upstanding cop Sam Hannigan, Annie’s absent father, circa 1931. The shadowy title figure, a staunch right-winger, used bribery and thugs to get movie producers — all Jewish — to abort titles that “make a mockery of the America that you and I are fighting for,” as he ranted to one of his prized goons.
“The Ghost Script” skewers the infamous House Committee on Un-American Activities by way of a MacGuffin: a screenplay that names names, not of Communist Party members, but of curdled patriots like Cousin Joseph, who torment the left while keeping secrets of their own. Soon, elements from the Communist wing want the “Ghost Script” as well. The fact that it doesn’t exist makes it all the more tantalizing. Characters from the past return to plot their elaborate revenge (reading the earlier volumes is a must). It’s touching to see how these survivors have weathered the decades. Elsie, coolly capable in “Kill My Mother,” is now a blind radio personality spouting blind-item gossip. A spry union organizer from Book 2 now resembles crumpled paper. And Archie Goldman, first seen in “Cousin Joseph,” has become a detective — his partner is his Trotskyite mom — whose tough exterior hides a nest of neuroses.
Archie solves one mystery only to find himself plagued by a deeper one. “Is that why I’m driving around in circles? I’m searching for my Jewish guilt?” he complains, à la Portnoy. “Screw the guilt!” he shouts. “I’m an American! Americans are children of destiny!” With expert comic timing, Feiffer then delivers him — and us — from this rollicking Red Scare narrative, with a scene both out of this world and completely fitting: the artist smashing the 400-page mirror-America he’s so furiously constructed, a reflection not just of the ’50s but of today.
The new American disorder is enough to make some of us contemplate Canadian citizenship, which might partly explain the shameless crush I have on the debut of the Montreal-based artist Hartley Lin. Funny and generous, YOUNG FRANCES (AdHouse, $19.95) is half coming-of-age story (female-friendship variety), half office novel. Lin’s line is both romantic and scrupulously composed, with precise framing that can recall a Wes Anderson tableau. The dialogue ranges from deadly accurate corporate jargon (“How long do you think you can survive without deliverables?”) to the kind of stuff you’d utter only to your closest friend (“People can get tapeworms in their brain, right?”). And Lin knows precisely when to let a few panels of premium Canadian silence sink in. (One character is shown reading — wait for it — Alice Munro.)
The book’s first word is “thoughts,” repeated 14 times in a bubble over the head of Frances Scarland, law clerk and insomniac. Responsible and caring, competent but lacking confidence, Frances grapples with the question of whether her job defines her. Soon she’s plucked from workplace obscurity by the rainmaker Marcel Castonguay, who brings her onto his team. Drawn like Daddy Warbucks crossed with the Goodyear blimp, he’s grotesque yet oddly endearing in his eccentricities. His faith in Frances bolsters her self-worth, but is the future he sees for her something she even wants? Meanwhile, her actress roommate, the scattered but talented Vickie, vaults from local theater and drunken karaoke to a schlocky American show, “Bad Inspector.” “She’s a vigilante district attorney,” Frances marvels at her friend’s new role, a fun-house version of the legal profession.
There are workplace rituals here to make you laugh or cry, from the perpetual obligatory office lottery pool (“Am I a team player, or can I just keep my five dollars?”) to the group exegesis of an email announcing personnel changes. In a crushing scene, an associate knows a rival has outpaced her after counting the ceiling tiles of his office.
Eisner sometimes flipped his surname and used the byline Rensie; under the anagrammatic nom de plume Ethan Rilly, Lin started serializing Frances’ story in 2009. It’s a testament to his vision that a book with such a long gestation can still feel so of the moment. Or maybe it’s that the floating world of one’s 20s, rendered here with such sympathy and humor, always lives somewhere in us, as accessible as a recurring dream.
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