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Passionella And Other Stories
posted October 13, 2006
Fantagraphics, Hardcover, 180 pages, $19.95, July 2006
The great thing about this fourth book of a projected 15 volumes in the "Feiffer: The Collected Works" series taking years and years to come out is that the comics industry has changed for the better underneath it. Gone is the uniform design of volumes one through three aimed at collector-completists in favor of an attractive mid-sized hardcover that should pop on bookstore shelves. The mix of prose pieces with comics works makes a lot more sense in a publishing atmosphere less self-defensive, narrowly targeted and worked up about what comics is and what comics isn't. Even the bleed of children's publishing into comics, the notion of a broader world of picture books encompassing both traditions and several besides, flatters Feiffer's fractured fairytale approach to narrative and loose way of putting pictures on the page. I have a sneaking suspicion this is twice as nice of a book as we might have seen had it come out in quick succession to Fantagraphics' initial volumes.
Even better: the material is good to great, and some it is very little seen since the publication of a long out-of-print Feiffer collection in the early 1960s. The best work here are the comics from various magazines of the era, including the title piece. My favorites are "Harold Swerg," the kind of sportsfable that seemed to fade away by the late 1970s but offers a way of depicting cultural truths with mythic resonance that remains funny and, interestingly, ahead of its time in its criticism of the media's pernicious role in how we approach sport. It's almost a eulogy to amateur athletics that way.
The work preceding it, "The Lonely Machine," shows off Feiffer's skill at balancing psychological insight and metaphorical ambiguity with humor and a kind of jaunty self-awareness at the silliness that fantasy brings with it. I don't know five authors that do this as well as Feiffer does, and the gestural work Feiffer uses, the melodramatic poses, the stark staging and space work, somehow manages to dignify the story while providing the perfect grace note to its giddy, more lunatic aspects.
Each story has at least one killer sequence: "George's Moon" has a terrific ending, while "Passionella" offers up maybe the best comedic statement ever on the rich, well-plumbed target of 1950s studio-style acting schools. If it takes another several years for volume five, as long as results prove this solid Feiffer fans will find it in their hearts to forgive.