The Man In The Ceiling
by Jules Feiffer
Harper Collins, 1993
(from a review first published in Cerebus #200, November 1995)
Two years have passed since Jules Feiffer's The Man In The Ceiling was published. Not being a fan of the New York literary 'scene', I'm not sure if it was reviewed extensively or at all. If it was, the certainty exists that the point of the book was lost on the reviewers if those reviewers were just... well... reviewers (and not creators). Art Spiegelman's back-cover blurb left a bad taste in my mouth. While it would make sense from the standpoint of a New York publisher to have the creator of Maus endorse a new work by Feiffer (successful New York Jewish cartoonist gives thumbs up to successful New York Jewish cartoonist), there is an apples-and-oranges quality at work, from my vantage point. It makes about as much sense as having Charles Burns do the back-cover blurb for Eisner's Dropsie Avenue. Spiegelman can't help but be aware (at some level) of the inappropriateness -- working 'Batman's punch' into his endorsement is an eyebrow sufficiently arched to induce a universal wince among Feiffer's devotees.
As a card-carrying Feiffer devotee, permit me to redress the balance in my own small way (mindful of the fact that a Harvey award for Best Cartoonist offers meagre literary firepower in a shoot-out with a Pulitzer -- even a 'special' Pulitzer):
The Man In The Ceiling is a deceptive work. It's a book intended for children -- at the least that's what it purports to be -- more accurately that's what it's dust jacket purports it to be. I prefer not to take the dust jacket's word for it, myself.
On the one hand, the dust jacket has a case. The language, sentence structure, composition are all of the straightforward variety favoured by authors addressing adult buyers of children's books as demographic quarry. One can picture Aunt Tilly in a Fifth Avenue bookstore in search of a 'nice book' for her nephew. She reads the dust jacket, skims through a few paragraphs and decides it's just the thing for little Timmy who spends all of his time in the basement drawing his funny books. We must trust to the tender mercy of Fate that Aunt Tilly's cursory examination misses any of the pithy, characteristically Feifferesque depreciations about the value of school (nil, of course) and any other assertions guaranteed to raise Aunt Tillian ire.
The Man In The Ceiling is a Trojan horse, you see.
The thought occurs in anticipation of the imminent thesis that perhaps Spiegelman is 'in on the game'. Perhaps 'Batman's punch' is his own contribution to the equine subterfuge. If such is the case, the Harvey apologizes, abjectly, to the 'special' Pulitzer.
Distilled to its essence, The Man In The Ceiling concerns Jimmy Jibbel, a young boy who writes and draws his own comic books in the basement of his parents house. He has two sisters. Lisi, the elder, makes his life a living hell but is also the most avidly interested in his creativity. Susu, the younger, is simply devoted to him in all regards, particularly the stories he TELLS her. (Feiffer makes a key point of this. Despite the boy's drawing ability, his younger sister on;y wants him to TELL her stories. She has no interest in seeing the characters drawn.) The boy's mother is a fashion illustrator. His father is a white-collar drone. At a critical juncture in the story we are presented with Uncle Lester, a creator of Broadway musicals who has never had a show produced despite twelve years of trying. (The musical with which Uncle Lester finally 'gets it right' is called Robotica, which, from its description, bears am uncanny resemblance to an early '60s Feiffer peice, The Lonely Machine, which appeared in an issue of Playboy. Whether the allusion is just that -- or whether some treatment of The Lonely Machine as a musical comedy actually exists in some form -- my interest was piqued by the reference.) There is also Charlie Beemer, the most popular and accomplished 'all-boy' student in Jimmy's school. Interspersed with Feiffer's ink and wash drawings of the events in the story are crude pencil comic book pages from Jimmy's laborious pre-teen efforts as a comic-book creator.
Back in Aunt Tilly Land, one pictures little Timmy being horrified by his present. Two sentences in he knows he is being condescended to (despite Art Spiegelman's assurances to the contrary on the back-cover -- if only Spiegelman had pencilled an issue of Youngblood. Alas...). It's a calculated risk on Feiffer's part. He is too much aware of his own childhood to be unmindful of the delicate balance that must be struck. He has something to tell the little Timmy's of this world. But, in order to get little Timmy, he has to go through a) a New York book publisher, b) mainstream bookstores, c) Aunt Tilly, d) Mum and Dad. From the point of view of all four hurdles he has psychic molestation as his agenda. The only hope is to come across as kindly old Uncle Jules with a perfectly harmless little children's book (the first ten pages wouldn't furrow the brow of Mother Teresa). To extend our speculative scenario, Little Timmy thanks Aunt Tilly in the desultory way common to all boys who have just gotten a sucker punch to their age group for Christmas. He puts it aside. But a week later, maybe a month, maybe six months (Uncle Jules is very patient, Little Timmy), he's reread the latest Spawn for the fourth time and decides...ah, what the fuck.
And then he and kindly old Uncle Jules are...
Now, understand that the menace implied there is purely from the standpoint of Aunt Tilly and Mum and Dad. What is compelling about The Man In The Ceiling (and what makes it a seminal work of its kind) is that it constitutes a creator's direct communication with the would-be creator. This is an avenue near and dear to whatever I'm using for a heart these days. The realisation is abroad the land that there is a secondary birth in the life of the creative individual. Blood relation jockeys for position and prominence with Creative relation(influence and peer) -- a meaty theme hidden from popular sentiment by its 'outlaw' nature. In The Man In The Ceiling this is sharply focused to a laser-like intensity beneath its cosmetic exterior of being and innocent, nice book about 'a boy just like me'. It documents the birth of the creative mind, creative awareness, creative sensibility. The effect (assuming it 'worked' -- we won't know until Little Timmy's another ten or fifteen years older) is not dissimilar to the effect Feiffer's 1971 interview in Playboy had on the fifteen-year-old version of the chap typing these words.
Jules Feiffer KNOWS that I don't fit in anywhere. He knows that the best I can manage is a grudging acceptance of the fact of my existence. He KNOWS that comic books are more important to than my family. He KNOWS that the comic books I draw in the basement are more real to me than school or a job (please God, no!) or my friends or what I read in the newspaper or whatever grown-ups happen to be flipping out about this week.
He's OLD! But he KNOWS!
(Now -- being almost forty -- I don't use the term 'old' quite so casually.)
There is an eerie, Stephen King quality about it. No, more accurately, an 'occult' (hidden) quality about it. Impenetrable mystery, that so few 'connect' with comic books at a visceral level or at the core of the psyche. The veil, the fog, is at its thickest, its murkiest as a child picks up a pencil and a piece of paper and KNOWS (just KNOWS) that 'the thing' has been found. The Man In The Ceiling documents the particular effects attendant upon that discovery, the fact that the birth of a creative sensibility induces a kind of creeping insanity in the uncreative individuals in proximity to it. At any moment a benign friend or family member can flare into an inescapable malignancy. Beneath the mask of concern, benevolence, camaraderie is the fear and hatred of the 'different one', which (one is left to suppose) is as ancient as society itself.
In the story (as in life) this exists everywhere just as the creative sensibility encounters it: the inexplicable imposition of a needless impediment that recalls the belief in demonic possession. Whether the impediment is thrust in the way by a parent, sibling, friend -- the overwhelming urge is to ask: Who are you? I know you have the face of (my father, my teacher, my best friend), but WHO'S IN THERE?
It is only Uncle Lester, the creator of Broadway musicals, who implies no threat. (Suspect at various junctures in the story, but he always comes through.) He encourages, he is a good audience, he pays attention. He expresses preferences (knows INSTINCTIVELY when his nephew is drawing his comics for some other purpose than serving his own creative sensibility). He is Feiffer's stand-in in the proceedings. Like Feiffer, he has that success snatched from him by the New York reviewers.
The message is implicit. It never stops, Little Timmy. You can get past your parents and your teachers and all the rest just by getting older and getting out on your own. But those demons pursue you. They inhabit people at inopportune moments, interpose themselves between you and your audience.
The first and only time I met Jules Feiffer, I remember telling him how much I liked his strip about Irwin Corpulent. I quoted it badly (a Feiffer strip has an internal melody that is lost in encapsulation): I'm a pillar of the community, got a big promotion, a fancy new office. But inside I'm thinking, you're a fraud. Someday they're going to find you out and come and take it all away. I get awards, testimonial dinners. But inside I'm thinking, you're a sham. Someday they're going to find you out and come and take it all away.
Etcetera, etcetera in that vein. How wonderful the guy's life is and the inner voice always saying: Someday they're going to find you out and come and take it all away.
The punch line is that, one day, he's sitting in his office and a delegation of people come in. He figures they're there to give him a good citizenship award or something. One of them says, "Irwin Corpulent, we've found you out and come to take it all away."
"So I cleaned out my desk and I left. When they find you out, they find you out... why argue?"
I told him how much I identified with that strip. He asked me if I knew why I identified with that strip so much. I really didn't. He said, "Because you've never had a large failure in your life. I used to identify with the strip myself until Little Murders closed on Broadway after a handful of performances. Now I don't identify with that strip. You find out that life goes on. They can't take anything away from you that really matters."
The reassurance that I got from that simple observation could only have come from another creator. I try to pass that on where I can. The conclusion of The Man In The Ceiling resonates with that observation and the experience -- the hard experience -- from which it issued and which was transformed by Feiffer's indefatigable (hell, let's use the word) Spirit into a shining piece of creative armour.
The Man In The Ceiling should be in every comic-book store in the world. If you know a kid around the age of ten or eleven who is starting to draw his own comic books, you can do him (or her) no greater favour than to give him (yeah, probably him) a copy.
Just don't let his Aunt Tilly or his Mum or Dad read past the first ten pages.
UPDATE - FEIFFER FANS ALERT!
All Feiffer fans will be eager to learn of Jules Feiffer and director Dan Mirvish's ongoing Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for their upcoming film Bernard & Huey The Movie. Don't delay -- the fund-raiser ends on Saturday, 4 July!