There was a time in the 1950s and 1960s when Middle America grasped onto totems of New York sophistication as a way to declare for themselves a measure of suburban cosmopolitanism. The cartoonists of The New Yorker were great beneficiaries of this impulse, and for years collecting their works enjoyed the same status New Jersey westward as ordering Chinese take-out or having shirts tailored at Brooks Brothers. Oversized books from Saul Steinberg, Charles Addams and Peter Arno dignified coffee tables from Des Moines to Denver, foreshadowing the current graphic novel explosion with their high production values, evident wit and sterling art.
Jules Feiffer's SICK, SICK, SICK was more downtown than uptown, though it sold equally well to similar audiences. Feiffer, an award-winning playwright and children's book author who was once an assistant to Will Eisner and later wrote the best historical essay on the so-called Golden Age, The Great Comic Book Heroes, may be the least appreciated godfather of today's best comics. SICK, SICK, SICK collected early strips from the feature Feiffer, potent observations about human frailty that defined the Village Voice during its late '50s heyday. Feiffer chronicled the lives of men and women battered by the spiritually bankrupt whirlwind of Cold War America. His characters hunched over drinks in bitter rants about the opposite sex, daydreamed in the middle of make-out sessions, and railed against their inability to compete in a world re-shaping itself to benefit the B-minus student. Only in his late 20s, Feiffer wrote beautifully self-absorbed monologues, skewering the rhetoric of denial in ways that made the ugliest impulses seem funny and human. His furious line work, somewhere between William Steig and a cocktail napkin scrawl, was an ideal complement to the raw subject matter. Perfectly realized, SICK, SICK, SICK gave cartoonists permission to explore in unblinking fashion the humor of failure.
SICK, SICK, SICK has been back in print for almost 15 years as the third volume in Fantagraphics Books' Feiffer: The Collected Works collection, a back of the catalog gem if ever one existed. If that version's late 1980s idea of attractive book design is a little too comics-completist for you to bear, the more elegant-looking original editions are a jazzy staple of used bookstore humor sections. SICK, SICK, SICK is one of comics' foundational books, a study of a time and place so crystal clear it feels like a party you once watched in your pajamas from the stairs, or the missing dialogue from a silent moment with your exhausted father as he let the car idle in the driveway, lights off, a hundred feet from the door.
Tom Spurgeon is a writer living in Silver City, New Mexico. He can be found online at The Comics Reporter.