Buzzed Books #66 by Joshua Begley
Jules Feiffer’s The Ghost Script
Reading Jules Feiffer’s The Ghost Script (Liveright, 2018) will make you angry, and that’s a good thing.
Set in the 1950s in Hollywood during the House UnAmerican Activities Committee—also known as the Red Scare—also known as a farce that ruined many people’s lives—the story follows Archie Goldman, private eye and son of a Socialist (more on that in a moment) as he goes hunting for the titular ghost script—a thriller that tells the inside story of the blacklist. The script may not be real, but the possibility of its existence frightens many of the Hollywood elite.
While the hunt for the ghost script occupies much of the story, the graphic novel also ties up loose threads from the two previous entries in the “Kill My Mother” trilogy. I must confess that I hadn’t read the other two, but that didn’t hurt my comprehension or enjoyment of this piece. Feiffer, a student and collaborator with the great Will Eisner, pulls all of these threads together into a compelling, artful, and emotionally-moving private eye story in the vein of Chandler, Cain, and Hammett.
As I said before, this story will make you angry. As Johnny Carson famously said, “The more things change, the more they remain insane,” and that certainly applies here. In his foreword, Feiffer writes that he hadn’t set out to make a political statement with this piece, but that he found he couldn’t separate the political implications from the story. Certainly, this isn’t a polemic text, but one can’t help but feel anger, outrage, and empathy for poor Archie and the people suffering under the blacklist.
One also can’t help but see the parallels between then and now: the political scapegoating of “the other,” the manner in which the people in power irresponsibly seed violence and hatred in the hearts of the populace, and the way that people act out on that hatred. The very first page shows Archie running away from a group of protestors because “One look at me and every right-wing union goon can smell my mother’s a Socialist.”
The more things change, the more they remain insane, indeed.
Goldman stands at the heart of all this, and he’s a fascinating, somewhat subversive character. He’s the Archie Goodwin to his mother’s Nero Wolfe. His mother, a proud Trotskyite, is the brains of the operation, and he’s the legs. He goes, gathers the information, gets beat up, and his mother puts the pieces together. He’s not a hard-drinker, a womanizer, or even particularly tough, and in many ways doesn’t fit the mold of the noir detective. By his own admission, he’s “wishy-washy.” He’s a sad, sometimes pathetic character, but also a very sympathetic one, and you root for him like you root for all underdogs.
Although it’s only 142 pages, The Ghost Script is surprisingly dense in terms of content and art. It’s a meaty read that will take you some time to get through, but like all sumptuous meals, it’s well worth the time to slow down and appreciate it. One can definitely see the influence of Eisner on Feiffer’s style, from point of view, panel arrangement, and character and setting designs. Feiffer’s style is a bit sloppier than Eisner’s, but it’s done on purpose. Even though it’s inked, the art looks like rough pencil sketches. Frankly, it shouldn’t work, but this is Jules Feiffer we’re talking about here, and he not only makes it work, he makes it work brilliantly.
Do yourself a favor and check this one out.
Joshua Begley (Episode 284) teaches Creative Writing at Full Sail University. He has been published in Ghost Parachute, The Cut-Thru Review, and in the anthology Other Orlandos. He also writes reviews for The Fandom Post and Inside Pulse.