In Cousin Joseph, graphic novelist Jules Feiffer returns to the noir world of Kill My Mother, although this volume is more of a prequel than a follow up.
Sam Hannigan is an all-American police officer in Bay City, a tough talking, hard drinking man who is pulls no punches. Sam is disappointed that his partner Neil will be retiring from the force to become a private detective. At home he is beloved by his wife Elsie and worshiped by his daughter Annie, whose classmates consider Sam a hero and an all-around swell guy. Below the surface, Sam lives a shadow life in the service of a mysterious man who calls himself Cousin Joseph—a man who has convinced Sam to play the thug in the name of American values. A man whom Sam has never actually met in person.
Sam receives phone calls from Joseph who tasks the cop with physically intimidating Hollywood filmmakers into only producing stories which depict a happy America without a hint of the hardships or disillusionment many have found upon her shores. Cousin Joseph, though he might be concealing his own foreign heritage, speaks to Sam of foreign refugees with scorn. In Joseph’s view, the immigrants are the ones whose woes are polluting the minds of decent Americans, and they promote their grievances through their art. While Sam is busy playing the loyal attack dog for Joseph, a union strike against Knox Works, a powerful cannery company in Bay City threatens the peace. Although Sam himself considers unions unpalatable and “red”, Billy Doyle, the strike organizer is a lifelong friend of Sam’s.
If you’ve read Kill My Mother, you will already know Sam’s fate. Cousin Joseph fills in the “why,” which was never quite clear in the first volume. It is obvious that Feiffer studied closely with Will Eisner. Like Kill My Mother, Cousin Joseph retains the feel of a graphic novel that could have been published decades ago. The characters are drawn in Feiffer’s sketchbook style, which sometimes appears disjointed, yet always leads the reader through a maze of action and intricacies. Mostly drawn in black and white, shades of brown and green frequently invade the pages, muddying the landscape perfectly as the story darkens. You can nearly smell Feiffer’s ink and pencil with the turn of every page.
Set in the 1930’s, it is amazing how well the themes of “what makes an American” in Cousin Joseph still resonate. Feiffer uses the time period to study some of the common prejudices; for instance, the antisemitism experienced by both Annie Hannigan’s classmate Archie (and expressed by Annie herself) and established Hollywood players. Ethnic slurs and taunts are casually hurled at their marks with little protest from bystanders. Also of note is Valerie Knox, the young daughter of Knox Works’ proprietor, whose fascination with circumcised penises causes some strange behavior.
Readers who enjoyed Kill My Mother will indeed find closure to unresolved questions in Cousin Joseph, but this doesn’t mean Feiffer has tied everything up with a neat ribbon. There is still plenty of mystery left for the upcoming third volume.
by Jules Feiffer