Cousin Joseph: A Graphic Novel
Created by one of America’s most gifted cartoonists and cultural commentators for whose work the words “sophisticated” and “satirical” are inextricably linked, COUSIN JOSEPH is the second of Jules Feiffer’s forays into a new genre: the illustrated noir mystery.
Written as a prequel to the first in this series of three, that being KILL MY MOTHER, COUSIN JOSEPH is set in 1931, in California. The historical framework includes the Great Depression and the successful rise of Jewish Hollywood moguls against an international backdrop of creeping, cancerous anti-Semitism. There is poverty, unionism spawned by the Russian Revolution, and, as in all times, crime: some of it pays, some of it costs, and all of it is observed by Big Sam Hannigan, a straight cop with one crooked secret. He is delivering messages in the form of cold hard cash to Hollywood producers, on behalf of a mysterious man with a touch of an accent known only as Cousin Joseph.
"Even within a literary category new to his talents, Feiffer...still has the considerable skills required to weave together a plethora of plot threads, throwing in some memorable minor characters..."
Sam takes no money for his errands; he’s in it for patriotism, believing that the money is a buy-off to prevent anti-American movies hitting the screens --- movies that, as Cousin Joseph insists, promote “the America invented by these people that no one could stand.” He is also on the frontlines of the battle against unions, siding with Mr. Knox, the bullying factory owner determined to break a planned strike using all the forces at his command, including the connivance of police and the scapegoating of innocents. While roughing up an evil movie-maker at Cousin Joseph’s behest, Sam finds out what kind of film is really being made --- a genuinely American epic that idealizes the great melting pot. He realizes that he doesn’t want to hurt its chances or harm its producer. Now he’s asking whose side he should be on and who Cousin Joseph really is. Those are dangerous questions.
Even within a literary category new to his talents, Feiffer, now in his late 80s, still has the considerable skills required to weave together a plethora of plot threads, throwing in some memorable minor characters: Cousin Joseph’s square-shouldered chauffeur, Gaffney, who knows more than he says; kingpin Knox’s daughter, who exhibits lurid curiosity about Jewish men; the bartender Addie, who would do anything --- anything --- to own the place; and Neil, the defecting cop who has sworn off booze but not cynicism. Feiffer’s pictures are motile as well as emotive. People fight and drink, hug and scheme, their bodies lithe with feeling, their faces open with wide-eyed naïveté, or sodden with old hatreds, or bland with practiced malevolence.
COUSIN JOSEPH answers the question posed in KILL MY MOTHER: Who or what killed Sam? It also adds layering to a trilogy that seems to be heading towards revealing the real evil: intolerance in all its twisted forms.
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on July 29, 2016