Thursday, 26 March 2015

The Twisted Genius of George Feyer

It's been in the works for two years, but now I am happy to say that my profile of cartoonist George Feyer has been published in Canada's History Magazine. (April/May 2015 issue.) I suggest you buy/order a copy. You're in for a hell of a yarn.

Born into a privileged Hungarian Jewish family in 1921 he lived through both Fascist and Nazi regimes, experienced the brutality of the Siege of Budapest first-hand, then emigrated to Canada where he made his irreverent mark in the mid-century Toronto arts and culture scene - becoming best friends with Pierre Berton and chumming around with Marshall McLuhan, June Callwood and Peter Munk. But despite his out-sized talents and abundant potential, Feyer ended up dying  in Hollywood at the age of 47. 

Telling Feyer's story in such a high-profile venue is something of a personal victory for me. I've been reading the magazine for years and I'm told this marks the first time it's published a profile of a Canadian cartoonist, so that's good. But it's also because George and I go way back.

About 10 years ago, when I was working at the CBC Digital Archives, I was given a chance to tackle my dream job: to research, write, and produce an online feature about the history of Canadian comics and cartoonists. This involved weeks of combing through the CBC's TV and radio archives to find content that dealt with one of my favourite subjects, old comics.

At the time there was so little awareness of this part of our cultural history that I felt like I was a one-man guerrilla operation within the Mother Corps, labouring away passionately on a cause that few shared or understood. (One day, a CBC Archivist I was screening material next to asked what I was working on. When I said a feature about Canadian comics she visibly perked up, "Oh, that's great! I always loved John Candy!")

In the end, the project (The Comics in Canada: An Illustrated History) turned out great, and it's been nice in the decade since to see it and the footage I unearthed pop-up in unexpected places, and get referenced by the occasional historian. One of the highlights of the experience though was discovering this pint-sized, politically motivated shit-disturber who gleefully tore a strip off the stuffy arts and culture scene of 1950s Toronto.

George was a one-man art army armed with a felt-tip pen and a deeply dark Hungarian wit. His world view,  shaped by his experiences with religion and politics during the war, was best described by fellow Hungarian George Jonas as "central European gallows humour" and it coloured everything he did. Berton estimated that only half of Feyer's cartoons ever saw print, and even the ones that did were often toned down for mass consumption.

But even then his talent could not be contained by one medium. His knack for live-drawing (borne of necessity during his WW2 black market passport business) quickly gained him a gig as a personality on CBC Television, where he plied his trade mostly on the saccharine children's shows of the 1950s (see above). But he occasionally had the chance to use his skills for a more mature audience, like this 1964 clip from the current affairs show The Observer.

I quickly became entranced by this dervish, and began reading whatever I could get my hands on. Eventually I met his son, Anthony Feyer, at the 2006 Doug Wright Awards where George was inducted into the Giants of the North Hall of Fame. After chatting with Tony and learning more about his Dad's life, I knew right then that I had to tell his story.

Then, in 2013 I got an email from the editor of Canada's History Magazine asking if I had any ideas for a cartoonist profile. I pitched three, but I knew as I was preparing them that Feyer was the only choice. Next to him the others didn't stand a chance. His talent was soaring and years ahead of its time, and his sad, solitary end -- he was found dead after weeks in his apartment, owned by the ex-wife of James Mason -- was a heartbreaking punctuation to a life lived large.

His death crushed his family and friends and apparently cast a long shadow. Berton's 1975 book, Hollywood's Canada, The Americanization of Our National Image, is dedicated to his good friend, who died seven years before.      

And I feel like that shadow extends into the 21st century. His intelligent, jaded outlook and his ability to respond to current affairs with quickly-drawn comics seems a perfect fit for today's web comics landscape.

Anyways, I hope this background helps explain why I feel so inordinately proud of this piece. George was a singular talent whose story needed to be told. I'm honoured that he chose me to tell it.