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Will Eisner: Moved by The Spirit

By Michael Barrier

Their first pages tell us that these are not ordinary comic-book stories.

Here is one from 1949, for example. In the first panel, a masked man addresses us directly. He may seem to be just one more of the fictional vigilantes who flourished in that decade, in radio, movies, and, especially, comic books. He identifies himself as a crimefighter, in pursuit of a bond thief, and he tells us in the second panel that he is waiting one gloomy evening "at the entrance to the Central Building on Wafer Street." But then the third panel arrives—so large that it fills almost two thirds of the page—and it shows us a striking piece of architecture indeed. Seen from an aerial vantage point, the Central Building appears broken into six sections, ten to twelve stories high—each section a letter of the alphabet, each a full block deep. Smaller letters—"THE"—cling perilously to the upper left corner of the building’s facade, a fire escape dangling beneath them. On the right, the bar of a "T" forms a sort of penthouse, cantilevered over the street. The entrance to the building is in fact the gaping hole left beneath the curve of a "P" as it pushes against an "I." Everything—windows, bricks, superstructures, even a television antenna—is in place on this preposterous but ever-so-solid structure.

Spirit Archives Vol. 8And then, since no other image could compete with that bizarre building, we are given on the right-hand side of the page a daringly long caption, atop three stacked panels. In that caption we hear not the masked man’s voice, but an omniscient narrator’s. His calm tone lets us know that however strange the world we are entering, someone is in complete control. As if to strengthen that sense of serene command, the three stacked panels show us, from an unchanging point of view, a door opening onto an elevator shaft, as a car rises in it. The author, having proved that he can dazzle, will not be hurried in his story (which will, as it turns out, take place almost entirely inside that elevator).

Those letters that make up the facade of the Central Building? They spell out "THE SPIRIT"; and atop one window is a sort of banner: "By Will Eisner." The Spirit is the masked man we met in the first panel; Will Eisner is his creator. Every Sunday—The Spirit appeared in a comic book distributed as a Sunday newspaper supplement—for the better part of a decade, Eisner announced his character’s stories through such arresting means. In the last half of the forties especially, that union of character and cartoonist resulted in stories immeasurably more sophisticated than those in most other comic books.

Eisner both wrote and drew his stories, with limited help from assistants. Like only a handful of other comics creators, he made the "writing" and the "drawing" seem to be a single indissoluble act. "A key to my thinking," Eisner said in 1988, "has always been the almost fanatical belief that what I was engaged in was a literary art form. That belief was compounded out of ego and necessity, I guess, a combination of the two. But I always seriously felt—and, as a matter of fact, I said it in interviews even when I was doing The Spirit—that this was my medium. And I knew then that for the rest of my life this would be my medium. I did not have the dreams that the other artists working with me had, of ‘moving uptown,’ becoming an illustrator or a gallery painter, or those others who said, ‘I’m going to go uptown and be a writer, I’m going to work for The New Yorker one day and escape this ghetto.’ For me, there was no escape."

Eisner was born in New York in 1917, the son of a Jewish immigrant from Austria; his father "actually started life as a painter; he was an artist of sorts," Eisner has said, and the young Will grew up "very interested in art," despite his practical mother’s opposition. At one point, he has said, he was "very excited" about getting into stage design—he drew "very avant-garde stuff"—and the opening pages of his stories with The Spirit often suggest huge, highly stylized stage sets.

Spirit Archives No. 1After high school, he worked in the advertising department of the New York American and began free-lancing as a commercial artist. That led him in 1936 to Wow, an early comic book that was published by a man named John Henle. "He had a big loft," Eisner told John Benson in an interview for Panels, a magazine devoted to the comics, "and in the back he was manufacturing shirts or something like that. And in the front office he was publishing this magazine. He had inherited this clothing factory from his father, but he really wanted to be a publisher." In those years, most comic books were made up of reprinted newspaper strips, but Wow also ran original material, by Eisner and other budding cartoonists (including Bob Kane, later the creator of the Batman). When he worked for Wow, Eisner became one of the first cartoonists who wrote and drew original material for comic books.

When Wow folded, Eisner teamed with its editor, Jerry Iger, to form a shop that would, as Eisner has said, "produce the entire insides of a comic book, and sell it to a publisher who would then publish it." Over the next few years, the Eisner-Iger shop turned out dozens of features, selling at first to foreign publishers and then to domestic comic-book houses like Fiction House and Centaur. In 1986, Kitchen Sink, a comics publisher, collected in a book one of the most highly regarded of the early Eisner features, Hawks of the Seas, a pirate serial. Hawks is, as Eisner has said, "my idea of a Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn movie on paper" (and he clearly had read the N.C. Wyeth-illustrated Treasure Island, too), with just enough energy and flair to lift it a little above mere schoolboy romanticizing. Eisner was by no means an exceptional draftsman in the thirties; but if his work on Hawks is at best a pale reflection of the glossy comic strips by such masters as Harold Foster (Prince Valiant) and Alex Raymond (Flash Gordon), it still looks polished compared with the roughhewn stories produced by most other comic-book artists then.

Eisner recalled more than sixty years later that he and Iger "didn’t get along on the creative side. He had a violent temper, and he accused me of trying to win an art directors’ award." In 1939, Eisner and some of the artists from the Eisner-Iger shop moved on to Quality Comics, where he created many of that line’s features—Blackhawk, for one, with its multinational team of Nazi-fighting fliers, and Uncle Sam, about a super-hero who was, literally, the personification of the United States. Eisner typically wrote and drew the first few stories of a new feature, gradually surrendering it to other artists and writers.

Spirit Archives No. 5It was a time when all comic-book publishers were catering to "the ten-year-old cretin kid," as Eisner put it, and he has recalled his dissatisfaction with writing and drawing such stories. When he went with Quality Comics, it was in part because Quality could give him "a chance to reach out for this adult, older audience I was looking for." With comic books booming, the Register & Tribune Syndicate of Des Moines wanted to get in on the action by distributing a weekly comic-book section to Sunday newspapers, and it had been talking with Quality about producing such a section. Eisner made a deal with the syndicate and E.M. Arnold, the head of Quality, to produce a sixteen-page section with three features: one about a female detective, one about a magician, and an eight-page lead feature that Eisner would write and draw himself—the adventures of a masked crimefighter, The Spirit. The first section was published on June 2, 1940—and with it was born what was to become, within a few years, one of the most dazzling and original comic-book features ever published.

The Spirit lived in Central City, which was, like the Batman’s Gotham and Superman’s Metropolis, a comic-book analogue to New York. He was a vigilante with a secret identity: Denny Colt, a criminologist. Supposedly killed in a fight with a criminal called Dr. Cobra, Colt had been buried in Wildwood Cemetery. He was, however, still alive—a concoction of Dr. Cobra’s had put him in suspended animation—and he emerged from the grave to shock and delight his friend, Police Commissioner Eustace Dolan. In the years that followed, The Spirit pursued criminals from an underground sanctuary in the cemetery.

Within a few weeks of his debut, The Spirit acquired a girlfriend in Ellen, the commissioner’s daughter, and a youthful sidekick, Ebony White—a stereotypical African American who has caused some discomfort over the years to Eisner and his admirers.

"Humor has historically been tied to the mores of the day," Eisner said many years later. "The Yellow Kid [a turn-of-the-century comics character] was predicated on what people thought was funny about the immigrant Irish. When you’re different in a society, you’re funny," and introducing a character like Ebony "was based purely on the fact that he was different and he was funny because of it." Certainly Eisner never treated his black character with the hostility and contempt that make so many stereotypical characters of the forties painful to contemplate today.

However much Eisner may have wanted to reach an adult audience, many of the early Spirit stories bear a strong resemblance to the comic-book stories he had been writing and drawing for children. Some of the garish villains in the early years of The Spirit—among them a psychopathic killer named Dusk, a supernatural killer called "the oldest man in the world," and even Adolf Hitler—would have fit very easily in those stories, and The Spirit himself pursued criminals about as earnestly (and implausibly) as every other comic-book hero.

Eisner didn’t want any kind of costume on The Spirit, but the syndicate did; the mask was a compromise. "After a while," he says, "I tried every device I could think of to remove his mask, because it was getting in the way; I found his believability was being impaired."

Even when the mask was on The Spirit’s face, though, his eyes were visible through it. That hasn’t been true of most other masked comic-book vigilantes. In the slits in the Batman’s mask where eyes should be, there is only blank white—a stylized insistence that the mask really does conceal identity, even from those who have known the undisguised vigilante for years, and who would of course see him in the eyes behind the mask. In such vigilante stories, the mask and the hero’s secret identity are so important that the authors must short-circuit any suggestion that the mask might not be an effective disguise.

By showing The Spirit’s eyes through his mask—and by downplaying the mask in other ways—Eisner thus declared that his hero was different from the costumed competition. And by 1942, The Spirit’s stories were becoming subtly different, too—a little more daring graphically, and with a sharper edge in the writing. But then, less than two years after he originated The Spirit, Eisner was drafted and had to leave his character in others’ hands while he served as a chief warrant officer in the Pentagon.

After Eisner returned to The Spirit in 1945, his stories looked much better; he had matured as a draftsman while he was drawing instructional materials for the army. Eisner’s drawing had a more cartoon-like flavor than before—as he has said, "a rubbery kind of quality," which gave his figures tremendous snap and vitality. As Eisner worked in this more exaggerated and expressive style, one of the most striking changes was in The Spirit’s eyes: his eyes often spoke so eloquently that the mask hardly seemed to be there at all. The Spirit’s mask now made him not a man of mystery, but a harlequin, a player in a comedy. The postwar stories were much lighter in tone than their predecessors, and The Spirit often advanced on his adversaries with tongue planted firmly in cheek.

The Spirit was different after the war because Eisner himself was different. He was, for one thing, more of a businessman; he began producing comic books for industry right after the war, along with the Sunday section. Jules Feiffer, who worked for Eisner after the war—he wrote scripts and did a one-page humorous filler strip, "Clifford," for the Sunday section—has lamented the change. The prewar stories, he said, "had an intensity of vision, and concentration, and love of what you’re doing" that Feiffer found lacking in the postwar stories. But Eisner said that although he returned from his military service a different man, it was not because he was losing interest in The Spirit:

"Before World War II, I was living a very cloistered existence, as most cartoonists do. The work I was pouring out did not come from any real, personal life experience; this was all the residue of the accumulation of Rafael Sabatini, O. Henry, all the short-story writers that I’d been reading. I spent a lot of time reading, I lived within the frame of the art, I had a very narrow social life. I still wonder how I was able to put in the hours I did. I’d start early in the morning and work some days until well past midnight, sometimes till two o’clock in the morning." His taste, he says, ran less to established writers than to the "mystical" and the "oddball"—stories of the sort that were likelier to turn up in cheap pulps than in Collier’s.

During the war—living away from New York for the first time, immersed in a wartime bureaucracy—Eisner "had a chance to see something of real life. Up to that point, most of my life was spent on the drawing board, fabricating experiences that I either borrowed or imagined." Only when he was compelled to enter the military was he, ironically, free at last "to savor life as it was."

So, when Feiffer said that Eisner "didn’t take the strip that seriously" after the war, he was surely correct in one sense, because Eisner had learned that there was more to life than comic books. On the other hand, The Spirit gained immensely from Eisner’s expanded sense of life’s possibilities.

That is not to say that The Spirit’s adventures became more realistic. The femmes fatales The Spirit confronted in the postwar years were really no more plausible than the melodramatic fiends they displaced. And although many postwar stories dealt with politics and municipal corruption in Central City, the city remained a fantasy landscape where gargoyle-like gangsters lurked in cavernous sewers that could as easily have held minotaurs.

Indeed, Eisner’s work continued to reflect a host of influences. Short stories remained a useful source of ideas, especially because of their length; Eisner thought of The Spirit’s adventures as a series of short stories, and he said it was thanks to his reading that "I learned how to produce a story in a fixed space in a short period of time." Sometimes his postwar work echoed short-story writers quite precisely, as in one 1950 Spirit episode that recalls Ring Lardner’s story "Haircut." But his Spirit stories also showed the influence of radio plays like "Suspense," as well as movies (the 1949 elevator story, for example, with its confined setting, may owe something to Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat) and even the Yiddish theaters that Eisner knew as a child, when his father painted stage sets (a 1948 story about a man who could fly combines sadness, sentiment, and mystical feeling in a way that summons up thoughts of Isaac Bashevis Singer).

But the Eisner of the postwar years was no longer in thrall to any such sources, least of all to the lurid pulp fiction that had been a principal inspiration before the war. He was no longer trying to duplicate such stories in comics form; he was, instead, using them, and everything else, simply as raw material. The real subject of his postwar work was not anything he borrowed from his reading, much less any serious commentary on the real world. It was instead what might be called the rhetoric of comic-book stories.

Eisner was at his most impressive on the opening, or "splash," page of each of his stories. That page might be taken up by one large panel, or by a large panel and a few very small ones (as on that 1949 splash page mentioned earlier), or by one of many other possible combinations. It was on his splash pages that Eisner most conspicuously transformed ordinary comic-book practice, in particular by not relying on a standard logo: The Spirit’s name and Eisner’s byline might turn up anywhere on the page, in almost any form—in a newspaper headline, or on a doctor’s eye chart, or plucked out of a witch’s pot. (His syndicate and the newspapers that carried The Spirit "were on my back constantly over the fact that I kept changing the logo," Eisner said at a 1983 convention of comics fans, because that meant they couldn’t use a standard logo to promote the feature.)

Once past those opening pages, most of Eisner’s panels were small. They had to be, if Eisner was to tell a story of much complexity in only seven pages (down from the prewar eight). There were, typically, eight or nine panels to a page, two or three to a row, so that the emphasis was often vertical (not horizontal like a movie screen). Eisner achieved many of his most striking effects not with large and showy drawings but by squeezing as much as possible out of this rather austere format. In a 1947 story, for instance, the panels became rooms in a cutaway of a large house—the action in all the rooms/panels takes place simultaneously, but it leads up to a climactic murder at the bottom of the page. On the second page of the 1949 elevator story, each of the three rows of panels represents a different floor in the building. In three panels for each floor, we follow the story’s principal characters to the elevator, which we see descending in a page-length column at the right.

Because Eisner often used heavy blacks and striking "camera angles" in his postwar stories, some writers invoke film noir in describing them, and it is widely taken for granted, in writings about Eisner, that his stories are the comic-book equivalents of movies. Eisner has spoken of seeing lots of movies; but everybody did, in the thirties and forties, and on the whole, movies seem to have been much less important an influence on Eisner than the short stories he read so avidly. "Of all the media," Eisner said in the Panels interview with John Benson, "print has always been the most attractive to me. … There’s an intimacy in reading that to me transcends motion pictures." In fact, Eisner understood, probably better than any other comic-book creator ever has, how different comics and film really are—in particular, how very differently they handle time.

Traditional easel paintings most often show us a moment in time; past and future action may be implied, in the equilibrium of a pose, but what we see represents, if not an instant, very little more than that. In film, there is, by contrast, usually a continuous flow of time within each scene, and often from scene to scene. The comics fall in between. A panel can represent only a moment, or—and this is most often the case—it can represent a considerably longer span. It takes a certain amount of time for dialogue to be spoken, for instance; and if, in a single panel, we see one character reacting to what another character is doing in the same panel, that panel must represent enough time for both actions to have taken place.

Many cartoonists seem to be less than fully aware of the panel’s demands in regard to time. Their stories may lurch and stumble, or they may fall into a chug-chug rhythm, so that the elapsed time within each of their panels seems about the same. Some of Eisner’s very early Spirit stories are monotonous in that way. Otherwise, no cartoonist has ever handled time more expertly.

Eisner’s best stories from this period have syncopated rhythms. As if he were a jazz musician turned cartoonist, he understood that if he maintained a steady flow in the action, an underlying beat that was never lost, he could take great liberties in spreading or compressing the time taken by individual panels.

Thus, a page of panels in a regular rhythm will suddenly be interrupted by a burst of panels each of which seems to take only a second—and not always the seconds that we might expect to see, either. In the first two panels of a page in a 1949 story, The Spirit comes upon a briefcase that has washed up on the shore. Our point of view is straightforward; the rhythm is regular. In the next five panels, The Spirit is attacked and left unconscious in the surf. The action comes in flashes; it is not confusing, since we can see well enough what is happening—just as The Spirit knows that he is being attacked—but it is fragmented. It is as if we were caught up in some furious activity, just as The Spirit is, and could catch only glimpses, here of The Spirit grasped roughly from behind, there of a man’s body tossing in the surf.

Contrariwise, a panel will stretch time daringly, to the point that if one more word of dialogue were included, or the action seemed to last one second longer, the panel would collapse. In a 1948 story, for instance, we see a thug slugging a truck driver from behind, in what seems like only a moment—but the thug’s dialogue, brief though it is, clearly encompasses two separate thoughts: anger at his victim, followed by the realization that the victim is a truck driver. The suggestion of elapsed time is thus strengthened. In another story, by another cartoonist, this panel might look like a mistake—but in the rhythm of an Eisner story, it is just one more syncopated note; and it carries the narrative forward efficiently, providing information that a less daring and skillful cartoonist would have had to put in two panels.

Inventive design within each panel came naturally with this imaginative approach to time: how much you can show, and how you can show it, depends on when it is supposed to be happening. And the more shallow and melodramatic Eisner’s material, the better, because the more it lent itself to bizarre staging, oblique angles, and chiaroscuro lighting. The more convoluted a plot, the greater the danger that every panel will seem overstuffed with information—and thus the greater the triumph in making every panel "read" clearly. The more routine or outrageous the story (about a megalomaniacal Indian potentate, say, or even Martian invaders), the greater the pleasure in making it a marvel of visual narrative.

Eisner was in those years the comic-book equivalent of Orson Welles: he was the first complete master of a young and heretofore unformed medium. And, like Welles, he devoted his energies not so much to telling compelling stories as to showing us how comely his Cinderella was, now that he had waved his wand over it. We should not regret that Welles did not make something more "serious" than, say, The Lady From Shanghai, an endlessly fascinating film whose tangled script would have been a stupefying bore in anyone else’s hands. If he had, his subject matter could have restrained him from showing us all the tricks in his magician’s bag. Likewise, if Eisner had tried to do more with The Spirit—if he had tried to tell stories with greater moral and emotional weight—he probably would have done less. By concentrating on what is so often dismissed as superficial—as "style" or "technique"—he revealed his medium’s unsuspected capacity for expression.

Even as Eisner became a more accomplished artist, the tides were pulling him away from art and toward commerce. Although he always had assistants on The Spirit—in order to turn out seven pages a week, he needed help with both the writing and the drawing—he had to delegate more and more work as assignments from industry (and later the military) picked up. Finally, in 1951, he stopped drawing The Spirit altogether. The last Spirit section was published in October 1952.

For all the vistas that Eisner’s work opened up for any cartoonists who were bright enough to pay attention, the comic-book industry itself was too rigid in the forties to permit many of his lessons to be put into practice. Eisner’s influence was felt mostly in the work of cartoonists who were employed by him at one time or another, perhaps most in the work of Jack Cole, who introduced even more comic exaggeration into his Plastic Man stories than Eisner put into his Spirit stories. In the fifties, Eisner’s influence receded almost entirely, surviving only in a few unexpected places. Jules Feiffer told John Benson that when he first read The Spirit, "I was astonished with the use of the narrative, with the guy who just walks on in front of the lead page, and starts telling a story. I didn’t know that this was possible. It absolutely boggled my mind, excited me terribly." Feiffer adopted that method in his own long-running weekly comic strip. "Never give up a good thing," he said.

Eisner remained prosperous and busy but largely out of the eye of comics fans until the mid-sixties, when a revival of interest in The Spirit led to the character’s reappearance (mostly in reprints) in comic books. By the mid-seventies, Eisner said, "I had sold my interests in a number of the publishing ventures that I was involved in, and I began to make a decision on what I was going to do with the rest of my life." After "many years expanding the use of comics as a teaching tool, instructional tool, I became aware of the fact, even more so than I had been before, that this medium was capable of more than just two meatheads trashing each other, something more than just joke stuff."

He did not want to return to The Spirit, for reasons he stated at that 1983 convention: "Why do it again? I feel the same way Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—to be presumptuous, putting myself in his company—felt about Sherlock Holmes. I’ve done it. I’ve done it well. As well as I could, anyhow. What’s the point in going back and doing it again?" And so he began work on what became the first of a series of novels and short stories in comics form, many of them depicting the dour Bronx tenement life he knew as a child.

For some of Eisner’s admirers, these frequently grim new stories are heavy going compared with his brilliant postwar Spirit sections, but he has said that his recent work is satisfying—"more so than anything I’ve ever done before." He spent more than a year and a half working on his first book, A Contract with God (published in 1978), "with no client in hand. Up to that point, I rarely did anything without having a prior sale, but here was something that I couldn’t sell before I completed it." He relished the freedom he enjoyed, after his years of working within the tight confines of The Spirit: "It was like a guy being told, ‘You’ve been living in this tiny little cell; now you can go out in the yard and roam.’ Suddenly I had all the space I wanted; I could use four pages for one single sequence, if I wanted to."

In 1987, Eisner published a book-length comics story called The Dreamer, in which an ambitious young cartoonist refuses to let the stars fade from his eyes as he climbs to the top of the heap in the newborn comic-book business. The book is, Eisner said, "semi-autobiographical" (he did not make it completely autobiographical because that would have meant including some "recriminatory" episodes). The handsome, dashing title figure is unquestionably meant to be the young Will Eisner. In addition—even though Eisner said he intended no such resemblance—The Dreamer looks very much like The Spirit.

All that’s missing is the mask.

[Posted June 2003]