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Will Eisner

Above and below left, Eisner posed for me in the International Museum of Cartoon Art's "hall of fame" with the original art for the splash page of one of his Spirit stories.

A Museum Tour with Will Eisner (2000)

By Michael Barrier

In December 2000, I tagged along with Phyllis when she made a business trip to Marco Island, on the west coast of Florida. I took advantage of that trip to write to Will Eisner, who was living then in Tamarac, on Florida's east coast, to ask if he and I could get together at the International Museum of Cartoon Art in Boca Raton. Will agreed, and so on December 5 I drove across Fliorida, on the highway known as "Alligator Alley," and got to Boca Raton in time to share a sandwich lunch with Will at the museum's little cafe. I brought along the first two volumes of DC's Spirit Archives, at that time the only volumes published in the series, and Will autographed both books for me.

It is of course through The Spirit that Eisner is best remembered and most admired, for reasons I set out thirty-five years ago in A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics. Writing about his briliant postwar stories with The Spirit, his detective hero whose "costume" consisted of a mask and gloves, I said that Eisner was "pre-eminently a short-story writer who wrote mostly with pictures instead of entirely with words. Probably no other cartoonist has ever made such fluent use of his medium."

Will EisnerWill and I had never met, but we had corresponded occasionally, and I had interviewed him at length by telephone for a piece about his career that was published in Print magazine in 1988; I posted that piece here soon after the site went up in 2003, and you can read it by clocking on this link.

I'd brought along a tape recorder, in the hope of gathering enough new material for another article, or for the book on comic books I was planning to write, but neither article nor book ever materialized, at least not in a form that could accommodate very much of what Will told me that day. What he told me was, of course, as always with Eisner, stimulating and enjoyable—especially as we walked through the museum and looked at the comic art on its walls, some of it by Eisner himself. But our extended conversation was nothing like a full-scale interview of the sort I've published here in the last few years.

What I've done here is very much what I did last year with the Interviews page called "In the 'Kitchen" with Jack Kinney." Rather than try to pull these notes from my tapes into something resembling a formal interview, I'm publishing them with minimal editorial changes, mainly to eliminate discussion of the travails of the now defunct museum. The International Museum of Cartoon Art closed in 2002, and its collection of more than 200,000 pieces of original cartoon art was acquired by the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at Ohio State University in 2008.

Neither have I tried to align Eisner's comments here with those in the numerous earlier interviews, the best of which is probably John Benson's in Panels. If there are repetitions or contradictions of what Eisner said earlier—well, that's just fresh meat for comics scholars. Eisner has already been the subject of biographies by Bob Andelman and Paul Levitz, the latter a large and lavishly illustrated book, and no doubt there will be more.

This year is the centenary of Will Eisner's birth; he was born on March 6, 1917. He died on January 3, 2005.

On to Boca Raton on December 5, 2000, as Will Eisner speaks:

“I became a businessman out of necessity, really, because at that time [the 1930s] the opportunities were not as great as they are today. When comic-book art was selling at five dollars a page, you had to do something. Then I hooked up with [Jerry Iger] the editor of Wow magazine, based on a business idea. I apparently have an instinct for it, because while I was selling artwork to them, I realized that there was a business thing happening. It seemed very logical. I realize now that it didn’t take great genius to see it, it was right there in front of your nose. …

"I called him up—the magazine had folded, Wow had folded, and I was up there in the Bronx, wondering, where am I going to go next. I called Iger and said, ‘Look, you’re out of work, I’m out of work, I’ve got a proposition for you.’ So we met in this little restaurant on 43rd Street. I came down from the Bronx; remember, the subway fare in those days was five cents. In my pocket I had just under [two dollars]. I proposed this idea: ‘Why don’t we start a studio to produce original material? They’re running out of daily strips now [to reprint in early comic books]. They’re going to need original material. … I’ll do the work.’”

When Iger was reluctant, Eisner said he would finance the studio—“That’s how it came to be Eisner and Iger, by the way. We shook hands on the deal.” They planned to rent a room in a building at 4lst Street and Madison Avenue “that was occupied mostly by bookies,” with Eisner paying the rent with five dollars from a commercial art job and as much borrowed from his father. “The check came, and [Iger] let me pick up the check. The check was $1.85; I had ten cents left. As we walked out, he said to me, ‘You know that wasn’t very nice, you didn’t leave a tip.’”

Iger was “very aggressive,” “a bantam rooster of a man. While I would hesitate to go up and see somebody from King Features, he would have no hesitation at all. And he made promises he couldn’t fulfill.”

Eisner and Iger “got along reasonably well, but we 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. ‘We’re selling frankfurters here, get it out.’ I’d go around the shop and stand behind Bob Powell or Lou Fine and say, ‘Change that panel.’ One idea I had, which he argued with me about, but I prevailed and it worked out perfectly, was that the thing to do was to pay a salary, rather than buy free-lance, per page. Because a guy on salary, if I told him to change something, he would not hesitate, but the guy who was getting so much a page would resist.”

He and Iger owned their company 50-50, “and the agreement was that if either of us wanted to leave, we had to sell our stock to the surviving partner, or at least offer it to him first, so he didn’t wind up with a partner he didn’t want. Also, we agreed we wouldn’t raid our studio, which was happening at that time. Our shop was constantly raided for artists by other shops.”

When he and Iger split up, “I needed five artists, I felt, because I was going to do two comic books and The Spirit [as a Sunday newspaper section]. So he let me canvass the other artists, [and] three or four guys agreed to come with me—Lou Fine, Bob Powell, Chuck Mazoujian, Klaus Nordling. The reason they came with me—aside from the fact that I was embarking on a new adventure—was that it was getting them into the newspapers, which they thought would be good for them. Lou never wanted to be a comic-book artist; he was very much like Burne Hogarth, later, who resented the fact that he was a cartoonist and wanted to be an illustrator. Lou was a brilliant, brilliant illustrator. Had absolutely no idea of comedy. His idea of doing something funny was to put a big ass on Ebony [The Spirit's African American sidekick]. But when Lou got a brush in his hand, he was a master.”

Although Eisner plotted some of the Spirit stories published soon after he went in the army [early in World War II], “and occasionally I would come up on leave and go over a story and alter it,” he doesn’t really know which stories he had a hand in. “When [Jules] Feiffer and I get together, we keep constantly assigning to each other the stories we think he did. He swears that he did ‘Ten Minutes,’ I swear I did ‘Ten Minutes.’” [That story was one of three Eisner stories Martin Williams and I chose to reprint in A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics.]

On Feiffer’s comment that Eisner took The Spirit less seriously after the war: “The stuff I did before I went into the army was so widely different from what was being done, so experimental, really. … When I came out in 1945, I was a different man, I was grown up. I had something of a social life in the army—I was out seeing people, interacting with people. Prior to that, between 1936 or 1937, when I got out of high school, [and 1942] I was working day and night. I had no social life. I never left the studio—I was just working, working, working. I was drawing out of the classics, and I was drawing out of short stories that I read. None of the stories I did had any relation to real life. When I got out of the army in 1946, I began doing what I considered real-life stories. … It was the early stuff that brought Feiffer into my studio in the first place.”

“War is a wonderful experience if you’re not getting shot at. I think I really grew up in those four years.”

On the war’s effect on people like Jack Kirby, who served on the front lines: “I suspect, knowing Jack as I did, that a lot of that internal rage was either stimulated or exacerbated by the war. Early on, when he first worked for me back at Eisner and Iger, he was a little bit of a tough kid. He liked being a tough kid—he was another little guy [like Iger].”

In regard to Harvey Kurtzman, whom Eisner said he knew “very well; in later years I spent a lot of time with him,” Will said that Harvey’s family background “wasn’t too different from mine. … Harvey and I never had to talk about our families. [It was] like two Irishmen talking and dropping words that meant something. It doesn’t mean anything to anybody else, but it means something to us. … Harvey was very much like a lot of young Jewish boys out of immigrant families—as a matter of fact, like of lot of American boys out of all [kinds of] immigrant families. As they grow up, they’re eager to be part of the society.

"I confess this now more easily—I would have refused to admit this earlier—but I was embarrassed by my father’s foreign accent. My mother was born on the boat coming over, so she spoke like an American. But my father came over when he was about twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three, something like that, and he had a heavy accent. Although he tried to learn English, very avidly. I remember being embarrassed by that, and I remember being surprised, many years later, when a schoolteacher or somebody I knew who was very American, what I thought was American, said, ‘Your father has such a charming foreign accent.’ I didn’t think it was charming; I wished to hell he hadn’t talked. That may account for Harvey’s [reticence in talking about his family]. I know I never liked to talk about my family in the early days of my life. As late as my eighteenth year, I was very hesitant about talking about my family and where I came from.”

“Feiffer came to the studio as a studio shop kid, to color, do stuff like that. It was only as I got busier and busier, about a year after he was with me in the shop, one day he said, ‘I could write the balloons for you if you want me to.’ I said, ‘Sure, go ahead, try it,’ figuring I’d go over it later. I looked at it and I said, ‘Jeez, this kid can write.’ He added a lot to the thinking; he reinforced my belief that this could be of literary value. … The big difference between us was—we often debated that in the shop—was that he had a very strict idea of what a villain was. I saw the villain as life itself. He would argue with me; he would say, ‘Your villains are too gray, they’re neither black nor white.’”

“Many of the people working in my field—a lot of my students particularly—I had to tear them away from the concept that they were doing a movie on paper. … They were constantly emulating movies. It’s one thing to emulate, it’s another thing to be influenced by.” He wasn’t so much influenced by the movies when he was writing and drawing his early Spirits, but “I recognized that my readers were being influenced by cinema, and therefore their reading rhythm [was influenced by it], just as the reading rhythm today is being dominated by MTV. … The real influence on me is live theater. I used a lot of what I learned during the Depression, in the WPA theater days.”

An example: “In the more recent work, I will use what the old theater used to use, which is a single piece of furniture that describes what’s going on. In The Spirit, I did it, too—I’d have The Spirit coming out a window, and I didn’t do the rest of the building. You knew that it was a building with a brick façade, several stories up. That’s what live theaters did during the Depression. … It’s very effective in comics, particularly because I believe this medium is a participatory medium. When I show you a page, I’m asking you to contribute, between the images [the panels] I’ve shown. Whereas in film, you contribute nothing.”

By this point in my visit, we were walking through the museum's exhibits. During a visit to the museum’s Hall of Fame, Will said that he had never met Carl Barks or had any contact with him.

Although the artwork from the earlier years of The Spirit was not preserved—Will said it was placed between the metal plates of the engraved stories, to keep the plates from being scratched—he kept all the artwork from 1945 on. He has been selling off some pieces, mainly to establish its value for tax purposes. His incentive to do that, he said, was the experience of Selby Kelly, Walt Kelly’s widow—Walt left her his original art and left his money to his children from his first marriage, which resulted in the Internal Revenue Service presenting her with a bill for a million dollars.

As we looked at a 1936 Milton Caniff Terry and the Pirates Sunday page, Will acknowledged that Caniff was “very influential” on his style. “He knew how to handle blacks. And his staging was excellent. … Today a lot of young kids use what I call ‘umbilical balloons,’ where there are three balloons coming out of the sky. It’s very disconcerting, but they seem to be able to understand it.” When I suggested that Caniff's Dragon Lady must have been an influence on his femmes fatales, Will said, in effect, that movie stars like Lauren Bacall were an even greater influence.

Looking at a Chester Gould page, Will said, “He was a man who had tremendous understanding of black and white. … All these men, of this period, understood storytelling. They understood the rhythm of the storytelling, they understood where to stop and when to pick up again.” He was not consciously influenced by Roy Crane, Will said, whereas he actually studied George Herriman’s “Krazy Kat.”

A side note: some of the originals on display in the Hall of Fame, like those by Caniff, Herriman, and Eisner himself, actually worked as exhibition pieces—that is, as artwork that looked at home hung on a wall—in contrast to many of the other comic strips framed elsewhere in the museum.

On the story about his having the opportunity to replace Stan Lee at Marvel: In the early seventies, just after Will had sold his business, he got a call from Lee, who invited him to lunch. Lee told Will then that he really wanted to go to Hollywood, and that to replace him Marvel needed someone who had both a business background and artistic ability. Will fit the bill, Lee said. “I talked with him for a while, and I met his boss, and we chatted around, and I think my last words were ‘Stan, this is a suicide mission.’ … It ended in kind of a tight-lipped conversation with his boss [presumably Martin Goodman]. His boss came in and said, ‘What would you do?’ and I said one of the first things I’d do was treat the artists as you treat them in the literary world: give them royalties. Dead silence—he looked at Stan, Stan looked at him. He must have said to Stan, what kind of guy are you bringing in here? But they ultimately had to do it.”

“The Spirit was never designed to be a superhero. The mask and the gloves and the costume were really to satisfy the requirements of the syndicate. … He was really a walk-on, as far as I’m concerned. My interest was in telling short stories.” The Spirit’s rubberiness in the face of repeated severe beatings was “my answer to Superman.”

Eisner moved to Florida in the middle eighties. His wife, Ann, had just retired, and at her instigation they went to Florida to visit his brother, Julian “Pete” Eisner (who, before he retired, had worked for Will for twenty-five years, “running the office”). He had been to Florida only once before, briefly. His wife was very taken with Florida, and so they wound up moving.

He has a studio in an office building near his home. “I’ve never been able to work at home. I like to get up in the morning, dress, and go to work. I’m pretty disciplined that way.” His brother now runs his office, “handling things like exhibitions.”

Looking at recent comic-book pages on the museum’s walls: “I find [such pages] very hard to read.” He questions the use of two dialogue balloons for a character’s dialogue, “when it doesn’t have any relationship to the movement of the man. It could all have been in the same balloon. I think it was started many years ago by Stan Lee, who felt that people can’t read too much in a balloon, so they break the balloon up into two parts. I object to it strenuously. I think it’s very disconcerting. It stops the flow, and it has a way of relieving the artist from creating characters that would dramatize the action. … It’s beautiful artwork, well rendered … but it doesn’t have any storytelling value.”

On Steve Ditko: “His emphasis is on visual storytelling. You don’t have to read the dialogue to tell what’s going on.”

On Art Spiegelman’s Maus: “The marvelous thing about that is his style of art, which under ordinary circumstances would be regarded as crude, conveyed the impression of having been smuggled out of the concentration camp. … I admitted a couple of months ago to somebody that if I had done that book, it would have been a failure.”

On the strength of some of the newer cartoonists (I had mentioned Chris Ware, and Will mentioned Ben Katchor): “They’re writing about things they know. People ask me why I write about Jews in New York—it’s because of what I know. I can’t do a story on outer-space people.”

When I suggested that Frank Miller, in particular, was still tethered to the superheroes, Will responded: “Keep in mind that when I came into the field, we had no precedent to go by. … I had nobody to follow. … These guys like Chris Ware and Katchor, they’re breaking away from the standard comic-book medium.” (But, I suggested, they’re not self-conscious about doing that, as Miller is.)

“I was fortunate, in that I was operating on a stage that was given to me with virtually no competition. … And the newspaper syndicate—I didn’t get any debate from them, because I was the only authority they had.”

“Bob Kane was very limited in his artistic ability; he was limited both intellectually and artistically. But he developed a great idea, and it survived—largely, in my opinion, because of all the other people that followed him. Jerry Robinson and people like that.”

My notes end on that anticlimactic note—I needed to get back on Alligator Alley and head across the peninsula.

[Posted June 5, 2017]