Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Will Eisner: The Spirit of Comics

    Words: Christopher Irving . Photo Illustration: Seth Kushner

When Will Eisner spoke on the comics page, it was in a language that was distinctly no one else’s but his own. What Jack Kirby did with visual power, Will did for the art form and language of comics, bringing them on par with film and pushing (sometimes gently, others with force) for the medium to go beyond it’s juvenile beginnings and grow into an actual –

    Not bad for a kid who grew up poor in the Depression, a kid who grew into a self-made young man who managed to reinvent himself as an older man.

    When comic books started in the ‘30s, they were disposable commodities, junk cheaply printed between two covers and published by an army of former racketeers, mobsters, and smut publishers. They were a quick and easy buck with no quality check, maybe even on a lower rung than the “pulp” magazines also littering the newsstands.
    Enter Will Eisner, then known as Bill. Like a lot of kids starting in this ragtag new industry, Will’s parents were immigrant Jews (his mother having literally been born on the boat), and he’d done had two usual experiences of his generation – he’d hawked newspapers on a street corner to support his family, and attended the famous DeWitt Clinton High School.
    It’s 1936, and Eisner and former classmate Robert Kahn catch up, where Kahn suggests Will sell cartoons like he had, to a comics magazine, Wow! What a Magazine! It’s editor, Jerry Iger, published out of a shirt factory (the owner, like dozens others, decided to venture in publishing). Not long after, Kahn would change his name to “Bob Kane” and apparently create the Batman for National Comics.
    But that’s another story…
    Bill arrives, but Iger is flustered, on his phone with the printer who’s experiencing a hang-up printing the new Wow! Bill tags along with Iger to the ersatz printer, sees the problem, and fixes it in a jiffy.
    Suddenly, portfolio unopened, Eisner has an offer to assistant edit Wow!, but he turns it down to just make comic stories for the magazine instead. Like many comics rags at the time, Wow! didn’t make it beyond a fourth issue, and Iger was out of a job, with Eisner out of a freelance gig. The industrious, diverse, and enterprising Eisner borrowed money from his father to start a new business that would cater to the burgeoning comic book industry.
     “When Wow magazine died, two issues after I started with it, I formed a company called Eisner and Iger, which I convinced the former editor of the defunct Wow magazine to come in as a partner, and we would produce contents for comic book publishers coming into the field,” Will explained in 1997. “One of the things we did was daily strips for small newspapers, and so forth. What was happening at that time is that the pulp magazines were dying, and the publishers who were publishing them were looking around for other things to publish within that genre, and that was how we got them interested in comic books.”
    At first, it was just Will pushing a pencil and snapping a brush to the tune of countless nom de plumes, but eventually, they gained a small staff that included two future comics superstars: Eisner’s old friend Bob Kane, and a very young Jack Kirby. They packaged material for any publisher who’d pay, from Centaur Funnies to Quality Comics, creating new characters of all flavors.

    Eisner and Iger sold work to fledgling comic book company Fox Comics, owned by shylock-y publisher Victor Fox, who may have been the first competitor of National Comics to recognize the marketability of their debut superhero, Superman in 1939. Fox had Eisner create a blatant knock-off of Superman, called Wonder Man, and was soon sued by National.
    “We produced it for him, and then he was sued by the Superman people,” Eisner recalled. “I recall, at that time, that he owed us quite a bit of money. We were in a terrible bind because he refused to pay the money unless I testified in court that it was my idea, and that he had nothing to do with it and just didn’t know.”
    In court, Eisner produced Fox’s original notes ordering a ready-made Superman, and testified against Fox, losing the $3,000 owed them.
    But the kicker is here: it’s not that Wonder Man was only a blatant imitation of Superman: he was a better-made strip. Superman artist Joe Shuster’s rough cartoon style was no match for Eisner’s slick line work, and National may have recognized that just as much (if not more) than any infringement.
    When Eisner and Iger lost Fox, Fox lost access to an impressive stable of artists (that included the illustrative Lou Fine, but also Bob Powell, George Tuska, and Nick Cardy). in exchange for his own bullpen. The Fox comics quickly went from some of the more beautiful comics on the stands, to some of the crappiest.

    After Fox dried up, Universal Phoenix started working for publisher Fiction House. Here, Eisner created Hawks of the Seas, a pirate strip, that fittingly made its way overseas. A rejiggering of Eisner’s "The Flame" strip from Wow!, Hawks is Eisner’s first regularly-drawn strip, and his evolution as a storyteller and draftsman can be traced from the first to last story, as shots become more varied and less static, with the panels zooming in on the action, cropping figures in dynamic ways. Hawks is still amateurish compared to Eisner’s later work, but arguably the moment where he went from a talented cartoonist to a dynamic one.
    Like his seafaring hero, Eisner would soon move off to another port, one that would define the first stage of his career.

    In 1939, Will Eisner was put (in his words) in “the catbird seat”, when Quality Comics publisher “Busy” Arnold and the Des Moines Register and Tribune Syndicate approached Will about creating a comics insert for Sunday newspapers. Eisner said yes. His sensibilities were already advanced beyond the masked “Mysteryman” so newly rampant in the young medium of comic books, and he found an interesting compromise to his publisher‘s demand for a mysterman: Garb his crime fighter, Denny Colt, in a mask and gloves and call him The Spirit.
    “I’m sorry I did the mask,” Eisner admitted in that first interview. “It got in my way over the years, it didn’t help the story, and interfered with what I considered the reality when you draw a character walking down the subway wearing a mask and a blue suit, and being ignored or accepted by the people in the subway seemed a little far-fetched.”
    The Spirit was unlike the dominantly rich, WASP-ish mystery men rampant in comics at the time…there was something vaguely middle-class, meat and potatoes about Denny Colt.
    “Eisner’s [characters] were identifiable by that look of just having got off the boat,” Jules Fieffer wrote in The Great Comic Book Heroes. “The Spirit reeked of lower middle-class; his nose may have turned up, but we all knew he was Jewish.”
    Comic books were considered, by many, to be the red-headed stepchild of comic strips: few artists and writers ever aspired to be in comic books, they just used them as a stepping stone towards the strips. As a result, many cartoonists in the Golden Age were hardly in their twenties, all dreaming of having their own “daily.” While comics were not only a venue for the inexperienced, many Jewish creators found themselves doing comic books due to discrimination; due to this, many of the early Golden Age creators changed their Jewish surnames to something “more American”.
    At a time where it wasn’t fashionable to be Jewish, Eisner was.

    The Spirit quickly evolved from the masked crime fighter in action-driven stories, to eventually becoming the catalyst in other characters’ stories, sometimes walking on for a mere panel or two, yet still affecting the lives of antagonist and protagonist alike. Eisner never lost sight of the “cartooning” aspect of comics, and emphasized the characters’ physical drama and body language to an almost melodramatic yet very real expressionism: the Spirit’s punches caused thugs to fly up several feet in the air, their legs ramrod straight and bodies contorted with the force of his fist; every character had a distinct posture, with Dolan smoking his pipe, head thrust out like a bulldog, or Ellen went after a lovelorn femme fatale with her fists clenched by her sides and feet stepping forward determinedly.

    Even the surroundings went beyond set pieces and became characters unto themselves: logos became immersed in architecture or pieces of paper blowing in the wind, rain fell in thick sheets, buildings swayed like living things, and shadows wrapped around and dramatically embraced their darkness around everything.
    What helped make The Spirit work, aside from the talents of Eisner and his staff, was in the creation of a wide range of supporting cast members. Whether it was one of the countless femme fatales vying for Colt’s attentions that Sunday, or Spirit’s sidekick Ebony White or Commissioner Dolan, one can see where Eisner and company could easily shift over to one of the countless cast members from story to story. The Spirit wasn’t so much the story of Denny Colt, officially deceased criminologist back from the dead to fight crime, but the story of how The Spirit’s existence affected the main characters in the story. The Spirit himself evolved beyond a mere mystery man and into a driving narrative force.
    The regrettable facemask became grafted onto the Spirit’s face, conforming to the ridges of his brow; whether he was surprised, shocked, or angry, it became his trademark. Eisner and his crew embraced the absurdity of The Spirit and his world and, in doing so, were able to give the contrasting drama a greater punch.

“I was merely trying to develop or expand the human realistic quality of the Spirit for the most part,” Eisner pointed out. “I was dealing in realism. The Spirit himself, as a super hero character was not terribly important to me. Many people don’t understand that The Spirit character was a peg on which to hang the whole thing.”
    The “Spirit Shop” produced a comic book story so far ahead of what was being done, that it almost seems to have transcended the comic book medium of the 1940’s. Eisner’s shop seemed more akin to a movie studio, with Will Eisner the director, guiding his crew to produce an eight-page film.
    Stories didn’t always center on The Spirit himself: in some instances, he was a face on a poster, or just walking through a few panels. The Spirit was more about the world of Central City and its inhabitants, be they down-on-their-luck hoods or men reclaiming the ability to fly.

    When World War II came, Eisner was recruited and off to contribute to the war effort, taking him away from The Spirit. During Eisner‘s time in the Army, The Spirit was ghosted by the likes of Lou Fine, Jack Cole, Manly Wade Wellman, and William Woolfolk. It went from being an exceptional and unique comic strip to yet another generic mysteryman’s adventures. Fine, as admirable and masterful an illustrator as he was, couldn’t grasp the expressionistic side of cartooning that was so integral to the strip. Eisner once said that, after asking Fine to make a shoe more expressive, all Fine could conjure up were longer laces.

    Eisner continued to do comics during his service: instructional ones for Army Motors Magazine, starring his character Joe Dope. Joe Dope was Eisner’s preventive maintenance educational tool: a buck-toothed soldier who always slacked in the maintenance of his equipment. What started as a preventive maintenance poster mascot soon grew into a series of short educational strips, complete with a regular supporting cast.
    Eisner returned to civilian life, and The Spirit, in 1945. The Spirit continued his fight on crime until 1952, when Will Eisner left the mainstream comic book industry “proper” to pursue packaging educational comic book material, as well as editing PS Magazine for the Army.

    Comics were on the way down, thanks to shrinking circulations and a society becoming more and more opposed to them. Maybe it’s best that Will Eisner did leave when he did: the market was becoming too restrictive for the experimentation that was his trademark. Like Gerhard Schnoebbels, a Spirit character who’d had his ability to fly beat out of him at a young age, Will Eisner was now a little bit more grounded.

    In the meantime, the outside world had been reinvigorated towards comic books, due to a nostalgia kick that erupted out of the Adam West Batman TV show. Jules Fieffer, formerly of The Spirit staff and now an accomplished cartoonist, had written an article about comic books in a 1965 issue of Playboy, where he made fond mention of The Spirit. That article later became the basis for The Great Comic Book Heroes, a collection of early comic books bookended by Jules’ insightful essays. The last story in the batch was Will’s :”The Spirit in Damascus” from 1941, a chance for Feiffer to call his friend and mentor out from obscurity.
    Meanwhile, the climate in the comics industry was being revolutionized by the Underground cartoonists like Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman, who brought comics to an advanced level with their daringness to tackle adult subject matter, and their use of comic books as an expressive medium (as opposed to solely narrative juvenile entertainment). The time was right for Eisner to resurface in 1972, where he attended his first convention, held by Phil Seuling in New York.

    By 1975, Eisner once again dedicated himself to comics, beginning work on A Contract With God, which would was widely considered the first ever Graphic Novel upon publication in 1978. Set in a Bronx tenement in the 1930s, Contract features four stories, each one following the human drama of a tenant. Contract set a precedent for the rest of Will’s career, as well as the art of comic books. Rather than a shoddy paperback collection of juvenilia, Contract was an adult novel in the graphic language of a comic book, and entirely self-contained.
    In many of Eisner’s graphic novels over the years, from Dropsie Avenue to The Dreamer, he presented pieces of his life during the Great Depression, not just as an artist, but also as a Jewish man raised in an ethnic neighborhood. Eisner’s stories follow the triumphs of the “little man”, the underdog…his protagonist rarely letting poverty or social class get in the way of a successful life.

    The Dreamer, a highly autobiographical graphic novel, tells Will’s life through his alter ego of Billy Eyron. The Dreamer covers the early days of his career packaging stories with partner Jerry Iger, as well as the Wonderman lawsuit with Victor Fox (all dressed in the guise of Eisner-drawn ciphers). Eisner’s vision/ remembrance of The Golden Age of comic books is a romantic, yet lonely, one. The parallel between Hawks looking off of the dock, accepting of his solitary pirate lifestyle, and Billy Eyron staring out the window of his studio late into the night are testimony to just how escapist much of Eisner’s early work was for him.
    Will also eschewed typical panel borders for loose, dreamy bubbles with characters on a stage, rather than actors in a frozen film still. Where the focus on his earlier work was viewed through the environment, his later work zeroed in on the characters and their personal drama while trapped in that environment.
    In his first career phase in comics, Eisner defined the medium with sophisticated storytelling techniques and character that were on par with film; in his later phase, he redefined comic books from the ground up, injecting a sophistication that didn’t require panel borders to contain its energy.

    At conventions, Will Eisner’s presence was both humbling and comforting. Seeing Will every summer at San Diego was like visiting your favorite Great Uncle once every year (he didn’t act old enough to be a grandfather, and was too dignified to only be a pal). During the Eisner Awards, this octogenarian would stand for the entire ceremony, robust and energetic as the twenty-something winning their first award. Despite all of the work that Eisner had accomplished, the various books teaching and analyzing the sequential arts, or his defining of the medium through a cinematic lens…he had this ability to treat fans and pros alike as equals. He was never condescending, or authoritative, but always willing to teach.
    When he died on January 3, 2005 the world noticed: CNN, The Washington Post, and other major news outlets all carried stories, but none of them captured more than the basics of Will Eisner. Will Eisner was more than just a pioneer of comics, more than the father of the graphic novel. By presenting his life in an idealized sequential world, Will has not only preserved history (comics or otherwise), but also created the underpinnings of a legend. The lines between fiction and nostalgic fancy blur, and will continue to do so as the next generation of comics fans and professionals hear stories of The Spirit of Comics. He taught us how to think outside the panel and the juvenile content of early comics.
    Like his mystery man, The Spirit, Will Eisner could walk through so many of our lives in the course of one panel, and change them irrevocably and forever.
     “I don’t like to go back,” he once admitted. “I’m constantly in a forward momentum, looking to explore...I just don’t have time to think about, or wishing I could go back to do something I’ve done before.”

Learn more about Will Eisner at willeisner.com