I learned on the morning of
Will Eisner may fairly be understood as a colossus in the history of twentieth century American cartooning. It's not much of a stretch to see him standing athwart the century, one foot firmly planted in the conceptual genesis of the comic book medium, the other resolutely striding into the future of the art form.
Although celebrated for creating a mysterious masked and gloved comic book crime-fighter called the Spirit, Eisner's role in the very formation of the medium is consequential. In early 1936, a little over six months after graduating from high school, he contributed to one of the first comic books, Wow!, edited by Jerry Iger. The comic book failed by summer, but in the fall of that year, Eisner and Iger formed a syndicate partnership to produce Sunday features for weekly newspapers and for foreign distribution. At the time, the infant American comic book industry was beginning to realize that it could not exist solely by reprinting newspaper comic strips. Comic books needed more material—material manufactured expressly for the medium. At the Eisner-Iger shop, Eisner revamped their overseas features for comic book pages. To this purpose, Eisner cut up the artwork, panel by panel, and created the new pages by pasting up the old panels in modified configurations, often rewriting dialogue and captions to suit the new arrangement and expanding the original pictures to make them fit by adding more artwork to some of the panels. Although it was ostensibly a purely mechanical operation, this task stimulated Eisner's thinking about page layout, leading him to adopt novel storytelling devices—like the "jump cut," in which the subject seems to move rapidly, almost discontinuously, from one activity to another. This innovative technique was born of the need to leave out a connecting panel because the page wouldn't accommodate as many panels as the strip originally had. Later, when the shop started creating new material for comic book publishers, Eisner would put this experience to use in a much more creative manner, deliberately deploying his resources to produce a variety of specific effects.
The creative genius at EC's Mad, Harvey Kurtzman, believed Eisner was "the greatest" of the early comic book cartoonists. "It was Eisner," Kurtzman wrote, "more than anyone else, who developed the multipage booklet story form that became the grammar of the medium." Comics veteran Gil Kane agrees: "Eisner actually created the first original context for the comics field and gave it a dramatic structure and a way of handling pictures that was different from simply redoing Sunday page strips."
As the art director of the Eisner-Iger shop, Eisner eventually supervised a crew of a dozen or more writers and artists, all producing pages for the ravenous new comic book industry. In guiding their work, he influenced, if he did not outright train, many of the medium's early masters—Jack Kirby, Lou Fine, Bob Powell, Mort Meskin, George Tuska, Klaus Nordling, Nick Viscardi among them—all of whom served on the assembly line of the shop at various times and for stints of varying length.
Half-a-century later, Eisner launched himself again into another new and experimental phase of cartooning. He began producing serious, lengthy stories in book form—the so-called "graphic novel," which he is sometimes given credit for inventing. The term was coined in 1964 by Richard Kyle, who applied it, at first, to comic books generally; by the mid-1970s, the comics industry was using the term to describe "long comic strip narratives," sometimes even volumes merely reprinting comic book stories. Prototypical graphic novels The Adventures of Phoebe Zeit-Geist by Michael O'Donoghue and artist Frank Springer and His Name Is Savage by Archie Goodwin and artist Gil Kane appeared in 1968, albeit neither labeled "graphic novel"; Kyle co-published the first self-proclaimed "graphic novel," Beyond Time and Again by George Metzger in 1976. The origin of both the form and the term is discussed at great length elsewhere in this department in "Defining the Graphic Novel." Be that as it may, Eisner felt he had arrived independently at the "graphic novel," without knowledge of its earlier incarnations; still, the expression and the form were clearly "in the air" when he published his first graphic novel, A Contract with God, in 1978. But even if Eisner didn't invent either the term or the form, he advanced its development more rigorously than any of his much younger compatriots.
In between inaugurating the comic book medium and promoting the graphic novel to maturity, Eisner pioneered in yet another field—educational, or instructional, comics. For this innovative enterprise, he is much less known.
"I consider this a very important part of my career," Eisner told me when we talked in 1998, "because as you know I've always believed that this medium—sequential art—is capable of dealing with subject matter far more broad, far deeper, than the simple stories we have today. But I've also felt that this was a truly great instructional tool. I learned of its value in the military actually, when I was in the Army in World War II. Then I had a chance to spread my wings on something that I firmly believed in—religiously. And the idea of using comics for instructional purposes was so successful that when the war was over, I formed a company called American Visuals to market the idea in the civilian sector."
Eisner's foray into instructional comics
began shortly after he was drafted in May 1942. At the time, he was
already a successful cartoonist with national status. His comic art
shop produced a weekly newspaper comic book supplement for which Eisner
did seven- or eight-page stories of The
Spirit; and he was also doing a daily comic strip version of The Spirit. (Eisner's comic book career and his creation of the Spirit,
one of the medium's iconic figures, is extensively described in a book
of mine, The Art of the Comic
Book, so I won't repeat myself here.) Eisner wound up at Aberdeen
Proving Grounds, a training camp just outside
"I jumped at it, of course," Eisner said, "because it got me out of scut duty, kitchen patrol and so forth."
At just about this time, the military hierarchy in ordnance launched a program of preventive maintenance—"The principle was that by putting oil in your vehicle you prevented wear-and-tear," Eisner elaborated with mocking over-simplification. And one day at a meeting on the role camp newspapers should have in this program, Eisner piped up:
"I said that you can't ordain a preventive procedure. You have to sell it. You can't just say to somebody, Look—you're going to do all this collateral stuff. And I said that comics were a medium that I thought would work to win over the reader, the foot soldier."
Eisner suddenly found himself in
"War is a terrible thing," he went on, "but it does some wonderful things, too. Because of the desperation of the military to get things done, they'll undertake highly experimental things. Really, they had no choice: if I could prove it would work, then they would do it. It gave me a chance to try something which probably under peacetime conditions I could never have sold to anybody."
Comics did a better job of getting the message out than straight text. Cartoon characters pulled the reader in. And the combination of pictures and text also reduced complicated descriptions to a bare minimum. Short stretches of text. Little boxes of type or pictures. The pages Eisner produced could be read by people without much time to spare. To enliven the presentations and to create appeal for readers, Eisner created characters who would appear regularly. Joe Dope was one, an average GI Joe type but somewhat stupider. Sergeant Half Mast was a crusty older soldier—"Sounds like half-assed," Eisner said, "half mast mechanic." For sex appeal (and to remind soldiers what they were fighting for, as Bob Hope might say), he introduced a shapely blonde, Connie Rod, named after a part of an motor—the connecting rod.
After the War, Eisner returned to civilian
life and resumed the production of The
Spirit and related projects, but his military history with instructional
comics soon led him into other ventures. "One day," Eisner
said, "I got a call from a guy at U.S. Steel, who had been a civilian
advisor to the Army during the War, and he said to me, Are you still
doing that instructional stuff? And I said, Yes." Eisner grinned.
"I wasn't, but I was a
For a time, Eisner ran two operations:
the shop that produced The Spirit
and the American Visuals shop. But after a while, he realized he didn't
have time to do both, and he'd come to believe in the future of instructional
comics. The Spirit ceased
with the release of
"I was very proud of this work,"
Eisner said. "And it gets a lot less attention than most of my
other work. For awhile, I was the Number One villain in
"I remember this," Eisner continued, "because every once in a while something happens that reinforces what you're doing and tells you that you're on the right track. Like going down a dark road and finding someone who says, finally, Yes this is the right direction."
At the time Eisner started American Visuals, there were very few (if any) companies producing instructional comics. Before the War, there weren't any. Eisner kept his Army contract for P*S magazine from 1950 until 1972. About then, he sold his interest in his company and in other businesses that he'd become involved in, and he eventually retired to Florida, making trips regularly to New York, where he taught cartooning for nearly 20 years at the School of Visual Arts.
"After I sold my businesses, I
sat around, jingling the coins in my pocket," he grinned, "trying
to decide what I wanted to do. Right about then, I got a call from Stan
Lee, and he said, Are you out of work? And I said, Yes, I'm at liberty.
So he said, Come down and we'll talk. He wanted me to replace him at
Marvel; he wanted to go out to
The first edition (October 1978) of the book didn't call itself a "graphic novel." Nor did Eisner use the expression in describing what he was doing. "I set aside two basic working constrictions that so often inhibit this medium," he wrote in an introduction, "—space and format. Accordingly, each story was written without regard to space, and each was allowed to develop its format from itself, to evolve from the narration."
At last, he was doing what he'd hoped to do when he had
concocted the Spirit almost 40 years before. Commissioned in the fall
of 1939 by Everett M. "Busy" Arnold, a tyro comic book entrepreneur,
to produce a comic book supplement that could be sold to newspapers
for their Sunday editions, Eisner had rebuffed Arnold's suggestion that
he fashion another superhero feature. The cartoonist's resistance flew
in the face of the most obvious of
"I was interested in the short story form," he
told interviewer Tom Heintjes, "and I thought here at last was
an opportunity to work on short stories in comics. I could do the stories
I wanted because I was going to have a more adult audience." For a framework, he decided upon the detective
story, the protagonist of which would be "an adventurer who would
enable me to put him in almost any situation." In conceiving the
Spirit, Eisner discarded at once the notion of a costumed do-gooder,
any sort of long underwear character. He wanted something more realistic,
"a middle-class crime fighter," he joked. "When I decided
upon the Spirit," he said, "I worked from the inside out,
you might say. That is, I thought first of his personality—the
kind of man he was to be, how he would look at problems, how he would
feel about life, the sort of mind he would have." The Spirit would not be deadly serious; he would
have a light-hearted side that would enable him to have fun while he
was getting the job done. And
he would have feelings, too, emotions that sometimes showed. Working
late in his studio one night, Eisner sketched and jotted notes about
his creation. "He had to be on the side of the law,"
he said, "but I believed it would be better if he worked a little
outside of the law. In that way,
he acquires some of the sympathy most of us feel for adventurers who
are absolutely on their own. For
the necessary connection with the regular police, I gave him Commissioner
[Eustace P.] Dolan." Dolan was right out of central casting:
a gruff, pipe-chomping, jut-jawed Irish cop, given to muttering
in his moustache about the many abuses the world and its bureaucracies
inflicted upon him but good-hearted under all the bluster and grumping. For a love interest, Eisner gave Dolan a beautiful
daughter, Ellen, who would, in the natural course of things, fall in
love with the Spirit. Responding to
Although the Spirit is considered an icon in the history of the medium, Eisner's achievement in this creation is not so much in the character as it is in the way he told the stories that engaged the character. Sometimes called "the 'Citizen Kane' of comics," The Spirit was a laboratory for the great turbine of Eisner's creative engine. He developed the "splash page" (the opening illustration of every story) as a way of setting the mood for the ensuing tale. He drenched the illustrations in shadowy black, plunging his stories literally into the noir genre of crime fiction. He experimented extravagantly with camera angles and perspective, with narrative breakdowns and layout—much of it, the desperate maneuvering of his storytelling sense trying to achieve dramatic impact in an allotment of space too miserly for both story and drama. Often he crammed into single panels narrative details that should have been staged over several panels so he could use the remaining space to pace incidents for emotional impact. The stories themselves were usually potboilers, thumping melodramas, but that merely establishes their artistry. Comics critic and historian Michael Barrier, writing in Print (November-December 1988), explained:
"The more melodramatic Eisner's material, the better, because the more it lent itself to bizarre staging, oblique angles, and chiaroscuro lighting. ... The more routine or outrageous the story ... 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 might 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." He had, in fact, revealed the art in telling stories in the visual-verbal mode.
Every story offered another opportunity to explore some capacity of the medium, and Eisner took advantage of them all. Each story is therefore emblematic of his restless innovative imagination that never left him quite content with what he had done. He was always eager to pursue a new idea to completion. This passion led him finally to abandon the Spirit, his most memorable creation. But it also led him, later, to an consuming interest in the graphic novel and what it could accomplish. All along in doing The Spirit, he had felt constrained, hampered, by the space limitations imposed by the seven- and eight-page stories. Now, in the graphic novel form, as he said himself, he could tell his stories without regard to how much space they might need for dramatic emphasis as well as narration.
His first attempt, however, was not a novel: A Contract with God is, rather, a collection of short stories, all set in the 1930s tenements of the Bronx where Eisner grew into adolescence and young manhood, using material Eisner had been mulling over for twenty years. His next work, Life on Another Planet, was science fiction; but with the following effort, A Life Force, Eisner returned to the Jewish milieu of his first endeavor where he was clearly more comfortable. Over the next two decades, he would produce almost two dozen graphic novels, most of them forays into the emotional and cultural ambiance of the Jewish neighborhoods of his childhood and youth. They are all slice-of-life stories, and about many of them, a stark sort of desperation lurks. Such stories, in Eisner's view, are about genuine life experience, and he believed that if the comics form is to advance to literature, it must go beyond superheroics.
"I guess the best example of what I mean," he said to me, "is the short story of the thirties—stories by Ring Lardner and O. Henry. I grew up on them, and they influenced me. They were telling stories with human interaction. That’s the difference of story. What we’re dealing with is life experience. The reason I don’t attract the 14-, 15-, 16-, 17-year old reader is because in my stories, I’m talking about heartbreak. And heartbreak to a 17-year-old is a lot different than heartbreak is to a 40- or 50-year-old. Teenagers haven’t had the life experience; they haven’t been able to feel the things that I expect a reader to feel. Adolescents feel pain. But you don’t learn much from an adolescent predicament. The superhero stories—the cowboy stories—these are not real things. I don’t learn anything from them. As a reader, I want to see something that can give me some life experience."
By 2003, he felt the graphic novel form should move into new areas, and, as usual, he wanted to lead the way. Now 86 years old, Eisner still approached the artform with a young man's fervent imagination. He was, then and always, so eager and vital that it was hard to imagine, when we heard of it later, that he suffered any heart trouble. "One of the things that we haven't really done yet," he told me, "is engage in polemics." And so he produced Fagin the Jew, an attack on anti-Semitism as represented in the Dickens character. Before he'd finished that, he was at work in what would be his last effort, The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Due in the spring of 2005, the book is an expose of the most vile canard of anti-Semitism since the "Blood Libel" (a wholly baseless fiction of medieval times that charged Jews with murdering Christian children at Passover in order to use their blood in matzot): the fabrication that the Jews are engaged in an international conspiracy to take over the world.
In addition to works of fiction, Eisner produced two instructional books, Comic and Sequential Art and Graphic Storytelling. Eisner has received numerous awards since relaunching his cartooning career. Through the 1960s, the National Cartoonists Society honored him repeatedly with its "comic book of the year" awards, then in 1995, he received the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award, and, finally, in 1998, the Reuben for "cartoonist of the year." In 1975, he received the Grand Prize of the City of Angouleme for Lifetime Achievement at the International Salon of Comic Books and, in 2002, the second Lifetime Achievement Award ever given in the 40-year history of the national Foundation for Jewish Culture in New York. And one of the most prestigious awards in the comic book field is "the Eisner."
Among the privileges that my addiction to cartooning has earned me, I count two as distinct honors: getting to know and becoming friends with Milton Caniff and with Will Eisner. My acquaintance with Eisner began, as it has for many, with appreciation of The Spirit. In my case, the appreciation came somewhat late in my enthrallment to comics. I first encountered the Spirit in the back pages of Police Comics where the newspaper supplement stories were being reprinted in the late 1940s, but at the time, I was more enamored of Jack Cole's Plastic Man, the magazine's lead feature, than with the more realistically rendered Spirit. A dozen years later, though, after I'd escaped from the U.S. Navy, I ran across the Spirit again while conjuring up a comic strip that I hoped to sell to a newspaper syndicate. My strip was a mock heroic venture with what I hoped was a comical edge, more in the tradition of Li'l Abner than Steve Canyon. While brooding about it, I'd unearthed my trove of old comic books, including a single issue of Police Comics (no. 96, November 1949) in which The Spirit for November 3, 1946, was reprinted. This time, I fully appreciated Eisner's artistry, and, in that classic manifestation of sincere flattery that infects popular culture generally, I swiped three or four images when I prepared a "presentation book" to sell my strip. One of my scenes employed the highly distinctive oval skylight of the Spirit's residence in Wildwood Cemetery. At the time, I had little compunction about aping these images: most of them were not particularly individualistic (one depicted a man breaking down a door), and cartoonists were well known for swiping each other's pictures. Moreover, the comic book in question was, after all, nearly twenty years old. Who, among the living, would remember it?
That summer, I entered graduate school at New York University, an institution I'd chosen because it would permit me to make the rounds of syndicate offices in the city while I was matriculating there. I left my presentation book at one syndicate after another, in succession, returning after a week to get the verdict and to retrieve the booklet—King, United, and Bell syndicates. No one bought the strip. At King, they were simply not buying anything, they said: they explained that if they bought it, the only way newspapers would pick it up would be to discontinue another King strip, so it seemed pointless to undertake it. At Bell, however, the rejection was accompanied by an unsettling comment. When the factotum there (whose name I've forgotten, if I ever knew it) returned my presentation booklet to me, he asked, casually, if I'd ever seen Will Eisner's Spirit. I knew, of course, what prompted the question. Caught, I did what any culpable criminal would do: I lied. No, heavens, I exclaimed—what was that name again? Who, among the living, would have seen that old comic book?
Some years later, I discovered that Will Eisner was, at the time I dropped off my presentation booklet, president of Bell Syndicate.
When I met Will in the flesh nearly thirty years later, I told him this story, and we both laughed about it. Over the years since then, I have reviewed many of Will's graphic novels, and we ran into each other at comic conventions, but we never had time to talk much. Until I was able to visit him in his studio.
Will's studio is a suite of rooms in a long, low two-story office building on West McNab Road in Tamarc, Florida. One week in February 1998, I was in nearby Boca Raton at the International Museum of Comic Art, scrounging original art for an exhibition I was helping to put together for the Frye Art Museum in Seattle. Several weeks before, when I learned I would be going to Boca Raton, I phoned Will to see if I could visit him while I was in the area. He happily consented, saying he'd take me to lunch and "we'll have a good long talk." At the appointed time, I parked my rented car outside the McNab Road building, entered and went down a corridor to the right, stopped at a door numbered 114, and knocked. (Some years later, he moved to suite 131.)
Will came to the door and, after an exchange of greetings, escorted me down a long hallway through the suite. To my right just as I entered was a small room with a desk and phone and other office equippage; to my left, first, there was a storeroom filled with loaded shelves, then a workroom in which Pete Eisner, Will's brother, was laboring with a photocopier. This room was connected to the next by a sort of window cut in the wall between the two rooms. This second room—which was the third on my left coming down the hall from the entrance to the suite—was where Will worked. Pinned to a large drawing board was the artwork for the cover of his latest production, a graphic novel called A Family Matter; the drawing, a work in progress, was partially colored. The hallway finally emptied into Will's office at the end of the suite; desk, bookshelves laden with books, and a couple chairs for guests.
In the room with his drawing board, we stood for awhile and talked. I asked him if he had ever, as far back as, say, just 1960, imagined that he would be working in the comic book medium again. And after a long apostrophe to his conviction, lifelong, that comics were a legitimate literary form—a conviction he formed within a couple years of starting to work in it—he allowed as how, No, he hadn't imagined he would be doing this now. His present engagement with the form had all begun at a comics convention in New York, where he'd met Denis Kitchen.
"I ran into Denis in 1971 or 1972 at Phil Seulling's comics convention in New York," he told me. "That's a funny story, too. At that time, I was CEO of this company up in Connecticut, and I was sitting in my office—I was a suit!—and my secretary walked in, and she says, There's a phone call out here for you—a Mister Seulling, and he says he has a comics convention. And she said, Were you ever involved in comics? And I said, I used to be a cartoonist. It was like admitting that I once had been a drug addict!" he laughed.
At that convention, he'd seen underground comix for the first time. They were pretty awful, Will said—obscene, even pornographic—but, he went on, he could tell the cartoonists "had something."
Said he: "I realized, My god--these guys are revolutionaries. They're doing with this medium what I always believed it could do. They're doing literature—protest literature, but literature. They did it in their own way, and as always when people are making a revolution, very few of them are thinking about the long range potential. They're doing it to satisfy their own needs. They thought they were being entertaining. They were doing it for the jokes. They were doing it to make a few dollars so they could buy pot or whatever. But they were using comics as literature." At last, he had found cartoonists who shared his conviction about the medium. That discovery led to his doing A Contract with God. That convention encounter also resulted the revival of the Spirit and subsequently to the complete reprinting of the entire oeuvre of The Spirit: Kitchen proposed the deal to Eisner, and Eisner accepted.
One of the mildly frustrating aspects of Eisner's rejuvenated comics career was, to him, that the reprints of The Spirit at first sold better (and were more enthusiastically received by critics) than his graphic novels, his "uptown" material. Describing his mixed emotions about the situation, he once said: "It's like watching your mother-in-law go over a cliff in your new Cadillac."
Standing at his drawing board in his McNab Road studio, Will showed me the roughs for the graphic novel he was working on, sheets of 8 ½ x 11-inch typing paper with pencil sketches on them. Each sheet represented a page in the book. He'd blocked out the panel compositions on each of them with photo blue pencil—very roughly, just skeletal shapes. Then he had sketched over the blue ghostlike figures with a soft-lead black pencil, refining the pictures, adding details and, finally, lettering in the speech balloons. This was the way he constructed his stories, he explained. In other words, the narrative is constructed with picture and word, more-or-less simultaneously, as he goes along. Neither words nor pictures are primary: they serve each other, and the narrative they comprise is developed with the words and pictures in tandem.
He pulled out another sheet of paper and showed it to me. This, he said, was actually the first step in the process. It was a list, a numbered series of events or incidents—15) Beats his wife; 16) Goes broke in Depression; 17) Holds onto his status at the bank; and so on. This was the outline of the story, its plot, and each number represented a page in the story. From this, he would go to thumbnail sketches, blocking out four pages on each sheet of typing paper, each page divided into panels with stick figures to indicate the positioning of the actors and with some cryptic verbiage penciled in. Next, he went to the blue-pencil version. Penciling in black over the blue pencil, he worked out the last of the composition and storytelling challenges. And then he moved to the final artboard, re-creating each page, using the photo-blue-then-penciled pages as a guide. Throughout the creative process, from the first sketchy page to the last, Will refined words and pictures in concert. It was almost exactly what I might have expected to find out: a cartoonist as a creative personality creates by envisioning his work in both visual and verbal terms as he goes along. Words and pictures together are virtually a definition of "cartooning," after all; so naturally one of the world's great cartoonists would work in the fashion Eisner described.
We soon adjourned to his office, where we talked for about an hour until lunchtime. We talked about his method of work and about the future of the comic book field. Will had great ambitions for comic books; but he realized that they must be made to appeal to adults before they can evolve much more. As works of visual art, comic books are at the highest point of their development so far, he believed; but their content—the stories—was still pretty juvenile. And then he told me something surprising: he had recently come to believe that speech balloons are what prevent adults from getting interested in comic books, or graphic novels.
People pick up a book, flip it open, he said, and then, if they see speech balloons, they say, Oh—comic book. And then they put the book down. So Will's scheme for getting comic books out of the juvenile ghetto was, at that time, to eliminate speech balloons.
He admitted at once that this conviction is fraught with disappointment for him: comics are, after all, words and pictures, and speech balloons are the time-honored way of getting the verbiage into the pictures. But he still thought we must find some way to get rid of speech balloons. Partly, his conviction stemmed from the success of his former studio assistant, Jules Feiffer. Feiffer's weekly cartoon for the Village Voice never used speech balloons; the characters' speeches were clusters of words around their heads, sometimes with a tiny straight line pointing from a word cluster to the speaker's head. And Feiffer, Will observed, became the darling of the avant garde set. He became famous. Among adults! Just like a big time newspaper cartoonist. But Eisner, a mere comic book cartoonist, never achieved the kind of acceptance that Feiffer enjoyed, and the reason, he concluded, was that speech balloons floated through his drawings.
At first, it seemed to me rather simple-minded of Eisner to leap from Feiffer's success with a balloon-less comic strip to the view that speech balloons need to be discarded in order to achieve similar success. It looked rather like he was simply trying to imitate his former assistant's most obvious ploy in the naive conviction that words without speech balloons would make all the difference. This analysis, it seemed to me, ignored altogether the fact that Feiffer's cartoons were very sophisticated and directed at a completely different audience than the mainstream American reader.
But then, driving back to Boca Raton later that day, I bethought myself of my first look at Feiffer's cartoon. I was still in college at the time, and a friend who worked in the campus library's reference room pointed out Feiffer's cartoon in the Voice. I remembered that at the time, I had the feeling this was not an ordinary cartoon. That it was somehow more grown-up because the words were not enclosed in speech balloons! In short, I realized that Eisner might very well have a valid point.
Following his discussion of speech balloons, Will showed me the page roughs (black pencils over blue pencils) for another story. In this one, there were no speech balloons. Titled "Last Day in Vietnam," the story was almost entirely autobiographical. When Eisner was still producing the safety maintenance books for the Army, the Army sent him into the field regularly to interview soldiers and discover their problems. I didn't realize he was doing this as recently as the Vietnam War, but he was. While on one of these junkets, he was taken on a tour of the front by a military guide appointed for that purpose. It was the guide's last day in Vietnam, he told Eisner. And then, when they visited a particular installation up front and were attacked by Viet Cong, the guide almost went to pieces: "I'm going to be shot," he said; "I'm going to die on my last day in Vietnam!"
Will's story rehearses all this in dramatic terms. Without speech balloons. And we never see the "Eisner character," the civilian dignitary the guide is ushering around. The Eisner character is, instead, the "camera eye" through which the events are portrayed. The guide looks at the camera (that is, at us, the readers) and talks directly to us. No one else speaks in the story, so the absence of speech balloons as devices connecting speeches to their speakers isn't noticeable. The maneuver, while successful, was clearly too contrived to be repeated in every story, and Eisner did not repeat the artifice again in subsequent works. In these, however, he sometimes inserted straight prose to bridge long gaps in the visual-verbal narrative.
Will wanted me to read another of his stories—a longer one about the upward mobility of Jews in the Bronx in 1930s New York (probably The Name of the Game) —but it was too long, and much as I might want to read it, I didn't want to spend hours in his company silently reading; I'd much rather be asking him questions and listening to his answers. But he prevailed on me to read the Vietnam story. "I'd really like you to read this," he said; "it's only sixteen pages, and I'd like to know what you think of it." So I did. And it's a good story, well-told in an unconventional way. And that's what I told him. I also suggested something about the narrative—an element that seemed to me missing; and he appreciated the comment, asking me, in jest, if I wanted an editor's fee.
At noon, he took me to lunch at a country club nearby. We talked some more. After lunch, we returned to the studio, and I asked him if I could tape our conversation and ask some questions. He agreed, saying I should have had the tape recorder on during the morning, too.
We talked about The New Adventures of the Spirit, a series that was due out soon from Kitchen Sink Press. The series would feature new Spirit stories written and drawn by others: Eisner would have very little to do with the series. He deliberately kept his hands off, he told me. He saw scripts and pages in rough form, but he felt the new creative teams—all stellar creators in the field—should be permitted to do what they want to do.
"Give them creative freedom," he said. "With people like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, I don't have any intention of altering their stories. Yes, I monitor the project to make sure the stories aren't being warped into something strange, like Batman. And I'm very pleased with what I've seen so far."
Denis Kitchen was responsible for this revival of the Spirit, too—just as he had been for the reprintings that began in the late 1970s. He kept asking Eisner if he ever thought of doing any new Spirit stories.
"I said, Yeah, I do—but then I lie down until the feeling goes away," Will laughed.
Besides, he told Kitchen, he was deep into other projects. He wanted to do other kinds of stories with more serious treatment. But Kitchen kept after him until Eisner finally agreed to "license" Kitchen to produce new Spirit stories as he might a movie. "And then he turns around and gets some of the best people in the field to do it for him," Will grinned. Dave Gibbons, Mike Allred, Kurt Busiek, Eddie Campbell, Mark Schultz, Frank Miller. Like that.
"My problem," Will went on, "is that the Spirit's very closely related to me. He's not like a Mickey Mouse character that can be imitated by everybody else. He's identified with me. So I've been fascinated by what I've seen these fellows do. It's something to see these people trying to be me."
Eisner's remarks here about The New Adventures are taken from an interview conducted by Steve Fritz and published in Mania on the Web; but Eisner said pretty much the same things while we were talking. Fritz made another observation worth noting though: he said that, thanks to Kitchen Sink Press, the Spirit might very well continue to be produced and, eventually, outlive its creator. And to that, Eisner responded:
"That's a very fascinating and lovely thought you put into my head. It's a literary dream to think that a character you created is going to live on. It's more than anybody in this field could ever ask for. So I'm very proud of it and very grateful for it."
The New Adventures of the Spirit lasted only eight issues. But Eisner's vintage Spirit stories are still in print. The Spirit is outliving his creator—a literary man's literary dream come true. At the same time, Eisner's unflagging creative spirit will surely continue to inspire all of who work in the cartooning arts.