Inventing Instructional Comics


Paul Levitz’s book, Will Eisner: Champion of the Graphic Novel, just out in December 2015, is about Eisner’s cartooning career as it has impacted the most ambitious literary development in the medium. While the book is largely a scrapbook of Eisnser’s art through the years, it also includes a long discursive biographical essay by Levitz. The essay mentions Eisner’s work in instructional comics but breezes by pretty quickly, scarcely giving it the importance that Eisner himself accorded it. That is wholly understandable: the book is about Eisner and the graphic novel. But for the sake of a record, here is my interview with Eisner about the instructional comics aspect of his long life in comics. It is, perhaps, the most that has ever appeared on this subject, and it appeared, almost exactly as you see it here, in Cartoonist PROfiles No. 131, September 2001.



WILL EISNER MAY FAIRLY BE SEEN as something of a colossus in the history of twentieth century 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.

            Eisner’s role in the creation of the medium is pretty well known.  He contributed in early 1936 to one of the first comic books, Wow!, edited by Jerry Iger.  By the fall of that year, he and Iger had 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 re-formatted their over-seas features for comic book pages, cutting up the artwork and laying out the panels in new configurations— and in the process, hitting on novel ways of storytelling, ways expressly suited to the new medium.  And when the shop started creating fresh material for comic book publishers, Eisner put his newly acquired knowledge to use.

            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.”

            Gil Kane agreed: “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.”  (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, which I shamelessly mention is offered for sale in these parts, just in case you might want to delve more into the subject.)

            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— graphic novels.  We’ll examine some of the implications of this latter-day effort in the next Hindsight.

            In between inaugurating the comic book medium and inventing the graphic novel, Eisner pioneered in yet another field— educational, or instructional, comics. 

            “I consider this a very important part of my career,” Eisner told me when we talked in the spring of 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 supplement for which Eisner did The Spirit; and he was also doing a daily comic strip version of The Spirit. 

            “I dreamed of being a foreign correspondent,” Eisner remembered with a smile, “of getting overseas and working on the military papers or something like that.”

            But the Army sorted out its manpower by IQ test, and at the time, ordnance was in need of people with brains, so Eisner wound up at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, a training camp just outside Baltimore.  While still in the basic training phase of his military career, Eisner was approached by the editors of the camp newspaper, who, hearing that a “well-known cartoonist” was in their midst (the Baltimore Sun was carrying The Spirit), came to recruit him to do cartoons for them.

            “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.  And one day at a meeting that was discussing the role of camp newspapers 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 Washington, D.C., where he was installed as editor of Firepower, an ordnance journal.  He was also involved in the creation of Army Motors, for which he developed a comic strip character, Joe Dope, to demonstrate correct (and incorrect) procedures.  He also produced instructional comic strip material for other maintenance publications.


            “I’m proud of the fact that I produced the first comic strip of an instructional nature that appeared in an official TM (training manual),” Eisner said, “and I had a terrible fight getting it in there because the adjutant general in charge was horrified of comics.  ‘What’s happening to the Army?’ he’d say.  He felt I’d somehow violated the military publishing code— like putting a comic strip in the Bible, say.  ‘What’s it doing here?’ 

            “We were causing a revolution in communication,” Eisner said.  “The language we used was GI language.  For example, the normal Army manual would say, ‘The mechanic should remove all foreign matter from the fly wheel.’  We would say, ‘Clean the crud out of the fly wheel.’

            “War is a terrible thing,” he continued, “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.”

            The articles in Army Motors started out as technical pieces written by experts.

            “We would start with a stack of articles written by engineers about part of the engine and how to maintain it in the field,” Eisner explained.  “I would take an article and break it down, rewrite it in order to reduce it to what was to go into balloons and what was to go into text narrative.  I realized I was good at it because with my limited knowledge, if I understood it, then anyone could understand it.

            “The engineers of course wrote in their own style,” he went on.  “For example, the common struggle we encountered when, say, the engineer would write, The wingnut may be tightened to a certain degree.  It took me awhile to learn that I couldn’t use can instead of may because can meant something totally different to an engineer.  It may be tightened but not necessarily can be.  I learned a lot— my skills centered around my ability to envision the procedures.  What I would do is go past the theoretical and get right to the procedure.  I’d digest the article into steps to be taken.  I would cut through the theoretical stuff and visualize what someone had to do.

            “The way to do it,” he said, “is to work the procedure out in your own mind, how you would do a thing— like how you would tie a shoe lace.  You go through the steps.  Then you edit those steps into the amount of space you have.  One of the problems with comics is that you need a lot of space.  If you are doing words only, you can do the whole thing in a page, or a single paragraph, but it would take two or more pages of comics to do.”

            But comics did a better job of getting the message out than straight text.

            The pages that resulted from this process consisted of a certain amount of type-set text, a technical drawing, and then some cartoon characters and speech balloons elaborating on the information in the text or urging compliance with the procedures outlined therein.  The idea was to make the message— the recommended maintenance procedures— attractive to a reader.  Cartoon characters pulled the reader in. 

            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. 

            Said Eisner: “Remember that images remain in your mind.  When you write a description or a phrase, the reader has to convert that into an image, and that is the thing that remains in his memory.  Images are the things that remain.  We never used photographs.  Just drawings.”

            I said, “And because there is visual interest on each page, the reader is not put off by paragraphs and paragraphs of gray text.   So some GI who doesn’t have time to do a lot of reading, he can take this and read little bits at a time according to what he’s interested in and thinks he needs to know.”

            “Exactly,” Eisner said.  “The amount of text is, proportionately, much less than the amount of text in a manual.  Also, I should point out that wherever we did technical drawings, the perspective is that of the person who might be looking at the machinery.  That’s one of the rules that I set up at the shop.  If you’re going to show a procedure— like the removal of a gasket from a part— the reader must see it exactly as a person who is doing it would see it.  From that angle.  The tendency in technical manuals is always to show it from the technical [blueprint] perspective.  But we would show it from the point of view of the person working on the machinery.”

            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.  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 engine— 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 New York boy, and you don’t let opportunities go by.  You learn that you don’t say, ‘No.’  So I said, ‘Yes,’ and he said, ‘Well, we could use something like that in our employee relations department.’  And then after that, we heard from General Motors, and we did something for them.  So I started the American Visuals Corporation to produce instructional comics of this kind.”

            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.

            “I had to make a decision,” he said.  “I started looking around to see if I could find someone who could continue The Spirit for me.  I couldn’t find anybody who could emulate the style to my satisfaction.  I had Jules Feiffer, who could do some writing.  I tried Wally Wood on the drawing, but that didn’t work out.  He was so totally different.  I learned something then.  I learned that there were certain comics that cannot be continued because they’re so closely associated with the author.  At that time, I tried it, but I finally had to make a decision.  I realized that the future of The Spirit was not that great.  And I believed in the future of instructional comics. 

            “Two things,” he explained.  “First, newsprint was going up in price.  And the price we had to charge for The Spirit newspaper supplement was getting too high.  The thing was only fifteen pages, and we couldn’t sell enough advertising in that number to make it pay.  So I realized that sooner or later, it would have to stop.  I could have done it as a daily strip again, but candidly, it didn’t engage my interest.  Doing a daily strip to me is like trying to conduct a symphony orchestra in a phone booth.  I didn’t get any real satisfaction from it. 

            “I did a daily Spirit for awhile before the War,” he remembered, “ and I did one strip where the whole thing was footprints across a stretch of snow, and subscribing editors would say, ‘What are you trying to do?  There’s no story here,’ they’d say.  That wasn’t for me.  There was no appreciation of the medium.  No understanding of it.

            “Finally,” he finished, “our expansion into instructional comics was just too much for me to do while also doing The Spirit section, so I stopped The Spirit [October 5, 1952].  It’s like any company that decides to drop a division that doesn’t seem to have as much promise as some others.”

            By then, Eisner had also secured an Army contract to produce P*S, “the Preventive Maintenance Magazine,” the post-war incarnation of Army Motors.  It was a 5x7-inch 64-page booklet, every page chock-full of procedural information— text, diagrams, cartoons— with a six-page color comic strip in the center.  The comic strip usually presented in story form a lesson in safety or maintenance or pride of accomplishment. 



            Part of Eisner’s contractual commitment was to make a field trip overseas once a year— either he or a member of his staff.  Out in the field— sometimes in combat zones— with the soldiers who serviced the vehicles and weapons, he would discover what sorts of help and advice mechanics needed.  And there were other consequences, too.

            “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 Europe.  I was being vilified by a bunch of cartoonists who said I was teaching people to kill.  I was a merchant of death.  Actually, I was proud of the fact that I was teaching people how to save their lives.  Once during the Korean War when I was on a field trip to Korea, I remember walking into a shop, and a big mechanic came over to me and shoved his big paw into mine and said, ‘Thank you very much: you saved my ass.’  And he explained how I had done something that nobody had ever explained quite that simply.  He said, ‘I got no time to read them manuals; I’m fightin’ a war here.’ 

            “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 companies producing instructional comics.  Before the War, there weren’t any.

            “There weren’t instructional comics,” he said, “but there were comics used to sell commercial products, for example, Mr. Coffee Nerves, a comic strip character in the Sunday funnies that sold decaffeinated coffee— Postum, I think. [Right—RCH.] Strips that were specialized as advertising vehicles.  But they weren’t procedural. 

            “And after the War,” he said, “there  were a bunch of comics done on military courtesy, discipline, inspiration— that sort of thing.  Instructional comics fall into two areas.  One is what I call attitude conditioning; and the other is instructional, primarily procedural.  How to do something.  Al Harvey produced some on military courtesy.  Then they used comics sometimes as propaganda:  they’d fly out and drop them on the enemy.  That was another category.  I was concerned purely with comics as an instructional tool.

            “But we did some of the other kinds, too,” he said.  “At American Visuals, we did a book for General Motors explaining the changes in the Social Security law.  And we did some attitude comics, too.  Another time for General Motors, I got Feiffer to do one on What Makes the Boss Tick.  They turned it down.  The salesman came in at the time and said, ‘You’re running a soup kitchen here for all your old comic friends.’  Then about two months later, Jules hit it with the Village Voice.  And the salesman said, ‘Hey— what happened to that guy?’”  Eisner laughed.

            Producing instructional comics is complicated by more than the purely technical nature of the subject matter.

            “The marketing of an industrial or instructional comic is very difficult,” Eisner said.  “There’s a huge gap between the proposal of a project and the sale and then the execution of it.  And you need enough financing to pay salaries and keep the office going while all this comes in.  Financially it was profitable, but it was very hard to manage it.”

            As I listened to him outline the problems, I saw that the marketing effort was three-fold:  You have to find a manufacturer or supplier whose product or service could be improved with this kind of treatment; not everything would lend itself to instructional comics.  Then you have to figure out how to do it, how to treat the product or service so it will be better or more salable.  And then you have to sell the manufacturer on it.

            “Selling is very hard,” Eisner said.  “Very few companies can afford to do instructional comics.  What’s more, the attitude generally is, ‘This material is for idiots.’  The field is there.  But it’s a hard field to sell into because there is no structured marketplace for it.  You have to go to the industrial companies and convince them that they need it.

            “One of the hardest things I found in the selling of this,” he said, “is that you’d come to the manufacturer of a item and you’d say, ‘Really, you should include with this machinery a better manual than you have here.  You have only a skimpy one.’  But the manufacturer says, ‘I don’t know that I need it:  after they’ve bought the thing, what concern is it for me?  What difference does it make if it’s a good manual or a bad manual?’

            “You have to convince them to spend more money to do this.  A lot of manufacturers just do a typewritten sheet; why spend a fortune doing a special illustrated manual?”

            I said, “And they’re shortsighted because they’re not seeing the next thing they might produce that some of the same customers might buy if they had faith in the company, if they liked what had happened to them before.”

            “That’s the problem,” Eisner said.  “I did succeed in selling  a South American company because the Germans were outselling them simply because they had better manuals.  And they could understand that.  They finally zeroed in on what was needed.  We did the manual for them.

            “Usually, it took six to eight months to consummate a sale,” Eisner said.  “First of all, we had to make a dummy sufficiently comprehensive so that the manufacturer would understand what we wanted to do.  In order to get them to consider a dummy, it took a couple months of selling, convincing somebody.  In a large company, the person in charge of manufacturing isn’t very often the same fellow whose job is to produce the literature that comes with the item.  Sometimes, it falls into the hands of a public relations director; sometimes, who knows?  Most manufacturers don’t have a structured area for it. 

            “So by the time you finally get a contract to produce it,” he went on, “the price that you have to charge has to be enough to pay for months of development, wages for everyone, salesmen and so forth.  That was one of the biggest problems we had.  We’d have a staff of people, and we’d have to pay them while we waited for the contract to come in.  I had a staff of about eight salesmen at the time on the theory that if you have contracts in the hopper, you’d get them back enough to pay for everything.  But it wasn’t all that rewarding.  The dollars look very big in the gross, but when we netted it out, we found that we spent an awful lot of money in that period paying salesmen advances against commissions and salaries of an art director while we waited.

            “We’d do well for awhile, then we’d run a cropper for awhile,” he said.  “We had contracts with oil companies and others.  We did service manuals.  All sorts of companies.  But there is no real long-range feedback on anything.  It’s not like a magazine where the readers are voting on it every day.  The guy working for General Motors has no voice in what happens next: he gets the manual and he may like it, and he may tell his supervisor.  Not often.  I don’t mean to discourage people from going into this thing; but those are the realities.”

            To juggle all these demands as well as to exploit the possibilities, Eisner branched out, acquiring other companies in related enterprises.

            “American Visuals began growing very rapidly,” he said, “and we discovered that there was a market for employee relations reading material.  So we began selling to that market, and we were getting very successful.  What we did— instead of publishing a booklet and then going out and trying to sell it, we installed in the shop a couple of small multilith presses, and we printed maybe a hundred copies of a booklet.  And then we visited a hundred companies and took orders.  And then printed a hundred thousand, three hundred thousand— whatever was necessary.

            “A competitive company, Koster Dana Corporation, was publishing what they thought would be a good thing,” he said, “but then very often they’d wind up with a large inventory of booklets they couldn’t sell.  So we were kind of a gadfly, pressing hard on their heels.  The president came to me through my salesmen— we had a lot of clients— to talk to me about merging.  So we negotiated, and we decided that we’d merge.  And I was the largest stock holder so I became president.  I didn’t have total control because it was a publicly held company; but I had a lot of muscle. 

            “Subsequently,” he continued, “because we were involved in newspaper-like stuff, it made sense to acquire a newspaper feature syndicate, and that’s how I became president of Bell-McClure.  I was there a year or two.  And then the stockholders wanted to boom the stock; they weren’t interested in any of our projects.  And I couldn’t see it.  I was too young to die, and two old to waste my time.  So I bought my way out— sold my stock.  And continued American Visuals Corporation.”

            Eisner kept his Army contract for P*S magazine from 1950 until 1972.

            “By then I’d acquired a company producing inservice training material for teachers, and we were selling to schools,” he said.  “About 1972 or thereabouts, I had an opportunity to sell my stock in the company, and so I did.  Sold out the whole business.  Then 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 California. 

            “At that time, Marvel was hoping to open a Hollywood division, and Stan was in love with movies.  But he told me, ‘They won’t let me go until I can replace myself here, and you’re the only guy who has any business experience as well as artistic ability.’ 

            “We had a long lunch.  And that was the end.  I thanked him very much.  And we were walking out to the elevator, and he said, ‘Why aren’t you interested?’  I said, ‘I think it’s a suicide mission.’  Really, it wasn’t for me.  I was in good shape financially.  And in 1974, I began A Contract with God.

            I said, “By then, you’d run into Denis Kitchen” (then publisher of underground and alternative comic materials).

            “Yes,” Eisner said.  “I ran into Denis Kitchen in 1971 or 1972 at Phil Seulling’s comics convention in New York.  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. (Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent and the creation of the Comics Code Authority were still fairly fresh in the memories of most citizens then.)

            Suelling wanted Eisner to attend his comics convention.  Eisner agreed, and when he showed up, it was a revelation.

            “I came down there,” he said, “and I saw all these kids collecting comics— fat little kids with acne, fat old guys— and they wanted to talk about the Spirit.  And I thought the Spirit was dead.  I had nailed his coffin shut years ago.  Who the hell would be interested?  I ran into Art Spiegelman and a couple of other underground guys.  And I met Denis Kitchen, and he asked me if he could publish a couple of Spirit stories in his underground magazine.  And I said, ‘Tell me about the underground.’  He had a straggly moustache; all these guys had long hair.  And they all smelled of some kind of aromatic cigarette.  I don’t think Denis did. 

            “Anyway, after I left that meeting and was coming back to Connecticut on the train,” he continued, “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.  It was one of those things that happens that reaffirms an underlying nagging belief that you have.  So I realized that this was still a worthwhile medium.  So I started doing A Contract with God.”

            A Contract with God was Eisner’s first comics effort in a fictional mode since abandoning the Spirit twenty years before.  Eventually, the book came to be called a “graphic novel,” and it ushered in a new era in comic book publishing. 

            When next we meet at Harv’s Hindsight, we’ll explore the prospects and the problems that Eisner saw in the future of the medium, a future that he was largely instrumental in bringing into being.


Return to Harv's Hindsights