A CONVERSATION WITH WILL EISNER (April 15, 2017)
The State of the Art and Other Thoughts
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."
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 Hindsights in "Defining the Graphic Novel" (January 2004). 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.
A colossus, as I said.
Eisner is the subject of four other articles in Harv’s Hindsights—two in December 2015, one in November 2011, and an affectionate appreciation (obituary) in January 2005.
Much of the content of these articles was derived from several conversations I had with Eisner at various times and in various places. The first of them took place February 13, 1998 in his studio in Tamarc, Florida. I was in Florida on another errand—rounding up original art for a comics/cartoon exhibit at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle; and to that purpose, I had toured the vaults of the International Museum of Cartoon Art at Boca Raton, where I’d also heard a presentation by Jules Feiffer. After the presentation, several of us had all gone to dinner together: Mort Walker and his wife Kathy, Eisner and his wife Ann, Jules Feiffer, Morris Weiss, who I ran into, and another couple whose names I never got. The next day, I took Eisner up on his invitation to visit him at his studio in Tamarc.
The studio is in a long, low two-story office building, number 114 on the door, and when I knocked, Will opened the door and escorted me down a hallway through the suite of rooms.
To my right just as I entered was a small office with a desk and phone and whatnot; to my left, first, there was a storeroom filled with loaded shelves, then a workroom in which Pete Eisner, Will’s brother, was laboring over something (I think he was making photocopies of some artwork). This room was open to the next through 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. There was a large drawing board, and on it, the cover of his latest production, a book called A Family Matter; he was coloring the cover drawing. The hallway finally emptied into another office at the end of the suite; this was Will’s office. Desk, bookshelves laden with books, and a couple chairs for guests.
We stood for awhile in the room with his drawing board. 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 work at it in the late 1930s--he allowed as how, No, he hadn’t imagined he would be doing this now.
We soon adjourned to his office, where we talked about the new adventures of the Spirit and his method of work and about the future of the comic book field.
The New Adventures of the Spirit is a series coming out from Kitchen Sink Press sometime this year, but Eisner has very little to do with it. He’s deliberately kept his hands off. He sees the scripts and the pages in rough form, but he feels the writers and artists--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 intentions of altering their stories. Yes, I monitored the project to make sure the stories weren’t being warped into something strange, like Batman. And I have to admit, I’m very pleased with what I’ve seen so far.”
Denis Kitchen was the inspiration for the new series. 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,” Eisner laughed.
Eisner was deep into other projects, he told Kitchen. 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,” Eisner grinned.
Dave Gibbons, Mike Allred, Kurt Busiek, Eddie Campbell, Mark Schultz, Frank Miller. Like that.
“My problem,” he 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.”
The direct quotes in the foregoing are taken from an interview with Eisner conducted by Steve Fritz and published in Mania on the Internet; but Eisner said pretty much the same things while we were talking. Fritz made an observation worth noting here: 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.”
A literary man’s literary dream come true, no doubt.
Eisner has great ambitions for comic books--has had all his life; but he knows 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 believes; but their content--the stories--is still pretty juvenile. And then he told me something surprising: he believes that speech balloons are what prevent adults from getting interested in comic books (or “graphic novels”).
People pick up a book, flip it open, and then, he said, if they see speech balloons, they say, Oh--comic book. And then they put the book down. So Eisner’s suggestion for getting comic books out of the juvenile ghetto is to eliminate speech balloons.
Eisner 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 thinks we must find some way to get rid of speech balloons. Partly, his conviction stems from the success of his former studio assistant. Jules Feiffer’s weekly cartoon for the Village Voice never uses speech balloons; the characters’ speeches are clusters of words around their heads, sometimes with a tiny straight line pointing from words to speaker’s head. And Feiffer became the darling of the avant garde set. He became famous. Among adults!
Driving back to Boca Raton after talking with Eisner, I thought about his speech balloon idea. And then I remembered my first introduction to 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 --now that I was thinking of it again--that 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 was probably dead right. And it wouldn’t be the first time. Here’s all of that story and others in my transcript of part of our conversation that day in his studio in Florida. I was there most of the day, and we went to lunch. Before lunch, we just sat in Will’s office and talked; I didn’t turn my tape recorder on until we returned after lunch. Eisner remarked then that I should have had the machine turned on all morning; as usual, he was dead right. I don’t know what I was thinking. The transcript that follows is fairly “raw”—only lightly edited and still laced with sentence fragments and half-thoughts and false starts, as close a look into the mind of Eisner as we’re likely to get at this stage
Harvey: You alluded a couple of times to this, but we haven’t talked about it in much detail, and that’s --let’s call this segment of the conversation, The Future of Comics, and you have alluded to the need for content in comics, could you elaborate on what you mean by content?
Eisner: What I meant was that what is happening is that the medium, the comic book medium, has lost its novelty. It’s no longer a novel medium. Comic books have been around for 50, 60, 70 years--as comic books they’ve been around for 60 years--and it’s no longer enough for it to be demonstrating high action, terrific artwork and characters flashing all over the place. There has to be content, or story. Comic books have to tell something. I equate that with typeset. If you get a book, and you set it in Old English type--or some very unusual type style--it’s not enough to sell the book. You have to say something with it. To me, comics is a language, it’s always been a language. The art within that language is an art form. It’s sequential art, which is art, as I call it, art that’s arranged in a sequence to tell a story. That’s the core of the medium. But it is nevertheless a storytelling or message or communication device, and consequently the survival of this medium will be based upon the content--the message.
Harvey: And the content has to be something more than superheroes. You mentioned that superheroes will probably always be with us in comic books, and I agree with that. They probably will in some form or another.
Eisner: It’s a form of our mythology.
Harvey: Not only that, but superheroes--they’re not really real except in comics.
Eisner: That’s right.
Harvey: You can see them in movies but you know there’s a trick. But when you see them in comics, it’s not a trick. This is the way they are on the page--they fly, and they do all this stuff--that’s endemic to the form almost.
Eisner: Well, the reason for it is that comics is a participatory medium. The reader is participating. In film, he’s a spectator. You’re just watching it. In comics, you invest each--five people sitting in a room reading the same comic book, I’ll guarantee you that each of these five readers are hearing a different voice of the character, they’re investing the character with a different soul, if you will--and we believe what the character is doing because they are imagining it as they are doing it. If you’re showing Superman leaping off a tall building and jumping across a huge chasm or his eyes blazing a hole thorugh a brick wall, you see that in your mind--you close your eyes and you see it, and you feel it. And film has to devise special effects. One of the reasons films have turned to comics as a source of material is because film has to come--the technology of film has become so sophisticated that they’re able to do in real form the kinds of things that comics are always talking about. So that’s a big difference.
Harvey: Somebody last night [at the dinner several of us had together after a presentation by Jules Feiffer]--or last afternoon--was alluding to a movie that had been made of --Oh, it was the Dick Tracy movie, and the young man I was sitting next to said, Yes, he’d see the Dick Tracy movie and it wasn’t any good: it never works when you take a comic strip character and try to transpose it into a live action movie. And one of the reasons, of course, is that the character in the movie never looks like the character in the comic strip, on the page; Dick Tracy’ll never have a jaw like that except in the comic strip.
Eisner: Because he saw it that way. On the other hand, they were very successful [in film] in translating or adapting Batman.
Harvey: That’s right. But the Batman in the movie is really a different character. It was a good movie, but it’s not as convincing to me as the comic book.
Eisner: Absolutely not.
Harvey: I just can’t see it moving--
Eisner: And there’s another reason. Batman and Superman are pure circus. All the movie had to do was do a circus character--the thing that Barnum and Bailey used to do. As a matter of fact, here’s some trivia for you: Superman’s costume comes from the circus. The strong man in the early circuses had that costume. They came on with a skin-tight suit and shorts and a cape.
Harvey: Ahhh--and the strong man had the cape, too!
Harvey: [Laughs.] And of course they wore the skin tight thing because--
Eisner: Showed their muscles.
Harvey: --it was immoral to have a naked body out there.
Eisner: More than that, they were showing their muscles.
Harvey: Getting back to the content notion, one of the ways that content might be different is to have different subject matter, different kinds of stories. For example, when I was a kid, you could get comic books that were detective stories, comic books about superheroes, westerns, crime--there was a range of genre. That’s part of what you mean by content?
Eisner: Only part of it. Because we’re talking about genre, which is kind of easy to do. You take a superhero and put a cowboy costume on him, you’ve changed the genre, and all the bad guys are in different costumes, too. Star Wars is nothing more than a western with aliens as the bad guys and good guys. What I mean is something deeper than that. I mean that the story has to have intellectual content; it has to touch on something that the reader wants to hear and understand. I guess the best example I can give you is the short story of the thirties--the Ring Lardners and the O. Henrys. I grew up on them, and they influenced me. They were telling stories. Stories like “The Gift of the Magii,” which was really an important story. Doesn’t matter where it takes place. That story could have taken place in San Francisco or in the jungle somewhere. But it’s the human interaction. That’s the difference of story.
Harvey: I’ve seen a number of comic books in the last ten-fifteen years where obviously the person producing this book felt that if he told a story in which sex figured importantly, that this was a mature theme. And I’ve always objected to that--really, a trivialization of the idea of what maturity is. There’s a whole lot more to maturity than that.
Harvey: And the stories that you do are stories that have content and they have a mature theme because they’re dealing with the human condition in some way.
Eisner: That’s exactly what I’m talking about.
Harvey: So many of the people who are producing this stuff haven’t lived outside comics very much.
Eisner: You bring up a very important point. What we’re dealing with is life experience. Now, the stories I --the reason I don’t have a reader, the reason I can’t attract the 14-, 15-, 16-, 17-year old reader is because I’m talking about heartbreak. And heartbreak to a seventeen-year-old is a lot different than heartbreak is to a forty- or fifty-year-old. They haven’t had the life experience; they haven’t been able to feel the things that I expect them to feel.
Harvey: And when the mature person has a heartbreaking experience, it’s his life that’s affected, not just his romance with the prom queen.
Eisner: That’s right: he hasn’t just lost his dog or his girlfriend. Or he couldn’t go to the prom on Saturday night. [Harvey laughs.] Or his father took the car keys from him and said you can’t drive the car all next week.
Harvey: Those are dilemmas for the adolescent mind, and they’re real enough, but they don’t dig very deep.
Eisner: Oh, they feel pain. But as I said earlier, I’m --there are other things you can do. I talk about the Hernandezes, where they’re giving you a slice of life inside another culture, which I can learn something from. That’s very, very important. But as you say, the superhero stories--the cowboy stories--these are not real things. I don’t learn anything from them. Yeah, you do me a cowboy story that deals with the same kind of problems I deal with in the city--you put cowboy costumes on, that’s fine. But as a reader, I want to see something that can give me some life experience.
Harvey: We were talking earlier about the Vietnam story you’re doing (Last Day in Vietnam) and you don’t want to use speech balloons in it. Part of that is a reflection of your understanding of what the market is like out there: the average citizen picking up a book, if he sees speech balloons, he thinks about comics and he’s turned off by that. If he doesn’t see speech balloons, your theory is that he’s more likely to read the book.
Eisner: It seems to me that what’s happening--what I’ve noticed in my race uphill, so to speak, I’ve run headlong into another tribe of people. They’re adults--let’s agree to use adults and maturity but it hasn’t necessarily anything to do with sex but longevity of life. People who have been around a long time. The establishment community. I’ve been reaching out to that community, and I have had some success, but not the kind of acceptance that I’d like to get. And I’m coming to a reluctant conclusion that there still remains a strong wall of prejudice by the establishment reader against any dialogue that’s encapsulated in a balloon. It immediately makes it suspect, and reduces it --or translates it-- into a totally different category. You want to read that balloon and laugh. You can’t take it seriously.
Harvey: So the way you handle the speeches of the characters in this thing is the same way you would normally except that you don’t put a balloon around the words?
Eisner: I’ve tried that. Things like Feiffer’s books follow that same principle. His characters are talking and saying things but not in balloons. Apparently, his readership accepts that. I have a feeling that if he put balloons around that dialogue, he might have some resistance. It wouldn’t diminish the quality of what he’s saying, but it would --he would lose some of the acceptability, or acceptance I should say--the acceptance by the audience.
Now, my A Contract With God has held on over the years. My readers are mostly adults. And these are people who I reasoned are people who have grown out of comics, they’re forty or fifty years old and are no longer satisfied with superhero stories but still enjoy reading comics--enjoy the habit of reading comics--and so I offer my stories to them because they deal with things a forty- or fifty-year-old person would be more interested in. However, this thing you’re talking about--my Vietnam experiment--happens to be a story in which a character is talking to the reader, the reader is a participant in the action. So it makes it easy to do that, it makes it reasonable to do it [leave out the balloons]. The only evidence I have is the fact that Feiffer’s stuff seems to survive. The New York Times probably would not publish it if it had balloons. I suspect that.
Harvey: That’s funny: that one little device might be the thing that turns adult readers off.
Eisner: Might well be the thing. This is not new. The comic business has been struggling with this for years. There was a comic strip in the middle or late thirties called Barnaby [actually, started in the forties], about a little fella who had a fairy godfather, and all the lettering was typeset. The reasoning was we’re going to try to make this clean and so forth. I used to try to sell comic books to schools, educational comic books; and I remember the teachers attacking me, saying that what I was doing was destroying the students’ ability to read because I was doing all the lettering in capital letters, and they were trying to teach upper and lower case. Anyhow--it didn’t work. Harvey Kurtzman introduced the use of typeset in Mad magazine.
Harvey: They still do it.
Eisner: They still do it. Frankly, I never thought it worked, but apparently it must have worked: the magazine did very well.
Harvey: But I don’t think it was just the typesetting that did it. It was the whole iconoclastic attitude of the Mad stuff--
Eisner: Could very well be, could very well be. Well, as far as I’m concerned, I’m a purist about the medium itself, and I can’t see breaking away from the balloon. The balloon itself--the shape of the balloon, and the outlines of the balloon, have a storytelling capacity to it. So I’m afraid what’s going to happen is that the audience is going to have to turn itself around and accommodate itself to me! [Chuckles.]
Harvey: I was thinking recently that one of the --there’s been a lot of handwringing recently about the terrible condition of the industry. I think really that there are a number of small publishers with one or two titles that are feeling that this is not as prosperous a time as it could be, but the big companies seem to be going along all right. They probably wish it were better, but they’re able to produce titles so they can’t be busted. But you look at outfits like Fantagraphics and Kitchen Sink, and they produce material that’s going to be sold in bookstores in “graphic novel” sections that are really like little ghettos of comic art. What if there were some full-time marketing person who really understood this stuff, and he would take a given book, and he would try to get bookstores to shelve it with other books of the same sort. If you had a science fiction graphic novel, it would go into the science fiction section--not the graphic novel section, not the “humor” section (where so much comic art winds up). If it were Frank Miller’s stuff about crime, it would go into the mystery section instead of the graphic novel section. I think we’re created an envelope here and we’re not getting out of it because people who might be interested don’t see that stuff, they don’t go there.
Eisner: You’ve got a good idea, but let me tell you a story about that, a true story. A Contract with God, when it was first published back in 1978, small publishing company, and the publisher called me up, and said I’ve got great news for you--Brentano’s in New York, big establishment bookstore on Fifth Avenue, is taking copies of your book, and they’re carrying it in the bookstore. It’s like someone calling and saying the Vatican is publishing your book! So I contained myself for a week, and a week later, I ran up to Brentano’s on Fifth Avenue, and I found the store manager, and I said to him, I am the author of A Contract with God, and he said, Oh, yeah--I had that two weeks ago; did very well. I said, Where is it? And he said, I had it on the table in front of the store, and it sold very well, and then James Mitchner wrote a book, and so I had to take it off the table and put James Mitchner’s book there. And I said, What did you do with mine? Well, he said, I brought it inside, and he says, I put it in with religious books since it’s about God, and he says, this little lady came up to me and said, What’s that book doing there? That’s a cartoon book; it shouldn’t be in with religious books. So I took it out and I put it into a humor section where they have people like Stan Lee and so forth, and I put it with the funny books. And someone came to me and said, Hey, this isn’t a funny book: there’s nothing funny in this book--why do you have it here? I took it out of there, and I don’t know where to put it. And I said, Where do you have it now? And he said, In a cardboard box in the cellar; I don’t know where to put the damn thing.
Harvey: Oh, no.
Eisner: And that’s the story. As a matter of fact, I understand that even Maus had similar kinds of problems. They displayed it on the counter in the front of the bookstore, but I don’t know where they keep it now. They have it in the bookstore; it was a bestseller so they have it well-displayed. The problem is that the major bookstores have no categories for comics. They picked up this word I invented, graphic novel, which everybody uses, and they have a section--they put a spinner in, Walden did, and they load it with graphic novels. [Eisner was eventually persuaded by everyone saying he did that he had invented the graphic novel, but, as I’ve noted above, he didn’t; and in later years, when confronted on the question, he agreed that he didn’t. On another occasion Eisner explained how he reacted when confronted by an apparent contradiction in two versions of history: “One of the reasons I’ve survived in this business is that I don’t deny anything—I just smile and nod.” He smiled and nodded. It’s nice to have a living legend around who was both canny and gracious.—RCH]
And the problem is that a lot of the graphic novels that are turned out are counter-productive of the whole idea that you’re talking about. Physically, they don’t look like serious stuff. You have a Frank Miller, something like that--they’re okay. But when we get one of the major houses doing a collection of old Superman stories and calling it a graphic novel, it doesn’t look like the other graphic novels. And when you get some of the violent superhero stuff that some of the young people are turning out today--these metalic ladies and so on [laughs]--
Harvey: You think if you touch them, they’d click.
Eisner: Oh, sure, sure! And they’re always drawn in pseudo-seductive poses. I call them “pseudo seductive” because I can’t imagine being eroticized by a girl like that just because she’s got a skimpy costume and iron breasts. [Laughs; Harvey, too.] Anyhow, the bookstores just don’t know what to do with them. Going back to the earlier part of this conversation about content, this is what’s going to have to happen. What’s going to happen is that they’re going to begin to discriminate among the media, among this media, in terms of the various comic books that are worth keeping in a given section--called graphic novels--and then they’re going to, it’ll come about. It’ll take some time, but it’ll come about. It has to come about. There’s no other way for it to go. Comic books do sell. They produce income. And Walden and Dalton and Barnes and Noble and the rest of them--Borders--can’t ignore this for long. They’ve got to capture the market.
The comic book stores are having trouble because they’re diminishing in size and quantity, and in order to pay the rent, they’re taking on action figurines and games and toys and stuff of that sort to accompany the comic book sales. They are losing--I believe that comic book stores should change their designation: they should no longer call themselves comic book stores. I think that’s one of the problems.
This whole country--perhaps all Western culture--is committed to characterization of products. This is a funnybook. Anything in this book tends to be funny. Even writers who will write about something might say, This is a comic book sort of movie or a television kind of setup--as a categorization, as a quality or as a genre. So it’s a long answer to your short question, but you’ve touched on the major dilemma of our time for the comic book industry. One other thing I’d like to add--and that is that the problem is not comics. Comics are doing fine. It’s the market that’s doing badly. Lots of good stuff around. Good artists working in the field. Moore and Gaimen and Miller--people of that caliber in the field. There’s nothing wrong with the medium.
Harvey: No. And I’ve said as much myself. Comics are--the medium--this could be the beginning of a new golden age that could really be somethng. But the market is the problem. And when you think that so many of the smaller publishers--people like Fantagraphics and Kitchen Sink Press, people who are doing the marketing are people who are comics enthusiasts, and they have no particular--except for their own experience, gained on the job so to speak--no particular insight, it seems to me, into the market and how to deal with marketing problems. I’m not sure they have the time. I’m not sure anyone has the time.
Eisner: Time is a factor, too. Under the urgency of making money, I gotta make money--secondly, I don’t think they really know what the solution is largely because the tools with which they have to work are not at hand.
Harvey: Let me cite an example from my own book experience. I did a couple books for Fantagraphics called Cartoons of the Roaring Twenties in which I put cartoons I’d clipped out of old copies of the humor magazine, Life. Pasted them up in chronological order and created three volumes of these. Fantagraphics so far has published the first two. A lot of important artists are represented therein--John Held, Jr., Russell Patterson, T.S. Sullivant. People like them. But the books never really got off the ground. And I have the sense that what their marketing department did was to hand their books to one of the big national book distributing outfits that gets books into bookstores. And that was the end of the marketing effort. They didn’t advertise the books to audiences that might buy into this--like popular culture courses in colleges, for instance. And my contention is that every book deserves that kind of market research in order to find its audience. And when I say I don’t think they have time for it, I believe it: the average company can’t afford to hire a guy to do the kind of in-depth marketing that I’ve just described. So they have to rely on the other kind of thing.
Eisner: I’m a publisher and I can respond to that and tell you that it’s very hard for publishers to market a book that way. They have to put out anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 to $50,000 to get a promotional program going. And is a publisher going to do that when he doubts in his mind that he’ll sell 50,000 copies of the book? Now if Random House came out with the book you’re talking about, they might do a better job. They have a lot of machinery that’s calculated to do this sort of thing.
We saw Feiffer last night, and he was sent down here [to Florida] by his publishing company, which spent a lot of money getting him down here, to promote his book. He got a lot of mileage out of it--a front page story in the newspaper feature section. Kitchen Sink or Fantagraphics just couldn’t do that. They rely on a national guy who deals on a wholesale basis. They count on word-of-mouth. It’s like this book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil--four years on the bestseller list. Originally, they printed only a small quantity because they didn’t think it would go anywhere, but the thing took off, word-of-mouth. Okay, they can do that.
Some books get an huge amount of promotion--like O.J. Simpson’s book, “O.J. Tells All,” or something like that. And that’s what publishers look for. You have a marketing problem with a structure that’s out there. But what you’re talking about is a classic problem; it’s been classic ever since Charles Dickens. Publishers are faced with a marketing structure that they either have access to or they don’t. They are counting on word-of-mouth. Or they go to somebody who already has a constituency--like Monica Lewinsky or her mother. If Monica Lewinsky wrote a book tomorrow--and she probably will--I guarantee you, publishers will be willing to gamble four million dollars because the book will sell more than four million copies.
Harvey: Then there’s the accidental publishing luck--something like Scott McCloud’s book on Understanding Comics, which, I believe, really took off. It seemed to me to take off.
Eisner: He sold a 100,000 copies. That took off-- actually, the people that generated the sales were HarperCollins. They picked it up from Denis and promoted it. They gave it the access to the market place that Denis couldn’t give it. If it had been left alone, if it didn’t have the mass market access, it might not have done any better than my Comics As Sequential Art book.
Eisner: Although Scott was talking to a slightly different audience. He was talking to a broader audience. I was talking to --so you can’t compare. As I said at the beginning of this conversation, I fear two elements. The market is in trouble; they’ve got to figure out how to market these things better than they are marketing them now. I’m sure somebody will; this is a country in which somebody always figures out other schemes.
Harvey: Capitalism creates a powerful will.
Eisner: Right. There’s profit in it, and somebody’s going to figure it out. And I think there will be a profit in it. I’m betting--I’ve been gambling the last twenty years on the fact that everbody over the age of forty --or under the age of fifty, let’s say-- grew up on comics as a sort of literary nutrition, and enjoys reading comics and is not reading comics now because what comes into his hands these days is no longer of any real interest. And I’ve been gambling on this for the last twenty years. As long those people are around-- for every fifteen-year-old comic book reader today is going to be twenty-five in ten years, and in twenty years, he’ll be thirty-five, then forty-five. Going to be older. And he’s going to have to have something to read.
Harvey: And maybe that something would be a variety of what he read as a fifteen-year-old. I’ve thought too about the nurturing of a future audience, and I think that as a rule, as a general statement, the comic book industry is not doing that properly, or not doing it with any great enthusiasm. There was this great--in the early seventies--a great demand on the part of a fairly vital fandom for more mature comics, comics that were not just pablum for eight-year-olds, and I think the grim and gritty superhero tradition emerged in response to that demand. But what about young kids? The tie between Saturday morning television and the comic book rack is not as strong as I think it ought to be. Some company ought to invest in their future by investing in that audience so that those kids get in the habit of looking for comic books.
Eisner: They’re trying to do that now. They’re becoming aware of it, turning out Looney Tunes and comic books of that kind. The problem is that the market place for comics has changed over the years. The newsstand, which we knew to be a kiosk on the street corner or in the subway station, is no longer there. We get our daily newspaper delivered. We don’t go down to the newsstand on the way home from work and pick up a copy to bring home. We come home and we’re waiting for the paper at home. That’s one thing.
The second thing is that even in super grocery store markets, where a lot of comic books are on racks today--kids don’t go there. And there isn’t the selection there even if they did. And the price is too high. You’re dealing with three dollars for a 32-page newsprint four-color magazine that has a lot of advertising in it. DC runs four or five pages of advertising. So every story is interrupted with a commercial every few pages. It’s lost-- there’s something missing there. The kids, the little kids that used to be given a copy of Mickey Mouse Comics, kids’ books, no longer get that. First of all, he hasn’t got the money; secondly, he’d rather watch games on his computer at night. So he doesn’t go after a comic book on his own.
Another thing that’s happening is what you saw with Feiffer last night: parents are buying his books. Kids don’t buy those books. Parents buy them and give them to the kids. Consequently, you have to get the approval of the parent for a comic book. The parent reads it and says, Yes, I like this book, and my kid’s going to like this. It’s a decision made by a parent. So these things are changing, and I don’t know whether we’ll ever get back to the ten-cent comic book, but that was the engine that drove the early comics--the Golden Age and the Silver Age. You could buy a comic book for ten, twelve, twenty-five cents. But today, it’s a costly venture to buy a comic.
And here’s another factor. There’s so many complex levels to this thing. The method of distribution in this thing--comic book stores take in their stock on a non-return basis. Newsstands have a hundred percent return privilege. Makes a totally different-- even in the case of Barnes and Noble, they get their books on fully returnable basis. This means that the publisher publishing in a returnable market is faced with a much greater gamble, greater risk, than the guy publishing in the comic book market. What does that do? The publisher publishing to a high risk market tends to select properties that have have as little risk to them as possible.
So if you come along with your book with a collection of great cartoons from the 1920s, the publisher that’s publishing for the Borders market, says, Well, this is going to be of interest to a very limited audience; maybe I’ll take this book on, and I’ll print 5,000 or 10,000 copies. And he’s very nervous about it. The publisher in the comic book market does a preliminary promotion on the book, sends out a leaflet to all the comic book stores, and Diamond, the distributor, takes orders. And before the publisher goes to press, this publisher knows how many orders he has, and consequently he can do a relatively low print run because he needs to have only enough copies to fill the orders. And he can take on properties because they aren’t as risky for him. The only risk he has is to list you on his list and see whether or not he gets orders for your book. Big difference.
Harvey: The direct sale comic book store was a big plus for the whole industry.
Eisner: Exactly. It still is. It’s my contention that if the return privilege gets back and dominates this market, you’ll have a drop in creativity the likes of which you’ve never seen. Right now, it’s fairly easy-- a better than fifty-fifty chance that some publisher, whether Fantagraphics or Acclaim or whoever, will take it because the risk is very low, so you can afford it. And thus, new material gets into the field--new artists, new writers. Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer here.
Harvey: I don’t think there will ever be a simple answer. But I think that when I read a whole series of articles in The Comics Journal--a couple issues ago about the “crisis in comics”--it seemed to me that there weren’t any of these articles that were about fine-tuning the marketing mechanism. Admittedly, to do that, publishers have to have a lot of resources to throw into a marketing department--more than they have, probably more than they’ll ever have--you can’t really do the kind of thing I’m imagining if you’re a commercial enterprise and you’re having to strike a bottom line that will feed and clothe a certain number of people--so my example is not a practical suggestion, but it is a way of pinpointing what the difficulty is. And the difficulty is we’ve got a hybred creature here that doesn’t fall into any traditional category, so you’re really at the mercy of the bookstores, who say, Well, this is A Contract with God, it must be religious.
Eisner: Right, right.
Harvey: Now--what’s that Graham Greene novel? The Power and the Glory--they didn’t sell that in the religious section. They sold that in the fiction department, alphabetized under ‘G’ for the author’s name, like all the other fiction material. [Laughs.]
Eisner: The bookstores, by the way--the function of the bookstores is often misunderstood by writers and artists, creators. They think bookstores sell books. Bookstores don’t sell books: they make books available. [They’re not marketing enterprises, in other words.--RCH] I’ve never seen Borders or Barnes and Noble come out and promote a book--occasionally, they do, but if they do, it’s with the financial support of the publisher, who pays them to run an ad. But all they do--you walk into a Borders bookstore today, it’s a warehouse, that’s what it is.
Harvey: You get bestsellers and recent titles displayed on a table just in the door, but that’s about the extent of it.
Eisner: And how many people come in to browse? Bookstores are trying to encourage you to come in a browse. They have easy chairs around and coffee shops. But most people don’t go in to browse. The browse in a public library. But they go into a bookstore to look for a specific book that they’ve heard about and might want to buy. Or you’ve got an uncle who was once an alfalfa farmer, and you want to get a book on alfalfa farming to please him. So you go in and you say to the clerk, You have any books on alfalfa farming? And he does. He tells you about the books he has on alfalfa farming. That’s the extent of browsing. Nobody goes in the way they used to in old bookshops. Or even in comic book stores.
That’s one of the advantages of a comic book. People come to buy a comic book, and the owner of the comic book store is apt to say, You know, I’ve got a book here that your father might be interested in, this A Contract with God; it may not be for you, but maybe he’ll like it. And if he doesn’t, you can bring it back. But I think it’s a great book.
Or they’ll come into the store and say, What’s Frank Miller done recently? Frank Miller fans. And the owner takes them to where he’s got the Frank Miller books.
But it’s a different venue. So that’s another problem we face, and how we’re going to change that, I don’t know. Actually what Borders and Barnes and Noble are doing is killing all the little mom-and-pop bookstores, the Dickens-like shops.
Harvey: I went to NYU summer school for several summers, and there were all these used-book stores on Fourth Avenue. Six or eight of them.
Eisner: I used to haunt those places!
Harvey: I did, too! Every day, in the afternoon I’d have a couple hours, and I’d go over and I’d go into one, browse around, write down titles that I liked.
Eisner: You could buy books for a dime.
Harvey: Yes, but they all went out of business because of the paperback book. You can buy a paperback for less than you can buy a used hardback book. A couple years after I stopped going to NYU, I went back and returned to Fourth Avenue.
Eisner: There’s only one of those stores left--the Strand.
Harvey: Yes, only one. And they’re in remainders and publishers’ review copies as well as used books. So much of their stuff is actually new.
Eisner: There are a couple stores down here in Florida now that sell second-hand books, and if people --my wife, she’s an avid reader, reading three or four books a week--she reads books like I eat bananas; and I went into this bookstore with her one day, and she said, I want to show you something, a new development. And they’re selling second-hand books at half the price of the new book. She throws them away when she’s finished. That’s moving along. That’s going to develop into something. The average book by a major author runs $15-25.
Harvey: Some as much as $30 or $40.
Eisner: Right. So if you can get it at half price, that’s something. Might be the only way you can get it. The comic book market, as I say, the market is in trouble. The comic book product is not in trouble. Some of the best talent in American is producing comic books. Alex Ross and Russ Heath--guys of that caliber. Guys like that-- you didn’t have guys like that working in comic book business in the fifties and sixties, the so-called Golden Age. These guys were uptown doing illustrations for Collier’s and Saturday Evening Post. So these are good times now. We’ve got good authors and artists, good production, we just haven’t solved the marketing problems.
Before I left that day, I asked Will to show me how he developed a story, and I made copies of what he showed me. We’ll end with scans of those visual aids.