A group of some of comics’ most widely-respected Golden and Silver Age artists reminisced about what it was like to work in the Eisner studios, as part of Friday’s panel programming at Comic-Con International in San Diego. On the panel were Jerry Robinson, who started on Batman back in 1939 and went on to be one of the most honored newspaper cartoonists in the business; Nick Cardy, famous for his work at DC onTeen Titans and Bat Lash; Lee Ames, who worked at both Terrytoons and Disney animation studios before embarking on a very successful career as a book illustrator and author of various how-to-draw books; Bob Fujitani, who worked at Gold Key on dozens of different books, including Doctor Solar, before going on to take over the Flash Gordon and Rip Kirby newspaper strips; and finally, legendary DC silver age artist Murphy Anderson, who was Julius Schwartz’s utility player and has far too many credits to list — he worked on virtually every book DC published in the ’60s and early ’70s at one point or another. All of them worked for the late Will Eisner at various times except Robinson, who knew Eisner more as the fellow who ran a cross-town rival studio during the ’40s.
The panel was moderated by Mark Evanier, who opened by saying that this was the first San Diego convention without Will Eisner, who passed away earlier this year.
“It feels like there’s a piece missing,” Evanier said. “For the last 10 years of Frank Sinatra’s career it was OK for him to be a little off-key, you know, he was in his seventies, we forgave him, he was Frank. But with Will Eisner you never needed to qualify it. He was at the top of his game right up to the end, doing work that was better than guys one-quarter his age. He was important to not just comics in general but also to this convention. This will be the first time we’ve had the Eisner Awards where Will Eisner isn’t there to hand them out.”
Evanier then went down the line of panelists, asking each of them to share their memories of Will Eisner and life at the Eisner studios in the 1940s.
Nick Cardy started with a disclaimer.
“You have to forgive me, I can barely remember what I had for breakfast half the time,” he said, laughing. “But I do recall that I went and applied at the studio — this was ’39, ’40, right out of art school — and there was George Tuska and Lou Fine there, and [he] sent me over to Iger’s. Then came the draft, you know, and a lot of us were gone. After the war I came back and did ‘Lady Luck.'”
“He was Bill Eisner, then, right?” Evanier asked. “Not Will.”
“That’s right,” Cardy said. “When I saw him here” at Comic-Con International San Diego in “40 years later, I said, ‘Hi Bill,’ and he said, ‘You’re the only one that still calls me that!”
Bob Fujitani recalled that he met Eisner at about the same time.
“I was in my second year of art school, and Tex Blaisdell called and said, do you want a job, grab some samples and run to the city, we might have some work. Now I’d never even looked at a comic, I just wanted the money. Twenty-five dollars a week. I was right next to Nick, he doesn’t remember, probably. I did rough pencils on ‘Uncle Sam.’ I remember Will calling a meeting and saying we weren’t doing enough work. We were doing two pages a day, and he wanted four.”
Evanier did the math.
“So … 20 pages a week? Still for just $25?” Fujitani nodded.
So Evanier asked the obvious next question.
“Why didn’t you leave?”
“I did!” Fujitani said, laughing. “After about four months.”
Murphy Anderson remembered working on PS magazine, the educational publication for the military.
“Will founded another field we don’t talk much about,” he said. “Commercial comics. Instructional aids. It’s a very attractive business, but as Will told me, you have to have capital, because companies take so long to approve things, there’s revisions, it’s a long process. It wasn’t lucrative, exactly, but the work let Will maintain his shop, and he believed in it. I became a believer myself, from my Navy experience. You use humor. Get ’em to look, give ’em something they want to read, he’ll pay attention.”
“But drawing carburetors?” Evanier asked. “How is that fulfilling? Will was so creative, and his work was so personal … and yet there’s this whole middle period of his career where he’s doing these manuals?”
“Will was teaching,” Anderson replied gently. “He was a great believer in using comics to educate. Some G.I., 17, 18, he doesn’t read, but Will could stop them and get their attention with a gag.”
It was while he was working for Bob Kane on Batman that Jerry Robinson first met Eisner.
“There was a certain rivalry between the studios,” Robinson said, then added with a laugh, “And a certain lack of respect for Bob from Will. I really admired Will’s work, ever since I’d seen it in the Philadelphia Record. Especially his intros to The Spirit, when I was working on Batman later I tried to do that with my own splash pages.” The two kept in touch over the years, through their common love of tennis. “Any time I saw Will in Florida, we’d have a game of tennis. He was very competitive.”
Asked what they learned from Eisner, Bob Fujitani said, “Storytelling. Lou Fine, he did these beautifully rendered people, they had a skeleton and muscles underneath that you could sense he’d put there. Will’s figures had no body underneath but they always were in service of the story.”
Lee Ames put in, “There were two guys. Milt Caniff and Will Eisner. Those two — the work itself was the education. Just looking at the work.”