“Will Eisner’s New York” turned out not to be the most accurate name for the New York Comic Con panel devoted to the creator of The Spirit; although a slideshow of ‘s drawings of the neighborhoods of New York played on a screen throughout the panel, the conversation consisted mainly of memories of the man himself.
Most of the panel members had a personal or professional connection with Eisner: Michael Schumacher, the author of the upcoming biography “Will Eisner: A Dreamer’s Life in Comics”; Denis Kitchen, Eisner’s longtime publisher and the representative of his estate; David Hajdu, a professor at Columbia University and author of “The Ten-Cent Plague”; Paul Levitz, former president of DC Comics, who worked with Eisner on “The Spirit Library” and wrote an eight-page Spirit story; and Jules Feiffer, who worked in Eisner’s studio and recently published his memoir, “Backing into Forward.” Comics writer Arie Kaplan moderated the panel which began on a cordial note with the panelists autographing each other’s books.
Kaplan began by asking Feiffer what it was like being Eisner’s assistant.
“It was hell,” Feiffer replied. “I was 16 years old and looking for summer jobs, still in high school. I looked up Will in the phone book… There was an inner and outer office at 37 Wall Street, and the inner office, which the artists usually had, was staffed with assistants, none of whom thought he was very good. They thought he was a has-been.”
At the time, Eisner was writing “The Spirit” strip and John Spranger was doing the penciling. Eisner would then draw over it with a brush. After returning from the army in 1946, Feiffer said, Eisner had “a sureness of hand that was an improvement on the brilliant work he had done earlier in terms of story, linework, storyboarding. It looked like a movie on paper for a while. And that lasted for a while, and then it didn’t any more.”
“Nobody typed up anything,” Feiffer said about scripting. “[Eisner] did the stories initially, and he got increasingly bored with it. I said to him one day, ‘You were better in 1942. Why don’t you write like you did then?’ And instead of firing me, which he could have done, he said, ‘If you can do better, why don’t you write one?’ So I did, and he read it, and from then on I wrote for him.”
Feiffer said Eisner treated his assistants as peers “He would argue with me, and I was this little pisher in the office, but he was not interested in status, he was interested in results and the work, and he found what I had to say interesting,” Feiffer explained. “I didn’t realize it was such a peer relationship. He never pulled rank, never said ‘You’re forgetting I am the boss.’ And I did forget that.”
Levitz credited Eisner for bringing out the best in his assistants. “I’m not sure what the magic in the soup was,” he said, “but you gotta give some credit to the chef in the kitchen.”
“Well, he kept the pot boiling,” Feiffer replied. “He was never on an ego trip… He was interested in results and the process.”
Hajdu picked up the thread. “The way Will made his art challenges us to come to terms with what it is to become an artist and what it is to be a genius, this hoary notion that a genius is a solitary figure, who works alone and is a privileged person who has some sort of conduit to the divine,” said Hadju. “Will worked in a very collaborative, communal way… We know that comics are collaborative, and we know the work is his, in the same way the work of Duke Ellington, the big band leader, is his. He set the mission for the organization, he set the standards for the organization, and he embodied those standards in his own work. It’s hard for people outside of comics, like it’s hard for people outside of jazz, to grasp that. That’s why the general public, outside of us, has been slow to understand that Will is a genius.”
Kaplan asked Kitchen whether Eisner was pleased to be rediscovered in the 1960s and ’70s.
“I think he loved being rediscovered, and I think, what was interesting to me, he embraced what was [going] on with the new generation,” Kitchen said. “We couldn’t have looked more different, he with no hair, me with lots, him in a three-piece suit more often than not, and me in bellbottoms. He saw that what my generation of cartoonists was doing was demanding total freedom of the medium, we didn’t want to work under the Comics Code Authority and neither did he…. He couldn’t let it all hang out like [Robert] Crumb, but he loved the fact that he could tackle any topic, could use a four-letter word, and draw somebody naked if he wanted. With graphic novels, he could embrace that freedom and could tell stories in a different way and wasn’t restricted to that eight-page format… I think Will loved that rebirth at an age when some of his contemporaries were about to retire.”
The conversation finally did turn to New York, when Kaplan asked Schumacher whether it would be realistic to say the city was a character in Eisner’s work.
“It is realistic. From the stuff he was doing with ‘The Spirit’ all the way through, I think Eisner was captivated by New York, not just because it was the city he grew up in, but visually,” Schumacher replied. It seemed to me that it was also a place so full of people, where individuals could be totally isolated, individuals could be completely lost, they could be very, very lonely; they could have incredible things happening to them in this huge framework of a city, the biggest city in the United States. I believe when he talked about New York, he talked about this as a place where stories took place. When you take a story like ‘Ten Minutes,’ could ‘Ten Minutes’ have happened anyplace but New York?”
“It happened in my family,” said Feiffer. “It was my first story. All the stories that were my stories were Eisner stories. He was the heart and soul of what those stories had to be about. Eisner created weather on paper, he created flotsam of the streets on paper, he created dirt on paper like no one ever did. He created leaky faucets that really leaked… I got an education in the early ‘Spirit’ stories how not to say anything, how to dramatize it.”
What about the events of the 1950s, which Hajdu chronicled in “The Ten Cent Plague,” Kaplan asked. Was Eisner caught up in that?
“It was hard for me to extract the full story from Will on that subject because he was such a fiercely proud man,” Hajdu said. “For the first four or five interviews, he clung to his standard storytelling, his decision to abandon comics in the ’40s and ’50s and go into self-imposed exile from comics, doing commercial work for the military. In others, he couched it in terms of middle class ascension, ‘I had a family to raise, there’s more credibility in being a businessman, I could feed my family’ – it was kind of middle-class ascension. Only after several days and a couple glasses of wine did he start to talk about how the comics landscape was so bleak, and he was so despairing about what comics had become, that he thought, ‘Now is the time to leave.'”
“He always took comics seriously,” Hajdu continued, “and when he felt there was no longer an outlet for him to do great work, he left. That worked against him. He went from doing something from passion and a sense of adventure and an urge to experiment… to pursuing greatness in his late work, and I think that undermined some of his later work. Alan Moore said, ‘Will Eisner did more than anybody to give comics their brains,’ but my mother used to say ‘Watch out or your brains will go to your head.'”
“Will was definitely on a mission the second time,” said Levitz, “and when you are on a mission to make art, on the one hand you aspire higher, but on the other there is a sense of self importance.”
Levitz and Feiffer agreed that the comic-book scare of the 1950s left many comics creators who worked in that era feeling persecuted. “Does a victim of McCarthyism ever go back to the good old days and feel that nothing ever happened?” said Feiffer. “You never can get rid of that. Will could not… There may have been an urge of too much respectability that got in the way of the graphic novels – a term I always hate. When you are trying to take your work seriously, the first thing that goes is that organic thing that makes people take your work seriously in the first place. Will was so good he could overcome most of that, but not all of it.”
“To me it’s important that Will appears to be the very first cartoonist who was pretentious, who admitted to being pretentious,” said Kitchen. “As late as 1941, he told the ‘Philadelphia Bulletin’ there was potential for comic strips to be an art form, and you could practically hear the reporter giggling. It seemed preposterous.”
“There is no way to undervalue Will’s role as a missionary and a proselytizer of this art form,” said Hajdu. “That Philadelphia Bulletin article was syndicated around the country. It changed the way people thought about comics, and they started to take comics seriously. So he really changed the terms, and it’s a really significant part of his contribution.”