Considering how far up the literary food chain a Pulitzer prize-winning novelist is generally considered to be from a comic-book writer, it was refreshing to watch the unabashed delight Michael Chabon was showing to be on the same panel as Will Eisner on Saturday at Comic-Con International in San Diego.
In theory, SPIRIT creator Eisner and Chabon were supposed to be talking about THE ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY, Chabon’s Pulitzer-winning novel about a pair of young comics artists in the 1940’s. But they hardly touched on the novel at all, as Chabon kept prodding Eisner for reminiscences about his studio days in the Golden Age, as well as his thoughts on the comics medium in general. At one point Eisner protested, “I thought we were supposed to be talking about your book,” to which Chabon replied, “Aaaah, I already talked about my book this afternoon,” (at a spotlight panel earlier that day.)
Chabon opened the discussion by reminiscing about the first time he had interviewed Eisner, while doing the research for KAVALIER AND CLAY. “You seemed skeptical,” he told Eisner. “You were very gracious and polite, of course, but… I could just tell. You didn’t think I was really doing a novel.”
Eisner confessed wryly, “Well, after you left, I turned to my wife and said ‘fanboy.’ And now you’ve got a Pulitzer! Shows what I know.”
But KAVALIER AND CLAY was quickly left behind as Chabon pressed Eisner for reminiscences about what it was REALLY like to do comics back in the 40’s. He started by asking if Eisner had been influenced by the culture of the time, the 1939 World’s fair, for example.
“Well, we were AWARE of outside things,” Eisner replied. “But you have to understand, the work we were doing, it was all-consuming. I was working all the time.”
“So you didn’t get out much,” Chabon said, grinning.
Eisner laughed. “I didn’t have a sex life until I joined the Army!”
“How about CITIZEN KANE?”
“Oh, absolutely.” Eisner nodded emphatically. “He was doing what I wanted to do. I always felt that comics, especially then, had unlimited potential. There was no precedent for what we were doing back then, no history. The artists all came from other fields, illustration and so forth. And so everything got factored in. There was no one saying, ‘do it this way.’ We were inventing the form.” He added, “Of course, the exciting times always seem more exciting after the fact. At the time, we were just doing the work, getting the pages out.”
“I’ve noticed that’s the attitude that a lot of the old-timers still have,” Chabon said. “That it was fun, but, you know, a job and that was all. Did your belief in the potential of comics seem weird to your colleagues then?”
“Oh yes. There was a time that I was interviewing at a newspaper syndicate, and I talked to them about what I saw as the possibilities of comics. When I got back to the studio and told the other fellows about it,” Eisner chuckled, “they told me I was too uppity.”
“There’s a tendency of comics artists to bemoan their low status, but I see a lot of it coming from the artists themselves,” Chabon commented. “It’s almost self-hating.”
“Well, there was a slave mentality,” Eisner explained. “The publishers’ attitude was very much, ‘we own it, we’ll replace you if you get out of line.’ After a while you get to believe it. And not just publishers. There was a time I was at a cocktail party, and a woman asked me what I did and I said comics, and she said — in a word balloon it would have been a very big balloon with very small letters — ‘How nice.’ ”
“I interviewed Dick Ayers for the book too, and he had a story like that,” Chabon said. “There was a time he was in a candy store in New York, and he saw a mother grab a comic book out of her son’s hand and put it back on the newsstand, telling him he should just leave that trash alone, and she just went on and on. Ayers finally said, ‘Ma’am, excuse me, that’s what I do for a living,’ and she said, ‘well you ought to be ASHAMED of yourself!’ ”
“Well, we do it to ourselves. In newspapers, we were the ‘jokes’ page at first, and then they called us the ‘funnies,’ and that gradually turned into the term ‘comics,’ ” Eisner said. “People don’t come in expecting to take that seriously. I don’t think it was until the undergrounds came out, around 1972, that anyone saw comics as being capable of making a social statement.”
Chabon grinned. “My father was the one who turned me on to comics. I’m a second-generation fan. Times have changed.”
Eisner did make one heroic attempt to get back to the panel’s original topic. “To get back to your book,” he said, “I have to say, the atmosphere, the attitude of the cartoonists back then, it was perfect. You really captured the time.”
Chabon actually blushed. “Well,” he confessed, “You know, in the book, Kavalier is the only one who believes in comics, in the idea they can be art. And people — people outside of this room, that is, people who don’t read comics — tell me that is the most implausible thing in the book. But I was basing his attitude on yours.”
“Well, that’s probably why I liked it!” Eisner said, laughing.