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Levitz's New Nonfiction Book Crowns Eisner "Champion of the Graphic Novel"

Will Eisner's comic book work, from "The Spirit" newspaper strip that ran during the 1940s and early '50s, through the literary graphic novels that he authored in the last twenty years of his life, remains some of the art form's highest creative pinnacles. Recognized only slightly less than his creative efforts is Eisner's business acumen, dating back to his days in the Eisner and Iger Studio and continuing on through his ownership of "The Spirit," his creation of American Visuals Corporation, and into his ambitions for his graphic novels.

It only makes sense, then, that it would take a renowned writer, editor, teacher and executive like Paul Levitz to write the book that attempts to understand and explain the full range and impact of Eisner's influence over the comic book field, a shadow stretching beyond seventy years now.

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Levitz's new book, "Will Eisner: Champion of the Graphic Novel," on sale now from Abrams ComicArts, takes readers through the evolution of Eisner's career, examining how at each stage, Eisner's work impacted generations of readers and creators to follow. Using copious examples of Eisner's artwork and commentary by creators, including Art Spiegelman, Alan Moore, Frank Miller and more, the former President and Publisher of DC Comics lays out each step in a legendary career, and how it blazed a trail for all subsequent creators to follow.

CBR News: Paul, when did you decide to tackle the subject of Eisner's career, and how did you decide on your tack for "Will Eisner: Champion of the Graphic Novel"?

Paul Levitz: Charlie Kochman of Abrams approached me as I was working on the Taschen book "75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Mythmaking," and I was thrilled to be able to step smoothly to a next project as interesting as Will's complex life. He was a good friend, and an important influence on me and the entire field of comics. It was a great challenge to encapsulate his life.

The problem, besides the sheer breadth of Will's work, was simply that almost all creative work has a half-life in the public's mind, and I didn't want to do a book just for those who already knew and loved Will.

We're fortunately not lacking for Will Eisner biographical material. What is the differentiator in this book?

It's not biography per se -- [Michael] Schumacher ["Will Eisner: A Dreamer's Life in Comics"] and [Bob] Andelman ["Will Eisner: A Spirited Life"] have done that. The goal was to show why Will was such a powerful influence on the field at a critical moment in its evolution, tracing the beginnings of the modern American graphic novel (whose roots go far back before "A Contract With God"), and his unusual life (cartoonist, businessman, teacher, and, I argue, champion or evangelist for the form of comics).

One of the biggest takeaways from this book, to me, was seeing Eisner as a teacher. Obviously, he taught at the School of Visual Arts and authored "Comics & Sequential Art," but beyond that, everyone seems to have a story of Eisner sharing his experience and knowledge with them.

The portion of his life that was devoted to teaching is one of the least documented, and I hope I was able to add to the record of it. Certainly, the combination of his constant curiosity, and willingness to share his insights, is key to how he made such a big difference in the field.

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When discussing "The Spirit," the splash pages are the first thing everybody mentions. Can you talk a little -- as you do in the book -- about how Eisner reinvented the use of the entire page, beyond those splashes, as a storytelling canvas?

Will began "The Spirit" before most cartoonists had figured out what to do with the page in comic books. The strips had some fantastic compositions that went beyond the panel, going back to Windsor McKay's magical journeys, but that logic hadn't been brought to the smaller page that was used for comic books. The book's lavish format gave us the opportunity to show off Will's early experiments in things that have become fundamental to the language of comics: cutaway pages that move from panel to panel within a common background, pages that integrate type and art without panels at all but still provide sequence, and the splashes, of course, the splashes.

And his drawing on top notch short story writers as inspirations for his tales? I think you see a lot of that literary influence and approach in the EC Comics just a few years later.

It's always hard to trace direct influence. Certainly, Bill Gaines was a fan of some of the same literature that influenced Will -- O'Henry comes to mind instantly -- but it's harder to believe that the team that made EC [Comics] wonderful didn't include many people who found inspiration in Will's work -- especially since there were folks who crossed over from one project to the other, Wally Wood being the most obvious.

You're a noted comic book editor, writer and publisher, but your credentials as a comic book historian are maybe not as well known. What other historical work have you done, and how much do you enjoy sharing the stories of the industry and its creators that you've devoted your life to?

I started out as a comics fan, and while it's not prose history, I'm very proud of having helped Jerry Bails enough on the first edition of "Who's Who of American Comic Books" to have been named to the "editorial board." The first step in our history was simply beginning to assemble the information on the then-largely uncredited creators.

My first book after leaving the desk at DC was Taschen's "75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Mythmaking," which was an attempt to put a historical spine to the complex story of DC. While it was authorized history, it still was well regarded enough that it won the Eisner, Eagle and Peng Pris Awards for the year it was published, and went to a second printing. It's subsequently spawned separate volumes, with enlarged text material and visuals covering "The Golden Age of DC Comics" and "The Silver Age of DC Comics." "The Bronze Age" is in preparation.

As Eisner was a friend of yours, did you feel any conflicts writing this book? You didn't shy away from noting inconsistencies -- the Fox story told in "The Dreamer" differing from the historical record, for example -- so you don't soft-pedal where you might have.

Will died before we discovered the inconsistencies between "The Dreamer" and the Fox trial record, so we don't have his statement, but I suspect he might point to the fact that "The Dreamer" was presented as a roman à clef, a fictionalization of events. Many historians fall in love with their subjects, whether they were friends beforehand or not, and still manage to do valid works of history. I hope I achieved that.

Eisner has two very distinct eras of top creativity -- "The Spirit," and his literary graphic novels, coming over two decades apart. Do you have any personal favorites or tales that you recommend to new Eisner readers?

I still stand by "Gerhard Schnobble" from "The Spirit," and "A Contract With God." Not original choices, but arguably his best days. I hope the theory I've offered for why "Shnobble" was Will's own favorite provides useful illumination on his character.

You've adding teaching to your resume as well, now. Did Eisner's work at SVA influence you on that path or how you approach your own classrooms?

I never got the chance to see Will teach in a classroom, but I certainly learned from him, and so many other amazing teachers. I always wanted to teach, and have been pleased to have diverse opportunities open up to do that in my new phase of life. It's a dropout's great revenge on the universe to have taught at schools I wished I could have been able to attend, like M.I.T. and Columbia.

"Will Eisner: Champion of the Graphic Novel" is on sale now.

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