SDCC: Gaiman, McCloud, Smith & Kitchen talk Eisner and the Graphic Novel

Saturday at Comic-Con International featured a look back at the impact of the late, legendary cartoonist Will Eisner with a panel featuring an all-star panel of individuals that have all pushed the medium of comic books forward in unique and significant ways. But the panel was a less a celebration of Eisner's domino-mask pulp hero "The Spirit," and more of a celebration to Eisner's spirit within the comics community, including his attitudes that continued to push the boundaries of the form.

Paul Levitz, former president and publisher of DC Comics, moderated the panel, and began by talking about the book he's currently writing on Eisner. "I realize that Will's life is very well documented," Levitz said of the countless research materials he's read, but the writer hopes to bring to light some of the untraditional ways Eisner impacted the industry. "Most brilliant artists in the field have made the totality of their impact through their work," he said. "Will was unusual in that the work had impact, and the man had tremendous impact."

Levitz introduced the all-star team of comics notables on the panel, beginning with Denis Kitchen -- Eisner's longtime friend and founder of Kitchen Sink Press, who now works as the Eisner estate's art agent. Next was "Understanding Comics'" author and cartoonist Scott McCloud, whom Levitz described as having "pulled the baton out of Will's hand to be the theoretician of comics and took it to a new level, talking and arguing with him about the logic of how comics work." Lastly, he introduced Jeff Smith, creator of "Bone," who reinvigorated children's comics using many of Eisner influences. Best-selling author and comics-scribe Neil Gaiman was also scheduled for the panel, but joined it in progress.

Levitz posed the first question to the panel, asking somewhat rhetorically, "'The Spirit' comics were really good, but why are we here?"

"Will didn't rest on his laurels. Even if he just did 'The Spirit,' he'd still be a legend in comics," said Kitchen, who gave some Eisner backstory about how the cartoonist left his creation and the industry behind to work with the Army in the '40s to make educational comics. Later, he found success making educational comics and materials for corporate training.

"By the time I met Will in 1971 -- he was technically out of the comic book field in '52 -- and I met him, not because I sought him out, but oddly enough because he sought me out when I was just a young, skinny, heavily-bearded underground comics publisher," Kitchen recalled. "But he heard that underground comics had a different way of doing business, allowing creators to own copyright, [they] returned the art, things that intrigued him, especially the distribution part, which was non-returnable. The businessman in Will was intrigued by that.

"So he began peppering me with questions, barely allowing me to ask anything about the old days, which he didn't really want to talk about. He was forward-looking. That was the singular thing always about Will, always forward-looking. So it's easy to say he's an innovator but his career is innovation from beginning to end," continued Kitchen, who mentioned Eisner's 1978 graphic novel "A Contract with God," which celebrates its 35th anniversary this year, as the one that changed the industry forever and sparked an interest in graphic novels.

"And then when a lot of his contemporaries were retiring, he created 20 more," said Kitchen, concluding with a one-word summary of Eisner: "Remarkable."

McCloud talked about the impact Eisner had on him as a young cartoonist and theoretician, and outlined the three revolutions that Eisner sparked in the comics medium.

"Will was completely different from everyone else I knew in his generation," said McCloud. "And I would occasionally be privileged to see him arguing with those guys, and it was really funny. I saw him argue with Gil Kane about 'Maus.' Will thought that Art Spiegelman's 'Maus' was really important, and for any number of reasons we now recognize -- Gil, although a very smart guy and wonderful debater, he just thought it was so badly drawn," said McCloud, to laughs from the crowd. "He just couldn't get past that."

When McCloud was young, looking beyond X-Men and Daredevil comics, he was drawn to Warren reprints of old issues of "The Spirit," a common touchstone for all the panelists. "The stuff that Will was doing in the late '30s, early '40s, that stuff was a revolution, but it was the kind of revolution that you can't even recognize as one until years later," said McCloud. "This is what he did three separate times, is he was leading the army into battle before the army was even ready, before anyone even knew it was an army. And the revolution with 'The Spirit'... was that he was one of the first people that understood what to do with the page," said McCloud of a time in the late '30s when comics strips were simply slapped on a page, unaware of the full potential for using the page as a canvas.

"The next revolution was that non-fiction comics revolution," said McCloud. "He said we'd only seen the tip of the iceberg for non-fiction comics, and I still think we've only seen the tip of the iceberg."

While "A Contract with God" isn't technically the first graphic novel, McCloud noted that it was "the shot across the battleground that really gave people a strong sense of what that could be."

Jeff Smith was next, and he revealed he was also introduced to Eisner's work through the Warren reprints of "The Spirit." "[It was] the first comic I ever saw where there was some sense of continuity from story to story," said Smith. "What I think makes him special, at least it was for me, was as a young, relatively new guy getting into the field, Will was so interested in what the new people were doing, what the young people were up to. He wasn't just interested, he had to know. He had to see everything that was going on," said Smith, revealing a common thread for the panel about how encouraging Eisner was to up-and-coming cartoonists. "And I believe in passing that on. I learned that from him, that that's important. And I try and go out and see what's new, what's happening."

Levitz talked about recently spending time with Jules Feiffer as part of his book research. Feiffer started out assisting Eisner on "The Spirit" and was working on his first graphic novel, "Tantrum" around the same time Eisner was working on "A Contract with God" in the '70s. Although both comics were contained stories that delved into adult themes, the discussion turned to why Eisner's work had a bigger impact on comics, especially considering Feiffer was arguably a more prominent figure, having written novels, plays and working as a newspaper cartoonist.

Smith was the first to offer a theory. "Will was a comic book guy, Jules was a newspaper guy," he said, adding that even though "A Contract with God" gets credit for being the first trailblazing "graphic novel," the name clicked in retrospect and didn't really start to get that status until guys like Dave Gibbons and Frank Miller were in the industry, giving it props.

Gaiman then rushed to the stage, and was asked what he thought of Feiffer's graphic novel, and why Eisner's held more weight.

"Because 'Tantrum' was full pages and it didn't feel like comics," said Gaiman. "'Tantrum' was absolutely a graphic novel, but it doesn't look like one. Each panel fills a page. It's large format. Also, the story, which is basically a psychosexual oddity and odyssey of a 40-something man who gets so upset with being an adult that he holds his breath until he's two years-old again -- and then goes around trying to get piggybacks and belly rubs from beautiful women, is actually not as accessible as 'A Contract With God,'" he responded, eliciting laughs from the crowd.

Kitchen added that there are dark, psychosexual elements in "Contract," saying, "I think people forget how dark it could be," especially considering the time it came out, in 1978."

Levitz mentioned how Eisner never made the claim that "Contract" was the first graphic novel, but explained that many feel he's a father to the form because "fatherhood is not about giving birth to a child," adding that it's about bringing the child up, and giving it encouragement to find its true potential -- something Eisner was enthusiastic about doing with the comics.

"The most irritating thing about arguing with Will was that you'd come up with something really cool and brilliant that you'd just thought of, and whatever you had suggested that would fix everything that's wrong with comics... and then he'd explain how when they tried that in 1947," said Gaiman.

Gaiman also told the crowd Eisner was an immediate influence on him since he first thought about writing comics, and was "trying to do something that was good enough for him." He talked about nervously giving Eisner a copy of his and Dave McKean's 1992 work, "Signal To Noise." He said Eisner read it and told the young writer what he thought of it, and Gaiman realized there weren't that many people of his generation that would do that -- or that would have even been interested in it.

Levitz pointed out that each of the panelists have made changes to comics beyond their individual work, and even the way creators function in the industry now, pointing out that Will did the same, but in a generation where people didn't do that. Levitz transitioned to talking about Eisner's "restlessness," to which Gaiman told of his final extended conversation with Eisner -- an onstage interview.

"The truth is, the bit of the conversation that I remember... the one place where things got magic for me, was asking Will why he kept doing it," Gaiman recalled of asking why Eisner was still producing work at an age when all his peers had either retired or passed on. Eisner told him of a Kirk Douglas film, where he plays a trumpet player looking for the perfect note -- a note that when he finally found and blown, he could finally hang up his trumpet.

"And he described his entire career as being in search of the note. He knew he could hear this thing somewhere up ahead, and we were always convinced that the next project, he would finally attain it. He would hear the note. He would play the note, and he wouldn't need to do anything after that," said Gaiman. "I took that away, and still treasure that. When I think of Will, I think of him still questing for the note."

Smith said Eisner was a good example of a full comics career, staying active so late into life.

"I'd go one step further. He was pretty much the whole package," McCloud added, calling Eisner's relationship with his wife one he wished to be lucky enough have with his own wife, and that he also admired Eisner's attitude about the future, keeping positive and optimistic -- but not deluded -- about life.

Kitchen said one of Eisner's greatest traits was that he was always intellectually curious and never dismissive of underground comics, from the first time they started working together. Gaiman then jumped in and asked how everyone felt that Eisner never did a fully autobio comic, only flirting with it in pieces, namely "The Dreamer," which dealt with Eisner's early years as a cartoonist, and the writer called it "this weird kind-of greatest hits."

Kitchen added, "He pulled his punches on that. It's only about 56 pages. It started out about 20 or 24 pages and I pushed and pushed for him to expand it, and he finally said enough. But he pulled his punches on it. It's the one book I told him I was disappointed in him because he was too much of a gentleman," said Kitchen, explaining Eisner was reluctant to name names of some of the seedier characters featured in the book.

Gaiman said it was a shame to get personal stories talking to him that could have been comics. Even after Eisner died, he's heard some moving stories talking to Ann Weingarten Eisner about things that had happened in their life, especially some of the personal tragedies. "I realized how much he had kept inside, buttoned down inside that suit, and how much more interesting , more powerful... Will's autobio could have been," said Gaiman.

Kitchen recalled an instance where he asked Eisner why wouldn't do more hard autobio comics, "He said I'm not like [R.] Crumb. I can't let it all hang out." McCloud added some of the tragedy tied to "A Contract with God" -- presumably the death of the Eisners' teenage daughter -- was too tough and he probably didn't want to, or couldn't, revisit it in comics.

Eisner as a businessman was the next topic discussed, and it was noted that he laid the groundwork and provided a model for how things could work for cartoonists. Jeff Smith said he received lots of advice from Eisner on how to both make and sell his comics. "I remember we were thinking of Will when Scholastic approached us about reprinting Bone and saying to them, 'if you're going to do that, one of the deals is going to be that you have to put the books with other books; not in the bookstore ghetto with Dungeons & Dragons,'" said Smith, to laughs. "I was channeling Will."

Gaiman talked about encountering Eisner's "The Spirit" reprints for the first time in the basement of a weird proto-comics shop, and that although he didn't know they have been created decades before, the only reason the reprints "existed [was] because Will, unlike pretty much everybody else of his generation, had not sold his baby. He figured out that he had this thing and he was publishing it, he created it for this publishing model -- he owned it."

However, Kitchen did reveal the tragic events that destroyed all of Eisner's old pages, because he believed pressing them in between zinc plates would help preserve them. It did the opposite. Kitchen recalled when Eisner shipped them all to him in Wisconsin, where Kitchen could store the pages and plates for free. "They were so heavy," Kitchen said "[I] threatened to change the name of the company to Kitchen Zinc Press."

Levitz wound down the panel by throwing out some lessons learned by Eisner's life and example as a cartoonist: "Be curious, encourage others; use your powers wisely; know your aspirations -- not that you'll achieve it on the next project, but the next project, or the one after, but know what you're working to," said Levitz.

"Share knowledge. Be collegiate," said Gaiman. "Especially in comics, because we're all freelance, we have a tendency to regard knowledge as precious things that must be kept to ourselves. Will encouraged sharing information. Sharing knowledge, sharing what we do. And that was huge."

Kitchen agreed, and McCloud added being a cartoonist like Eisner should mean "that you're in a cross-generation conversation with artists young and old -- it's all part of the same cultural conversation about what comics can do."

Smith said comics should be treated like art, and to make it something worth doing and own what you do.

Kitchen told of a newspaper interview with Eisner in 1941, in which the famed creator he told an ultra-skeptic reporter that comics had the ability to be an artform. "If you had read that out of context, you'd think it was Art Spiegelman in 1979. It was Will in 1941."

Levitz thanked the panel individually for their contributions, and as a group, "for carrying for the spirit -- not the character -- but the attitude" of Eisner.

"If there is ultimately an influence that is to be had by Will, it's his work, [and] it's his role-modeling, as so many have talked about, but it's also the fact that so many are still carrying on his attitude" -- making comics that are more creative and pushing the medium forward.

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