|Edited by Jon B. Cooke||Comic Book Artist, Eisner Award winner for "Best Comics-Related Magazine", celebrates the lives and works of great cartoonists, writers and editors from all eras through in-depth interviews, feature articles, and unpublished art.|
Friends indeed. Will Eisner (left) and Jim Warren reunite at the 1998 San Diego International ComiCon. Photo by Gloria Goldberg.
A Spirited Relationship
Will Eisner discusses his experiences with Warren
Conducted by & © Jon B. Cooke
From Comic Book Artist #4
As the supreme master of sequential storytelling, Will Eisner really needs no introduction (but we'll attempt a suitable blurb anyway!). Best known as the creator of The Spirit and writer/artist on a number of graphic novels, Will is also a passionate voice for the educational use of comics and the advancement of sequential art (the academic name he gave our art form) as a practical form of communication, universally recognized and clearly understood. He is also, as Jim Warren succinctly described, a "regular guy." This interview was conducted by phone on February 1, 1999, and was copyedited by Will.
Comic Book Artist: You're one of the truly rare, early examples of an artist who retained copyright to his work, correct?
Will Eisner: For the "Golden Age" period, yes. Nobody in comic books at that time owned his own work—that goes for Siegel & Shuster and even Bob Kane (he just got a very good deal). None of them had the "muscle" to retain their copyright.
CBA: You're also recognized as a pragmatic, sensible businessman. If someone had come up with a good enough price, would you have sold the rights to do The Spirit?
Will: It depends on the price. [laughs] After 1952 until 1964, The Spirit had no value as far as I was concerned. I_kept the artwork for some reason and it was just lying in storage. (I am one who just doesn't like to sell his original artwork.) As a matter of fact, I kept it in a vault and held onto every one of those stories—I had 250-odd stories. In subsequent years, I've been selling off bits and pieces (as my wife keeps pointing out, she doesn't want to get stuck with them as a widow... but she doesn't know that I_have no plans to go before she does!) [laughter] Actually comic book pages had no value back then though, I suppose, I would have sold the character and the art if I had a substantial offer. I doubt that I would have sold it because, now that you make me think about it, Columbia Pictures came to me between 1952 and '55 and offered to do a TV series on The Spirit—but they stipulated conditions which I felt were absolutely humiliating so I just walked out of the meeting. So, it depends on the time and the conditions.
CBA: Is this the chronology: You were in the service from 1941-45 and then you stopped doing government work? And, with the creation of your educational comics company, American Visuals Corporation, you started the P.S. magazine work?
Will: When I got out of the Army in '45 or '46, I went back to doing "The Spirit," and I didn't start American Visuals until 1950, right after the Korean War started. I started the company because the Army came to me and asked if I'd be interested in reviving Army Motors, which I did, as P.S. magazine. By then, I had become interested in selling the use of comics and the medium as a teaching tool, particularly to industry. It all formed together.
CBA: The first revival of The Spirit occurred in a Warren magazine, Help! #13 (Feb. 1962), when editor Harvey Kurtzman reprinted a seven-page section. Do you recall how you were approached? Kurtzman, I assume, was a fan of your work?
Will: Harvey called me. He said he was interested in reprinting some Spirit material. We knew each other. Harvey was a dear friend and one of the "giants" who added a level of quality to comics that influenced many of the cartoonists who followed him.
CBA: Do you recall the public reception of the strip reprint?
Will: No, I don't think it was significant. Certainly Harvey never wanted to print any more. I don't recall getting any fan mail.
CBA: Then, in 1965, Jules Feiffer came out with his book The Great Comic Book Heroes, which featured a Spirit reprint. Did that really reintroduce your character to a new generation?
Will: It probably did because in 1971 or '72, when Phil Seuling held his July 4th Comic Convention, I visited it and, to my surprise, there were a lot of people walking around with the old Spirit comic sections. They were talking about The Spirit, and I remember saying to Phil, "How the hell do people know about The Spirit? I thought it was dead!" And Phil said, "No, there are a lot of guys around who remember it." I must credit Feiffer's book with calling attention to The Spirit.
CBA: And the New York Herald Tribune came out at around the same time?
Will: Yes. Around 1964, the Herald Tribune asked me to do a five-page Spirit story for their comics revival article. I received mail on it but nothing really happened beyond that. I was, at that time, very much involved with American Visuals.
CBA: But since you had such an inventory of material you still owned the copyright to, were you looking to repackage The Spirit?
Will: By then I had realized that The Spirit had some life left in it. Actually, I never believed that a comic strip, once it had suspended publication, would ever come alive again. So, in 1966, Al Harvey [of Harvey Comics] decided to reprint The Spirit stories which only lasted two issues. That was one of the first reprintings of The Spirit since the Fiction House newsstand comic books in the '50s. I included a new origin story for them—but it didn't go anywhere. The Spirit was never terribly successful on the newsstands in competition with the super-heroes. It always did best as a newspaper insert. The Spirit was not designed for comic book readers but for adults—that's what attracted me to the feature in the first place, because it gave me an opportunity to do what I always dreamed of doing: Using the medium for literary purposes.
CBA: So in the children's medium of Harvey Comics, The Spirit just didn't click.
Will: Well, they also did Simon & Kirby's Fighting American revival and that didn't go for them either. Perhaps the time was not right for revivals.
CBA: Then, in the early '70s, there were some reprints of "Spirit" sections. Was Denis Kitchen behind that?
Will: Not as "sections." But as a comic book project it began with Jim Warren's books. At that Phil Seuling convention, I ran into Denis (who at that time was starting an underground comic called Snarf) and he asked me if he could reprint The Spirit. At that time, I was astonished that it had any value, so I said, "Sure. You can reprint it." There was another guy (named Gibson, I think) who did The Spirit sections in polybags. So Denis ran a couple of "Spirits" and after that I got a call from Stan Lee at Marvel who said he wondered if I would let them restart The Spirit—not as reprints but as a character in their comics line.
CBA: They wanted to license the character?
Will: Yes. By that time, I was running American Visuals, and another company, Educational Supplements, that involved producing social study enrichment materials for schools—selling it to teachers and colleges. These were substantial companies that needed full attention. So while I was thinking about Stan's offer, I ran into Jim Warren. Well, Jim said that he'd like to run The Spirit on a reprint basis. I found that much more attractive. So I told Stan no, I would go with Warren—but that created a little bit of a problem because Denis had already gotten an inventory of stories, so the deal with Warren included that Jim would buy Kitchen Sink's inventory to relieve Denis of the investment that he made. Warren then began publishing The Spirit as a bi-monthly and I began my relationship with Jim Warren.
CBA: Do you recall when you first met Jim?
Will: I think I met Jim at a convention somewhere. He was "stealing" my employees [chuckles], like Mike Ploog. He would offer freelance work which lured a lot of guys over to Warren. Mike was working on P.S. magazine and suddenly I found out that he was doing freelance work. I said, "Who are you doing work for?" He said, "Jim Warren." So when Jim and I met at that convention, I teased him about this. Of course, there was no way to stop anybody from "stealing" my employees. Jim said, "Well, you got the best staff of artists around town; I couldn't think of a better place to go get them from!" [laughs] So I said, "I'm hardly flattered by that." He then said to me, "Who owns The Spirit?" I said, "I do." He said, "Would you be interested if I reprinted them?" I said yes and we made a deal that I was very happy with. I would rather have Jim do it than Marvel or DC because I felt if I did it with them, I would soon lose any personal connection with it.
CBA: Were you looking for The Spirit to be exposed to a more mature audience than you might have gotten in color comics?
Will: Yes. As I said earlier, The Spirit was designed for a more adult audience—actually a newspaper audience—and that was the reason I got into this in the first place. I left Eisner & Iger because I wanted an adult audience and the newspapers gave that to me. I felt doing the newspaper Spirit was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reach out and go beyond the classic 14-year-old reader. Marvel didn't offer me an adult audience and with the hope of Warren coming out with the format that he did, I felt that I would possibly get a more sophisticated audience; but I wasn't thinking of going back and doing The Spirit again, anyway—the one I did for the Herald Tribune was a one-shot.
CBA: Did DC Comics make a pitch for The Spirit?
Will: No, I never had an offer from them at all. I never even approached them.
CBA: You said in a Comics Journal interview that Carmine Infantino had also expressed an interest.
Will: No, not The Spirit. They were interested in another thing: Carmine and Sol Harrison came to see me because they wanted to buy my educational comics business. We were publishing a series of comic books called Job Scene in which we introduce the work ethic, so to speak, to young high school dropouts. We were using the comics medium. Carmine asked me if I'd be interested in selling or merging with DC, allowing them to acquire the company—as a matter of fact, Stan Lee had the same interest at the same time. But I was not interested.
CBA: Was this a part of American Visuals or its own company?
Will: It was a kind of subsidiary called Educational Supplements. American Visuals was the parent company—we had divisions, and were publishing under different names. We were also contract publishing, doing a series of books for outfits like the American Red Cross or General Motors. Then the company expanded (it was doing very well) and we did a continuing flow of employee relations pamphlets for industrial companies.
CBA: Back to Denny Colt: Was it gratifying to have material that was over 20 years old find a new audience?
Will: Yes! It was surprising and I was astonished and couldn't believe that this was happening. I never believed that a character that was closed down in 1952 would, 20 years later, find a new readership. That seems to be the fate of The Spirit anyway because it has been reprinted in entirety three times here in America—and just a few years ago it was reprinted in Spain, Italy, and Brazil—so I guess what I've got here is pretty much like Sherlock Holmes, which has also survived all of these years even though it was set in the Victorian period. Apparently The Spirit stories are still fundamentally sound. I was telling human experience stories rather than dealing with a super-hero that had a very shallow story base.
CBA: The longevity may also have to do that it was for, really, an all-ages audience.
Will: That's right! I had a very unusual situation: I was blessed with the fact that he was in the newspaper whose audience consisted of mother, father, teenager, and little kids. I could go the whole range, any time I wanted.
CBA: At its height as a comic section, how many papers were you in?
Will: I think 19 or 20 papers. Circulation was roughly five million, which is not so tremendous when you consider some daily strips had 50-60 million circulation.
CBA: Jim Warren is from Philadelphia and he fondly recalls reading The Spirit in The Philadelphia Record. Did he express to you his admiration?
Will: When we first ran into each other, he talked about how he remembered The Spirit and loved it. Philadelphia was one of the pilot cities for the section.
CBA: Warren first ran The Spirit as a color section in Eerie. Do you recall that?
Will: But he went to b-&-w for the regular book. It's very difficult to license The Spirit in color because there are no color separation films available—they were all printed on metal plates and those are now gone. So it's almost impossible to get the original Spirit coloring. In Europe, they recolored the whole series by European artists.
CBA: Did you have a preference for color or b-&-w?
Will: I prefer The Spirit in b-&-w—I prefer all of my work in b-&-w, to be honest with you. I believe the black line is a more pure contact with the reader. Color tends to obliterate or interfere with the flow of the story. I try very hard to make emotional contact with my reader early and to maintain an intense relationship as the story goes on. I find that anything that interferes with that is counterproductive.
CBA: Did the adding of tones bother you?
Will: That helped some. I found that more tolerable than the color because greys added dimension to the art.
CBA: Do you still have the original art from The Spirit sections?
Will: Yes, I have most of the original art from the stories that I did—but not the ones that were done in 1942-45, while I was in the Army. I don't have any done by Lou Fine, Jack Cole—none.
CBA: You supplied the proofs to editor Bill DuBay at Warren?
Will: I gave them proofs and they made the film. What they _decided to do was not to reprint chronologically (the way that Kitchen Sink did it later); they did those stories on a selected basis. Bill DuBay would select a series of stories (for whatever reason; how they decided I don't know) and they ran the series erratically. I would have preferred them to be run chronologically because some of the stories did connect. I never ran a long continuity but once in a while I'd run three or four stories that had a connection.
CBA: You were listed as an editorial consultant for the magazine?
Will: I don't remember how he listed me but I guess I was a consultant. Financially, we were paid for a publication license to the rights—for a "one-time" usage.
CBA: Did you have any editorial input?
Will: No. There was no need. The only thing I insisted on controlling was that I would do the covers; I would do the line drawing and somebody would underlay the coloring. For instance, one of the early Warren covers had my drawing of The Spirit running on an elevated railroad track, and Bill had Richard Corben do the paint coloring. Occasionally he would have someone do a cover painting that I would object to. Occasionally, we had a little brouhaha in Jim's office over a cover rendering but we got along very well otherwise. There was one pulp cover artist who did one, and I walked into Jim Warren's office (Bill DuBay was there at the time) and I said, "Over my dead body!" [laughs] I'm usually very generous with publishers; I give them a lot of room because I usually pick a publisher whose judgement I respect, so I really don't have much occasion to contradict what he's doing—but, in this particular case, the cover was pretty awful and I put a stop to it very quickly. Actually, I thought highly of Jim because he was responsible for raising the level of art in comic books by bringing a wave of Spanish artists who were brilliant illustrators. I think historians of this medium should recognize Jim for this.
Unpublished cover art by Sanjulian originally intended for The Spirit #1. Will's reaction to the art caused brief friction in his relationship with Jim. The Spirit ©1999 Will Eisner.
CBA: Did you suggest to put your line drawings over Rich's colors?
Will: Yes. Jim and I talked about it. Jim had a different taste in cover art; he didn't feel that my watercolors had enough power to sell. He needed something that was brighter and more attractive. My paintings are a little bit more subtle or pastel, if you will, as you can see from the Denis Kitchen series that I did later on. So we settled on the fact that I would do line drawings and a painter would come in and paint under it.
CBA: Did you retouch the art at all?
Will: No, I never touched the art. It was very hard for me to do that because I have a terrible tendency to try and go back to correct what I've done before. [laughs] But I did a couple of original stories for Denis Kitchen and a cover for Snarf, and I did do the covers.
CBA: Was the Warren series successful?
Will: For a while it was. I think the first issue sold 175,000 copies and then it began to dwindle.
CBA: Coinciding with the Seuling cons, did you perceive a resurgence of interest in your work because of the Warren magazine?
Will: You mean people calling me up to hire me for something? The answer to that is no, because during the Seuling conventions I was still a busy CEO of an educational publishing company in Connecticut. After I sold the company, I decided to go back to writing and drawing. I started doing graphic novels; I didn't want to do any more publishing. First I did a couple of satirical books, Gleeful Guides. They were a series of four books (it was a fun thing). A Contract with God came after that. It was the first graphic novel.
CBA: Were you sensitive about the reception Ebony would receive to the '70s audience?
Will: Look, I was never apologetic for the way I depicted Ebony. As a matter of fact, I was very comfortable with the way I did it. Remember, Ebony was created in the '40s and, at that time, you still had Amos & Andy. That sort of humor was prevalent and acceptable at the time—but I always treated Ebony very differently. As a matter of fact, I received very good mail; even in the Warren books you'll see some supportive letters. This is not widely known but I was probably the first to have a Black detective, Detective Grey, who did not speak with the minstrel dialect. I treated Ebony very lovingly for a long time, and I was no more a promoter of civil rights (I never thought of myself as being involved in the Civil Rights movement) than I was a feminist creating strong, intelligent women—these were my standards; these were the kind of people I liked and admired.
CBA: At the core, your characters are human—there is a true humanity about them. What I mean is were you sensitive that Ebony would be misinterpreted (as he ended up being to some degree)?
Will: Oh yeah. I got mail from both sides. I got a letter from the Afro-American papers in Baltimore complimenting me on the way I treated Ebony. On the same day, I received another letter from a couple of fellows I had gone to high school with (in my radical days when I was going to change the world) and they said I betrayed socialism because of the portrayal. Oddly, the letters both came on the same day—I should have saved them.
CBA: What kind of man is Jim Warren?
Will: Today, he's a lot more settled down than he was when I met him. When I knew him as a businessman, he was a lot more feisty and a little bit more aggressive than he seems to be today. (But then, of course, we all age.) At the time, I enjoyed working with him; he and I, we had a lot of business arguments—the problem for Jim was that I write my own contracts because I had a certain amount of business experience, so he was dealing with me not quite the way he dealt with other artists; but we got along very well. As far as I'm concerned, he was a fine person who I enjoyed working with. Other people had tough things to say about him—Wally Wood was unhappy with him and couldn't get along with Jim (but, then again, Wally Wood was a difficult person himself). But there are always three sides to every story—but, as I said earlier, Jim should be credited with publishing books with a high art standard.
CBA: The Spirit lasted 18 issues with Warren. Was the shift (retaining the sequential numbering) immediate over to Kitchen Sink?
Will: It happened almost immediately. Denis had originally done those couple of Spirits before Warren, and by the time the Warren Spirits discontinued, Dennis had built his little publishing company into something a bit more substantial. He said he would like to continue The Spirit, and I said, "Fine. I'll go back with you."
CBA: So, though it only lasted a few years, the relationship with Warren was beneficial?
Will: Yes, it was very beneficial and the book ran as long as he could sell enough copies to keep it worthwhile. We got along very well and we're still friends today. I saw him in San Diego last year and we had a good time. We keep in touch.
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