Eisner Wide Open

Will Eisner was a cartooning visionary when the notion seemed preposterous. Now, having produced work that has been published in eight different decades, Will Eisner has become the E.F. Hutton of the comics industry: When he talks, people listen. As one who has explored every facet of producing comics—he has at various times been a packager, publisher, editor, comic-strip artist and comic-book artist—Eisner has seen the industry’s fortunes rise, fall and rise again often enough to know that the form’s health and continued vibrancy lie in its ability to conform to changing circumstances.

Eisner had a singular role in developing elements that have over the years become standard components of cartooning’s vocabulary: pacing, staging, perspective, plot construction, character development and the incorporation of a compellingly philosophical perspective. Now 83, he continues to produce work that appeals to readers outside the superhero ghetto, even as DC Comics is repackaging both his 60-year-old Spirit stories and his trailblazing series of graphic novels so that a new generation of readers can appreciate the craftsmanship in whose shadow countless comics artists work. The retail reaction to the first volume of DC’s Spirit series—shelves wiped clean in a matter of days—demonstrated that, in the right hands, everything old is indeed new again. Never one to be content, Eisner produced Last Day in Vietnam, a memoir of his wartime experiences recently published by Dark Horse Comics, and is adapting classic literature to the comics form, which NBM is publishing.

In a time when technological and societal forces are again changing the way comics are marketed and consumed, Eisner’s observations about the industry—both what it does well and what it needs to do better—are more relevant than ever. Cartooning fans and the industry’s decision makers would be wise to remain mindful of what he says; Will Eisner has been right too long not to. —Tom Heintjes

Tom Heintjes: What challenges do you see cartoonists facing that they traditionally haven’t had?

Will Eisner: Before we can discuss any challenge facing a cartoonist, we’ve got to decide what we’re talking about: Are we talking about his art form, or are we talking about the publication that will carry his work? Cartoonists have always worked for publication, as opposed to painters, who work for galleries. It’s the final vehicle that often determines “the challenge,” as you put it. A painter’s vehicle is the gallery. The painting he makes is “the product.” The cartoonist, however, is creating something for reproduction. This has an effect on the challenge.

Let me step back here and answer the question in two parts. The cartoon art form—the art of treating an image impressionistically—will not fade. It will keep growing in popularity, because a cartoon is able to convey an idea as an image, and images are the means of communication that are proliferating. Communication in the future will be based on imagery, the transmission of ideas by images. The vehicle of transmission is changing under our noses and will influence how the artist deals with the medium. He’ll configure his work to suit the method of transmission. Historically, print has been the major vehicle. The arrival of the Internet has provided the cartoonist with another vehicle of transmission, which has a different set of requirements. The relationship with the reader, which is primary to the entire business of communication, has to be accommodated. In print, you can count on the fact that the reader will either glance at your work or dwell on it for a great length of time. You therefore can develop what I call a “contract with the reader” during the time he or she has it in their hands. In electronic transmission, we have no way of knowing how long a readers stays with you or what their retention time is. We’re dealing with a totally different relationship.

Having said all of that, I suspect that the Internet cartoons will increasingly begin to resemble animation. In the end, we may wind up with animated cartoons, because the rhythm of reading on the Internet is not like that of a hand-held page. It requires a dimension of realism to abet a continuation of the action suggested by the image.

Heintjes: One of the pleasures I get from enjoying cartooning is a tactile one, and I miss that on the computer screen.

Eisner: I have the same reaction. I enjoy the brush work, and I enjoy inspecting the pen-and-ink techniques. But I’ve been in debates with some younger cartoonists who argue that the day of the paper cartoon is coming to an end. They believe there will come a time when readers will have lost the experience of looking at things on paper, so they won’t have the same frame of reference that we do today. They’ll only have looked at things on a screen. I argue that the tactile experience of holding a book will be very hard to diminish, but it is an argument that a lot of Internet-oriented cartoonists do not easily accept. I was having this very same sort of discussion last year at a panel at the San Diego comics convention, and one of the cartoonists told me I sounded like a medieval monk who sneers at the future of this guy Gutenberg with his movable type.

The bottom line is, technology is doing something to the comic-book business. Comic books as we knew them in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s are experiencing a continuing drop in sales.

Heintjes: Do you think that the difficult economics of publishing traditional comics is hastening cartooning’s retreat to the Internet? People can publish their work online for very little cost.

Eisner: Well, there’s no viable economic model for publishing comics online. Obviously, cartoonists are always looking for a new reader, a larger audience. They know now that a website can secure 100,000 hits overnight, but no one has figured out how the creator can make money off of that. This is not encouraging cartoonists to leave print. In fact, there are more cartoonists looking for print work than there ever have been. Perhaps the marketplace for cartoons is shifting. I’m not wringing my hands, because it’s simply a new phenomenon that we have to deal with. I’ve probably been looking at this as a cartoonist and find it very hard to abandon print, so the more I look at it, the more it looks like animated cartoons to me. Now, the computer is a tool that can provide a tremendous amount of technical support—you can get all these colors, you can morph and combine images.

A young cartoonist I know showed me how he works on a computer. He was doing a magazine cover, and he was shifting all the elements around on his screen until he got the composition he wanted.

Heintjes: Isn’t that like doing roughs?

Eisner: That’s what I said. I told him, “I don’t need to do that because I do a few quick pencil roughs to get to what I want to do.” My biggest problem is how to execute the idea I have in my head. In comics, very little happens accidentally. It’s not like Jackson Pollock dripping paint on a canvas—”voilà, this looks good, I think I’ll save it.”

A lot of students confuse the technology with the art itself. There’s a separation that must be understood between the execution of the art and the business of executing that art for a specific medium.

Heintjes: But to clarify my question: Is cartoonists’ retreat from traditional print publication hastening the demise of the printed comic?

Eisner: It isn’t the cartoonists who are hastening the demise of printed comics. It’s the competition from the new technology. The audience is moving toward electronic media. The best evidence I can give you is the absence of “kiddie” comics, the Mickey Mouse type of comic books. They’re no longer around. The retailers I talk to tell me that they don’t get young kids coming into the store anymore. They’re home playing with the computer games, or they have Nintendo or whatever.

Heintjes: Nor can kids go to the corner drugstore to get their comics, and that used to be the point of entry for kids’ interest in comics.

Eisner: That’s also another thing. It’s the same problem that newspapers are struggling with. Newspapers used to be sold in kiosks on street corners. My father used to stop off on the way home from work and pick up a newspaper in the subway. That no longer happens. It’s delivered to your door, so it’s a totally different kind of distribution that has evolved. It affects the reader relationship.

These are the forces that are altering what the creators are doing. Remember, the creator’s primary function is to provide the material for “the vehicle,” and I consider the Internet to be a vehicle. When I was doing comics for the newspaper in 1940, the paper that we were printed on was so rough and porous that the artistic style everybody used was rigid. There were no vignettes, so the flat benday coloring could be contained. Reproduction today permits oil painting or air brushing. Cartoonists have always learned to accommodate the technology as it changes. The reader also has different demands. Today’s reader has been exposed to MTV and has grown up on a fusillade of images. Their life experience is different. The books I write are for people with some life experience. Not artificial or virtual experience, but real life experience. A large part of the young audience today is getting life experience artificially through the television or through the computer. These are experiences that are contrived.

Heintjes: What effect do you think today’s media have had on the way people perceive stories?

Eisner: The media have had a tremendous effect on storytelling. A young reader’s sense of wonder is very quickly satisfied by electronic media. It will generate things that a more limited medium like comics can only allude to. For example, a comic strip about space travel cannot compete with the experience delivered by the film Star Wars. So you have to deal with this generation in terms of its own experience, and part of that experience is MTV. I’ve been trying to watch MTV to figure it out, but I can’t watch too much of it or my eyes bump into each other. What they’re doing is using visual clichés over and over. You can connect into their message by using the experiences you’ve had watching other films or videos. The message doesn’t come from your own real-life experience. It comes from artificial experience. But those of us who are trying to tell a story must pay attention to that.

Heintjes: Historically, when comic books entered periods of slumping sales, one survival technique was to have a broad appeal, so you had material geared toward a variety of demographics: funny animals for children, romance comics for girls, teenage comics for young teens, as well as the usual superheroes, monster, western, war and science fiction material. Now, with a few exceptions, mainstream comics have given themselves over almost entirely to superheroes.

Eisner: Perhaps that may explain the malaise. It’s interesting to look at Japan. Some of their comic books sell at the rate of 8 million copies a week, and the subject matter is enormously diversified. They have comics for expectant mothers, comics for adults, boys and girls, all different ages. It’s a huge industry, but their culture has grown up with a language that is basically pictorial.

Heintjes: Japanese comics don’t struggle with the social stigma that ours do.

Eisner: That’s a big problem. I’m involved in that struggle. Rumor has it that I write comics for people who don’t read comics. My readers don’t come into comic-book stores. Here in the United States, comics is a despised art form, way down at the bottom of the artistic hierarchy. In Europe, a cartoon is regarded as a higher form of art, because it occupies a greater historical role. You had cartoonists like Daumier taking up arms against political oppression, so they’re regarded as important creators. I remember talking about it to Harvey Kurtzman in the ’60s after we had come back from Europe. He said, “Wasn’t that wonderful? They treated us like real artists!”

Heintjes: How different are your experiences as a creator in the United States compared to those in Europe?

Eisner: I seem to get a warmer response to my work in Europe and in Latin America. I think the difference comes down to content. Superheroes are not as popular in Europe as they are here. My stories deal with the human struggle for survival, and that seems to be a subject closer to the European world view than it is here, largely because most European countries have a history of being under the unremovable thumb of an aristocracy or dictatorship. In this country, politically, we can change the rulers we don’t like. We have this freedom so we can alter this condition.

Heintjes: You’re doing some work for European markets that is also being subsequently published here.

Eisner: One of the books that was just published in Europe and in Brazil—Don Quixote—is being published here by NBM. Usually, after I finish a heavy book like Family Matter, I find that doing something very light is a great antidote. For a long time I’ve wanted to adapt classics to comics form. My Danish publisher, who is also my agent over there, has tried for a long time to get me to do this series, because I had these stories in dummy form. And his market had changed dramatically. The bulk of the sales was in libraries, and they were looking for classics.

Heintjes: I understand the European comics market is also slumping.

Eisner: Yes, it is. If someone stopped me on the street, grabbed me by the lapel and asked me, “What’s causing all this?”, my quick response would be “content.” The content of comics is not keeping up with the demands of the readers. In Europe, as in the United States, the novelty of comics has worn off. It’s no longer a novelty. When my former company in the ’60s, American Visuals Corp., was selling comics for industrial and educational purposes, one of my salesmen called up American Motors and said, “We’d like to do a booklet for you on the new Social Security laws,” the man at American Motors replied, “We already have a booklet.” My salesman said, “No, we’re going to do it comics form.” The guy at American Motors said, “Oh, great! We’ll be glad to talk to you about that.” To them, comics was a novel vehicle and a novel medium. The idea of a comic book is no longer new. You can’t sell it just because of what it is. You sell it because of what it contains.

There was a time when movies were novel simply because they were moving pictures. Now, you take the medium for granted. You don’t go to a movie because it’s a movie. You go because of the content. That’s the one thing I always tell students and other young cartoonists: It’s content. If you have nothing to say, then you’re just selling wallpaper. It’s almost like pornography. They’re not selling a story; they’re just selling images.

Heintjes: Why do you think Europeans, with their own rich artistic history, have such a special appreciation for the work of certain American creators such as Carl Barks, Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby and yourself?

Eisner: As for myself, I can tell you that the reception I get is based on my stories, not so much on the artistic technique. The other creators you mention are all important representatives of major genres that are big over there. Jack Kirbyrepresents America—the thrust and the drive and the excitement. Crumb is highly esteemed in Europe. He’s only the second American to win the annual prize at the Angoulême festival.

Heintjes: Who was the first American to win it?

Eisner: Will Eisner. [laughter]

Heintjes: Oh, him.

Eisner: When I first saw Crumb’s stuff, he was still doing undergrounds, and I didn’t quite get it. I thought it was just bigfoot stuff, very crude illustration. Then I read one of his stories, Yutta,” and it blew me away. I began to pay attention. He’s done some very sensitive stuff, like the poster he did, “A Short History of America.”

Heintjes: You’ve produced most of your recent work through Kitchen Sink Press, a company that gave you creative carte blanche. Now that Kitchen Sink is no longer publishing, do you see getting that same degree of creative autonomy in today’s turbulent marketplace?

Eisner: I will have absolutely no trouble retaining creative autonomy. I’ve signed a contract with DC Comics to reprint The Spirit, and they’re keeping my graphic novels, collectively called “The Will Eisner Library,” in print. We also have a handshake deal in which I give DC first look at any new books I do. Of course, I’m still an independent. For example, the children’s line I’m working on is with Terry Nantier at NBM.

One of the reasons I’m giving DC the first look is because they have the best chance of getting my work into bookstores. Of all the publishers today, they have the most muscle, and they’ve done very well with the Vertigo line.

Heintjes: You like the Vertigo line?

Eisner: I like the editorial thrust of the Vertigo books. The fact that Vertigo is producing the kind of stuff they are is a plus. It’s helping the industry by publishing material that would not be generated by the old DC or the old Marvel or any other major publisher. As they said in Death of a Salesman, “Attention must be paid.”

Heintjes: You had always been reluctant to allow The Spirit to be reprinted in a deluxe format. Why now?

Eisner: The reason I finally agreed is that, with the death of Kitchen Sink, the possibility of The Spirit being reprinted is almost out of the question. I originally objected to it with Denis [Kitchen, Kitchen Sink’s publisher] because I felt that a big Spirit book would be like a mausoleum. Then I finally agreed to allow him to do a series of new Spirit stories in The Spirit: The New Adventures.

Heintjes: How did you feel about that series?

Eisner: It was a little like putting your child up for adoption. I was astounded at what some of them were doing with him. Clearly, I would never have done stories the way these guys did. Guys like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman are very much in touch with today’s reader, and they were talking to them in that vein. I had no sense of violation or concern; they just saw The Spirit from their perspectives. When I created The Spirit, I never had any intention of creating a superhero. I never felt The Spirit would dominate the feature. He served as a sort of an identity for the strip. The stories were what I was interested in. The Spirit was just a walk-on in a lot of the stories. Sherlock Holmes is an example of what I mean. You read Sherlock Holmes stories for the stories. The stories endure, not the idea of a super-detective. The Spirit stories are very much like the Sherlock Holmes stories: The stories endure despite their setting in a world long ago and far away. At least, that’s what I hope.

Heintjes: DC Comics is owned by Time Warner, and big media companies are interested in synergy between properties. Has there been any discussion of doing anything else with The Spirit? Will we be seeing The Spirit join the Justice League of America?

Eisner: There’s been no discussion about that. The preservation of The Spirit as a character really means very little. What’s important to me is the 300-and-some-odd stories that I wrote myself. Nothing will change those. They’ll still be around. If DC came to me and said, “How about a crossover between The Spirit and Batman?”, it would depend on how they intended to handle it and who would do it. If I were doing it, The Spirit might make a fool out of Batman [laughter].

Heintjes: After all you’ve accomplished in your career, what continues to drive you?

Eisner: Oh, there’s so much that is undone in this medium. I want to do it. I’ve got a book coming out called Last Day in Vietnam in which I eschew the use of balloons altogether. It’s a collection if true incidents that happened to me in my visits to Vietnam and when I was in Korea. But it’s done with a totally different approach. I only used this once in The Spirit, where the reader is a participant, and the characters are talking to the reader. At the time, I felt it was successful, but I never followed it up. I’m constantly experimenting. As we’re talking, I’m dummying up another book that has to do with folk tales back in Dropsie Avenue.

Glenn Miller used to say he was still looking for “the sound.” That’s how I feel. Actually, I’m still looking to achieve what I set out to do 50 years ago: to achieve a literary level in this medium. One of the problems is in marketing. Maybe one of the problems is that the adult reader is turned off by the form. He sees a lot of pictures, and he sees balloons, and he sees a book that he pays $14 for, which gives him maybe a half-hour’s worth of reading time. For that same money, he can get a book by Stephen King or John Updike that would give him hours and hours of reading time. Perhaps the solution is not in form but in content. This is something I’m struggling with, trying to seize the adult reader.

Heintjes: What trends do you see in the work of today’s aspiring cartoonists?

Eisner's "A Contract With God," which gave rise to the modern graphic novel boom.

Eisner: A preoccupation with special effects. A lot of them are preoccupied with creating new superheroes. Recently some young black creators showed me a new ethnic superhero. What a waste of creativity! We don’t need another ethnic superhero—we’ve got plenty of them. Show me something about ethnic life in America today. That’s what we don’t have enough of. But they’re thinking of where the money is as, and they know they’re not going to get anywhere fast by doing my kind of stuff. They’re going to get instant money by doing superheroes of some kind.

Heintjes: Looking back at your body of work, which are you proudest of? By the way, you’re not allowed to say, “My next one.”

Excerpt from "Gerhard Shnobble."

Eisner: You intercepted me [laughter]. It’s hard to say, but . . . I guess A Contract With God is like my first child. “Gerhard Shnobble” [published September 5, 1948] in The Spirit is a favorite story, because it was the first time I attempted a philosophical point. From a technical point of view, I think A Life Force was well structured. Dropsie Avenue was, for me, a technical tour de force because I attempted something I didn’t think was possible in this medium, and that is to do a proper history of a neighborhood. In each case, I’ve always attempted to climb a hill, and sometimes I succeed and sometimes I don’t.

Heintjes: Of course, we all want you to climb many more hills, but when the time comes for Will Eisner to live with The Spirit in Wildwood Cemetery, what provisions have you made for your literary estate?

Eisner: I’ve made provisions in a will to leave my work to certain places and to certain charities. I have a son, and he’ll oversee my estate. And my wife will oversee it as well. In the case of my graphic novels, DC is committed to keeping them in print, so they’ll be around. That’s important to me, which is one reason I went with them. Oh, Tom—the whole subject is premature.

Heintjes: Well, I hope those mortal considerations are a long way off. You realize that you’re eventually going to be the one who writes the history books—no one’s going to be around to contradict anything you say. It’ll just be you and Al Hirschfeld.

Eisner: Someone was pointing that out to me the other day [laughter]. It’s not a bad position to be in.

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