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An Interview with Will Eisner

-by Barry Wolborsky

Will Eisner is one of those rare comic book professionals who has attained the status of living legend, with a career spanning more than sixty years. He is the creator of "The Spirit" comic strip and inventor of the modern graphic novel. In addition, he is an educator who has written books on his craft and taught Sequential Art at New York's School for Visual Arts. As if these accomplishments weren't enough, his name is eponymous with an award thought by many to be the highest honor a comic book professional can receive - The Will Eisner Comic Industry Award.

Mr. Eisner was kind enough to take the time out of his busy schedule for a phone interview, which I found to be an enjoyable and enlightening experience. Some of the topics we touched upon are his early influences, thoughts on the current state of the industry and the literary philosophy that is reflected throughout his work.

Gray Haven: You're considered to be one of the most influential creators in the comic book medium. Who have been the biggest influences on your art and storytelling, and why?

Will Eisner: Well, certainly early on, my influences were cartoonists; Milton Canniff, from whom I learned how to tell stories. George Herriman, who did "Krazy Kat," influenced my ability to engage a reader dramatically. The third cartoonist who was very influential, was strangely enough, Elzie Segar, who did "Popeye," who taught me how to achieve humor and action merely with postures. Anybody looking at Popeye realized that he never jumped around the way Spider-Man does, yet he was very active. He was seen as a very, very violent and active man. Those three men were very influential.

And as far as writing is concerned, the storytelling, people who really influenced me were the short story writers of the 30's, in the pulp magazines I grew up on. I just doted on those. There's O. Henry, Ring Lardner, Saki, the French short story writer, Guy de Maupassant.  The short story dominated popular literature of that era.

GH: Some of your graphic novels focus on religion, specifically Judaism, and life in the big city, specifically New York City. What about these two subjects do you find so appealing?

WE: Well, it has to do with my attitude, my literary philosophy; I believe that people are concerned with life. The enemy is not people, the enemy is life itself. That struggle is a constant interest. When we think of enemies we think of people, we think of villains, but these are only temporary, they're surface things. Underlying it all is survival.

Now the reason for my interest in city life is because the city is one big theater, it's where it all happens; it's where conflict occurs. It's where the greatest interaction between people occurs. Actually, in the beginning of our civilization, the jungle was the place of great danger and people retreated to the city for safety. As time wore on we conquered the jungles, and now the city has become the place of danger.   As far as religion is concerned, my only discussion on religion was my first book, "A Contract With God." There I tried to undertake a subject that I felt was more mature and more significant than anything comics had attempted. Up to that point comic books and the comic medium never really engaged a subject that was so universally important to everybody.

GH: Why do you think "The Spirit" remains so influential 60 years after its debut?

WE: Well, I'm just as surprised as anybody else. I guess the only answer I can give to that was something that was told to me by one of my students one day. He said the Spirit was very much like Sherlock Holmes in dealing in fundamental stories. Stories like that endure, just as the great short story classics have endured.

GH: To me the Spirit is just a guy in a suit and hat, which could really be anybody.

WE: That's right. He was never intended as a superhero. Sometimes people think that because he's wearing a mask, he's a superhero, but I never intended him as a superhero. As a matter of fact, one thing that should be noted here is that "The Spirit" was not written for a comic book audience. "The Spirit" was written for a newspaper audience for adults.

GH: Do you have any favorite works of your own that stand out?

WE: Well, my favorite one is always the last one I did (laughs). But "A Contract With God" is still important to me. And the one that was personally enjoyable was the one I did recently called "Minor Miracles," which came out this year. It was fun to do.

GH: I heard the lines for your table were quite long at this year's small Press Expo in Bethesda, MD.

WE: That was great. I was awed by that. I was so delighted because these are all young people on their way up. They have in their hands the future of our profession.

GH: You must be pretty excited about the resurgence in your popularity.

WE: Oh yeah, well, obviously (laughs). It's a little unnerving to me to tell you the truth. I aspired to be a promising young cartoonist. I'm ending up as a promising old cartoonist.

GH: Some of your most recent projects such as "A Day in Vietnam" and "Minor Miracles" contain the adult subject matter that has been customary in your graphic novels, yet your 4 color graphic novels "The Princess and the Frog" and "Don Quixote" seemed aimed at an all ages audience, specifically children.

WE: They were actually experiments with television and literacy. "Princess and the Frog," "Don Quixote" and "Moby Dick," which is coming out in the spring, were the result of an experiment that I worked on with Public Television about 5 years ago to develop a series of films on television that would help them develop a reading experience on television. This was at the peak of national interest in advancing literacy. So I reduced a couple of classics into a film.  Actually a series of stills that had limited animation designed for TV. These are simply adaptations, and really an introduction to the classic. I couldn't resist altering it somewhat. For example, in the case of the "Princess and the Frog," I was astounded when I read the original Grimm story fairy tale, to find she was really a rather bitchy lady (laughs). When I grew up I always thought that she was a kind and sweet and lovely girl. So I had fun with that. And then in "Don Quixote," as I did the story I realized that most of us working in this field are really Don Quixotes. We're all dreaming of ourselves beyond how the public sees us, and so I thought I would expand the thought, go a little bit beyond the story itself, make it a kind of a philosophical lesson. That's the reason I had Cervantes in the end come back and beknight Don Quixote.

GH: I know that many of your longtime fans enjoyed it. Did you get any kind of positive reaction from any of the kids that read it or their parents?

WE: I actually I got positive reaction from parents, which pleased me. But really, I wasn't really writing to children. It's very hard for me to write to children. I write to a 50 or 60 year old guy who just lost or had his wallet stolen on the subway (laughs) and he's wondering "Why me, God, why me?"

GH: Some of your books are semi-autobiographical, such as "To the Heart of the Storm" or "The Dreamer." How much of those books are autobiographical and how much are fictionalized?

WE: "The Heart of the Storm" was totally biographical, and very true, actually everything that happened. I only changed the names and the places, didn’t fabricate any events, it all just happened as I told it.   In the case of "The Dreamer," there I changed the names of all the participants, but the story is true. The information is accurate. The fellow, a guy named Renaud, was really Victor Fox, that incident was true. Actually all of it was true. The point of the book was a response to my students when I was teaching SVA. At SVA, in the last class at the end of the semester, students were always wringing their hands over having to get out into the field. What would happen to them? Where were they going to go? And I thought, gee, let me tell you my story (laughs).

GH: So "The Dreamer" is your book of advice to cartoonists trying to break into the field?

WE: It's to say to the kids who are growing up and going out into the field, "Look it's always been this way and if you stay with it, and remain the dreamer that you really are, you'll prevail."

GH: What are your thoughts on the current state of the industry, especially since there's been so much talk of the market being in a depressed state and comics dying?

WE: Well, look, the industry, the market is depressed, there's no question about that. Comic book stores are slowly declining in quantity. But the medium itself is more mature and better than it has ever been.   Material is being turned out that's just incredible. My visit to the small press convention just really blew my mind; the people are turning out some brilliant, brilliant things. I see the market changing direction.  Recently in Publisher's Weekly, they reported that the graphic novel is now being regarded by the major bookstores as a viable product. As a matter of fact I must confess that I was quietly pleased that "graphic novel" has become an accepted description.

GH: The graphic novel has become more popular than ever before, which I think is a great thing.

WE: It's one of the most reassuring things that have happened to me in years.

GH: What do you think will save the industry?

WE: I think what'll save the industry are the artists themselves. In answer to "When will 'they' ever recognize us," the answer is, "They will recognize us when we produce recognizable material." It's the content. There is no way of legislating approval.

GH: Do you think that superheroes, and the fact that they're so prevalent, are what are preventing that approval?

WE: Well, in a way. The problem is not superheroes…it’s how they’re presented. Trash and pandering in any field, whether it's in movies, whether it's in literature, always have the effect of turning people from a medium. Most folks are really not aware of the fact that below that 90% of trash there is some 5 or 10 percent of really good stuff that they should look for.

GH: Have you read any recent works such as Chris Ware's "Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth" or Judd Winick's "Pedro and Me"?

WE: Yes, I've seen those, they're good, they're very good, and they're very promising, very interesting. They are pushing the envelope.

GH: Are there any upcoming projects that you can tell us about?

WE: I'm working on a book now, but it's been my practice not to talk about a book while I'm in the middle of it, because it kind of dilutes itself when I do.   I've had an approach by someone who wants to do a coffee table book with all my stuff. Also I'm working on something now with Dark Horse, which will come out sometime next year. It is a collection of interviews or shop talk that I've done with Milton Canniff and Jack Kirby and people like that over the years. I've felt that's an important contribution to the history of our field because usual interviews are a little too postured. When two professionals are talking to each other, you get a different amount of information.

GH: Are there any projects outside of cartooning and comics that you would like to take on, such as movies or television?

WE: No, I'm really curiously not interested in film at all. I couldn't care less of whether a film is made of my book or work.   My interest is in printed literature, and I've been looking at the Internet world and examining what they do. It's a new method of transmission. I have debated this with Scott McCloud a couple of times. I think what's going to happen with this medium is that the cartoons that are shown on this medium are going to wind up being animated cartoons and are going to be back in film animation again. I think there's something magical about graphic work in printed form that someone's holding in their hands, that has a certain tactile satisfaction, it has a collectiblity and an intimacy that electronically transmitted work does not have, and I think I'd like to stay with it. I see no immediate rush to go into that field. I've said yes to a couple of people who have asked me if I would be interested in experimenting in that area. Sure, I'll devote a little time to that, but I don't see it going beyond the animation.

GH: I notice that your web site, WillEisner.com, is still under construction. Any time frame as to when it'll be up and running?

WE: Yes, the two people who have been working on it have been on it for 6-8 months now. What happened is they have a day job, and it eats them up, so they can only spend a few hours a day on this thing. But it'll probably get up and going pretty soon.

GH: With so many important contributions to the comics field, what would you consider to be your greatest legacy?

WE: My contribution to the validity of comics as a valid literary form.

Copyright©2000 Barry Wolborsky