In the world of
An Interview with Will Eisner
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.
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
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
Why do you think "The Spirit" remains so influential 60 years after
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.
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.
Do you have any favorite works of your own that stand out?
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.
I heard the lines for your table were quite long at this year's small Press Expo
in Bethesda, MD.
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
GH: You must be pretty
excited about the resurgence in your popularity.
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,
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.
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?
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?
"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.
GH: So "The
Dreamer" is your book of advice to cartoonists trying to break into the
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?
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.
GH: The graphic novel has
become more popular than ever before, which I think is a great thing.
It's one of the most reassuring things that have happened to me in years.
What do you think will save the industry?
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
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"?
Yes, I've seen those, they're good, they're very good, and they're very
promising, very interesting. They are pushing the envelope.
Are there any upcoming projects that you can tell us about?
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.
GH: Are there any projects
outside of cartooning and comics that you would like to take on, such as movies
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.
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?
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
With so many important contributions to the comics field, what would you
consider to be your greatest legacy?
My contribution to the validity of comics as a valid literary form.
Copyright©2000 Barry Wolborsky