From the TCJ Archives

Will Eisner: Having Something to Say

Originally published in The Comics Journal 267, 2005.

Eisner incorporates the television of his time — radio — into the February 16th, 1941 Spirit story, “Radio Station WLXK"

My first attempt to interview Will Eisner was in August 1961. I visited his offices in New York unannounced, and, although he was very cordial, he indicated that he was not interested in being interviewed. He said that he was very flattered that I still remembered The Spirit, but he had no plans to revive the feature and apparently had little interest in it. It was not until seven years later that Eisner agreed to do the following interview, his first interview for a comics-related publication. The most significant development in the intervening period that led to his change of heart was the rise of interest in comics that had culminated in Phil Seuling’s massive four-day SCARP Convention two months before this interview, at which Eisner had shared the role of Guest of Honor with Burne Hogarth. During that luncheon event, Hogarth seemed to draw a line between “real art,” that which was hung in the Louvre (which Hogarth’s had been, at that time), and “commercial art.” I thought Eisner should have a chance to respond, and, from the floor, I asked him if he thought that externally conferred acceptance had any relevance to what was real art. Eisner responded, starting with a heartfelt, “I’m glad you asked that question!” It may have been right after that event that I asked Eisner to do the following interview, which was recorded on September 10th, 1968, and originally appeared in Witzend #6 (Spring 1969). His disagreement with Hogarth at the Convention is touched on in the interview.

As I was ushered into Will Eisner’s office, a contract was spread out before him and he was speaking on the telephone of “grand total projected annual market figures” and the like. This prompted the first question.

JOHN BENSON: Do you feel that your business acumen was a necessary aspect for you to create your art in The Spirit, or even before, when you were in comics?

WILL EISNER: No, I think the business acumen is largely a result of an effort to market ideas. It’s an outgrowth, really, of the fact that I was always generating more ideas than I could sell, or find a market for. After a while anyone in that position gets frustrated, so, out of sheer desperation, you go out into business. In the early days, in an effort to find somebody who would do selling for me, I latched on to Jerry Iger, and we formed a partnership — Eisner and Iger. Basic business acumen really comes from hunger. That also goes for ideas, I suspect. Many years ago, when I was giving a talk, somebody asked me what prompted my ideas, and all I could tell them … it was malnutrition.

BENSON: The Spirit was immensely more successful than the work of other comic creators who have had less business acumen.

EISNER: Not necessarily. After all, the fellows who turned out Superman, it really turned out in the end, had very little business acumen — they ultimately lost their ownership of the property. Actually, they were more successful: The feature itself was more successful than The Spirit. I became an entrepreneur because, as I said, I would generate many ideas and I had to find a market. I had the structure within myself to generate those ideas, but selling is another thing. It’s terribly frustrating, as any artist knows, to have somebody look at your idea and say, “I don’t think it’s any good.” Generally the fellow who doesn’t think it’s any good doesn’t seem to have the great intellectual powers that you think he should have. It’s hard for an ego to survive a guy with a dead cigar in his face who looks at your effort, belches, and says, “Nah … it ain’t gonna sell.”

At the very least you come away frustrated. Very often, of course, when you don’t have access to markets, you have to create them yourself … or try to. The Spirit did grow out of acumen, a groping for a new market. I got into the comic-book business very early, and I think I was the first to sort of mass-produce comic magazines. I was running a shop in which we made comic-book features pretty much the way Ford turned out cars. So perhaps the reason that the Register and Tribune consented to distribute The Spirit in the first place was because I had demonstrated an ability as a producer — and after all, turning out a 16-pager (which at that time it was) every week for newspaper distribution, with no tolerance for delivery, where you had to make a scheduled delivery every week, did require some kind of respect from the people who were going to handle distribution. I had at last struck a new market … a comic book insert for Sunday newspapers … that had never been done before.

BENSON: You published a couple of books under your own imprint, and they didn’t do very well.

Rube Rooky’s adventures failed to set American newsstands on fire, and quickly struck out. Panel from Baseball Comics #1

EISNER: They sure didn’t … which will give you an idea of how far a creative man generally goes in marketing his own ideas. I published a thing called Baseball Comics, with Rube Rooky, and I also published a thing called Kewpies, which we got the rights to. Both of them died — oh, they were absolute disasters. Rube Rooky was a great idea, but it just came along long after it had a right to come along. Well, they were two lone books … they got lost in the distributor’s lists. There’s a lot to magazine distribution that does not meet the eye; it’s like a big iceberg. Today, as always, the creator and the publisher (who is really a packager) is at the mercy of his distributors. And you can create the finest things in the world …

BENSON: I’d like to go back to the comments you made at the 1968 Comic Art Convention dinner, at which you and Burne Hogarth were honored. Relating to the discussion you had, I think, is a story that Chuck Jones, the animator, tells about a young fellow who visited Robert Frost. Frost asked him what he did, and the fellow said, “I’m a poet.” And Frost said, “That’s a gift word, son; you can’t call yourself a poet — only others can call you a poet.” Jones expanded the thought to animation, and any art form. Would you agree? Would you say that it is not important to you (or not something you should concern yourself with) that you be called an artist?

A famous Spirit cover: from October 6th, 1946, “Meet P’Gell.”

EISNER: I would take the same position. If I recall, the question that you posed at the meeting was one I welcomed, because I candidly took great issue with what Burnie Hogarth was saying. As a matter of fact, I was quite warm under the collar because I felt that Hogarth, in a sort of a left-handed way, was tearing the rug out from under creative people … and it surprised me. I can’t believe he could mean that, because he was, after all, making a living from the teaching of artists — he’s running a school, he makes his bread from kids like that. To make an issue over whether you are or are not an artist … or, “is a cartoonist an artist or not,” is rather unimportant, and a teacher shouldn’t be talking that way. I can see kids sitting around and discussing that, young kids just starting out — “Are we artists?” or, “Are we craftsmen?” or, “Are we legitimate artists or not?” But for a teacher to do that, it seemed to me an inexcusable thing. I honestly believe that you’ve got to go out and be what you are, and let the critics label you. Within that frame, however, you must have a goal in mind. You have to want to be something.

Now, I will very candidly tell you, and I’m very firm on this, that I always thought of myself as a craftsman when doing The Spirit, and The Spirit was really a culmination of all the talent, skill and imagination I could muster. Prior to that time I was just making a living. The Spirit was the first major effort in my life where I was able to do something I wanted to do, and was doing something I thought was meaningful, and at the same time making money on it. They were good years! I felt that I was at the epitome of the medium, and that I was helping in the creation of a medium in itself. I had found a new milieu all to myself, and I was helping to make it. Comics before that were pretty pictures in sequence, and I was trying to create a thing, an art form. I was conscious of that, and I used to talk about it. I remember when, especially in the days when Feiffer was working for me, we used to have long discussions about it as an art form — not quite the same way it’s done today as an art form; with no nostalgia, really groping. “How can we improve this? How can we make this better? How can we do better things?” It was almost a continuing laboratory, and I was very lucky, because there wasn’t anybody who could stop me from doing what I wanted. I owned my own feature and I had the respect of my distributor, and there was nobody to stop me. I had only to stay within those bounds of propriety that would enable it to get by the editor of the newspaper. But I also thought of myself as a writer … a visual writer, let’s put it that way. I never thought of myself as an author in the traditional sense … but a combination of the two things — artist-writer. It’s very pleasing, I confess, after 20 years, to have people refer to it that way, because it gives me a sense of having accomplished something.

BENSON: Would you say, then, that it would be pretty necessary, in order to utilize all the aspects of the art form, for the creator to be both a writer and an artist?

EISNER: I think it’s absolutely essential. To achieve the name, or to be worthy of the name, of creator, a man should be both writer and artist. Now, he doesn’t have to write with words. After all, [Diego] Rivera and [Jose Clemente] Orozco were making murals which, as far as I’m concerned, were vast pieces of writing, because the painter had an idea and he was trying to communicate with the people who would ultimately view it. He had something to say. That’s the heart of it — having something to say. The man who sits down and takes somebody else’s script and merely renders it into pictures is doing something, and I don’t withdraw from him what is his due. I can only measure him by the contribution he’s made to the script. He is going just so far, but he has a limitation. [Salvador] Dali is a writer-artist combination. I could name any number of “creators” who write and draw. You don’t have to use words, is my point. Of course, in the comic field I consider Harvey Kurtzman one of the great, real geniuses. I’m not talking about the work he’s doing now, I’m not talking about the work he did at Mad, I’m talking about the stuff he did prior to Mad, where he experimented in ...

BENSON: His war comics?

EISNER: No; this is the stuff he did for the Herald Tribune. As a matter of fact, very few people remember it. It was incredibly good stuff. But he had something to say — he feels. You know when you talk to him that he has something to say. [Jules] Feiffer always had something to say. He isn’t the craftsman, perhaps, that, say, Burnie Hogarth was. I considered Burnie Hogarth a great craftsman, but I don’t know of anything that he … he may have, I really don’t want to put him down. I use him as an example. Another man I admire, whose craftsmanship I admire, is Alex Raymond, who did a certain amount of writing; but he brought something, he said something — he said, “This is a style, this is the thing I’m going to say.” Then there’s [Al] Capp, [Milton] Caniff, [George] Herriman … many others. I think everybody says something — when a guy draws a dirty picture on the wall he says something. But the limits of his contributions are measured only by what the reader gets from what he says.