From the TCJ Archives

Will Eisner: Having Something to Say

BENSON: Do you know the work of Bernie Krigstein?

EISNER: Yes, to a limited degree. I’m not very familiar with his work. I think he was the one, was he not, who did a sequence where he showed a train killing somebody? It was brought to my attention by somebody in the shop, because it was very similar to something I had tried sometime before. I think he did it with much more craft than I did. He carried it a step further, and I admired it. I don’t know much about him. Somebody handed me something he had said about me in an interview — was it your thing? And he seemed to be very unimpressed with what I had done.

BENSON: I wasn’t able to convince him.

EISNER: Well, no, he’s certainly entitled to that opinion, and he may very well be right.

BENSON: I spent my vacation watching the Democratic Convention, and seeing Mayor Daley’s power plays, shaking his fist, stuffing the galleries with his party regulars, I could only identify him as a character out of The Spirit. If there is one theme that runs through The Spirit, from its start to the last episode in the Herald Tribune, it is big city politics. Why is that?

EISNER: Remember that I grew up in the city — I sold newspapers on the street corners in the city. My whole background is a city boy. I went to high school here. All my culture is city culture. I lived in all the nooks and crannies of Manhattan. You know, it was all part of what I had to say. Central City was New York City as far as I was concerned, and the city politics was obviously what I knew and understood. I had no other place ... this is what I was drawing on, what I had to start with. I grew up in the Depression, so the application of politics was in the frame of the Depression. Actually, it wasn’t very much different than it is now, except that now there’s a different level of protest, but the protests are essentially the same. We had Mayor Daleys then. We couldn’t drop out then because economic security was the measure of achievement; but we were protesting. We didn’t wear beards, but we ran around and protested, joined causes and dreamed of brave new worlds. The protests were the same — instead of dropping out on pot, we dropped out on liquor, or you dropped out by going out on the road. But it’s strangely not a hell of a lot different, and the establishment looked as dastardly then as it looks impossible to me today. Except that now I am a member of the establishment. As a matter of fact, I’m quite content to know that the only comfort we establishment people have is the knowledge that these kids are going to someday be the establishment … and it will serve them right.

BENSON: Mike Barrier explains his interest in the so-called funny-animal comics by arguing that exaggeration is a necessity in the comics medium, and can be used effectively in funny-animal strips because they’re exaggerated to begin with. He says that some serious strips have used this necessary exaggeration and the results are grotesque. An original creator can make this a virtue, but he must use stories where grotesqueness is appropriate. He cited The Spirit as a successful example.

EISNER: If you have to break it down to that kind of laboratory definition, he’s correct, but in my judgment there really is not much difference between a “serious” or a “comic” strip. I wouldn’t think it out of character if Prince Valiant had a humorous character or comic relief. A cartoon, really, or any drawing ...

BENSON: I don’t want to interrupt, but I think Barrier is referring more to the dramatic stories that featured “funny animals” such as Uncle Scrooge by Carl Barks. They could use very exaggerated facial expressions, actions, and so on, because of the “funny animal” medium. But you were able to do that, too, with The Spirit, in a more realistic vein.

EISNER: The drawing was somewhat realistic, if that’s what you’re talking about. I employed exaggeration where I felt I needed it, and where I felt I wanted to be serious, I did. But I was never conscious of saying, “Well, I’ll exaggerate here and I will not there.” I played it the way you might in music. You got louder when you felt you wanted to emphasize something, and you got quieter when you felt you wanted a downbeat. Use any device the tool allows.

Clever pacing, framing and staging heighten the drama in this page from the November 30th, 1947 Spirit story “Slippery Eall.”

BENSON: There is an element of the grotesque in The Spirit which naturally lends itself to this kind of exaggeration. If you were telling a drawing-room story it would be very difficult to use exaggeration.

EISNER: Yes, but then again, you select the way any painter would. It becomes very plastic in your hands if you are in command of the technique, and I think that’s the essence of it. People have often referred to the stuff I did as grotesque. I wonder exactly what they mean by grotesque. I mean, I understand the definition, but what do you mean by grotesque? What do you think they mean by grotesque? I don’t mean to turn the tables, but I’d like to know.

BENSON: The milieu that The Spirit operated within ...

EISNER: You don’t mean distortions, optical distortions?

BENSON: The optical distortions which created the mood that the Spirit operated in …

EISNER: Well, then yes, I’m guilty. I’m quite grotesque.

BENSON: I don’t think it’s a matter of being guilty. What Barrier is saying is that since the media needs to be distorted, and thus to be grotesque, if you’re going to do a realistic story you have to do a story which already has its own elements of grotesqueness in order to utilize the form.

EISNER: I see what you mean. As far as my pattern went, I would say about 25% of the time only would I work from a visual concept to story. The rest of the time I would work from an idea. I’d start with a doorknob and build a house with it, generally. I’d come down with a basic idea or thought that I had, or something that I wanted to say, like the story of the atom bomb. When they blew the atom bomb in 1945 I was really caught up like everybody else, frightened and disturbed about the whole thing. I did a story one day about the discovery of fire by two men on a planet. They treated the discovery — these were two prehistoric men — as though it were the discovery of atomic energy. One fellow says to the other, “Why, this is terrible, this could wipe out the entire face of the earth; let’s handle this very carefully,” and so on. It reflected a very personal thing. I myself was trying to come to grips with this enormous idea, and in writing it I guess it was a sort of exercise in my own mind. But there was a grotesque treatment, obviously, because it was a grotesque subject.

BENSON: Where do the Warner pictures come in as an influence?

EISNER: Everybody from Feiffer to others who have written about me in recent years have attributed to various motion picture productions a great influence on me. You’ve got to remember, as I said, I was a city boy; I grew up on the movies — that was my thing, that’s what I lived with. The movies always influenced me. I was seriously interested in the theater at one time, and at one point I wanted to be a stage designer; it was really something I was terribly interested in. Then, for economic reasons, it just didn’t seem like a viable thing, but I still retained an interest in the theater. The early Man Ray films interested me tremendously. I used to go down to the New School and spend hours looking at these old Man Ray experimental films; and it gradually dawned on me that these films were nothing but frames on a piece of celluloid, which is really no different than frames on a piece of paper. Pretty soon, it became to me film on paper, and so obviously the influence was there. But timing, sequences — I think I was influenced by almost any film. I think if anyone asked me what films were the ones that I thought were most exciting, or most interesting, I really couldn’t put my finger on it. I suppose people can, later in life, point to an author that influenced them most. One of the artists that influenced me most, I would say, was Lynd Ward, his woodcuts and wood engravings; they were fantastic. And I always felt he was the daddy of the pure ultimate visual. And ever since then, and this is now 35 years, I’ve tried to reach that same mountaintop, and I’ve never been able to do it.

BENSON: But getting back to film, I would say that the films influenced me tremendously. When I look at your material, I don’t see that you’re copying any film techniques — you’re using your own techniques. But as far as the stories themselves go, there is a certain similarity.

EISNER: Well, my big influence in stories is not so much films, although they got their stories from the same place I did, actually. That influence is the short stories — the O. Henry short stories, the Ambrose Bierce short stories, and so forth. I was an avid short-story reader, and as I got into the business, the short stories became really useful. I used to seek out short stories wherever I could. I picked up once, in an old book store, a collection of short stories written in Scotland in 1830, in the newspaper called The Border Papers, and they’d have short stories in there every week — it was a weekly newspaper — very much like the short stories of the period when Charles Dickens wrote. I was a great fan of [Ben] Hecht, and I was also a very great fan of O. Henry and the whole gamut which I mentioned before. These had the twist endings, the surprise endings, and so forth. The Spirit, as I saw it (and as I saw comic books), was nothing but a series of short stories. They were the pulps in visual form.

BENSON: That’s interesting. It sort of dovetails with what you once told me before, that The Spirit was the precursor of television.

EISNER: The comics filled a gap. I was conscious of it at that time, because all during the time The Spirit was being produced and I was in comics actively, creatively, television was just around the corner. And The Spirit was a half-hour TV show.

BENSON: Do you go to the films now?

EISNER: Yes, I’m still a strong fan. I don’t get to films as much as I used to, but I do see … I watch a lot of television whenever I can.

BENSON: Do you see the European films much?

EISNER: I haven’t really kept up with the European wave, largely because my activities now keep me pretty busy going into more pragmatic things.

BENSON: Of course you know that all the European directors, especially Alain Resnais, are great comic fans.

EISNER: The ones I have seen employ a great deal of the technique … I thought the early Italian films did have … there’s a change that I’ve noticed that perhaps is different from the kind of things I was doing, which of course is to be expected. These films seem to employ the visual image for the sake of the visual image — not with any message in mind. It’s almost as though somebody had experimented in the laboratory with a whole series of things, and then just simply put them together and said, “Here, look at what I came up with.’’ Occasionally there’s a strong message; obviously the Fellini stuff has a strong message … the symbolism …

BENSON: What was the last Fellini film you saw?

EISNER: 8 1/2, which left me gasping because it was really quite a smashing thing. Remember, however, that I grew up in an era where the story and the message was all. And when the message becomes very obscure, then it’s rather hard to get.