From the TCJ Archives

Will Eisner: Having Something to Say

BENSON: Did you know Jack Cole?

EISNER: Yes, very well.

BENSON: Did you work with him?

EISNER: When I was in partnership with “Busy” Arnold …

BENSON: You were partners; that was another thing I was curious about.

EISNER: E. M. Arnold and I — “Busy” Arnold, Everett Arnold, however you want to put it — were partners in a series of comic books. He was a businessman, purely an entrepreneur, and we had this partnership. He also published books on his own, and a couple of the books he published on his own were done by Jack Cole. Jack Cole was not actually working for me directly, although he was working for my partner, and I knew Jack. Plastic Man was something we came up with out of an idea I talked with “Busy” about; I think ultimately Jack did it. I am always, or I was anyway, always generating ideas, and it didn’t matter to me where they went or who took them or what. I don’t lay a claim to any of these ideas, it’s just … you know, everybody gets influenced by everybody else. I was influenced by people who were doing backgrounds for me. And I’m sure they were influenced by me.

BENSON: You mentioned the story about the atom bomb. You used to have what might be called peace parables. I recall the irony in a Christmas story, and I believe it was before Feiffer was with you, which started with a sign reading, “City of Bethlehem — We Make the Finest Steel for the Finest Guns.” Now you’re working for the Army …

EISNER: … and you want me to equate that? OK, I’ll equate it for you. I haven’t changed, one bit. What I’m doing for the Army today is instructional and educational material. We’re teaching people how to maintain their equipment. I’m a teacher; I’m turning out instructional material. I don’t feel the slightest feeling of guilt, or separation, or any relationship between that and what I might think about war as war, or warmongering as warmongering. Or even, for that matter, whether or not we should be in Vietnam or shouldn’t be in Vietnam. As a matter of fact, I spent last summer in Vietnam myself. And I don’t think this is the place to discuss it, but I have some strong opinions …

BENSON: I’d be interested to know what they are.

EISNER: I have very strong opinions about it, and I haven’t hesitated to discuss it. I’m not a dove in the sense … you see, people like to categorize things very simply. A man stands up and says, “Let’s get out of Vietnam,” and I’m too old now to jump up on the barricades and wave a flag and say, “Yeah, let’s get out of Vietnam.” I have to say first of all, “After we do what?” Or, “How do we get out? Which way do we get out? And when, and who?” But as far as my attitude toward war is concerned, and my attitude toward my relationship between the work we’re doing now and the war … The military instructional material that I’ve been turning out began in 1950. It’s one of the reasons why I left The Spirit and got out of entertainment comics — because I have been devoting the last 20 years, really, to developing the comic-strip medium, which I had always experimented with, into a legitimate teaching tool. This is really the thing I’m proud of. I’ll teach anything with that tool. I’d teach how to conduct a peace march in that tool, if we had a customer for it, or if I felt it was useful, or if I had a place where it could be distributed. I’ll teach … do a comic strip on how to burn your draft card, if I felt that was an area … fix an engine … anything. We have done comics on democracy for Latin America, how to drive a truck for Turks … and so forth. But I have no patience with that kind of relationship, because I think it’s misleading and unfair. Merely because one works … one sells one’s product, or one’s product is bought by the Army, really, is … to me it doesn’t make any sense. But that’s another discussion.

BENSON: The Philadelphia Bulletin and one or two other papers ran The Spirit in tabloid size. I’m curious as to whether you had anything to do with that and whether you liked it.

EISNER: No; strangely enough I hated it. One of the reasons I hated it was because it wasted a lot of space; if I could have used that same tabloid section and told more of a story, I would have liked it.

BENSON: Another subject brought up at the Convention dinner was the character Ebony. But I’d like to talk about some of your other Negro characters that seemed to be both realistic portrayals of Negroes at the time and also an attempt to, say, integrate the strip.

Eisner’s young black girls featured many of the same tropes used in his young white girls, though Ebony himself was still a caricature. Splash illustration to the October 14th, 1946 story, “Heart of Rosie Lee.”

EISNER: At the time I was very conscious of this and I tried, where I could, to make what I felt was a departure. You have to keep in mind that for whatever else I did, I was always interested in, and still am interested in, departure. The only kicks I get out of this business is being able to break new ground. Now very often I don’t succeed, like any first man into something. But that’s really, as far as I’m concerned, the name of the game — to keep trying something new with the skills that you have. Now, I did create a character called Lt. Grey. Lt. Grey was really what the two I Spy characters are today. I had precisely that idea, that I was going to create an intelligent, well-integrated, acceptable Negro who was every bit as good as his counterparts, and who fitted into the stream of things. Now, no one stopped me, but remember I was also sensitive to interest; I was responsive to the times. Ebony was done with a great deal of love and affection. I want to tell you something I couldn’t discuss at the meeting, which I think is fair to discuss here. At one point, I think it was somewhere around 1949, I got, strangely enough, two letters in the same day, one of those rare coincidences. One letter came from the Education Division of the CIO in Philadelphia. It happened to be from a fellow who went to school with me or something, and he wrote a long, bitter letter about how he was shocked, and dismayed, and disappointed that a fine liberal like me had gone down the road of portraying Negroes in this fashion. On the same day, I had this long and wonderful letter from the editor of the Afro-American newspaper in Baltimore congratulating me on the courage that I was displaying in showing a character like that. Now the strange thing about it is that neither of these fellows was quite right. I was neither a defrocked liberal, nor was I setting out to do any more than what I thought was right. I treated Ebony in the scheme of things as it was then. There was a time when both liberal and reactionary thought Amos ’n’ Andy were just great. They were being very honest about it; I think they thought they were being quite kind. People forget that because we now discover what a terrible thing it was — patronizing Negroes. But anybody who has been part of a minority knows that there was a time when people are patronizing. So when somebody tells Jewish jokes today, I don’t bristle nearly as much as I did when I was 16 years old, so many, many years ago when people told Jewish jokes, because I knew in those days they weren’t being very kind. Today no one gets mad; it’s part of the changing culture. To me, Ebony was a very human character, and he was very believable … I don’t hold out and say that I was setting out to be a friend of the Negro, but I at the time, with all the idealism I had then, I felt that he deserved to be treated as a human being, and have emotions. Remember, that was a breakaway in itself. No one ever showed Negroes with any emotions other than weeping over the death of poor little Mandy, and the little white girl. As far as having emotions for reasons of their own, nobody really ever did show that. In comics, only Ham Fisher did anything like it and he stayed with the safe stereotype. We’re doing stuff now — one of the things I’m currently engaged in is a whole series of Negro-oriented educational materials, in the comic technique, with all Negro characters. A totally different approach than I took then — but done in the comic style.

BENSON: You’re quoted in the Herald Tribune as saying, “The Spirit was an existentialist — he solved crimes for no reason … he was the first middle-class crimefighter.” Wouldn’t these statements also be true of the Humphrey Bogart archetype?

EISNER: I think you could say “yes.” They both had the same reasoning; his motivation was as obscure as the Spirit’s motivation. As a matter of fact, one of the things that perhaps crept through The Spirit that makes people say to me slyly, digging me in the ribs and looking at me out of narrowed eyes, “You really had tongue-in-cheek all the time, didn’t you? It was all a big put on.” Well, yes, in a way, because I could never understand why any crime fighter would go out and fight crime. Why the hell a guy should run around with a mask and fight crime was beyond me. Except that I, and there again it was a part of my own background, this kind of mystical thinking, in which I’ve always felt that people do the things they have to do. So man does what he’s confronted with. You put a man in front of a wall, he will climb the wall, just the way an ant does. As he builds a society, he builds a wall and then struggles to climb it. The Spirit had all the middle-class motivations, which is that “I’ve got to have something to do; this is my thing, this is my schtick,” and he went out and did it. Of course, the big thing, the big problem each week was to figure out an acceptable reason why he should get involved in this in the first place.