THE EISNER-IGER SHOP
How It Came To Be and How It Operated
ONE OF COMICS’ MOST INNOVATIVE PIONEERS, Will Eisner was not only a formative influence in shaping the comic book as a storytelling medium during its infancy, he also explored the instructional potential of comics and, in later years, experimented extensively in the graphic novel. Over the years since I met him in the early 1990s, I interviewed him several times. A transcript of the first one, which we posted in April, covers mostly Eisner’s assessment of the state of the art and its future. In June, we posted the second one, which is about the business of instructional comics (with Shelly Moldoff talking about Bob Kane). In the third one, which we’ve just posted, we talk about the formation of the Eisner-Iger Shop in the mid-thirties. Another conversation, “The Art and Industry of Comics,” is posted here in Hindsight for December 12, 2015; and an obit, also in Hindsight, January 18, 2005, rehearses Eisner’s life and work.
What follows here is the thoroughly edited interview I conducted at the behest of The Comics Journal, which wanted the history of the Eisner-Iger Shop on record. At first, when comic-book publishers were relying mostly upon newspaper comic strips for content, reprinting several strips to a page, Eisner set up one of the first comic-book shops, the factory-like operations designed to generate new material expressly for comic-book publication. The following interview was conducted by phone on September 4, 2002; I transcribed it, and it was subsequently edited by me and Eisner and copyedited by Michael Dean at The Journal.
HARVEY: I suspect that the Eisner-Iger Shop was arguably the first comic-art shop, but if not the first, then probably the second, Harry “A” Chesler having started a shop in the summer of 1936.
EISNER: I believe we were the first. There may have been another, but I don’t know who started the first one. It’s very hard for me to remember all this in any kind of strict chronological order. I’ve often described that period as like being in a war: you’re in the trench, and someone says to you, “How’s the war going?” You don’t know how the war’s going! I know there’s a war out there, but my war is here in the trench.
HARVEY: You and Jerry Iger got together initially to produce the magazine Wow! What A Magazine.
EISNER: Let me tell you the story. I was out of work [spring 1936], and I ran into Bob Kane on the street, and I said, “What are you doing?” After high school, Bob started selling panel cartoons. It was a going business then: there was Life and Liberty and College Humor and a couple of other magazines like that [Judge and Ballyhoo, for instance — RCH]. And he said, “There’s a magazine called Wow! that I’ve been selling panel cartoons to, so you might go look for work there.” So I went up. It was in an office in the front end of a factory on Fourth Avenue that was making shirts, run by a guy named John Henle. Those factory offices were next to the front windows on the street-side, and the factory took up the rest of the floor. I walked in and there was Iger sitting at a desk on the telephone, little guy, and I asked to show him my work, but he was on the phone and it was a moment of crisis. “Gee,” he said, “I don’t have time to talk to you now. I’ve got a serious problem here.”
Well, candidly, I was hungry. I was real hungry, and I wasn’t going to allow him to put me off. He said, “Come back another day. Come back tomorrow or the next day.” And he’s putting on his jacket and heading for the elevator, and I was going towards it with him. He’s about 5 feet 1 inch tall, and here I am, 5-11, so I was towering over him. I was following him down in the elevator, and I had my black portfolio with me, and I said, “Let me show you my stuff.” And he said, “Well, you can show me.” We were now walking up the street, up Fourth Avenue (now it’s Park Avenue South), and I was showing him my artwork as we were walking up the street. Then we got to his engraver’s shop, and there was a meeting going on there. In engraver’s shops in those days — it was letterpress before offset — they had a big stone table in the center of the room where they would look at the metal plates as they came out of the acid bath. They were standing around this thing and talking about a serious problem. The problem was that the plates were digging holes in the mattes, a papier-maché-like product like egg crates, and I cleared my throat, and I said, “Excuse me.” And they looked at me, and I said, “Does anyone have a burnishing tool?” I had been working for years in a print shop downtown on Varick Street, and I’d seen this before. What happens is that when the etching is complete, it frequently left burrs along the indentations, and these burrs were what was making holes in the mattes. They handed me a burnishing tool, and I rubbed the burrs off the edges of the plate. And these guys turned to Iger and said, “Who is this kid?” Iger said, “He’s my new production man.” [Laughs.]
We went back out onto the street and went back to his office, and Iger let me do a story. I did a thing called “Scott Dalton,” a hero-type character. I was very enamored of the works of H. Rider Haggard, who wrote She. I was fascinated by his stories. And this Dalton character was a Haggard-type hero who would go to the Gobi Desert and find rare artifacts. The magazine Wow! lasted another issue or two and then went broke. Henle was no longer willing to continue the publication.
So I’m up in the Bronx chewing my nails because this was a lost opportunity. I picked up the phone, and I called Jerry Iger and said, “I’d like to meet with you: I’ve got an idea.” And he said, “All right, I’ll have lunch with you.”
We met on 43rd Street opposite the printing plant of the New York Daily News, just off Third Avenue. What had struck me as I sat at home thinking about it was that the only comic books being started were all reprinting daily newspaper comic strips, adventure strips, and it suddenly hit me, out of the blue, that they would run out of a supply of these strips very soon, and then there’ll be an opportunity to sell original material, drawn especially for these comic books. So we had lunch at this little beanery, and I told Jerry Iger about this idea and said I’d like to form a company with him and we’d produce the original art for these comic books. He was 13 years older than me, and I figured he was mature, and so he could handle the sales. I was 18 or 19, and at that age, you’re not a salesman. You’re lucky you can draw, but selling took other talents. You see, you can’t handle rejection at that age. [They laugh.]
Iger said, “Frankly, it’s going to take money, and I don’t have any money. My second wife is divorcing me and is taking me for everything I’ve got: she’s taking half of what I’ve got.” He was quite the ladies man.
So I said, “Look — I’ll put up the money.” [He laughs.]
HARVEY: Rich guy, eh?
EISNER: Yes — I had $15 that I’d just gotten for a commercial job. And I knew about a little building on 41st Street just off Madison Avenue — still there — that rented rooms, offices, for something like $5 or $10 a month. No lease. They usually rented them to bookies, little one-room things. So I told Jerry, “I’ll put up the dough. And I’ll do all the art, and all you have to do is go out and sell it.” We made a deal, shook hands. We agreed to form a corporation — Eisner and Iger, my name first because I was the big money man. [He laughs.] And when we finished, I picked up the check — I’m the big man now. Well, I had $1.95 in my pocket, and the check came to $1.90, so I had a nickel left to take the subway home to the Bronx.
I put the $1.90 down, and we walked out, and Iger says, as we walked down the street, “You know that wasn’t very nice.”
I said, “What’s that?”
He said, “You didn’t leave a tip.” [Chuckles.]
I told him I forgot. “I’m sorry about that.” And so we started the company, and I was the equivalent of a five-man art staff.
HARVEY: Let me interrupt with a couple stray questions. Before you met Iger, you said you worked at a printing shop. Was that during high school or after?
EISNER: During high school, in the afternoons. I was cleaning presses.
HARVEY: When you proposed the idea of doing original material for comics to Iger, were you aware of other shops like Chesler’s shop?
EISNER: No, I didn’t know of any.
HARVEY: If I recall, the first things you did there at Eisner-Iger were for an overseas syndicate operation —
EISNER: Iger had established connections while editor of Wow! with an outfit called Editors Press, which sold comics to foreign countries. It was an interesting company, and its story should be told. It was operated by Joshua B. Powers, who had originally been an American intelligence agent. He was probably secret service or something like that. South America was his beat. When he retired, he had an idea that he would sell comic strips to newspapers in Latin America — comic strips and cooking features and stuff like that. But his idea was that he wouldn’t get paid in money by those papers: instead, he would get space. Then he would sell the space up in the States to outfits that wanted to advertise in Latin America. There were a number of companies like toothpaste and soap manufacturers that were selling to Latin America, and they were looking for cheap advertising space. Powers would sell them space at less than the price they would pay if they went to the newspapers themselves. Before long, he had grown into a substantial syndicate in the foreign market. And he sold to other countries. He sold comics in England to a magazine called Wags. Iger got him as our first customer. The other magazines in town were mostly in the process of getting started at the time [and didn’t, at first, have a need for what we were producing].
HARVEY: You also started Universal Phoenix Syndicate.
EISNER: Yes, that was later on. Not immediately. It was started as a way of selling comic strips to small local newspapers along the East Coast. A lot of small papers had no way of getting comic strips if they were in the same territory as a big metropolitan paper. When King Features sold a strip to, say, The Newark Star Ledger, the Star Ledger had regional rights, so none of the papers in that “region” — those in all the small towns surrounding Newark with little newspapers — could get any of the strips the Star Ledger was publishing. I said, “Let’s see what we can do about that.” And Iger said he’d go with that. So we hired two salesmen, two hotshot salesmen — Rilley and Begg. I don’t remember their first names, but they were fast-talking hotshots. The idea was that they would go into these small-town newspapers and sell them a page of our comic strips. The last panel of each strip was blank. They’d say they would go out and sell those blanks as advertising space. The advertising income would pay for the comic strips, so the paper would get a page of comic strips for nothing. But what the newspaper guy didn’t realize is that these two hotshots would be leaving town the week after they’d sold a week’s space, say, to the corner drugstore, so the next week, the newspaper guy would have to go back to the corner drugstore and sell the space again. At first, he didn’t realize he’d bitten off a little more than he could chew. That was Universal Phoenix Syndicate.
HARVEY: And the material you produced for that eventually wound up in Quality’s comic books. Hawks of the Seas, for example.
EISNER: It wasn’t called Hawks of the Seas at first. It was called something else. [The Flame.] Hawks of the Seas was done originally for Wow! Again, I was enamored of Raphael Sabatini stories and N.C. Wyeth illustrations. Remember, we didn’t have comic books in existence to build on in those days. Fellows today have a whole history of comic books to work with. Lots of examples. All I had were classical illustrators and the daily newspaper comics.
HARVEY: There was a time, shortly after you and Iger got going, that you were a one-man band, the whole art staff.
EISNER: Yes, that started just a few weeks after we got going. Iger’s job was to sell the material; and he did the lettering, too [chuckles]. He’d worked for Fleischer Studios. That’s how he got into the cartoon business apparently. He did the lettering for me, but most of his job was to sell. He’d call on pulp magazines. Pulp magazines were being dismantled at that time; they were in terrible sales trouble. Sales were dropping even on the biggest of them, Street and Smith magazines. Iger phoned me from one of those offices — maybe an outfit called Murphy Publishing, I think.
To back up a little, pulp magazines, as I said, were in trouble. Distribution in this country was pretty much dominated by the American News Company. In order to get a distribution agreement, you had to have some good contacts with them. And once you had a distribution agreement, you weren’t likely to give it up. Pulp magazine publishers had good distribution agreements, and they were looking for something to distribute rather than give up their agreements. So comic books seemed to be the solution for a lot of them: they were very close to the kind of things they’d been publishing before. Magazines — and pulps — were sold off newsstands at that time.
HARVEY: The publishers whose pulp magazines were petering out were looking for product to pour into the distribution system they had possession of —
EISNER: Right. They had a lock on the distribution system. If you had a deal with the American News Company, you had a real asset. And that’s how DC got started. Anyway, Iger was calling on the pulp publishers, and he phoned me one day from the office of — the name Murphy sticks in my head — and he said, “These guys want to give us some work, but they want to know how big our staff is.”
And I said, looking at my hand on the drawing board, “Tell them five people.”
HARVEY: Five fingers [chuckles].
EISNER: And Iger came back, and he said, “You’ve got to be crazy. We can’t afford to hire five people. I told the guy we had five people. Now we have to deliver. I’m not hiring five people. I’m not putting any money into this company: I told you that when we started!”
And I said, “No, I’ll do all the work.” So I created about five different names — Willis B. Rensie, my name backwards; J.W. Morgan Thomas, Spencer Steel — real great names. With names like that, you can’t go broke. [They laugh.] Guaranteed success. I don’t know of anybody named Spencer Steel who is a failure.
HARVEY: I don’t either.
EISNER: So I did five different strips. Some of those strips were later sold to foreign countries. We kept the copyright ownership. It was then I began to learn about the value of ownership, by the way. Comic-book publishers were paying about $5 a page. Incidentally, the reason for $5 a page was that publishers had been buying proofs from the newspaper syndicates. You bought a week’s worth of proofs for Dick Tracy from a syndicate for $5. And you’d stack daily five strips up and you got the equivalent of a page of comics. That was why $5 a page became the standard price. No one really understood why that was. I learned a lot about business — about the value of copyright — from Iger. He was very aggressive, very good.
HARVEY: The strips that you and Iger produced you owned as partners.
EISNER: Right. Eisner and Iger was a corporation. Each of us owned 50 percent. And we would sell on a licensing basis. Later on, as Harry Donenfeld and other major comic-book publishers came into the field, they bought stuff outright. The ones we sold — for example, the ones we sold to Fiction House — we retained the ownership.
HARVEY: The pulp publishers Iger was selling to at first, were they producing comic books? Or were they publishing comic strips in their existing pulp titles?
EISNER: A couple of them started running comics in the pulp magazines in an effort to fatten out the pulp and to make a transition of some kind. Fiction House was a pulp publisher, and their first idea was to include strips, comics, in their pulp magazines. We sold anything we could sell. I did some illustrations for Street and Smith. I did a feature for their Western magazine. It was “Western Sheriffs and Famous Outlaws.” It was a single panel like those old sports cartoons. Each one had the history of some well-known sheriff or outlaw.
HARVEY: Billy the Kid —
EISNER: Yes, everybody did Billy the Kid. We concentrated on sheriffs. I would go the library and find lots of books on Western lore.
HARVEY: So initially you and Iger were scrambling to find —
HARVEY: — people who would buy artwork.
EISNER: That’s right. We would sell anything. I worked day and night. Iger was 30. I was born in 1917, so I was about 19 when we hooked up.
HARVEY: At some point, you started selling to Arnold’s Quality Comics, and you were using the artwork that you had sold previously either through Editors Press Service or Universal Phoenix Syndicate. And you were cutting up the artwork and reconfiguring it to comic-book page size.
EISNER: Yes, we were doing a lot of that. Hawks of the Seas was a prime example of a product that we cut up and re-arranged for comic-book publication.
HARVEY: You say “we,” but it was you doing it.
EISNER: Yes, I was doing it. I was the production manager. Iger was the salesman.
HARVEY: You were the whole shop for awhile.
EISNER: In the beginning, I was the whole shop. But we began hiring people. I hired Bob Kane to do a feature called Peter Pupp, which was a knock-off of a Disney strip. Bob never worked on staff — in the shop. And then there was Klaus Nordling. He was a playwright, actually, and he was doing caricatures. He was such a brilliant guy. He immediately jumped in and began doing features. Within about a year, we had about 15 people. We moved very rapidly.
HARVEY: I assume that you were writing the material —
EISNER: Yes, I wrote a lot of it. The first writer we ever hired was Toni Blum, the daughter of Alex Blum, an illustrator who we hired. She came down and began writing.
HARVEY: Can you describe the sequence that a story went through to completion, starting with whoever started it — the writer, an editor, you — whoever put their hands on it first?
EISNER: Generally, the way it worked — remember, we were a packaging house. In the case of, say, Victor Fox, one of our first customers, he came to us and said, “I want to get out a magazine.” So I would generate, first, the characters that would go into it. Usually, I’d make a sketch of the characters that I would offer them because none of them [the publishers] knew anything about it. We were the authorities. So I would rough out the design of the character. I wouldn’t write the story right away; the story would be written after the concept was approved. In the case of Sheena, for example, while I lay claim to it, actually, I didn’t do Sheena for any great time. I made the first drawing of Sheena, and I did the cover, and then I turned it over to Mort Meskin, who was working in the shop. He began doing it, and by then, we had a staff writer, and she would do the stories. So the process usually was that I would devise the concept and the character. It was, I believe, the way Stan Lee worked later. Stan would dream up the characters and tell the story to an artist and say, “Here’s what the character should do.” Stan couldn’t draw, but I could draw, and generally, I would draw the character at first, design it, so to speak. Then it would be taken over by whoever did it. And this process is how Arnold got the idea that I was “reliable,” as he put it. [Chuckles.]
HARVEY: And that came into play later on with the introduction of the comic-book newspaper supplement.
HARVEY: After the character had been conceived and sold, what was the process of a story through the shop.
EISNER: Let’s use Sheena, a good one. The shop was set up pretty much like an ancient Egyptian slave galley [laughs], and I’d be sitting at the end of the aisle, beating the big drum [laughs].
HARVEY: Your drawing table was at one end of the room.
EISNER: Yes. Imagine a big room. In the front of the big room was a little office, and that’s where Iger’s desk was. So when you came in the door, you came upon a desk normally occupied by a secretary or a receptionist except that, in our case, Iger’s desk was there. Then you would go into the main room, and to the left as you entered was my desk. I had a rolltop desk and a drawing board. My drawing board was against the wall, and my desk was in front of me, facing the staff. Before me, all the way up to the window at the back, was the staff of people — very much like a classroom.
HARVEY: And each one had his own drawing board, like the desks in a classroom.
EISNER: Yes, and each one also had a taboret. Very early on, I organized it in a way that would give me an opportunity to direct production. When you’re dealing with a $5-per-page income, you have to watch your nickles pretty closely. Down the right-hand wall facing me were the pencilers — although penciling and inking were done by the same people. If you penciled it, you inked it. We eventually got some background people; and lettering was done by somebody else. And erasing and clean-up was done by young kids. Then I hit on the idea of using non-photo blue pencils, which eliminated the need to erase the artwork. Down the right-hand side was Jacob Kurtzburg — Jack Kirby — then a writer and then Mort Meskin. And down the center was Bob Powell, Lou Fine, George Tuska, and so on. Bill Bossert came in as a writer. He ultimately married the other writer, Toni Blum. For a short time, Toni and I were having a budding romance, but that didn’t last long.
HARVEY: Dick Briefer, was he there?
EISNER: Dick Briefer was there. Chuck Mazoujian was there for awhile. Also —
HARVEY: Nick Viscardi?
EISNER: Not then; he came later, when I moved over to join Arnold with The Spirit. Alex Blum was there, too; he had been a muralist. Hiring in those days was a very unscientific matter. I had no basis upon which to proceed. I started by advertising in The New York Times. People would show up on a Monday morning with samples, lined up outside the door. We had to hire people who came from other fields. Lou Fine and Bob Powell and people like that had just gotten out of school; they came from Pratt. Lou Fine wanted to be an illustrator. Bob Powell, too. They all wanted to be illustrators; nobody wanted to be a cartoonist. There was no background for comics. Nobody saw any future in this thing. It was just a quick buck. A steady way to make money.
I hit on the salary rather than piecework idea at the time — I remember arguing this out with Iger. We constantly argued, Iger and I, about how to do things. His complaint with me was that I was a “dreamer” — that’s why I titled that book of mine, The Dreamer. I borrowed it from Iger. Very frequently, he would say, “The trouble with you is that you want to win an art director’s award. But we’re turning out frankfurters here.”
But I hit on this idea. And it worked for me. It was the tail end of the Depression, and the most important thing that people wanted was a salary, a regular income. So I offered to pay weekly salaries instead of paying by the page. What that did for me was to give me total control of the quality of the art. If you have a freelancer who’s getting paid so much a page and you ask him to change the page, he’s going to resent that or demand more money. But if he’s working on salary, he’s going to say, “I don’t give a damn; I get my salary no matter what.” The only potential problem was getting production, getting the necessary quantity of pages completed. But strangely enough, it worked out fine. They were quite honest. I was gambling on their pride. And I was walking around like a German schoolteacher all day long, with my hands behind my back, exhorting them to do this, change that. [Chuckles.]
HARVEY: On salary, someone could take all week to do a page, but you didn’t have any difficulty with that.
EISNER: No. If that happened, I’d fire the guy. But it didn’t happen. We made money. By the end of the second year of operation, we were making a lot of money. In fact, one of the problems I had in going into the Spirit deal was that we were making money at Eisner-Iger, good money — in those days. [Chuckles.]
HARVEY: And you had to arrange the Spirit situation in a way that would be of equal value if not better than the situation you were leaving.
EISNER: I didn’t think quite that way. My thinking then was more aesthetic — much more emotional than monetary. In fact, Iger tried to dissuade me from doing it. “Look,” he said, “you’re making a lot of money here. Are you crazy? That is a lousy deal. You’re going to get paid on the number of newspapers who subscribe. And we know from our experience with newspapers that you can’t count on it. The war’s coming along. You’ll get called up.”
But I had something else in mind. By then I had reached the conclusion that this is what I wanted to do the rest of my life. And I had also come to realize that this was a medium that could reach adults. I didn’t want to continue writing for what we called “12-year-old cretins from Kansas City.” [Chuckles.] Iger invented that remark. And we all wrote for them — at their level. I wasn’t interested in writing the kind of stories that kids would be reading. I wanted to write for adults. I grew up on pulps and short stories. That was my early literary nutrition. And to me, if I was going to do anything with my life, this is where I was going to go.
HARVEY: Before we get into the Spirit situation, let me back up just a little to review again the production cycle on doing a story. I assume that the story would begin with, let’s say, Toni Blum’s producing a script of some kind?
EISNER: Yes. But before she wrote the script, there had to be an idea of a plot. You knew, of course, what the character was going to do in a general way. And then either I would come up with what the next episode would be — or, after a while, Toni Blum would do that. She would write the script, and the guys would work from it, with the understanding that they were free to make changes. Powell wrote his own, so he didn’t need a script.
HARVEY: So on other features like Sheena, you might indicate in broad terms the story, and then Toni would write a full script?
EISNER: Right, right. But my working philosophy, then and now, was that the penciler was really responsible for the narration — not the dialogue, but the telling of the story.
HARVEY: So the penciler would break the story down.
EISNER: Yes. The penciler and the inker were the same man; and he’d break the story down. And I’d see it as it was taking shape. I was in the shop, watching. After awhile, I didn’t direct it that closely. I wasn’t around constantly as you would be, say, in a classroom. I’d go by and see what someone was doing, and if I saw something that bothered me particularly, I would tell the artist about it. I would do that occasionally with Lou Fine, which is why Lou never really — put this in italics — cared for me [chuckles]. We got along well professionally, but I have a feeling that socially he wasn’t keen on me. For example, there was a story we did once having to do with magic shoes — based upon the ballet. The shoes were supposed to be old, and as I walked by Lou’s drawing table, he had the shoes drawn in, and I said, “Lou, these shoes — they need more character.” So he didn’t say anything. He was a very quiet kind of guy. Not very talkative. And I walked away, and I came back after lunch, and what he’d done to make the shoes have more character was to add more laces to the shoes! With guys like Bob Powell, he was so self-contained, so able, that I wouldn’t have major suggestions. After a while once the strip got started, these guys were pretty much on their own. All I did was control the direction of the feature.
HARVEY: About Fine’s shoes — did you then have to tell him to make the shoes look older?
EISNER: Yes, I did. But it had to be done very gently.
HARVEY: And you were still roughing out stories on the illustration boards yourself and then passing them on to others to be finished?
EISNER: Oh, yes. I was doing stories constantly.
HARVEY: But you weren’t doing all of them. Somebody else was penciling some of them.
EISNER: Oh, sure — most of the stories. In the shop, if I was not doing the story myself, I would tell the story to somebody, to an artist, or to Toni, as I said. Then the artist would pencil it. On the illustration board. And if it was OK, then I’d tell him to ink it. But just before he inked it, I’d have the lettering put in. I always worked that way.
Stories I did, I did the composition of the panels. I always felt that this was a form of stagecraft and central to storytelling. And as I did with the Spirit, I insisted on doing the heads. Wouldn’t let anyone else do that. Backgrounds — we began to have background people, guys in the shop who did nothing but backgrounds. Very much like an animation studio: I tried to break up the tasks so that we could get the pages out. We were turning out 64 pages a month for a given customer. Quite a lot. Matter of fact — talking about it — I wonder how the hell we ever did it. [They both laugh.]
HARVEY: So you didn’t spend your whole day walking up and down the aisles between the drawing tables.
EISNER: No, no. Most of the time, I was on the drawing board myself. A player-manager, you might say.
HARVEY: As a page went through the process, first as a pencilled page, you would see it in all its various stages, and you could point out modifications to make as they went along.
EISNER: Yes. After a while, suggestions had to be a little more gentle than they were at the beginning. A kind of a pride set in. For any artist in my shop, the feature became his feature.
HARVEY: Having everyone in the same room together would work, I imagine, in favor of not only maintaining a certain quality but also quantity. There would be a sort of unstated competition there, I imagine. Nobody wanted to be a laggard or a hack.
EISNER: Well, yes. That’s true, but by then, each of them had their own sense of identity and the feature belonged to them. Bob Powell took possession of his features, any that he did. And they were his. There was a comradeship that developed in the shop that was pretty good.
HARVEY: Now, to move into the Spirit period, you were contacted by “Busy” Arnold who wanted to produce a weekly comic book for syndication to newspapers —
EISNER: Yes. Let me recount how that came about. The studio was then about 15-people strong. We were doing Fiction House and a couple other comic-book publishers — Lloyd Jacquet. We did one for a fellow named Bourjailly, Monte Bourjailly. He had been an editor at one of the newspaper syndicates. And he started two magazines, one called Circus; and I forgot what the other was. We did work for him. I did a feature, an adaptation of a Charles Leever story. That worked out well. I was familiar with adaptations because we had done that for the European syndicates when we first started. The first of those Jack Kirby and Lou Fine did — The Count of Monte Cristo, an adaptation of the Dumas book.
At any rate, I got a call one day. It was Busy Arnold. He wanted to talk to me in person, so he said, “Would you come over and have lunch?” And I said I would. We had done work for Arnold, off and on. We hadn’t done all that much. He wasn’t that much of a customer; he had his own staff.
Busy Arnold had been a printing-press salesman. Among the presses he got work for were these rotary-web color presses on which comic books were printed. He became familiar with the comic-book field. He was very close to the Greater Buffalo Press and Eastern Color in Waterbury, Conn., the company that launched the first comic book, Famous Funnies. And Arnold knew Henry Martin, who was the sales manager for the Register Tribune Syndicate out of Des Moines, Iowa. And apparently — Henry Martin came to the conclusion — well, having run a syndicate myself [Bell Syndicate in the 1960s], I can tell you how these things come about. He was probably sitting and having a drink with one of the editors of one of his client newspapers, and the editor might have said, “You know what? These comic books that are coming out — they’re beginning to steal our juvenile readership. Why don’t we try to get in on that with our own comic books?”
That’s actually how most newspaper syndicate ideas come about. That’s how my salesmen when I was running Bell Syndicate would behave. They’d come in with ideas that had been suggested by editors at client papers. Most of them never had any ideas of their own!
So Arnold phoned me, and I came over to have lunch with him, and there was Henry Martin. I was very impressed. After all, he was the sales manager of a newspaper syndicate. And they’re talking to me? Wow! And Martin said, “I understand that you’re a very productive person.”
And I said, “Well, yes.”
And Arnold said, “He’s very reliable.” He kept using the word reliable. Arnold thought I was a great idea man. Very impressed by that. He once wrote a memo to somebody and said, “Eisner doesn’t do good stories, but he’s a great idea man.” [Laughs.] He was very candid about his evaluation of me.
And they proposed this idea — a comic book for newspapers. It would be 16 pages, and Arnold figured out the production end of it because he knew about printing presses and the like. He said, “It’ll be self-cover, 16 pages, saddle-stitched.” And then they asked my opinion about editorial content. And I said there should be one major story of eight pages and two of four each. I wasn’t thinking of advertising space at that time. It was something that they would worry about. And we negotiated a deal. They said, “Can you start right away?” And I hadn’t just yet imagined having to give up the Eisner-Iger operation in order to do it, but they said the deal they wanted would be with a separate company to do the comic book. So I would have to get out of the Eisner-Iger company to do the comic book. We negotiated the deal, and I insisted on ownership. Instinctively, I knew I had a strong hand.
At first they objected. They said, “No — can’t do that.” And then I hit on a solution that would satisfy them, which was that they could copyright the things under their name, but in our contract, a partnership contract, the property would be mine, and in the event that the partnership dissolved, the property would revert to me. So the property was mine. I prevailed against their argument that was that newspapers wouldn’t buy — this was 1939 — wouldn’t buy a comic strip that was owned by the cartoonist. They wanted something owned by the syndicate because the syndicate guaranteed delivery. And the syndicate contract — probably still today — said that if they felt that the cartoonist was unable to deliver for any reason whatsoever, they could replace him at any time. Usually, the thing they were guarding against was drunkenness. A lot of cartoonists drank a lot. [Chuckles.] Anyway, they used that as an excuse.
That was the argument I got. They said, “We can’t do this.” And I said, “Yes you can because we can work it out this way.” And finally, they wanted me badly enough that they knuckled down and agreed, so I came away with a deal that gave me ownership. And that was very important to me. I wasn’t thinking of ownership from a monetary point of view at the time; I was thinking of it from a control point of view. When you own a property, you have editorial control, pretty much. As far as the money was concerned, by then I was sophisticated enough to know that ownership of copyright doesn’t guarantee you a lot of money unless somebody is going to promote it. And most publishers aren’t about to promote something that they don’t own. So ownership of copyright, I realized, was no guarantee of fame and fortune. But I won it, and I then had a decision to make.
The deal I had with Iger, the corporate deal, was that the stockholders of the corporation, which was me and Iger — if either one of us wanted to leave, we’d have to sell our stock to the remaining partner. This was to protect either of us against one of us going off and selling his half of the company to somebody the other partner didn’t like and didn’t want to be partners with. I told Iger about the proposition and that I was thinking of taking it. And he said, “Are you crazy?” He told me it was no good. And so I offered to sell the company to him and made him a very good price. Matter of fact, he boasted about how he had purchased the company for practically nothing. As far as I was concerned, Arnold’s deal was a deal I couldn’t resist.
It took me out of the comic-book ghetto and into newspapers where I would have an adult audience. I could write about what I wanted to write about. That was the deal about The Spirit. I sold my half of the company to Iger, and I went off. Fiction House, I remember, was very angry with me. Thurman T. Scott didn’t like Iger. Something about Iger rubbed him the wrong way. Iger was a very aggressive kind of guy, a bantam rooster of a man. You had to really like him to get along with him. And Scott was a tall, Southern guy from North Carolina, and Iger was everything that was New York as far as Scott was concerned.
HARVEY: When you left the Iger shop, you set up another shop to produce the Spirit section and two Quality magazines, which were probably National and Hit.
HARVEY: So you were producing a weekly 16-page magazine and two monthly 64-page comic books. And some of your new shop came out of the Iger shop.
EISNER: Right. In the separation deal with Iger, I had to agree that I would not raid the shop. He did allow me to take four people out of the shop with me — if they wanted to come with me. Bob Powell said he wanted to come; and Lou Fine said he did, too. And Mazoujian did. So I had three people.
HARVEY: How about Klaus Nordling?
EISNER: Yes — no, no. Nordling was a freelancer: he never worked in the shop itself.
HARVEY: He wound up doing Lady Luck.
EISNER: Yes, toward the end. Originally, Lady Luck was done by Chuck Mazoujian. Again, I followed the same principle there: I made a rough drawing of a character I would like to see done, told them what the character would do, and they went ahead and did it. In the case of Mazoujian, he didn’t write, so I had a fellow named Dick French, brother-in-law of Tex Blaisdell, to write the stories. Bob Powell wrote his own stories — Mister Mystic. Originally, of course, I had to run the characters by Arnold and the Register Tribune people to get approval.
HARVEY: Both of them?
EISNER: Yes. It worked out pretty well because they thought Arnold knew everything about the business, so Arnold was the final arbiter. And Arnold took my word for it pretty much. At any rate, I had to show them the ideas first. A matter of conventional syndicate protocol.
HARVEY: The people on your staff, though, were experienced and familiar with your techniques of art direction, and so the new shop was virtually the same sort of operation as the Iger shop.
EISNER: Oh, yes. Just more of the same. No change. I took an apartment in Tudor City — a two-room apartment with a closet kitchen. The bedroom was my office, and the living room, the main room, was the studio workroom. And we worked out of there.
HARVEY: To return for a moment to the Eisner-Iger days, after a year or so, I assume you were aware of other comic-art shops.
HARVEY: Was there any communication between shops? Did you trade operational techniques?
EISNER: No. People writing histories of this period don’t fully understand how isolated we were. I was never out of the shop soliciting work from any of the other comic shops. I knew about Charlie Biro. I’d met him occasionally in social situations. But I wasn’t out in the field or the marketplace, so to speak.
HARVEY: But you’d hear about other operations?
EISNER: Yes, I’d hear about them. Most of it came in second-hand. An artist would come in looking for work, and I’d ask who he was working for, and he’d say, “I’m working for Biro.” I knew about Harry Chesler. One day, Chuck Cuidera, who was doing Blackhawk, came in, and we had been talking, and I’d said we could really use an inker. And one day about noontime, Cuidera came by and stuck his head in my office and said, “I got an inker. A good guy. His name is Alex Kotsky.”
I said, “Who is he?”
And he said, “He’s a kid working at Harry Chesler’s place.”
And I went to the door, and here’s this trembling kid, standing there holding his black portfolio, and I looked at the work and said, “God — this guy’s good!” So I said to Chuck, I called him aside and said, “Chuck, tell this guy to come in on Monday and he’s got a job. We’ll have to get a drawing board for him and a place for him to sit.”
And Chuck said, “No — he’s gotta stay here right now.” And I said, “What do you mean, he’s gotta stay here right now?”
“Well,” he said, “I smuggled him out of Harry Chesler’s place.” And he said to Alex, “You sit here, Alex.” And Chuck started out the door.
I said, “Where are you going?”
And he said, “I gotta go and get his coat and hat. We left them there so Chesler wouldn’t know he’d gone out. If Chesler knows about this, there’ll be a lot of trouble.” [Laughs.] It was Friday, you see, so Alex had just got paid and so he could take off then. My shop was raided often because I was — when I think about it now — running a school.
HARVEY: To some extent I suppose all shops were like that — depending on the caliber of the people there. Young people would come in and learn from the more experienced people there.
EISNER: Yes, that’s right. Each shop had a character to it. I had standards that were important to me, and if they left, they’d use my standards, adapt them to their own way of working.
HARVEY: At the other shops, were artists paid by the page or were they salaried as they were at your place?
EISNER: I don’t know how they paid. I think Chesler paid by salary. But I don’t know how the others did.
HARVEY: Did anyone at your shop ever complain about the salary situation?
EISNER: No. The only problem I ever had was with Bob Powell, and I’ve told this story before. Bob Powell came in one day, and he said, “Listen — Busy Arnold has offered me more money.” [Arnold had his own staff for Quality comics.]
And I said, “Busy has offered you more money? He’s my partner!”
Powell shrugged and said, “Well, he’s offered me more than you’re paying me.” So I got on the phone to Busy and I said, “You want a lawsuit, Busy? You can’t do this.”
And he said, “All right — don’t get mad. I just — well, OK, I’ll withdraw it.”
And then Bob got furious with me. He said, “You just cut me off of a good deal. What the hell did you do that for? Boy, that’s a Jew kike trick if I ever saw one.” Bob Powell was from Buffalo and had a streak of anti-Semitism that only came out every once in a while — in jokes, anti-Semitic jokes, or in a situation like this where he felt I had screwed him. But I couldn’t allow that.
HARVEY: Did he stay on?
EISNER: Yes, he stayed on. But, boy, he was mad at me.
HARVEY: Everyone gets mad at their boss every once in a while. It’s a natural thing in the workplace, I’d say.
EISNER: Well, yes. I suppose. Lou Fine hung around, he stayed all the way until after the War, and then he went off to do illustration. They all wanted to get into illustration. Nobody wanted to be in comics. Through the War, Lou did the daily strips of The Spirit and the weekly. Arnold paid him well. I remember — the money came out of my half of the profits!
HARVEY: Arnold could afford to pay him well because he was using your money.
EISNER: Well, half of it was mine.
HARVEY: To return for a moment to the pre-war period, was there a social life among the staff?
EISNER: There was something of a social life, but one of the problems I had was that I was about the same age as these guys — I was younger than a couple of them; and it was a little difficult for me to be part of their social activity — when they’d go out and have a beer at the end of the day, say. And they never invited me along. I learned to keep in my place, so to speak.
HARVEY: I would think it would be to your advantage as their boss to maintain some sort of distance from them, particularly if you were all about the same age.
EISNER: I guess so. Yes. Although I remember thinking it would be fun to go out and have a beer with these guys. We were friendly enough during the day. Nobody was angry. I know a couple of the guys became very friendly — Bob Powell and Chuck Mazoujian were very friendly. Lou Fine and somebody else, can’t remember. They’d go out with their wives and have dinner. Chuck Mazoujian was going with a girl named Edna at the time. He’d have her come by every once in a while, and we’d have a drink together and talk.
HARVEY: Some of the people associated with the Eisner-Iger shop didn’t actually work in the shop, you said. They were freelancers. How were they paid?
EISNER: By the page. Andre Leblanc worked freelance; he didn’t want to be staff.
HARVEY: So part of what you had to do was to determine which features the off-premises people would be doing.
EISNER: Usually, it was people who did just one single feature. They didn’t do a volume of work. Usually it was determined by them; they’d express a preference for a particular feature.
HARVEY: And if one of these people produced a page you didn’t like, and you asked them to do it over again, would they object?
EISNER: They weren’t happy about it. After awhile, though, my control was beginning to spread [thin], and I didn’t exercise as much control as I did at first.