OUR LAST SIGHT OF EISNER’S SPIRIT
Another in our series commemorating the 100th anniversary of Will Eisner’s birth.
DOWN THE SCROLL a bit is the last story Will Eisner would do about the comic book character that made him famous. It was a story he never intended to do.
“Will Eisner did not want to do this story,” said Diana Schutz, who was his editor at Dark Horse, which published the story.
“Really,” she continued. “I caught him in a moment of weakness and then wouldn’t let him forget it. I am, as Will once called me, a ‘demon editor.’”
At the time Eisner produced the accompanying story, he had just finished The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which would be published in 2005. It was a polemic, he told me—a book that made an argument. The argument in The Plot was that The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was a monstrous lie, an anti-Semitic slur that had somehow survived despite generations of being thoroughly debunked in country after country after country.
Eisner had deployed the graphic novel as a polemic at least once before—in Fagin the Jew, which had been published in 2003 just before The Plot. In Fagin, he had undertaken to give Charles Dickens’ Jewish master thief a better reputation and a plausible biography instead of the flat stereotype that Dickens deployed in Oliver Twist.
It was time, Eisner thought, that the graphic novel be put to serious use. And he doubtless had other serious uses in mind for the art form that he had almost single-handedly made into a literary enterprise. But he put all that aside to do a story for Diana Shutz.
At the time, Shutz’s editorial projects at Dark Horse included comic books featuring the Escapist and an authorized biography of Eisner, Bob Andelman’s A Spirited Life. The Escapist was the comic book character invented by Kavalier and Clay, two fictional comic book creators that Michael Chabon had invented in his 2000 novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalie & Clay as homage to Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, the comic book creators that invented Superman. In 2004, Dark Horse began publishing a comic book series starring the Escapist.
From her unique perch as editor of the two Dark Horse projects, Shutz was able to elbow Eisner into doing a Spirit story.
“Bob Andelman and Eisner were hoping that Chabon would write an introduction to the biography,” Shutz said. “And Michael was hoping that Will would write and draw a story for the Escapist comic book in which the Spirit meets the Escapist. So I struck a deal, negotiated a little trade. From my perspective as then-editor of both projects, it was a win-win scenario.
“Will used to joke that he could never refuse me anything,” she continued. “But asking Will to return to a character whom he’d left behind in 1952—in order to, eventually, pursue stories set in the real world about real people and their real hopes and dreams, stories that were far more personally meaningful to Will than the pursuit-and-vengeance standard of most adventure tales—that required some serious sweet-talking.
“But once Will agreed to something, he never backed down,” Shutz went on. “He sure took his time, though, about doing this story—and I knew his heart wasn’t really in it. Finally, I recommended that he just ditch the usual superhero conventions altogether and write a story about these two guys, Denny Colt [aka the Spirit] and Tom Mayflower [aka the Escapist], who actually have a lot in common, right down to the mask (that Will always hated putting on the Spirit, by the way).
“The non-genre approach piqued Will’s interest,” she finished, “—and then he did me one better, by working that approach into an adventure story, after all! God bless him, he was so good.”
Here’s the story—:
THE DAY AFTER Eisner sent Schutz the finished art for the story, he checked into the hospital in Lauderdale Lakes, Florida, for quadruple bypass surgery. The operation was performed on December 22, 2004, and a week-and-a-half later, on January 3, Eisner died of complications resulting from the surgery, internal bleeding. He was only 87, and he’d played tennis almost every day until the last few months.
Eisner was a legend, a giant, a revered figure in the history of comics. Schutz listed the landmark achievements of his life: comics entrepreneur and creator of the Spirit, pioneer of creators’ rights (in an era when that was considered a preposterous notion), creator and promoter of educational comics, graphic novelist whose first, A Contract with God, was published decades before the format became so popular, educator and writer of Comics & Sequential Art, the field’s seminal textbook, and the man after whom our industry awards are named.
Despite his fame and deserved reputation, “Will had a knack for always making you feel special,” said Schutz.
“It is both fitting and ironic that this Spirit story should be Will’s last work,” she continued. “Ironic because he’d moved so far beyond the genre conventions of The Spirit, and while he was proud of the innovations he’d created all those years ago, he felt his graphic novels were more important, more literary, more a testament to what comics could—and should—really be.”
And most of his life had been dedicated to proving what comics could be.
Schultz finished: “Yet it is absolutely fitting that Will should come full circle and leave us with this one last Spirit story, a final gift to all his readers and fans who clamored for half a century for just this. That should make all of us feel very special.”
My own regard for Eisner’s achievement began when I was still in high school in the 1950s, copying the Spirit in my recreational doodling. And years later when I was creating a comic strip to sell into syndication, I continued flattering The Spirit by imitating a couple scenes from one of Eisner’s stories. (To see how, visit Harv’s Hindsight for July 10, 2012, “Fiddlefoot: A Comic Strip that Never Was, Almost.”)
My affection for Eisner began at the moment we met and continued through subsequent encounters, including several interviews during which I came to know him better and better.
Five years after he died, his renowned place in the history of the medium secure and his prominence towering above all others, came the first of two stabs in the back of his reputation.
On July 1, 2010, Ken Quattro posted at his thecomicsdetective.blogspot the transcript of Eisner’s testimony at the first copyright infringement case in comic book history, and the transcript proved Eisner had lied—both on the stand at the trial and in recounting the incident in later years.
Quattro was devastated. “Will Eisner is my hero,” he said. “To me he was a Promethean figure—creative, farsighted and flat-out brilliant. ... Nothing spoke more to his integrity than the story of his testimony in the groundbreaking lawsuit, DC vs Victor Fox.”
Like Quattro, I was stricken. But I read the transcript—hoping whatever Eisner said could be interpreted in some way that would exonerate him. No luck.
Victor Fox had been working at DC Comics and had observed the success of Superman when the character had debuted in Action Comics, No.1 in the spring of 1938. The next winter, Fox, “hoping,” as Quattro put it, “to catch the coattails” of Superman’s success, launched his own comics publishing company, and he hired the Eisner-Iger shop to produce the lead feature, which, as Fox directed, was an out-and-out imitation of the Man of Steel called Wonder Man.
DC sued, claiming copyright infringement. And as the case approached trial, Fox asked Eisner, who drew Wonder Man according to Fox’s specifications, and Jerry Iger, Eisner’s partner, to testify that they’d created Wonder Man without knowing about Superman.
In telling the story in his later years, Eisner said he couldn’t do what Fox wanted.
“It’s not true,” he told his biographer Andelman. “Victor described the character exactly the way he wanted him in a handwritten memo. Obviously, a complete imitation of Superman.”
“Eisner agonized about what he’d say at the trial,” wrote Andelman. At the time, Eisner was only 22 years old and on the cusp of creating a career in comics. If he told the truth, what would become of his career?
“Finally,” said Andelman, “he decided that he couldn’t commit perjury and, when called to the witness stand, he testified that Fox literally instructed Eisner and Iger to copy Superman.”
The only noticeable consequence was the Fox didn’t pay the Eisner-Iger shop for the work it had done.
But the transcript shows that Eisner did as Fox had demanded. That he hadn’t told the truth. That he’d lied to protect Fox. And then when relating the story to Andelman, he’d lied again.
It was a sad day for the legions of Eisner fans. But we all found reasons to excuse Eisner. We had to.
And then last year came another blow, this time to Eisner’s reputation as the inventor of the graphic novel.
Eisner’s claim to have created the graphic novel with the 1978 publication of his A Contract With God was always on shaky ground. First, the book is not a novel: it’s a collection of short stories. And Eisner didn’t use the term “graphic novel” in print until the second printing of the book. At one time, he claimed he’d picked the term out of the air when pitching the book to publishers.
The term was pretty certainly coined by Richard Kyle in 1964. Some claim that George Metzger produced the first graphic novel in 1976 with Beyond Time and Again, which called itself a graphic novel on the title page.
And there are earlier claimants. According to Paul Levitz, Harvey Kurtzman’s Jungle Book in 1959 was “the first all-original comics in book format and a recognizable prototype of the current graphic novel.” Or was the prototype It Rhymes with Lust, Arnold Drake and Leslie Waller’s “picture novel” deliciously rendered by Matt Baker and published in 1950. Or was it 1968's His Name Is ... Savage, a magazine-sized spy thriller by Gil Kane and Archie Goodwin that Eisner had seen and lamented its collapse after only one issue.
At first, when people said Eisner’s Contract was the first graphic novel, he went along with it. As these other candidates surfaced, though, he backed away from the claim, saying, in effect, that the term had been “in the air” at the time, and he’d merely appropriated it without claiming to have invented either the form or the term.
But then last spring, in the inaugural issue of Inks, the journal of the Comics Studies Society, an article by Andrew J. Kunka shows that Eisner was aware of the term “graphic novel” and the evolution of the form as early as August 1974. That’s when Jack Katz sent Eisner a copy of the first chapter of what he called his “graphic novel,” The First Kingdom.
Katz continued to send Eisner chapters of the book as they were published until the last one, No.24, in 1986. Katz accompanied the books with letters, and Eisner responded, effectively creating a 12-year correspondence in which the two discussed and applauded the emergence of this adult-oriented form of the comics medium.
Katz asked Eisner to write a foreword for the series, which appears in No.23, the penultimate issue. In it, Eisner acknowledges that Katz “carved out a position for the graphic novel concept and helped establish a category for work produced with literary intent.”
Kunka also speculates that it’s also possible that Eisner saw Kyle’s column in Fantasy Illustrated No.6 (Summer/Fall 1966) in which Kyle reviews the first issue of Harvey’s Spirit reprints, using the terms “graphic short story” and “graphic novel” as part of his discussion.
Still, as I have said many times, even if Eisner didn’t invent the form or the term, he explored its potential with great dedication and skill, perfecting the form, and those who followed afterwards expanded the form, extending its reach, exploring its potential—in the spirit of Will Eisner.
In any case, Eisner’s reputation has now been sullied by two circumstances that contradict what he had said. For those of us who have a high regard for Eisner—both as an artist and as a man—there must be some plausible explanation for these contradictions that leaves Eisner’s standing intact, perhaps not inviolate but still admirable.
Don’t go to storytellers for factual truth. Eisner was, above all else, a storyteller. A champion storyteller. Storytellers tell stories, and most of the stories are made-up. Fictions. Lies. Storytellers are adept at lying. We don’t go to storytellers for factual truth. We go to storytellers for stories, for fictions that reveal other kinds of truth, the metaphysical kinds.
Eisner’s story about his testimony at the DC vs Fox trial is about youthful courage in the face of economic pressure. We all hope we’d do the same as the Eisner in this story did.
Eisner’s story about inventing the graphic novel form and the term denoting it is about creative inspiration and commercial acumen, coining a term that had greater appeal for adult readers than the much-maligned “comic book.” We all hope for inspiration to strike us and make us rich and famous.
His stories are inspirational. Like all good stories.
What more can we ask of storytellers?
Just a little more—:
At the 1999 San Diego Comic-Con, Eisner was scheduled to appear on a panel with Chuck Cuidera, who had just lately started coming to comic cons. A few months before this Comic-Con, Cuidera had been interviewed about his career in comic books, including his work with Eisner at Quality Comics—specifically, his connection with the Blackhawks. Eisner is always credited with creating the Blackhawks, and Cuidera, coming suddenly out of the woodwork, claimed he, not Eisner, had created the famous team of aviating-troubleshooters.
Their joint appearance on the same panel promised fireworks and unpleasantness.
The panel was chaired by Mark Evanier, who, as I understand it, arranged a meeting between Eisner and Cuidera before the panel convened.
During the presentation, fairly early on, Evanier asked Cuidera what Eisner had assigned him to do.
“Well,” Cuidera joked, “—I did more of The Spirit than I did of Blackhawk!” (laughter)
Then Eisner chimed in:
“Absolutely. I'd like to say something, Mark, because this is heading into that. I've been wanting to say this for a long time, because I've done conventions a lot, and there's been a lot of talk about who invented what. It's not important who created it. It's the guy who kept it going, and made something out if it that's more important. Whether or not Chuck Cuidera created or thought of Blackhawk to begin with is unimportant. The fact that Chuck Cuidera made Blackhawk what it was is the important thing, and therefore, he should get the credit.
It was the neatest piece of diplomacy I've ever witnessed. And Eisner’s remarks have the additional virtue of being factually accurate. Eisner’s point was that Cuidera developed the Blackhawk concept and made the creation famous and popular.
Eisner gave Cuidera the lion's share of credit but Eisner never denied or confirmed Chuck's contention; nor did he, Eisner, ever say, "Chuck's wrong: I created the Blackhawks." He dodged the bullet but gave Cuidera an appropriate share of credit —and his dignity.