December 2nd, 2013

Will Eisner, Writer

(This is the talk I gave during the academic conference at the recent Billy Ireland Museum opening festival, part of a panel celebrating the 35th anniversary of the publication of A Contract with God. Assigned the title, “Eisner as Author: Will Eisner as the Writer of His Graphic Novels,” I’d been asked to make it informal and personal, which made mine a sort of outlier among a lot of that week’s scholarly papers. And, of course, it was delivered to an inside-baseball audience guaranteed to catch my references without providing a lot of background, so you won’t find any footnotes here. Since I agreed to post it, I’ve reproduced the text as originally written – for the spoken word – instead of recasting it as a more formal piece. I have added a few illustrations here and there, but the original presentation was delivered without any visual aids at all.)


Will Eisner, ladies and gentlemen, the Dean of Comics:

…from a piece of work published in 1939 called “Muss ‘em Up – A Complete Story.” And I think I can say without contradiction that no one reading that story when it first appeared in Keen Detective Funnies would have believed that we’d be discussing its author’s work all these years later.

Will once told me that he’d never thought of himself as a writer. Now, Will was an old-school gentleman, and I think he was mostly being polite, since writing was the only thing I could do in comics. (My daughter did think I could draw a world-class Godzilla, but she was eight at the time.) Will, of course, could do it all…but, like a lot of people of his generation, I think he had the feeling that “pure” writers were on a different, higher, artistic plane than mere commercial cartoonists.

I remember him specifically mentioning “Muss ‘em Up” as an example of the goofy stuff he turned out early in his career. He wasn’t ashamed of those old stories, but he largely lumped them together as commercial piecework, widgets cranked out to fill a quota.

They really couldn’t have been anything else. Will was one of the pioneers of the comic book assembly line back in the ‘30s, a setup that demanded fortitude and rewarded technical development, but sophisticated literary expression was strictly optional.

In the illustration and cartooning world of that day, comic books were pretty much the bottom of the barrel. Unlike the big names who drew and painted for the Saturday Evening Post, or those artists whose work was syndicated in the daily newspaper, comic book people had no one to despise but their own readers. Naturally, the most ambitious comic book creators aspired to more.

Will regretted his lack of formal education, and became a voracious reader to fill in the gaps. And when he got his chance to move up and began producing The Spirit, he turned the assembly line into something approaching the platonic ideal, turning out material that slowly became more and more ambitious. Even in its silliest period, the pre-World War II years, he was determined to make it more than just another widget. – Bob Powell, who did the “Mr. Mystic” backup strip for years, never managed to break out of the back of the section and sell a Spirit script. The Spirit had to be something special, something to aspire to.

In the stories written after he returned from active duty, you can see Will starting to flex his creative muscles in new ways – not just the inventive design work for which the postwar Spirit is remembered, but in his willingness to draw on more than just other comics or kids’ adventure serials for inspiration. It seemed as though he was processing new sources constantly, and refining them for his own ends faster and faster – The Spirit reflected the movies he saw, the radio dramas he heard (it was still a commercial property), but also reinterpreted the news of the day, and the plays he saw, and the literature that he devoured.

It’s true that it was young Jules Feiffer who wrote or co-wrote some of The Spirit’s finest moments – “The Haircut,” drawn from a Ring Lardner story; the wonderful “Ten Minutes”; and “The Story of Gerhard Schnobble,” a fable of superhuman abilities that ended not with a bang

but a shrug –

but it was that atmosphere of striving for more which Will created, that made that work possible.

A lot of those influences stuck with him; years later, when Will asked me to write a prose novel about The Spirit, he let me know that he hoped I’d “make it funny, like Sam Spade” – a character who’d never been funny except on the radio series that ended before I was born.

But his influences and points of reference had also continued to expand and mature…and by the time Will returned to comics with A Contract with God, he was no longer the master of the assembly line, but a one-man show. Whether he’d admit it to himself or not, he’d also become the kind of writer he’d always aspired to be. And he carried the graphic novel upwards at the same time.

A Contract with God certainly wasn’t the first graphic novel – it wasn’t a novel of any kind – but it was the game-changer. Some talented people had created their own long contained comics narratives from the ‘50s through the ‘70s, but they were all genre pieces. A Contract with God, by contrast, was Will Eisner daring to work without a net…neither pulp nor parody, but a serious personal work that carried the achievement of Lynn Ward and his predecessors’ silent allegories into the modern day, and it influenced the true graphic novels that would follow it for years to come.

Nobody was influenced by that book more than Will himself. Some of the finest work he would produce in the years that followed revisited A Contract with God’s Dropsie Avenue setting, fleshing out its history and the inner lives of its citizens – a little patch of the Bronx made into his own Yoknapatawpha County…but with laundry drying on the fire escapes.

Coming from such a beloved figure, Will’s graphic novels often display a surprisingly jaundiced view of humanity. A Contract with God is filled with worthless bastards, and the book that followed, Life on Another Planet, seems dedicated to proving that the entire human race consists of chumps and assholes.

Yet it’s all tempered by his understanding of what makes us this way. A Contract with God’s Frimme Hersch is both villain and victim: he’s endured unbearable pain, the same loss of a child which Will revealed, years later, that he had suffered. Even more than To the Heart of the Storm, A Contract with God may be his most personal and bravest work.

So…was Will a good writer? He certainly never claimed to be a prose stylist. The pages of text that he occasionally incorporated into his graphic novels could be so straightforward and prosaic that they seemed absolutely artless. – In his multi-generational stories he was perfectly capable of effecting a transition by having a character walk into a room and essentially say, “Hi, it’s World War I now!” Will was a cut-to-the-chase kind of guy, and at times you can hear him thinking, Let’s get this exposition crap out of the way and get on with the important stuff. His book The Name of the Game has a number of text passages that could and really should have been deleted entirely…or, better, turned into actual comics pages. In Will Eisner’s case, one picture was often worth a hell of a lot more than a thousand words.

Where his books sang and soared was in the interaction of his characters, who loved and hated and ignored each other vividly. Frimme Hersch’s big moment, where he repudiates God for welshing on their deal, is a thunder-and-lightning climax straight out of the Yiddish theater of Will’s childhood – a role that Boris Tomashevsky would have eaten with a spoon. Though he never attempted to recreate those fireworks again, those sentiments and the urge to pull out the stops reappear throughout his career as a graphic novelist…perhaps most effectively in Jacob Schtarka’s bizarre low-key monologue to a cockroach in A Life Force.

Beyond the bravura moments, though, were the countless and gorgeously realized little portraits of homely lives filled with fleeting joy and quiet frustration…bitter victories and life-shattering defeats that could only be greeted with a shrug.

And yet, on the opening page of To the Heart of the Storm, Will could describe young men going off to war like this:

“It was a time to reflect, to take inventory, not as dying men – for they had still to face that – but rather to shore up their strength against what lay ahead. They knew instinctively that their values and prejudices would soon be tested and that perhaps not again in the rush of living would there be such a moment as this.”

So yeah, despite his quirks and infelicities, he was a damned good writer.

No other graphic novelist has equaled Will’s achievement in chronicling the depths of the human heart, an achievement whose centerpiece was A Contract with God. That’s why we still remember and celebrate it 35 years later.

November 29th, 2013

Spurgeon on the Billy Ireland Experience

If my personal take on the Billy Ireland opening whetted your interest, I highly recommend Tom Spurgeon’s own personal trip report on same. True, I do pop up in Spurgeon’s post about as often as Ralph Morgan in an old B-mystery – and thanks for the kind words, Tom – but it’s his perspective as a veteran observer of the scene that’s the real draw. Click here for the report and enjoy an excellent account of that amazing event.

November 25th, 2013

The CBR “Omaha” Interview

Alex Dueben of Comic Book Resources just posted a fairly lengthy interview with Reed Waller, Denis Kitchen and me about the Omaha the Cat Dancer finale. It’s three separate interviews, actually, stitched together in pretty masterful fashion to give the appearance that all three of us old guys are sitting at the same table. All told, it covers the history of the series, lets Reed talk about the development of his work, and allows Denis to discuss Omaha’s place in comics. It’s a smart and respectful piece, and you can read it by clicking here.

November 21st, 2013

My Own Private Ireland

So. The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum Grand Opening Festival of Cartoon Art.

What an amazing experience.

I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to enjoy it if not for Chris Couch – N.C. Christopher Couch, that is: art historian, multi-tasking university lecturer, author of that lovely recent Jerry Robinson biography, and the brave soul who followed me into the editor-in-chief chair at Kitchen Sink Press – who invited me to speak on a panel celebrating the 35th anniversary of Will Eisner’s seminal A Contract with God. (And thanks, while we’re at it, to the Will and Ann Eisner Family Foundation, NBM Books and WW Norton, all of whom made the trip possible.)

The visit began Wednesday night with a signing at Columbus’ Laughing Ogre shop. It’s one sharp-looking store, beautifully stocked and laid out, and the customer service is first-rate – professional and friendly and knowledgeable. We were treated like royalty by manager Jeff (below), and it was a terrific introduction to my Columbus experience.

The following morning it was off to Ohio State University for the kickoff of the Festival’s academic conference, a two-day feast of papers presented by writers and scholars from around the country, plus a handful of creators with worthy things to say. Oh, yeah, and me.

There were papers on Walt Kelly and Pogo, Peanuts, autobiographical comics, newspaper cartoons from World War I and earlier, and a wide range of fascinating esoterica. Sure, one or two of the presenters could have benefited from reading-out-loud lessons, but the food for thought was laid on thick, and it’s hard to picture anyone walking away from the conference not feeling more educated or inspired.

But let’s be honest: the star of the show was the Ireland itself. Situated in Sullivant Hall on the OSU campus, it’s a big beautiful old building, gorgeously refurbished, absolutely awe-inspiring to everyone who laid eyes on it:

My God…it’s full of comics…

When I first entered the building, my eye was drawn to a shelf of Milton Caniff merchandise on display in the reading room adjacent to the lobby…including a Steve Canyon Jet Helmet just like the one I owned when I was six years old.

The reading room itself was a knockout, with items on display from Caniff’s archives, including two Reuben awards (one of them absolutely gleaming) and other trophies and volumes from his personal library. Though only a representative handful of other books had made it to the shelves in time for the Festival, there’s plenty of room for the Ireland’s huge collection of reference material and reading copies. I was mildly astonished to discover that something of mine had made the first cut, improbably located between books by Gary Trudeau and Eddie Campbell:

I was even more knocked out to see Eddie Campbell himself sitting there, soft-spoken, Puckish and handsome. We’d never met, only corresponded and spoken on the phone, and it was a pleasure to introduce myself and be allowed to look over his shoulder at the volumes of early 20th century newspaper cartoons he’d been studying since arriving in Columbus.

My panel was held Friday morning and, if the comments I heard the next two days can be believed, we nailed it. (I think the fact that most of us had actually known and worked with Will had to help.) Andrew Kunka led off with a look at correspondence between Eisner and First Kingdom creator Jack Katz, followed by Chris Couch with a painstaking and persuasive look at the influence of Ashcan School artists on Will’s graphic novels, and Danny Fingeroth wrapped it up with a breezy comparison of Will’s stuff and Jewish-American prose fiction.

As for my contribution – a talk on Will’s evolution as a writer from his pulpy early days to his mature graphic novels – I’d been given a mandate to keep things informal, and after hearing the first day’s frequently very serious presentations, I tossed the draft I’d brought to Ohio and worked through the night to come up with a more off-the-cuff (and less self-impressed) approach. The illusion of spontaneity takes a lot of preparation, but in this case I think it worked; keeping things loose and occasionally flippant, editing on the fly as I spoke – though the talk was actually completely scripted – provided a change of pace from the more scholarly entries that seemed to go over well with the audience. (I’ve agreed to post my “paper,” so keep watching this space if you’re interested.)

The panel was chaired by OSU’s Jared Gardner, who gave us each glowing introductions – mine, in fact, nearly stopped the proceedings cold when he mentioned my involvement in bringing Omaha to a conclusion, which drew a huge and prolonged ovation from the entire audience that seemed to take forever before Jared could finish his remarks. The outpouring of appreciation for Reed and Kate from those scholars in that unlikely venue nearly choked me up. For me, it was one of the high points of the entire Festival.

After working all night, the rest of the day should have been a blur, but everyone else was on such an infectious high that it was easy to keep going. The academic conference ended with a fascinating keynote address by Henry Jenkins…and then it was time for the grand opening celebration. Present at the ribbon-cutting ceremony were old-school comics royalty – Jean Schulz, widow of Charles; Mort Walker and sons Gary and Brian; the family of Chester Gould – and more present-day scholars and creators than you could count. Former curator Lucy Shelton Caswell, the visionary who started all this over 30 years ago, was greeted with an explosion of sincere applause that seemed to go on forever, and rightly so.

Remarkable artwork was everywhere, even back in the staff offices, where a wonderful array of self-portraits by top cartoonists was casually displayed against one wall. And the gallery upstairs was breath-taking. A pair of exhibits, Treasures from the Collections and Substance and Shadow (curated by Brian Walker), were jaw-dropping. Though barely skimming the surface of the museum’s holdings, it was one holy grail of cartooning after another:

a quartet of original images from the 1914 Gertie the Dinosaur;

Carl Barks’ pencil art for the cover of “Sheriff of Bullet Valley”;

original art for a complete seven-page Spirit story;

the vast art board for an early Prince Valiant;

Neil Adams’ and Denny O’Neill’s “I been readin’ about you…how you work for the blue skins” page from Green Lantern/Green Arrow sharing a case with Kelly’s “We have met the enemy and he is us” Pogo Sunday;

a Popeye Sunday watercolored by Segar…

Basil Wolverton…Thomas Nast…Richard Outcault…

Here’s a tiny sampling of what I saw. If you want more, there are images everywhere on the Net right now.

I must have wandered through the exhibits, slack-jawed, for a couple of hours. At one point Tom Spurgeon approached and said, “What do you think?”

“What do I think?” I replied. “They’ve got fucking Gertie the Dinosaur on the wall, man!” – not the way I ordinarily speak to casual acquaintances, but I was overwhelmed. At least I didn’t call him dude. Spurgeon chuckled and said, “Yeah, I know.”

I was at least a little more articulate on Saturday when I joined Spurgeon for a casual get-acquainted breakfast which turned out to be a low-key delight. He’s exactly the smart, witty and decent guy he appears to be on his blog, and I hope I have the chance to spend more time with him in the future.

The Saturday Festival began with a special presentation of the Elzie Segar Award to Lucy Caswell, an opportunity for the assembly to demonstrate their love for the lady again. The next few hours were devoted to solo presentations by Matt Bors, Stephan Pastis and Eddie Campbell, who rambled on about his whimsical Snooter, reminisced about his discovery of comics history, gave a welcome shout-out to Woody Gelman and reminded us of the importance of Harvey Kurtzman’s Jungle Book.

Throughout the Festival, the people I met were impressive, warm and welcoming. A few quick outtakes: Eddie Campbell, accessible and instantly likeable. Archie’s Nancy Silberkleit, sure that we’d met before, though we hadn’t. Scholar Enrique Garcia, constantly smiling and brimming over with ideas. Danny Fingeroth, quick and grinning and vastly knowledgeable. Current Ireland curator Jenny Robb, smart and unflappable and also sure we’d met before, though we hadn’t. Brian Walker, eager to share his treasures with all. Kirk Taylor, beaming non-stop like a kid in a candy store. Charles Hatfield, cool and friendly and enviably articulate. Daniel Yezbick, filled with stories that touched me. A middle-aged guy who told me that he remembered meeting me when he was “a little kid” (hmmm). An unidentified woman who was sure we’d met before, though we hadn’t…

Saturday’s official events wrapped up with a Q&A with Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez in a packed auditorium. The guys were terrific and touching as they discussed their careers and their individual approaches, dropping anecdotes about their childhoods and praising their mother’s encouragement. Gilbert’s memory of the moment Jaime transformed himself from budding cartoonist into the Love and Rockets artist was quietly electrifying, a perfect summation of the creative impulse that this Festival was all about.

The Festival would continue into Sunday, but Saturday was my last day, so I hit the after-hours schmoozefest at the Hyatt bar for one last gulp of all that comics culture: a smart move that filled my evening with smarts and snark and occasional warmth.

Near the end of the evening, the Hernandezes showed up, prompting a parade of distinguished scholars to line up with piles of books to be signed. (Once a fan…) I hadn’t seen the Bros for 20 years or so – we used to shoot the breeze in the pro suites of various cons back in the day – and after the deluge of autograph-seekers eventually thinned out, I stepped over to say hello, not sure that they’d even remember me. It turns out that they did, and we had a good time catching up. Jaime and I must have chatted for half an hour, and it was a delight watching him page through a copy of On the Ropes and praising Dan Burr’s art. I finally offered him my copy of the book, and he insisted that I personalize it for him. It was, of course, a lovely gesture…and I can’t think of a more satisfying way to wrap up my Billy Ireland experience than having Jaime Hernandez ask for my autograph.

That was my Ireland experience. Everyone who attended will have their own set of indelible memories – see Tom Spurgeon’s excellent roundup of links for a broad sampling – thanks to the hard work of Jenny Robb, Caitlin McGurk and the entire staff. It was filled with iconic moments and images (note how many people have posted nearly identical photos online), and what seemed an endless string of unexpected personal highpoints.

Goodbye Columbus, and thank you.

November 12th, 2013

Hello, Columbus

So I’m off to Ohio, to take part in the Grand Opening Festival of Cartoon Art at the gleaming new Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at Ohio State University in Columbus. (During the trip, I’ll be working on a way to abbreviate that particular mouthful.)

Kicking off my grand tour of the Independent Art Capitol of the World, I’ll be appearing at the wonderfully-named Laughing Ogre Comics for a creator signing from 5-7 p.m. on Wednesday. (Cameron Stewart will follow on Thursday, and Paul Pope bats cleanup on Saturday.)

On Friday at 10:30 a.m. I’ll be joining moderator Jared Gardner, Christopher Couch, Andrew Kunka, and Danny Fingeroth in a panel celebrating the 35th anniversary of Will Eisner’s A Contract with God at OSU’s Sullivant Hall Auditorium.

I’m likely to post my thoughts on the Festival overall once I’m back home. In the meantime I’m looking forward to spending time at the Laughing Ogre, where I’ll be greeting the unsuspecting citizens of Columbus and signing copies of Omaha, On the Ropes and Kings in Disguise. Hey, bring those cherished copes of Mr. Hero along, too. If I wrote it, I’m not too proud to sign it.

November 4th, 2013

A “Ropes” Review Worth Reading

It’s gratifying to see that reviews of On the Ropes are still coming in, the most recent being from longtime comics blogger Johanna Draper Carlson on the Comics Worth Reading site. It’s a well-written piece that smartly encapsulates the characters’ main concerns and efficiently suggests the feel of the book without giving much away. Of course, anyone who compliments Dan Burr for the tremendous job he did on the art half of things is okay by me. (And describing Ropes and its predecessor Kings in Disguise as “fine examples of literary graphic novels” doesn’t hurt my feelings, either.)  Click here to read the whole review.

October 10th, 2013

Reed in Action

It’s taken a while to get it online, but the folks at Comic Book Resources have just posted a 13-minute video interview with Reed Waller on the history of Omaha the Cat Dancer, shot during this summer’s San Diego Comic Con. It’s unvarnished Reed, the guy I know – a little “am I seriously sitting here with a lei around my neck?” at first, but pretty quickly warming up and giving everyone a candid look at the sharp and decent guy behind all those naughty pictures. Click here to watch the video at the CBR site.

September 15th, 2013

The CWR “Omaha” Review

Longtime writer-about-comics Johanna Draper Carlson put up a lovely review of the Omaha the Cat Dancer finale on the Comics Worth Reading blog that takes the time to summarize the series’ history and offers a few entertaining thoughts on the book’s appeal. Her take on why the Omaha wrapup representsan artist’s significant, consuming accomplishment (and) a lovely way to wrap up a life’s work” is well worth reading, too, and you can do so by clicking here.

September 7th, 2013

The ComicMix “Omaha” Review

Writer Martha Thomases, who contributes a sharp and entertaining column to the Comicmix site each week, posted the first review I saw of the recently-published Omaha finale. Actually, it’s a combination of review and personal reminiscence, with Thomases reflecting on the days when the strip was new and all of us were much younger, along with her thoughts on what works and doesn’t work about the series in general. It’s a nice piece of work, and you can read it by clicking here.

September 5th, 2013

Reed Steps Out

We’ve now hit the official publication date for the Omaha the Cat Dancer finale, so you can expect a few posts on that subject in the days to come.

To begin with, here are a few shots of the Cat Dancer’s papa Reed Waller in his well-received appearance at this year’s San Diego Comicon, where the new book enjoyed a successful pre-pub debut.

As you can see in these photos provided by NBM, Reed’s appearance was pretty successful, too. He was swamped by fans, signed piles of Omaha volumes and – even though he was offering them at bargain Con prices – sold so many pages of original art that publisher Terry Nantier was joking that Reed earned more personally in San Diego than NBM. (Would that it were so…)

In all, it was something of a triumphal return to the spotlight for a legend of independent comics, and well deserved. Yay, Reed.

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