Will Eisner: The Return of the Artist

Back in March, the plan was for this to be a slightly late post in honor of Will Eisner Week. But then, COVID-19, and the computer services personnel who were about the establish the web presence for The Center for Comics Studies had to divert all of their attention mentoring hundreds of faculty who had to make a sudden shift to remote instruction. I know I couldn’t have done it without their help.

So, much later than intended, but still with a tip of the hat to the great Will Eisner, here are portions of an article excerpted (with permission) from:

Duncan, Randy. “Will Eisner: Return of the Artist.” 9a Arte: Revista Brasileira de Pesquisas sobre Histórias em Quadrinhos (9th Art: Brazilian Journal of Comics Research) 5.2 (2016). 

            In the Steranko History of Comics, Eisner is quoted as saying about his decision to discontinue The Spirit, “I decided I would rather be an entrepreneur than an artist.”1 Eisner never totally abandoned the drawing board, but over a couple of decades his emphasis shifted from doing art to doing business. He approached business with the same energy and inventiveness he had poured into his early comics work. Eisner never regretted the decision. He discovered that he enjoyed the art of the deal and he had a knack for making money. His wife, Ann, has said she thinks “you could have split Will in half, and say one side is business and one side is art. Will loved the business end. He loved the excitement of negotiating.” Ann saw the two sides of Will as reflections of his parents. “His mother was more of a businessperson. His father was more of a dreamer, so he got something from both.”2 Ann loved both aspects of the man.

            Theirs was a marriage that would have been highly improbable just a few decades earlier. Although Eisner was a successful cartoonist, he came from a markedly different social class than did Ann. Ann Weingarten’s family had immigrated to America in 1850 and had been wealthy for generations. Whereas Eisner had grown up in a Jewish ghetto, Ann’s family lived on Park Avenue. However, by mid-century the barriers between classes were more easily breached. It helped that the Weingartens took a liking to Will. Will and Ann were married on June 15, 1950 

Melville David Weingarten was very fond of his son-in-law, but he felt Will should get a “grown-up job.” Weingarten, a prominent stock broker, wanted Will to join him on Wall Street. “Why don’t you come into a gentleman’s business?” he asked.3  

            Eisner did not leave comics for Wall Street, but he found a way to take comics into the corporate world. During his stint in the Army he had contributed to the war effort by using comics to train soldiers in the proper maintenance of their equipment. That experience was the impetus for a new direction in Eisner’s career. The work had gotten Eisner excited about the educational capability of the comics medium, and apparently some of the soldiers who were his audience also realized the effectiveness of the instructional comics they had seen in Army Motors magazine. After the war, Eisner went back to work on The Spirit, and did some of the most memorable stories, but there were distractions. “I occasionally received calls from former military types who were now involved in the publication departments of major corporations like General Motors and U.S. Steel,” Eisner once recalled. “They would ask if I could do any of their training material in comic form. Of course, being a New York City boy, I said ‘Sure!’”4 Eisner discovered that corporations were willing to pay much more for a comic book than any comic book publisher was willing to pay. Always quick to capitalize on an opportunity that came his way, Eisner formed the American Visuals Corporation to produce instructional comics for corporate clients. Being able to tout the fledgling company as doing work for clients such as U.S. Steel and General Motors helped Eisner get a variety of work, from the cover of a Baltimore Colts 1950 souvenir booklet to a comic the United Nations intended to send to Pakistan to teach anti-soil erosion techniques.  

           Excited by these new challenges, Eisner had little enthusiasm or time left over for The Spirit.  By 1950, "The Spirit began to become very burdensome.”5 He had essentially turned the strip over to his assistants, but he was seldom pleased with the result.  

           . . .

           Eisner was loath to give up a source of income, but it was a dwindling source. Fewer papers were carrying the Spirit Section, and Eisner felt the Section’s unique distribution system was going to collapse soon. The final nail in The Spirit's coffin was driven once Eisner secured a contract to produce comics content for an Army magazine. Originally, it had been on a twice a year publication, but once the Army decided they wanted a monthly publication the contract became lucrative enough that Eisner could afford to discontinue The Spirit.

            Because the Army had been impressed with Eisner's use of the comics format to deliver preventive maintenance information in the Army Motors magazine during World War II, they turned to him to do the art when they began P*S, The Preventive Maintenance Monthly. Only this time he was being paid as a civilian contractor.8 Eisner put together a complete prototype issue of P*S, and the Army spent about six months testing it against traditional training literature. Eisner was awarded the contract and the first issue appeared in June of 1951.

            The main office for P*S magazine was in Lexington, Kentucky, where an editor and staff of writers devised the theme and wrote the articles for each issue. Eisner was responsible for creating the cover, spot illustrations, and the eight-page color comic that appeared in the center of each magazine. 

Eisner and his staff employed broad humor and sexy women to grab the G.I.s’ attention, and dry, technical information was communicated by means of talking equipment and other visual gags. The mainstays were mechanics Connie Rodd and MSG Half-Mast McCannick and the equipment destroying Joe Dope, characters Eisner had created for posters and Army Motors magazine during his time in the Army.

          . . .

            Soon his work for the military expanded beyond P*S. In September of 1951, a Joe Dope strip by Eisner began running in newspapers at various Army posts. Once the Korean War began Eisner found himself involved in the creation of instructional materials for the South Korean army. The P*S Magazine contract became the cornerstone of the Eisner's American Visual Corporation and marked the beginning of a different phase of his career. With the Spirit Section, Eisner had been on the periphery of the comic book industry. By the time he discontinued The Spirit in late 1952 he was living and working in a totally different world. It must not have been long before the comics creators who had once worked with him began to muse "I wonder what ever happened to Will Eisner?" For his part, Eisner probably did not have much time to think about the old days as he was busy developing corporate clients that led to lucrative corporate mergers.

            As he was bringing the Spirit strip to a close Eisner “got very involved in developing material for the then burgeoning industrial relations market, the reading rack market.10 Deadly Ideas, a 1952 job safety booklet for General Motors employees, was one of the first of these ventures. Eisner often saved time and effort in the production of these pamphlets by “recycling” characters from his P*S Magazine work. For example, Connie Rodd and Joe Dope, appear, with minimal changes, as Connie Convertible and Argyle McSludge in one of Eisner’s 1953 commercial ventures, Hoods Up, A Magazine for Profit-Minded Fram Dealers, done for Fram Oil Filter.

            American Visuals was producing enough pamphlets for the reading rack market that they got the attention of their major competitor. In the late 1950s American Visuals merged with Koster-Dana Publishing, which was the parent company of the Good Reading Rack Service, the largest publisher of reading rack materials. As Eisner explains the reasons for the merger, “We had been coming up fast behind them, and most of the other companies had fallen away. So we decided that the two of us should merge. They had no creative force, they just had sales organization.  We were all creative.”11 In 1962, Eisner was named executive vice-president of Koster-Dana Publishing Company. When Koster-Dana bought the North American Newspaper Alliance, which included the Bell McClure Syndicate, Will was made president of the syndicate. In an October 1963 letter Eisner wrote:  “My role is confined, in the main, to the guidance and development of new features, rather than the actual personal creation.”12

           Eventually, Eisner severed his relationship with Koster-Dana because he felt the publishing end of the conglomerate was beginning to atrophy.13 It was apparently a profitable leave-taking for Eisner, but Koster-Dana editorial director Jules Siegel remembers a different reason for the departure:  “Will brought the booklets he produced a sense of humor that was almost as much fun as The Spirit.  Well, that went over like the proverbial turd in the punch bowl at Good Reading Rack Service, even after our booklets sold better than the old ones.” Siegel claims “Eisner was later forced out and took American Visuals with him, but he made a great deal of money buying and selling his own company.”14

            Will Eisner was still an artist and still occasionally spent time at the drawing board, but by all outward appearances he was a businessman. During the decade of the 60s the work itself has less and less to do with comics. Eisner spent much of his time putting together proposals and securing contracts for comics work his staff would produce. Reward for Fire Prevention at Home (1960), an illustrated pamphlet for the National Fire Protection Association, and Before You Cross (1962), a safety guide for General Motors were typical of the comics work that appeared with the Eisner signature in the early 60s. Eisner even began to do some work that involved no cartooning.  Pictorial Arsenal of America’s Combat Weapons and America's Space Vehicles, put out by Sterling Publishing in 1960 and 1962 respectively, are typical text and photo reference books. 

            As the decade progressed, Eisner's business ventures diversified. American Visuals still employed the comics form to create materials for corporate and government clients, but by mid-decade Eisner had set up a group of companies to produce other types of work. IPD Publishing Company published hard cover books for schools. The IPD book for automotive mechanics was sold to military schools. Will Eisner Productions was producing the comics portion of P*S Magazine, as well as other instructional and semi-technical manuals for the military. His Educational Supplements Corporation provided multi-media kits for elementary social studies classes. Each World Explorer Program kit “contained a record, booklet, a map, and other little elements that formed a very interesting package to the kids.”15 Michael Ploog, who became the chief artist on P*S magazine a few years later, remembers the educational supplements business being run out of the back room of the American Visuals offices.  “He used to bring in goofy things like pipes from Peru, and silk worms from Japan. They used to be stored in boxes all over the place.”16

            Of course, Eisner never totally abandoned the comics form. For years he had been trying to sell the Department of Labor on the idea of using comics to reach disadvantaged youth.  In 1965, he got a research and development contract and began work on the Job Scene series. Over the next three years, Eisner’s studio produced 25 Job Scene comics with titles such as "How to Use the System," "Learn Baby Learn," "Food Field," "Electronic Worker," "Auto Mechanic," "You are Nowhere Baby," "Power is Green Baby," and "The Man for Me." This led to additional government contracts. Eisner wrote the scripts and Andre leBlanc did the art for "Pepe Obrero" and "los Afortunados (The Lucky Ones)," published by the United States Information Agency. "Los Afortunados" was intended to convince Latin American shop stewards that democratic unionism and The Alliance for Progress were good for them and their communities.

             . . .

            As a young man Will Eisner had been content to let Jerry Iger or Busy Arnold handle the business matters while he spend long hours at the drawing board creating art. Once Eisner began the American Visuals Corporation he began a slow transformation from artist to businessman. Eisner has acknowledged that during most of the 1950s his “activity was devoted largely to designing the material, selling business, developing concepts, marketing – at the same time doing a certain amount of creative work.”25 By the late 1960s, with his energies focused on corporate mergers, starting new business ventures, and a resurgence of interest in The Spirit, he was doing less and less of the actual work on P*S Magazine. Eventually, Eisner was spending most of his time behind a desk and very little of it at the drawing board. The 1960s were a busy and lucrative time for Will Eisner the entrepreneur, but it left little time for Will Eisner the artist.

            By 1971 Eisner’s World Explorer Program had expanded and was taking most of his time. As he had done with his reading rack business, Eisner negotiated a merger with one of his leading competitors. His Educational Supplements merged with Croft Educational in New London, Connecticut, and Eisner became Chairman of the Board.  And, much like he had done at Koster-Dana, in less than two years Eisner resigned from the Board of Directors and sold his equity in the company. No doubt it was once again a profitable move for Eisner, but there were other motives besides profit. Eisner had at least a vague sense that there might once again be opportunities for him in the world of entertainment comics. He was soon to learn how dramatically that world had changed in his absence.

            A new phenomenon, the comic book convention, allowed at least a handful of fans in a few big cities a chance to meet the comic book creators they admired. The first convention, a small gathering of fans that was little more than a swap meet, was held at Detroit’s Hotel Tuller in May 1964. The second convention was held in New York a few months later. One of the dealers selling old comic books at the 1964 New York ComiCon was Phil Seuling, a high school English teacher from Brooklyn. With infectious enthusiasm for comic books, boundless energy, and a network of aggressively cultivated contacts Phil Seuling soon became “Mr. Comic Book in New York City.”26 By 1968 Seuling was running the New York convention and had renamed it the Comic Art Convention. It was Seuling who gave conventions the now familiar infrastructure, the panels and other programming. With comic book publishing based almost exclusively in New York, he was able to get publishers involved and invite the most popular creators as guests of honor.27 Seuling also tracked down comics creators from the past who were not connected to mainstream comics and had no idea there was a fandom movement. One of those creators was Will Eisner.

            In an interview with Phil Seulling, Eisner told him "Well, I came back into the field because of you. I remember you calling me in New London, where I was sitting there as a chairman of the board of Croft Publishing Co. My secretary said, "There's a Mr. Seuling on the phone and he's talking about a comics convention. What is that?" She said, "I didn't know you were a cartoonist, Mr. Eisner. "Oh yes," I said, "secretly I'm a closet cartoonist." I came down and was stunned at the existence of a whole world. That's where I met Denis Kitchen. This was a world that I had left, and I found it very exciting, very stimulating. That, plus a number of incidents that occurred, got me back. So you are responsible."28       

            . . .         

            Eisner’s interest in his various business ventures was waning. This was due in part to Eisner’s inherent restlessness with doing any one thing for too long, but it was also a result of that 1971 Seuling comic book convention which Ann Eisner characterized as “an eye opener for Will.” The experience had reignited his interest in doing strictly creative work       

            . . .     

            Eisner's Spirit work had always been more intellectual than emotional - clever takes on genre and experiments with the comics form. Eisner put little of himself in his early comics work. Of course, as a young man who had spent most of his waking hours in the studio he had little life experience to draw upon for the early Spirit stories. After more than fifty years of living and his recent heartbreak over his children, the Will Eisner of the 1970s had deep reservoirs of triumph and disappoint, joy and pain from which to draw his stories. The tears he never cried for Alice become the relentless rain in those opening pages of "A Contract with God."

In the introduction to the first issue of the1973 Spirit comic book published by Krupp Comic Works, comics historian Maurice Horn sought to establish Will Eisner’s significance in the history of comics by proclaiming that “Twenty years after his self-imposed retirement, his influence is greater than ever.”49 Horn had no idea that Eisner had yet to begin his most ambitious work. Soon after Horn wrote those words Eisner was back at the drawing board full-time, and his efforts would soon result in a ground-breaking new work that would mark the end of the Eisner as businessman era and herald the return of Eisner the artist.

 

NOTES

 

1          Steranko, James. Sternako History of Comic vol. 2. Reading, PA:  Supergrpahics, 1972:  116.

 

2          Bell, Blake. "Ann Eisner Interview" excerpted from I Have to Live With This Guy. Raleigh:  TwoMorrows Publishing, 2002.  online version

 

3          Eisenr, Ann.  Personal Interview  June 18, 2005.

 

4          Waiter, Stanley, and Stephen R. Bissette. Comic Book Rebels. New York: Donald I. Fine, 1993: 277.

 

5          Eisner, Will.  "Art & Commerce: An Oral Reminiscence." Panels 1 (1979): 19.

 

8          Eisner, Will.  "Art & Commerce: An Oral Reminiscence." Panels 1 (1979): 19.

 

10        Eisner, Will.  "Art & Commerce: An Oral Reminiscence." Panels 1 (1979): 20.

 

11        Eisner, Will.  "Art & Commerce: An Oral Reminiscence." Panels 1 (1979): 20.

 

12        Eisner, Will.  Letter, October 31, 1963 from The Will Eisner Collection, Ohio StateUniversity.

 

13        Eisner, Will.  "Art & Commerce: An Oral Reminiscence." Panels 1 (1979): 21.

 

14        Siegel, Jules.  "How I Met Will Eisner." from Mad Laughter:  Fragments of a Life in Progress. posted at Newsroom-L Public Journal. 

            www.newsroom-l.net/blog/archives/000179.html

 

15        Eisner, Will.  "Art & Commerce: An Oral Reminiscence." Panels 1 (1979): 21.

 

16        Ploog, Mike.  "Mike Ploog on Will Eisner." interview by Kirk Deppey  The Comics Journal 267 (April/May 2005): 140.

 

25        Eisner, Will.  "Art & Commerce: An Oral Reminiscence." Panels 1 (1979): 20.

 

26        Nolan, Michelle. qtd. in Comics: Between the Panels. eds Steve Duin and Mike Richardson. Milwaukie: Dark Horse Comics, 1998: 394.

 

27        Of course, most professionals ignored the conventions at first.  Stan Lee did not attend that first New York con, but sent his secretary, Flo Steinberg, as a stand-in.

 

28        Schutz, Diana, and Denis Kitchen, eds. Will Eisner's Shop Talk. Milwaukie: Dark Horse, 2001:  243.

49        Horn, Maurice. “An Introduction . . .” The Spirit 1 (1973): 1.