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When Will Eisner co-founded the first "comic art shop" in the late 1930s, he took one of the first steps in an epic career that would significantly change the face of comics in America. Eisner's studio–which employed Bob Kane, Lou Fine, and Jack Kirby, among others–was one of the first to produce original comic books in an era when "comics" meant newspaper funny strips. But the company was only a few years old when Eisner left to launch the groundbreaking weekly series The Spirit, a standalone newspaper insert that gave Eisner freedom to experiment with his visual style and begin the creation of a new form of communication. After ending the series in 1952, Eisner spent 20 years pioneering the use of comics in education, from military instruction magazines to elementary-school visual aids. In the early 1970s, he returned to fiction with A Contract With God, the first in a series of ambitious, influential graphic novels that told real-world stories in expressive, innovative ways. Today, at 83, Eisner is far from retired. This year alone, Dark Horse Comics published his new anthology Last Day In Vietnam, NBM Publishing released The Last Knight (based on Don Quixote), and DC Comics began republishing his classic works, including the first installment in a projected 25-book library of Spirit treasuries. Eisner recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about his new projects, his old projects, and the future of his chosen medium.
The Onion: How's life in Florida for you, compared to life in New York City?
Will Eisner: Very comfortable. This is a very solitary business, and you're always working in a small room. Whether this room is in New York City or in Florida really doesn't matter in the long run, except that life in Florida is very comfortable and very good and very healthful and very enjoyable. At first, I didn't want to come down here. It was my wife's idea to come down here, and I didn't want to leave New York. New York to me is the center of the Earth. I used to enjoy flying up to teach at [New York's School Of Visual Arts], and to walk around the city and get a carbon-monoxide fix. But life down here is quite good. It's healthy and stress-free. I believe very strongly that people are responsive to their environment, and if you're in an environment where there is a great deal of movement and action, you kind of respond to it physically yourself. Kind of abstract thinking, but I believe it.
O: Given how closely your work is tied to big-city life, are you worried about the impact on your writing?
WE: Oh, no. When you're talking about the human struggle for survival, it's endless. New York City is a fountainhead of stories. It's a big theater, and there's always something going on. I'm never really out of stories. There's always a new challenge, and my style is to constantly explore or experiment, so I'm constantly probing beyond what I've done before. I'm never happy with what I did yesterdaynot because I think I did a bad job, but because there's more to do. This is a medium that has not fully reached its potential.
O: You've been responsible for a lot of innovations in the medium over the course of your career.
WE: Most of the things I've been given credit for are the result of either desperation or an attempt to solve a problem. The Spirit itself was an attempt to solve a problem: At that time, newspapers were getting very worried about the fact that they were going to lose a lot of their younger audience to comic books, so they were looking for someone who could create a comic book for a newspaper. That gave me the opportunity to do something I had wanted to do all along. That led to innovation, just as the so-called "splash page," which I'm credited with innovating, was a result of the fact that this was a free-standing supplement in the newspaper, very much like TV guides in newspapers today. I knew that if I didn't get the reader's attention as he flipped through the Sunday newspaper, I might lose him. So I began to innovate on the covers. Also, I had only eight pagesseven pages, later onto tell the story, so I had to bring the reader in very quickly, set the scene very quickly. Then, another thing I did that was called innovative at the time was I never repeated the logo the same way in each successive story. The syndicate was furious with me over it, because they felt they couldn't market this thing. Superman had the same logo all the time, and every comic strip had its same logo, but I felt I would be losing my readers. I was after an adult reader, and the comic-book world was really a ghetto as far as I was concerned. So innovation is constantly the result of an attempt to solve a problem, to reach out beyond where you are.
O: You were also the first person to use the term "graphic novel." Is it true that you made that up to avoid pitching A Contract With God as a comic book?
WE: Yes, that's a true story. I was sitting there on the telephone talking to this guy, and I said, "I have this new thing for you, something very new." And he said, "What is it?" And I looked at it and realized that if I said, "A comic book," he would hang up. He was a very busy guy, and this was a top-level publishing house. So I called it a graphic novel, and he said, "Oh, that's interesting. Bring it up!" I brought it to him. He looked at it, looked at me over his granny glasses, and said, "You know, it's still a comic. We can't publish that kind of stuff."
O: What about your use of silent panels, furthering a story without dialogue? You were the first there, too. What problem were you trying to solve?
WE: There, too, I was dealing with a reader that I felt was more sophisticated than a comic-book reader. By creating a series of pantomime panels without dialogue, without balloons, I'd get the reader to supply the dialogue. This is a medium that requires intelligence on the part of the reader. It requires a contribution, a participation. This does not occur in movies, for example. This is the prime difference between comics and film: Film is a spectator medium, while comics is a participatory medium. You participate, your reader contributes to it, and you have a sort of dialogue with the reader. And the reader is expected to draw out of his or her life experience the things you're suggesting or alluding to. As I go on in this medium, I've become more impressionistic in the work I'm doing. I've experimented with that. Currently, in a new book I just got out called Last Day In Vietnam, I experimented further in having the reader become part of the story itself.
O: Last Day has a theatrical feel to it. Reading it is like looking into a stage.
WE: That's exactly the way I think. I don't think in terms of film; I think in terms of live theater. The reason for that is that in live theater, the audience is part of the scene. The audience is privy to the scene. In film, the reader is a camera. They move you around; you see things from bird's-eye views and worm's-eye views, though knotholes, in extreme close-up, and so forth. I use close-ups, but not that often. Mostly, in the last few years, I've kept my reader on the same level as the action, as though he's looking at a stage. It's very important for me to maintain contact with the reader, because I'm writing to someone, and I'm desperately eager to achieve believability. Not so much realism as believability.
O: The stories in Last Day In Vietnam are all true stories from your own experience, aren't they?
O: I understand the Army actually sent you to Vietnam and Korea during wartime so your military instructional comics would be more realistic.
WE: One of the requirements of the contract was that I would go out into the field at least once or twice a year. That way, what I was doing would be far more authentic than working from photographs.
O: Did you actively want these trips for the experience, or did you have to be talked into going into combat?
WE: I wasn't eager to do it. I mean, I didn't volunteer for it, but it was part of the thing. After a while, I rather enjoyed doing it, because I came away from it more knowledgeable than when I went there. When I got back to the drawing board, I was reporting more than anything else.
O: Why a book about Vietnam now?
WE: Over the years, you carry with you little snippets of scenes or things that do not deserve a whole book, but they're part of a lot of little things you want to divest yourself of. I'd just completed a rather heavy book called A Family Matter, and it was a serious piece of work. I was thinking about doing something a little lighter. I was flipping through these Spirit books one day, and I saw a story I'd done many years ago in which this man, I think he was a sea captain, was talking to the reader. And I said, "You know, I never followed up on that." It was a great idea, because I was turning out stories every week on a heavy schedule, and I could never really follow up on good ideas or carry them out. So I said, "I'd like to try this." Anyway, these ideas have been in my head for some time.
O: The artwork is very different from your usual work, with the heavy canvas texture and the light brown ink.
WE: It's very gritty. The reason for that was that I wanted it to look like a sketchbook that comes right from the field. I wanted a feeling of grit.
O: When you were planning, did you think about identifying your market?
WE: I don't write to a market, but I'm talking to somebody when I write. I guess you might say I'm like the Ancient Mariner: I've got a story and I want to tell it to somebody. I don't sit down and say, "There's a big market right now for mutants trashing each other, so I'm gonna do two mutants trashing each other." None of my books are done for a market. I have a very small market when you come right down to it, compared to, say, X-Men or Spawn. I don't write for these people at all. It's very hard to talk to them about heartbreak.
O: Do you think all of your works address heartbreak on some level?
WE: Probably. I'm dealing with the human condition, and I'm dealing with life. For me, the enemy is life, and people's struggle to prevail is essentially the theme that runs through all my books.
O: You often say that you don't write for people who read comics; you write for adults. Where do The Princess And The Frog and The Last Knight fit in?
WE: [Laughs.] Those were a little vacation I took from the business of writing this kind of stuff. They were the result of another attempt at innovation. About five or six years ago, public television here in Florida asked me to work with them on developing something that would get them into the literacy field. I developed what I called a reading experience on television. I took the classics and reduced them to a little half-hour show in which there was no animation in the art, but the balloons were animated, so the language would pop in as the characters spoke it, and that would force the reader to read it. Well, it never went anywhere: They couldn't get enough funding to pursue it, and I was left with a bunch of stories I had roughed out. I showed the stories to my agent in Europe, and he said he had five publishers in five different countries who wanted stories. So I did the Moby Dick adaptation and The White Whale, which hasn't been published here but appeared in Europe. After that, I did The Princess And The Frog because I was leafing through a Grimm's fairy-tale book one day and discovered, to my astonishment, that the princess was not really the nice girl I always thought she was. So I did that, and I then did the Don Quixote book The Last Knight.
O: The mixture of fictional adaptation and biography was kind of unusual there. Why suddenly introduce Miguel Cervantes as a character at the end?
WE: I couldn't resist making the statement. I felt very sympathetic to Don Quixote. I think many of us in this business are Don Quixotes. Anybody in the business of innovation is in pursuit of something that nobody else believes exists. These were adaptations, so I took that liberty. I had a lot of fun with them.
O: Do you have any plans for more in the series?
WE: Yes, but... [Laughs.] I have to have time for it. I just finished a book that DC is going to publish in the fall, called Minor Miracles. It's this series of stories that take place on Dropsie Avenue, making the case that there are little miracles that go on all the time. So... I probably will one of these days. I have roughs for about four or five more, including Oliver Twist and a couple of others I should be able to get to. It's just a question of which comes first.
O: DC Comics is reissuing a lot of your books this year.
WE: Oh, yeah, that was the sweetener that made the deal as far as I was concerned. I had about 13 books that would have been remaindered if DC hadn't come along. I'm still in pursuit of the serious readers, the establishment readers, and DC represents an opportunity to ultimately reach them. They have the legs and they have the access, so maybe my books will find a place in Borders and Barnes & Noble and all the other bookstores where I want to be.
O: About a year ago, you said in an interview that you wouldn't want Marvel or DC handling your reprints because you'd lose your personal connection with your work. Has that been a problem at all?
WE: Did I say that? I should have written a denial immediately after that. At the time, I was still thinking in terms of my past practice, which was to stay with small companies. I've always been successful working with small publishers, and I had never really thought that DC would reach the point where I could regard them as a comfortable house to be with. When they came along and made the offer, I thought about it very carefully and realized that by this time, with their Vertigo line and so forth, they had moved well beyond the standard comic-book house that they were back in the '70s and '80s. So it was easy for me to make that decision, and it's worked out very nicely.
O: What is it like seeing the early-1940s Spirit stories back in print again?
WE: Well, I love the package. I think the package is marvelous. I try to avoid looking at the artwork because it makes my toes curl. [Laughs.] I want to grab a pencil and redo it. "Oh, my God, did I get away with this junk?"
O: Where is the art coming from? Do you still have the originals of those strips?
WE: They've done a remarkable job, and the modern technology is absolutely stunning. The original artwork for that era does not exist anymore. I have the original artwork from 1945 on, but for that period, there's no original artwork. What they've done is picked up, from collectors, actual copies of the issues from that time, then somehow bleached out the colors, kept the line art, and restored the colors. They've done a stunning job, and the coloring is absolutely accurate. I said I would like to have the paper simulate the newsprint, with the color being the flat color we used at that time. They agreed to do it, and the results have been absolutely splendid.
O: How do you think modern readers will react to them?
WE: I don't know. I suspect that they'll look at them as quaint collections of some kind. I must say I was amazed that the character has survived. It's still got young readers. Apparently, the basic stories have survived largely because they're fundamentally sound stories. You must remember that these stories were written for an adult audience, for a newspaper audience. Consequently, there's more depth to the stories than you would have if they were written for young comic-book readers. As a matter of fact, the proof of that is that The Spirit was never successful on the newsstand in competition with Batman and Superman or any other superheroes. But the last report I got from DC said that the first archival edition has sold well beyond what they expected, so it's doing very well.
O: Over the last 25 years, one of the things you've consistently said in interviews is that we're right on the brink of an industry change, that comics are about to become more intellectual and more respected. It just hasn't happened yet. Do you still think it's about to happen?
WE: [Laughs.] About 20 years ago, I think, I was giving a talk to a bunch of distributors. When I did A Contract With God, I said I had opened up a toll booth in an empty field, waiting for the highway to come through. [Laughs.] I can hear the trucks out there. I don't agree with you: If you look around and see what's being published, you'll see that the level of at least 5 percent of the comics production of this country has risen well beyond what it was 20 years ago. You've got Maus, you've got Jules Feiffer, you've got Harvey Pekar, Neil Gaiman, and Alan Moore, people of that caliber who are in the field turning out high-quality stuff. There's a lot of good stuff, but it just hasn't reached a critical mass where it will establish itself in the marketplace. We're not very different from jazz. It took a long time for jazz to achieve a position in the musical world where it was considered legitimate music. Slowly but surely, we're getting there. I'm still carrying the flag on that, and I still believe it.
O: But the mainstream still considers Moore and Gaiman to be anomalies, to the extent that the mainstream is aware of them at all. Do you think America is ultimately capable of accepting comics as a literary medium?
WE: Ultimately, yes. Ultimately, they will, especially because of the dynamic that's occurring in society right now. We're in a visual era. We have to communicate today with imagery, because there's a need for speed of communication. Comicsthe comic medium, the idea of sequentially arranged images with some text to convey an idea and tell a storyhave found the place between text and film. We deliver information at a very rapid rate of speed. Very often, our information is not as deep as a body of text, but a lot of people haven't got time to read a large body of text any longer. So I would say the growth of our society, the conduct of our civilization, is on our side.
O: What about the growth of the readers? Do you think people have changed in any essential way since you started your career?
WE: I think people are essentially the same. Everybody is in a continuing struggle to survive, or to prevail over life. The environment we live in is changing. In modern society, the rhythm of life is so accelerated that our attention span is shorter, and our patience is a little shorter. We're looking for faster gratification, quicker solutions to things. I have to address it with the writing I'm doing now. It's influencing students I've talked to. The
Internet and MTV are changing the rhythm of reading. We want solutions more quickly, more rapidly. If you look at MTV, you find that there's no attempt to provide intervening action between a beginning and an end. So the readers I'm writing to now are less patient with a great deal of involved detail than they were back in the '40s and '50s.
O: What about the growth of new technologies? How do you think that will affect the comics industry?
WE: That's another thing that's challenging us. The way I see it right now, the Internet is a vehicle of transmission. And the vehicle of transmission does not alter the fact that comics is a language that combines image and text. Whether it's transmitted or broadcast over a computer screen or done digitally, it's still going to involve the same kind of intellectual process that anybody working in comics today has to employ. I don't believe that print will disappear. It may no longer dominate our communication world, but it will not disappear. The whole process of arranging images in a sequence to convey an ideawhether it's transmitted electronically or by paper and printremains. The only difference is in the technological skills that are employed.
O: Are there still skills of comics creation that you're trying to master?
WE: Oh, yeah. In the last few books I've done, I've spent a lot of time trying to master the ability to transmit internal emotions. It's very hard to do with single images, very challenging. What I'm continually working on now is not so much my pen-and-ink skills or my brush skills; I've long ago mastered those. I'm spending a lot of time now in minimalization of the technical drawing, the draftsmanship of detail. I prefer to spend my time trying to arrange and posture the human character in such a way that it conveys an internal emotion, what's going on inside him. Passion, the transmission of passion, is very important.
O: Your background settings are becoming minimalist, but your characters are still detailed, which is exactly the opposite of the style of many modern independent comics.
WE: I'm very conscious of that. The works you refer to are really obsessed with movies and animation, and they're trying to emulate motion pictures and animation. Japanese manga have their basis in animated cartoons, and they're very skilled at portraying action and fast movement, but there's no internalization, no depth, and that's the big difference. Yes, I believe that cartoons are a form of impressionism in the world of art, and I try to be as impressionistic as possible. It's for that reason that I began, with A Contract With God, abandoning the rigid panel arrangement that dominated comics for so long. I felt it enabled me to invite, or involve, the reader much more. You give a reader a blank background, and the tendency of the reader is to supply the background out of his own imagination or his own experience. I learned that from one of the comics that influenced me tremendously early on, Krazy Kat. If you examine [George] Herriman's early work, you'll see that he had a visceral instinct for this kind of thing. After studying that as a kid, I thought, "Gee, this guy's got something here."
O: Why not extend that to the characters, then? Why not use more iconic characters that readers can identify with?
WE: The reason for that is that the human being has to be fairly precise. When you look at a person, you look for small details that reveal the character to you. Heavy eyebrows may mean something to you, and a sharp nose or thin lips mean something to you. Those are details that have to be expressed, because you can't create abstract people. Creating abstract people loses the relationship that you want to develop between the person and your reader. The reader has to look at a character and say, "Oh, I've seen him before. I know who he is and I know what he's like." The background can be impressionistic, because we remember backgrounds impressionistically. You don't come away remembering the number of rivets in the bridge; you just remember the feeling of the bridge.
O: Is it true that you prefer to work in black and white?
WE: Yes. Black and white gives me the closest contact with the reader. It reaches the reader without interference. Color has a tendency to interfere with the dialogue. Color is almost like a large orchestra playing behind the art, you know? You can't hear a thing. I don't think color is badI've used color in the fairy-tale stories and I'll use it on coversbut I don't feel I need it inside the book. In the last book, A Family Matter, I used the brown coloration: not full color, but monochromatic color, largely because I wanted to create a mood. Color does help create moods. I like a lot of my books to run in brown ink rather than black ink.
O: Why brown?
WE: It has a dreamy quality. Psychiatrists have told me that people dream in brown. I don't know how true that is. I think I dream in black and white. But it creates a warmth, and it's not as strident as harsh black and white. A lot of my books have been in black and white. For instance, The Heart Of The Storm was all in black ink. That seemed to work there.
O: Speaking from a purely idealistic plane, where would you like to see the industry go from here?
WE: I would like to see more sophisticated material. I would like to see the comics industry reach a point where good comics material is reviewed in The New York Times and treated at a level equivalent to oil paintings and good literature. I'm hoping we'll see more of that. I believe it will happen, and I'm hoping to be around when it does.