Creatively Speaking: Will Eisner's Spirit Speaks!

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Will Eisner, the creator of The Spirit comic series, is in the house today. Well, not exactly. As you might know, Will died some years ago. But we were fortunate enough to get an interview with the man who runs Will Eisner Studios, the curator of his estate, Will's nephew Carl Gropper. Frank Miller (Sin City, 300) has a new film out based on the Eisner character, so we thought it would be a good time to learn a little more about the man some credit with creating the first graphic novel, the man who the comic industry awards are named after (The Eisner). Check out the interview with Gropper below, and be sure to tune back in tomorrow for a chance to win some Eisner books!

Also, if you want to see Frank Miller talking about The Spirit, hit the YouTube clip at the end of the interview on the next page. To learn more about Will Eisner visit www.willeisner.com.

DI: A lot of Depression-era comics creators, like Jerome Siegel and Joseph
Shuster, who created Superman, made little money in those days. But not
Eisner. Creating characters like Doll Man and Wonder Man, he and his partner
Jerry Iger did quite well, financially. What was their secret?

CG: Will Eisner was a combination of artist, storyteller, and entrepreneur. He
felt that he should own the work that he created. That might not be novel
today, but it was unique at the time. Will Eisner had no secret - along
with his partner, Jerry Iger, he used both his artistic and business talents
to build a viable business during the Golden Age of the Comics. A number of
times in his life he struck out in a brand new direction as when he created
The Spirit Section for the Sunday Newspapers in 1940. By 1952 he was on to
using Sequential Art for training and education and in 1978 he created the
first modern Graphic Novel with his groundbreaking "A Contract with God."
He actually coined the term, Sequential Art, to describe what comics were,
and then used the term in 1985 in his first textbook, Comics and Sequential
Art. His third Sequential Art textbook, Expressive Anatomy, was actually
completed posthumously by artist Pete Poplaski and published by W.W. Norton
this year.

DI: As I understand it, the comic book grew out of the Sunday comics in the
newspaper sort of the way TV grew out of the movie business. Though it's
changing now, I think it's still more prestigious to write for the movies
than it is TV. At what point did it become cooler to write comic books
vis-à-vis newspaper comics, or does that analogy not hold up?

CG: I think artists and cartoonists always liked to draw pictures starting with
the prehistoric cave paintings that were discovered in France. Writing
actually developed quite a bit later and because the writers had the critics
attention at that time they put forth the idea that writing was a higher
level occupation than cartooning. As you know, that's not always the case.
The same way that a movie experience is different than a television
experience, a comic book experience is different than a comic strip
experience. They're all pretty cool avocations and it's what the reader or
watcher himself or herself adds to the experience and then gets out of it
that counts.

DI: The Spirit may very well be Eisner's coolest comic creation. He wore a
mask, of course, but other than that, The Spirit didn't have much in common
with other superheroes. No great powers, no cape. Do you think The Spirit's
Everyman quality contributed to the comic's success?

CG: Yes, I think people find it easy to identify with the Spirit. He fights
crime in Central City (read New York City) and stops villains and almost
everyone is in favor of that. But even better than that, his stories are
creative and fascinating and the artwork is excellent. The stories allow
one to get lost in a world that looks somewhat like one's own and where the
good guys usually win.

DI: I haven't yet seen the new film. What would Eisner think of it were he
still alive today?

CG: Will Eisner sold options to filmmakers any number of times since he created
The Spirit in 1940. In the 1980's Warner Brothers Television completed a
pilot for a TV series which was never made. The current film was actually
optioned in 1994 and was not really started until after his death in 2005.
Will Eisner and Frank Miller, who adapted, wrote, and directed The Spirit
for the movie, were good friends and admired each other's work. Will Eisner
understood that when a character or story is licensed to Hollywood the
creator looses almost all control. He understood that it was part of the
tradeoff and he would never second-guess an artist in a different medium.

DI: How did the filmmakers handle the not-so-PC Ebony White sidekick? (The
original Ebony White is a stereotypical African-American caricature--think
Buckwheat meets Sambo.)

CG: Ebony White was a character of the times (think pre-World War II when even
the US Army was totally segregated) and Eisner drew him as he drew all of
his characters. The villains and femmes fatales in The Spirit certainly
looked like villains and femmes fatales. On many occasions Ebony saved the
Spirit from a calamitous outcome and he was the central focus of at least
one complete story. Today, I'm positive that Will Eisner would not draw
Ebony as he drew him in the 1940's. Darwyn Cooke in the current Spirit
monthly comic book being published by DC Comics modernized the Ebony White
character and Frank Miller in the Spirit movie decided to leave him out.

DI: During WWII, Eisner created instructional comic books for the Army. How
did this opportunity come about? And what exactly was he creating for them?

CG: Will was drafted into the army as a buck private and luckily his artistic
talent was recognized. After boot camp, he was "volunteered" for the post
newspaper and drew a number of comic strips - one called Private Dogtag. He
had the idea that sequential art could be used to help train the troops by
using a medium that that they would read and that could keep the average
GI's attention. When the communications people (read Signal Corps) in the
Pentagon saw what he was doing, they brought him to Washington to develop
equipment maintenance manuals. He ended the war as a Warrant Officer and
developed PS Magazine for the Army shortly after that.

DI: While certainly not the first graphic novel, A Contract with God, and
Other Tenement Stories, published in 1978 is often used as the yardstick
against which all others are measured, even today. Why is the work so
formidable?

CG: I would call Will Eisner's A Contract with God the first modern graphic
novel. There were certainly books made up of pictures before 1978, and the
term had been previously used, but this book opened up the eyes of both
comics creators and book publishers as to what could be done with the
medium. A Contract with God wasn't funny, had no animals, and it told a
real life story with excellent artwork. As with many new genres, it wasn't
accepted overnight. Today Graphic Novels are one of the fastest growing
segments of the publishing industry.

DI: One of the books we're giving away tomorrow is called The Dreamer. It's
about a man who aspires to be a famous comic book creator during the
Depression. Did Eisner intend for the story to be autobiographical?

CG: Writers' best novels are frequently based on their experiences (think
Hemingway) and that can probably be said of graphic novel writers too. A
number of Will Eisner's best books are partly autobiographical including The
Dreamer. Will Eisner's last book, The Plot, is historical in nature and
actually went in a brand new direction.

DI: How did Eisner feel when they named the comic book industry awards "The
Eisners"?

CG: Will Eisner thought that cartoonists and graphic novelists deserved to be
recognized for all of their contributions to society. The Eisners came
about as a result of others' recognition of that and of his contributions to
the Sequential Arts medium over a continually innovative and productive
career that spanned more than six decades.

DI: I know what an art museum curator does, but what exactly does it mean
that you're curator of Will Eisner's Estate? That's a new one to me.

CG: This is actually my second career - my first was as an independent IT
consultant to Global Banks in New York City. My Uncle was Will Eisner and I
grew up reading the bound hardcover books of the actual Spirit Newspaper
Sections that were lined up in his study. My brother and I might have been
the only active Spirit fans in those days. He has been "rediscovered" any
number of times since then. When Will Eisner passed away in 2005, my Aunt
asked me and my wife, Nancy, if we would run Will Eisner Studios for her.
It's a hard job to describe. It has been a fun, fascinating, and certainly
a learning experience for us and I thought that the Global Banks would
survive without me.

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