I was a staff writer and editor for an alt-weekly newspaper in the summer of 2001, when I had the opportunity to interview Will Eisner. I’d been a fan of Eisner since I first discovered his work in 1975, in the pages of Warren Magazine’s THE SPIRIT, which reprinted Eisner’s classic comics from the 1940s. Eisner is often credited as the founding father of the American comic book; and though that statement is a bit hyperbolic, it’s not that much of an exaggeration. Eisner’s impact on the comic book medium is beyond measure, as is his impact on contemporary popular culture, and the influence of his work is interwoven throughout storytelling in multiple mediums and genres.
In my collection of short comic stories IMPOSTER SYNDROME, I include the story of how I came to interview Eisner back in 2001, as well as how writer Harlan Ellison almost got me arrested. But for now, here’s the interview with Eisner, as it is just as relevant now as it was then.
DAVID WALKER: I grew up reading comic books, and I still read them. I love comics. One of the things that bothers me is the way so many people don’t view the medium as a legitimate art form. How does that make you feel?
WILL EISNER: It makes me angry. Well, not angry but frustrated. I’ve spent my whole life working in a medium that was regarded with contempt largely because of historical reasons. Comics, which are really best described as an arrangement of images in a sequence that tell a story—an idea—is a very old form of graphic communication. It began with the hieroglyphics in Egypt; it first appeared in a recognizable form in the medieval times as copper plates produced by the Catholic Church to tell morality stories. In the beginning of the century, in 1900, the newspapers in this country began running comic strips, and they were called jokes or funnies. The word comics developed later, but it is that that began to give the name—the ambience of comics—the feeling of being a frivolous kind of art form.
Actually, it has to be considered as two separate things: the medium and the message or the content. The comic art is a form of impressionism, very much like the early impressionists of the late 1800s in Europe—Turner, early Picasso. This art attempts to very quickly reduce highly complex technical reality to simple images, which are designed to tell a story or convey an idea.
The content of comics emerged from the period of being simple jokes to continuity stories in the late and middle 30s in the newspapers. Terry and the Pirates and the other adventure stories like Dick Tracy were continuing stories that had a plot to them and gradually they became what we now call comic books. In the middle 30s, these strips were taken and stacked together in a book— in a magazine. They were called magazines; they weren’t called comic books.
That recites somewhat the history of this medium, and one of the reasons why it’s regarded as a minor art form. Actually it has no right to be because the art is as valid as any other art form—certainly any of the art forms you find in museums. The difference here is that this art form is designed to convey an idea, to tell a story, or have a message; unlike the more decorative art forms, which like Jackson Pollack or Van Gogh or people like that who really are creating feeling. They deliver feeling whereas we deliver ideas. I guess that’s the simplest way of putting it.
DW: I couldn’t have said it better.
WE: Well, good. I’ve been trying to say it over the years and every time I try to explain it I struggle with a way of explaining or answering the very important question that you asked which is really the heart of the issue. Most cartoonists who have grown up in the field the way I have, have lived with the stigma, or the mark of Cain, if you will, because we were regarded as working in an inferior medium—not deserving the status of say a Jackson Pollack or other more serious painters.
The work we do is as demanding as any of the great painters, because nothing that happens on the page of a comic is accidental. It has to be imagined first in your mind before you do it. Those of us who know something about the art of painting know that working on a canvas, very often a lot of serendipitous things happen that work to the advantage of the painter. So I guess I’ve given you a long answer to a short question, but it was a very important question.
DW: Yes it is, because ultimately, the battle the comic industry faces is convincing people that it’s more than just “kid’s stuff.”
WE: That’s right, it isn’t, really. What’s happening now is you’re at a point now in the history of this medium that’s really a turning point—it’s a maturing. You’re now getting books and material being turned out that’s written for adults. And when I say adults I don’t mean sex and kinky stuff—I mean serious, life-experience stories. I’ve been working on that for the last 22 years.
DW: You pioneered that with A Contract with God.
WE: That’s right. That was, at the time, a subject matter that was unheard of in the comic medium. No one in the comic medium would even attempt to do anything like that. I believed at that time that this was where we were going to come to, and 22 years later I see it. It’s a long way, but it’s here.
DW: You were a bit ahead of the curve.
WE: Well, yes, that’s always not as comfortable as being right in the middle of the curve. But if you believe in what you’re doing—and I’ve always believed—I always took it seriously and I knew I was right.
Look, we had some wonderful things here. Art Spiegelman’s Maus received a Pulitzer Prize. Lately some of the major publishing houses, who in the past would never even touch this stuff, are beginning to publish work by fellows like Chris Ware and other people like that. It’s happening now. I think the more it happens, as in any other art form, the more it’ll attract better material. We have guys like the great Harlan Ellison. He’s not an artist, but he writes comics.
I think we’re here. We’re at the beginning. You are now seeing the beginning of a great maturity in this material—this medium. And it will achieve acceptance—not overall anymore than film has achieved an acceptance, or television has achieved acceptance.
DW: People call television art now, when before it was…
WE: That’s right. There was a time, I remember as a kid, I was around when movies started. I used to go to silent movies, and at that time it was regarded as trash. Nobody dared call it cinema. Now it’s called cinema and it’s because, over the years, people began to put into it a content, which the medium was capable of carrying. I always believed that this medium is capable of content way beyond the business of two mutants trashing each other.
DW: Whenever people mention your name, they refer to you as a “living legend.” I was told you are uncomfortable with that label.
WE: I am, because legends are composed of old cloth. Legends are created by people out of their memory and I never trust that. It’s very flattering of course, and very honestly— candidly—the real reward in this business is approval, not money, its approval. You want approval of your peers. You want approval of the people whose judgment you respect. And I’ve gotten some of that lately and it feels good. It tastes good and it feels good.
DW: At the same time there’s no denying you’ve had an impact on this industry. I mean you’ve got an award—the Eisner Award—named after you.
WE: One of the real problems I have with that award is how to avoid receiving one, because how the hell would you explain that? I received an award one year and I had a hell of a time explaining how do I win a Will Eisner award.
DW: Yeah, how does Will Eisner win an Eisner Award?
WE: Well, it takes bribery (laughs).
DW: One of the things I’m curious about, you never really delved too much into film. Have you ever had any interest in film?
WE: I have no real interest in film. I never really had interest in film. The only connection or relationship I had with film was when I was doing The Spirit. What happened there was I’m always aware of the fact that I’m writing a letter to somebody, and when you write a letter to somebody you’ve gotta speak to them in their language. What was happening in the late 30s was that film was beginning to dominate our conversation, our language—they were affecting the literacy. So I felt I had to use film language in order to reach my reader. And that was why The Spirit was filled with a lot of what they call film noir. I was also influenced very early by Fritz Lang. So that was the only connection.
But as far as working for films, I’ve had offers. I’ve turned them down. I’m not really interested in film. I like this because I’m the star, I’m the director, I’m the grip, I’m the best boy. I have total control of the medium. I don’t see this medium as being an extension of film at all. Simply because we use images, but we use a combination of images and text to tell a story. Film is a spectator medium. Comics are a participant medium. I expect an intellectual contribution on your part when I’m writing a comic for you, whereas in film, all you have to do is sit there and experience it. It’s a totally different situation.
DW: You can do things in comics that you could never do in film. Comics are an extension of literature. It’s just putting in the pictures.
WE: You’re absolutely right in what you said. To expand on what you said: In comics, I’m expecting a contribution from you. When I make an image of a man running, I have selected an image from my seamless flow of images, and I’m expecting you to sense what happens before and what happens after, and you make that contribution.
Whereas in a film, I don’t expect you to make a contribution like that. I show it to you. The man is actually literally running. Then he falls down into the sewer, I show him falling into the sewer. I don’t expect you to understand anything beyond that or make any contribution beyond that. So it’s a totally different thing. It’s like text alone. Where you’re sitting and writing a text and you say, “her laughter was like a babbling brook,” for example, you’re expecting the reader to have the experience of the sound of a babbling brook and insert that. When I write a word balloon, I’m expecting the reader to read those words…
DW: With those intonations.
WE: Exactly, with those intonations. So it’s a totally different medium than film. And one of the reasons why film has a difficult time translating successfully from many comic characters is because you have an imagination—you imagine this image that I’ve drawn on a piece of paper. You ingest in your mind, to which you add a certain amount of reality based on your experience. When the filmmaker comes along, he takes an actor, and he says to you, this is my experience, this is the kind of stereotype I want here. You have no participation in this any longer, and therefore what you are watching is one filmmaker’s version of say, Dick Tracy. That’s one of the reasons why the Dick Tracy film, in my opinion, was a failure and why Batman and Superman were so successful was because they’re circus characters. They’re not real people. Dick Tracy was an attempt to make real people, and therefore you, as a reader, wouldn’t accept it as easily as you would accept an artificial character. It’s very hard to retain, in a film, the things that happen in a comic.
DW: It’s the same thing with when they try to turn books into film because they can’t get into the mind of the character the way a writer can.
WE: And also into your mind. When he said, “this man was a bearded, roomy-eyed, wobbly kind of man”, well you imagine that in your head. But as a director, to get an actor to portray a bearded, roomy-eyed, wobbly old man, it’s his way of retaining it—and that’s not the way you see it.
DW: Before we wrap this up, is there anything you’d like to share? Advice to people who have yet to experience the world of comics?
WE: Well to the people who haven’t yet read a comic book, it depends on who we’re talking about. If I’m talking to a 13 year-old kid who hasn’t yet read a comic I’d say one thing: there’s a lot of good stuff out there, don’t be fooled. Yes, there are going to be superheroes as long as we have a civilization because there’s a need for them. But on the other hand, don’t believe it.
As far as adults are concerned: I want to point out to adults that there is a world of good material available to you now in comic form—in this medium—and learn to give it your support because the more you support it, the better the material will be as it comes out.
Artwork © Will Eisner
Thanks to my good friend Diana Schutz for introducing me to Will Eisner and making this interview possible.