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Creatively Speaking: Will Eisner's Spirit Speaks!

David K. Israel
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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 JosephShuster, who created Superman, made little money in those days. But notEisner. Creating characters like Doll Man and Wonder Man, he and his partnerJerry 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 thenewspaper sort of the way TV grew out of the movie business. Though it'schanging now, I think it's still more prestigious to write for the moviesthan it is TV. At what point did it become cooler to write comic booksvis-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 amask, of course, but other than that, The Spirit didn't have much in commonwith other superheroes. No great powers, no cape. Do you think The Spirit'sEveryman 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 hestill 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? (Theoriginal Ebony White is a stereotypical African-American caricature--thinkBuckwheat 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. Howdid 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, andOther Tenement Stories, published in 1978 is often used as the yardstickagainst which all others are measured, even today. Why is the work soformidable? 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'sabout a man who aspires to be a famous comic book creator during theDepression. 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 "TheEisners"? 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 meanthat 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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