EISNER/ IGER: FROM WAGS TO RICHES
Sometime in 1937, Eisner contacted his former editor at Wow, Jerry Iger, and proposed a partnership.
"…I was out of work, on the street, so we formed a shop called Eisner and Iger. I put up the money. The entire financing came to $15, which I advanced, and that's how my name was first, because I was the financial partner." 14
"The artists that I hired at Eisner-Iger in the first production shop were people who never had any comic book experience. There was no comic book experience before. " 15
The idea of packaging comic books for publication was new, with perhaps only Harry 'A' Chesler beating the Eisner/Iger shop into existence. In any case, Eisner served as primary artist for the studio while Iger lettered and did some incidental art in addition to his main duties as the shop's salesman. Eisner, as has been related many times, assumed several styles and pseudonyms in order to give prospective clients the impression that they employed a larger staff.
Although it may have not been their first client, Joshua B. Powers Editors Press Service quickly became their most important. Power's company printed their comics in the U. S., with American content, and shipped overseas for distribution. This tabloid sized publication was entitled Wags, a name which Powers thought had a British ring to it.
A break with his London based agent T. V. Boardman led to the loss of the British rights to some of his syndicated strips and Powers scrambled to find new content for his comics. He came to Universal Phoenix Features (Eisner/Iger's syndicate) and in Wags #17, April 23, 1937, they made their debut. In order to fill their new clients needs, the Eisner/Iger shop grew, employing Wow! alumni Bob Kane and Dick Briefer along with Mort Meskin and others.
This striking Eisner cover appeared on an unidentified Australian comic, circa 1937. As Wags was also distributed 'down under' as well as in Great Britain, over a a year longer in fact, and Powers owned the rights to Terry and the Pirates, it is likely that this remarkably Caniff-like cover came from that title.
the shop also worked on another British publication.
Okay Comics #1 premiered October 16, 1937. Former Wags strips such as Smokey Stover, Tailspin Tommy and Mutt and Jeff arrayed above the logo on these covers leads to the conclusion that this was a seperate client from Editors Press, possibly Boardman's competing comic made up of the strips he took with him when he left Powers' company.
he did with Wags, Eisner appers to be the main cover artist usually
depicting the various strips that appeared within that issue.
Okay Comics #1 (October 16, 1937)
Several original art covers from Okay have surfaced and serve as fine examples of Eisner's maturation as an artist. His amazing versatility at drawing in different styles belied his youth, not to mention the sheer bravado he displayed aping famous artists so confidently.
was a heady time for Eisner and Iger. The commission work was coming in and to
handle it efficiently, they ran their shop like a factory.
"I would write and design the characters, " Eisner once told Marilyn Mercer, "somebody else would pencil them in, somebody else would do the backgrounds, somebody else would ink, somebody else would letter. We made $1.50 a page net profit."
"I got very rich before I was 22." 16
his youthful virtuosity, Eisner recalls a contemporary wunderkind, Orson Welles.
Like Welles and his Mercury Theater players, Eisner surrounded himself with talented
cohorts whom he molded and directed. While movies were Welles canvas, they were
Eisner's inspiration. (Inserting a point for the-chicken-or-the-egg consideration,
Feiffer wrote, "Everyone went back to study Citizen Kane. Rumors spread that
Welles, himself, had read and learned from comic
virtually every story, Eisner could be counted on to have at least one memorable
image. This startling close-up appeared in an otherwise prosaic
Yarko, The Great adventure. Yarko, a Chandu
clone and the prototype for the later Mr. Mystic character, sends this terrified
villain flying through the air with a wave of his hand. Always experimenting,
Eisner chose this powerful, wordless image and unique angle, to convey the evildoer's
panel from Yarko story
Wonderworld #10 (February 1939)
Another stalwart of the Eisner/Iger stable was its spy feature, variously known as K-51, ZX-5 and finally Espionage. The suave hero of this ultimate incarnation was Black X (or Black Ace), who, in these years before America's involvement in World War II, would surreptitiously fight the Nazi foe generally at the behest of the American president. These slick tales of intrigue are interesting since they exemplify Eisner's technique of discussing serious, potentially controversial, subjects within the framework of a 'child's' comic book.
The most celebrated and sophisticated feature Eisner produced at this time was Hawks of the Seas. This sea faring, high adventure strip was his testing ground for storytelling and visual experimentation. While not nearly as polished as his work would become, Hawks stood heads and shoulders above most other comic book art of the time.
Here, Eisner brilliantly conveys size and movement within this single space. By
having the larger pirate's head and shoulder extending beyond the upper frame,
the viewer implicitly understands his extreme height. And when Eisner roots the
giant's feet to bottom left panel border, he then lends real impact to the tackling
of the duo. The body of the toppling giant reacts truthfully to the hit.
Al Williamson once wrote in appreciation of Hawks that, " Eisner is the best, no question, in portraying fights. When somebody gets socked in an Eisner story, they stay socked. Eisner makes you feel the impact." 18
panel from Hawks story Jumbo #12 (February 1940)
Following a surprisingly mature storyline, Hawks told the epic tale of an imprisoned abolitionist turned buccaneer. Considering the relative insensitivity to racial matters at the time, the brave origin and purpose of his protagonist set Hawks far apart from its strange-visitor-from-another-planet or dark avenger contemporaries. The importance of Hawks in the development of comic book storytelling cannot be overestimated. Deftly melding all of Eisner's influences within one strip, Hawks of the Seas is a classic. Justifiably feted, Hawks has been reprinted several times, most recently in a deluxe format.
1 of Hawks origin story
Jumbo #4 (December 1938)
"A POOR THING BUT MINE OWN"
There is a story, probably apocryphal, "…that Harry Donnenfeld's accountant, Victor Fox came in to work at 10:00 AM, saw the sales figures for Action Comics #1, he quit his job at 11:00 AM, spent the noon hour finding some office space to rent, and by 2 PM he was interviewing people to do superhero comics for him." 19
The nascent comic book publishing industry had a
Wild West, boomtown atmosphere rich with colorful characters, opportunists and
desperados. No one was more colorful, opportunist or shady than the British bornVictor
Fox. He followed former DC business manager John Mahon and managing editor William
Cook (who had founded Comic Magazine Company in 1936) out the door and into the
In need of product, Fox came to the fledgling Eisner/ Iger studio and asked them produce a comic book that featured a character created to his specifications. He wanted a Superman clone. Eisner fretted that they may be infringing on DC's copyright, but his partner Iger assured him that they hadn't much choice. Recalling the conversation, Eisner said, "…Iger made a very convincing argument, which was…that we were very hungry. We needed the money badly." "…when the first sequence was finished Fox decided he wanted to put the title on and he called it, strangely enough, Wonder Man." 20
Fox's former employer, Detective Comics (DC), wasted no time in bringing a lawsuit for copyright infringement against him. Eisner's worst fears had been realized and he was placed in the awkward position of being a material witness. Worse yet, Fox paid Eisner a visit one night and implored him to deny any intent to copy when he gave his testimony. Eisner balked. "I suppose when you're young," said Eisner to an interviewer, "it is easier to adhere to principles…"
"At any rate, when I did get on the stand and testified under oath, I told the truth, exactly what happened." 21
(Something to ponder: One of the many editors to have turned down Siegel and Shuster's Superman strip was the young Eisner. "They submitted a feature called Spy and one called Superman. I sent it back to them in Cleveland and told them they weren't ready. One of the great editorial judgments of my youth!"As he was listening to Fox, you have to wonder if Eisner appreciated the irony that he may have been the one suing Fox if he had bought the strip when he had the chance.)
The case of Detective Comics, Inc. v. Bruns Publications came before Judge John M. Woolsey (the same U.S. District Court judge who in 1933 deemed James Joyce's "Ulysses" not to be obscene and allowed its admittance into the United States) who ruled in favor of DC. Bruns (the earliest issues of Fox's comics were published under the Bruns name) immediately appealed his decision and on April 29, 1940, Judge Augustus N. Hand of the Federal Second Circuit Court of Appeals handed down his opinion (111 F. 2d 432).
Bruns had claimed that the powers shared by their Wonder Man and Superman could be found in "prototypes or analogues among the heroes of literature and mythology" 22, therefore, so their argument went, no copyright was violated. There was some validity to their contention. As comic book editor/fan/historian E. Nelson Bridwell wrote in his introduction to Superman from the Thirties to the Seventies,"Ancient Greece knew countless superbeings, including Herakles (Hercules to the Romans). Indeed, the crew of Jason's ship, the Argo, was made up largely of heroes who had most of Superman's powers among them. Besides Herakles, there was Zetes and Kalais, who flew; Euphemos, the super-speedster; Kaineus, who is invulnerable; and even Lynkeus, who, we are told, could see things underground - yes, X-ray vision." 23
Judge Hand, however, quickly dismissed Bruns' argument, but in doing so, he seemed to have written his opinion at arms length with one hand while holding his nose with the other.
"…the author of 'Superman' has portrayed a comic Hercules, yet if his
production involves more that the presentation of a general type he may copyright
it and say of it: "A poor thing but mine own." Perhaps the periodicals of the
complainant are foolish rather than comic, but they embody an original arrangement
of incidents and a pictorial and literary form which preclude the contention that
Bruns was not copying the antics of 'Superman'…" 24
Action Comics #10 (March 1939) Wonder Comics #1 (May 1939)
Judge Hand's precedent setting decision tolled the death knell for Wonder Man. In later years, it would be used as basis for DC's case against Fawcett and their mightiest mortal, Captain Marvel. More recently, it was even invoked in the late Dan DeCarlo's suit against his employer Archie over the rights to Josie and the Pussycats.
As far as Eisner and Iger were concerned, though, the immediate result was that Fox withheld some $3,000 he owed them in retribution for Eisner's damaging, yet honest, testimony. Fortunately, Eisner and Iger were doing more work for Fiction House and Quality Comics by this time and were able to survive this financial disaster. More importantly, in the late fall of 1939, Quality publisher E. M. 'Busy' Arnold approached Eisner with an intriguing proposition.
In direct contradiction to Eisner's memories, as often happens with partnerships and collaborations, a far different version of their relationship was told by Jerry Iger.
"Back in 1937,I had been producing a lot of material under my own banner, "Universal Phoenix Features." In my shop were some wonderful artists, many of whom worked free-lance on an "as needed" basis. Included were such names as Mort Meskin and Will Eisner." 25
The creation of the character Sheena, which first appeared in the January 14, 1938 issue of Wags, was a particular point of contention.
"I looked through my roster of artists to see whom I'd pick to draw the
prototype. I chose Mort Meskin to do the first drawings. Mort was one of the free-lance
artists I relied on. He mostly did illustrations, and this project offered him
his first opportunity to sign his name to a published work. Another free-lancer
at that time was Will Eisner. Will was working for
me doing Hawk of the Seas and ZX-5. He also did sports drawings
that I syndicated with my other materials throughout the U.S….
Some people have thought Will also had a role in the creation of Sheena, but the closest Will got to Sheena was to do the art for a cover or two long after the char-acter had been published by Wags." 26
Sheena panel by Mort Meskin
Jumbo #4 (December 1938)
directly refutes what Eisner once told an interviewer,"One of the features
I devised was Sheena. I designed the character, did the first comic book
covers, Mort Meskin did the first stories, then Bob Powell took over." 27Not
that Eisner's memory is infallible, indeed, he frequently qualifies his recollections
in interviews. He admitted, in fact, that, "A lot of features have been
credited to me that perhaps I deserve and perhaps I don't. It was my practice
to create a feature, say, Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, maybe do the first
two or three stories and gradually pull out and let someone continue it. In
this case I did covers and Mort Meskin did the actual page art." 28
To his credit, Eisner has always spoken fondly of Iger.
Most telling, however, is how Iger explained his breakup with Eisner.
"Around 1940, Sheena first appeared as a lead feature in the meanwhile, Universal Phoenix Features had gone into a "holding pattern" because I had gone into a brief partnership with Will Eisner in mid-1938 only to buy him out in 1940 when Will was drafted into the Army to do military posters. (Will had become so accomplished-and so expensive! -as a free-lance artist, that the only way I could afford his services was to make him a partner.)" 29
Allowing that time may have clouded the aged Iger's memory of dates, it is quite conceivable that he remembered Eisner's entry into the Army as 1940 instead of the correct year of 1942. His backhanded observation that Eisner was drafted to "do military posters," while catty, does contain some truth.
However, Iger betrays his intentions when he pointedly overlooks the fact that Eisner left their partnership not when he was drafted, but when Quality's 'Busy' Arnold and Henry Martin of the Register and Tribune Syndicate gave him the opportunity to begin his own comic strip.