BIRTH OF THE SPIRIT
"...late '39, just before Christmas time, Busy came to me and said that the Sunday newspapers were looking for a way of getting into this comic book boom." 29
idea of a comic book insert in the newspaper, surpisingly, wasn't new. Apparently
Arnold had been kicking the it around for a while and none other than Eisner's
old nemesis Victor Fox had actually published a few samples of the Free Weekly
Comic Magazine, dated May 12, 1940, several weeks before the Spirit
section premiered. Three versions of this insert exist with the Blue Beetle,
Green Mask and other Fox characters making an appearance.
Free Weekly Comic Magazine
[third version with Captain Valor]
"He (Arnold) said the syndicate, The Register and Tribune of Iowa, was aware of my work and wanted me to create it. I met with Henry Martin, the syndicate man, who said that they saw some of my stuff in comic books. Actually, it was Hawks of the Seas that impressed him very much." 30
Eisner was excited by the proposal and was inclined to accept it. There was, however, a business matter to attend to first.
"I sat down and talked it over with Iger," says Eisner , "...I couldn't do both; I couldn't really do a strip and run a package shop. So I said to Jerry, "I'll give you a choice; I'll either buy you out or you buy me out."
Iger chose to keep the company and he bought out Eisner. He also offered his younger partner his opinion, "I think you're nuts to do it," Eisner recalled Iger's words, "You're doing too well here now. We're making a lot of money..."
"Besides, the syndicate business is a very risky thing." 31
A small contingent of staff artists, including Bob Powell and Chuck Mazoujian, joined Eisner and opened up shop in a small two room apartment in the Tudor City complex in Manhattan. The business details completed, Eisner set about creating a comic strip.
"I was operating about six weeks ahead, so I actually began working on The Spirit in March. I can recall vividly the first one I wrote. It was late at night..."
had noodled a set of three people: the hero, the police commissioner and his daughter,
on a piece of scrap paper. Underneath in a few lines I sketched out a plot and
a basis. The hero would have to be someone who could operate unfettered by the
rules-- so he could go anywhere and do anything I would want him to do. Dolan,
the cop, would be the establishment, and Ellen, the daughter, would be the love
interest. By midnight of that night I had all 7 pages roughly laid out and I was
ready to write copy, flesh out the plot."
The Spirit origin story page 3
(June 2, 1940)
"Busy Arnold called. He was a little disappointed, he said. This is the age of costumed characters--when was I going to put The Spirit in a costume? Some newspaper customers suggested it. I said I'd think about it. He said that The Spirit being a 'dead' man should have ghostly properties. I was getting a little nauseous. I compromised.
"I put a mask on The Spirit..." 32
The Spirit section was a success with a print run in the millions reaching the readers of 19 major newspapers. The Sunday strip eventually spawned a daily on October 13, 1941. It was never a comfortable fit for Eisner though.
"A daily strip to me is like trying to conduct an orchestra in a telephone booth. On The Spirit dailies I always seemed to wind up choked up because I have so much to say in any one strip." 33
Significantly, Eisner had accomplished the jump from the lightly regarded comic books ("...about two stages above pornography." ) to the more respectable realm of the comic strip.
"I was the one comic book artist that entered the Cartoonists Society then, because I was not quite a comic book artist. I was sort of half comic book and half newspaper." 34
Life was good for the young cartoonist. "The Spirit was really a culmination of all the talent, skill and imagination I could muster," Eisner reminisced, "...the first major effort in my life where I was able to do something I wanted to do and was doing something I thought was meaningful, and at the same time making money on it." 35
in early 1942, he received the inevitable letter whose arrival he seemed to foretell
in an early Spirit.
from The Spirit (October 27, 1940)
May of 1942, Eisner entered the U. S. Army and was assigned to Aberdeen Proving
Ground in Maryland. He became the staff artist on the post paper, The Flaming
Bomb, where he eventually caught the eye of some superiors who had other plans
for his talents.
"During World War II, the need for instantly trained mechanics, gunsmiths, equipment operators and other specialists and the availability of trained sequence-picture artists were joined. Introduced early in the war by the Pentagon, instructional materials in comic book format were published about military courtesy and the care and maintenance of equipment--everything from how-to-do-it to preventative maintenance," Eisner wrote in a 1974 School Library Journal article, "Strips were also valuable as recruitment material and in teaching the fundamentals of military trade to illiterates from the ghettos and backwoods of America." 36
The Flaming Bomb (August 20, 1942)
[Eisner illustration at top]
Joe Dope posters (1942) by Private Will Eisner
[note: the Garand mentioned above was the M-1 carbine used by U. S. troops]
Eisner later told writer cat yronwode, "Before 1942 there was no preventative maintenance in the Army...(it) was an idea picked up and applied to the military situation by General Campbell. (note: Maj. Gen. L. H. Campbell Jr., Chief of Ordnance) My mission was to sell preventative maintenance..." 37
Eisner's uncanny knack for telling a compelling story succinctly was a perfect
fit his military assignment. The humorous, relentlessly incompetent protagonist
of his cautionary posters, Pvt. Joe Dope, proved to be so popular
that Eisner was asked to expand Joe's role and he began appearing in the
monthly preventative maintenance magazine, Army Motors.
Motors, and its successor, P*S Magazine, represented an advance in
the application of sequential art. For the first time, I was able to really apply
this art form to a dimension other than pure entertainment." 38
had been the custom in The Spirit, Eisner's Army Motors supporting
cast bore predictably Dickensonian names. The top-kick riding rein over a question
and answer column, "originally created as a a stumbling mechanic, a half-assed
was monickered Sgt Half-Mast McCannick. And the comely mechanic given the
job of dispensing nuts-and-bolts tips to the troops was christened with the vaguely
mechanical name of Connie Rodd, perhaps suggesting a connecting rod or
even a conning tower. Both characters limited roles in Army Motors were
expanded when Eisner recalled them, along with Joe, for service in a new
publication created during the Korean conflict.
Connie Rodd circa 1945
Detail of an Eisner spot illo for a 1945 edition of Newsmap in preperation for expanded Army operations in the Pacific Theater.
a side note: Joe Dope made a brief World War II era appearance in
a little known publication entitled Cartoons for Fighters. This was a compilation
of military cartoons that was produced as an Armed Forces Edition (#740)
in 1945. These cheap, half-sized paperbacks were distributed to
U. S. armed forces from 1943 to 1947. Even Eisner was unaware of its existence and his strips reprinting until fairly recently.)
click above image to read Joe Dope story
The importance of Eisner's military service and the effect the work he created at that time had on his subsequent post-War Spirit strips cannot be overemphasized. A maturation of his visual techniques, a looser line and more dramatic use of blacks, complemented the tighter narravtive style he developed in his three year career at the Pentagon. Eisner's military production is too frequently overlooked and often dismissed as a sidebar to his civilian work. It is hard not to notice that while Eisner produced wonderful work with his various shops personnel and assistants, he has always seemed to make his greatest creative advances when working alone. In retrospect, while the post-War Spirits are justifiably hailed as its zenith, they owe a great thanks to the short Joe Dope strips.
JOE DOPE REDUX
to the U. S. Army's official version, in June 1951 the Army Field Forces , "decided
that it needed a way to quickly move maintainance information to soldiers and
deliver it in an easily understood format." 40
Taking note that Eisner had accomplished that with his work on Army Motors Magazine during W. W. II, they contacted him to produce a similar product that would be a 'postscript' to their other publications. Hence, P*S Magazine was born.
P*S Magazine #1 (June 1951)
[an Eisner file copy]
with the introduction of P*S was the premiere of a Joe Dope
strip which ran in various post papers throughout the Army. It is somewhat ironic
that as Eisner was losing interest in his signature strip The Spirit,
he was placing much of his creative energy into producing material for the military
and various commercial projects. The irony continues when noting that while The
Spirit is acknowledged as Eisner's best-known effort within the comic
community, Joe Dope has probably been seen more times by Army personnel.
Sgt. Half-Mast and Connie Rodd made the transition from Army Motors to P*S along with Joe. Connie in particular became a regular feature of the cover. Playing to his virtually all-male readership, Eisner frequently posed her provocatively in various stages of undress.
Over time, as more women became soldiers and the public in general became more sensitized to stereotypes, Connie's clothes became standard issue uniforms and her mechanical advisories gradually lost their playful suggestive innuendo.
P*S Magazine #16 (1953)
Reminiscing about working with Eisner on P*S in the late-1960s, artist Mike Ploog once said, "Will has got a real talent for taking something really complex, and turning into the simplest form, to where the average G.I. can understand, or the average guy on the street, or the average kid." 41
One of the last projects Eisner worked on before turning the Army contract over to Murphy Anderson and representative of his ability to address a need quickly and understandably, this booklet dealt with the use and care of the much maligned and unloved M-16 rifle. The weapon was issued in the mid-60s to great fanfare, but quickly developed a reputation for unreliability. As one Vietnam vet recounted, "…the failure of the much vaunted M16 to perform as advertised... It simply wasn't working! It seemed that if your rifle would shoot, it would shoot under almost all conditions (if clean), but if it wouldn't, no amount of coaxing would help..." 42
of double entendre text and article titles (i.e."How to Strip Your Baby")
and heavily illustrated by Eisner and his assistants, this booklet is a classic
example of Ploog's assessment of Eisner's teaching abilities.
In a Six Degrees of Will Eisner kind of way, it's worth noting that P*S Magazine is produced today by students of the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art, whose founding namesake began his art career as a teenager in the Eisner/Iger shop.
FINAL THOUGHTS AND LAST WORDS
Genius is a word that has been so drained of meaning that it is equally and indiscriminately used to describe anyone from a 20-year old pop singer, to a better than average football coach, to a comic book artist with a portfolio full of swiped styles.
Will Eisner is a genius. Naively entering a chaotic, somewhat shady, back alley environment that was the early comic book industry, he wrested out an art form and virtually created the standards of excellence for everyone else to aspire. The embodiment of Edison's defintion, "Genius is 1% inspiration, 99% persperation," Eisner worked hard, and still works hard, at honing his craft. Best yet, he is our genius. Obviously, I will never meet Edison, or Einstein or da Vinci, but I have met Eisner, and wonder of wonders, he was always approachable and cordial and, amazingly, humble.
Eisner went into comics willingly, left comics on his own accord and came back on his own terms. He never felt the 'shame' many of the first generation comic creators claimed they had about their work in comics. Indeed, he embraced that work and expanded upon its possibilities. Eisner has forever been equal parts artist, teacher and astute businessman. He never let his need for artistic expression cloud his clear view of commercial viability. Conversely, he also never let economic decisions reduce his artistic achievement to hackwork. In fact, as he once said,
"'Hack ' in our shop was a dirty word." 43