Interview: Paul Levitz on Will Eisner: Champion of the Graphic Novel

Will Eisner: Champion of the Graphic Novel cover. From the collection of Ronald S. Sonenthal.

Will Eisner: Champion of the Graphic Novel cover. From the collection of Ronald S. Sonenthal.


Paul Levtiz has had quite a career in comics. He was President & Publisher of DC Comics, an editor, he is a comics writer including memorable runs on Legion of Super-Heroes and is the current writer of Doctor Fate, co-created the Huntress (Helena Wayne), and is a historian having written 75 Years Of DC Comics: The Art Of Modern Mythmaking among other books. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. His latest project is Will Eisner: Champion of the Graphic Novel published by Abrams ComicArts. Westfield’s Roger Ash recently spoke with Levitz to learn more about this upcoming book.

Westfield: For people who may not be familiar with Will Eisner, what should they know about him? Who was he?

Paul Levitz: Will’s reputation in comics comes from two pivotal moments. He did a series of newspaper supplement comics called The Spirit in the 1940s which were extraordinary in their sheer quality of very short stories, seven or eight pages at different points, done studio style with a number of hands contributing. But they broke ground in many, many areas of creative execution. In particular, in bringing the kind of camera work from film to comics which was a very natural progression but nonetheless, Will was really was one of the driving forces in that early on. And in a literary quality to the material. Not that it was high literature but there was a good range of it that was strong short stories and some moments that were incredibly beautiful.

He then wandered off into what we call custom comics or commercial comics for a couple of decades. And when he came back, it was with a book named A Contract With God which was an incredibly influential graphic novel. It was a very daring work at the time, 1978, dealing with religion, morality, sexuality, in very adult terms. Not in the sense of an NC-17 or X rating, but in terms of a nuanced adult look at these issues. It was published in a sophisticated physical format and a generation of important creators looked at it and said “Wow! We don’t have to be doing things that are ephemeral.” You can track the guys who really created the economic graphic novel revolution in the following decade commenting about how influenced at the moment they were by A Contract With God to aspire to do something more permanent and more important. Those are the two most pivotal moments in Will’s career that the legend is built on to some extent.

Westfield: What is the focus of your book? Is it a biography, are you looking specifically at his work or something in between?

Levitz: There are a couple of biographies and there have been a couple of documentaries on Will. This is a coffee table book so it’s very visual. It’s lavishly illustrated. There’s lots of beautiful stuff including things that people have not seen before or not seen for a very long time. I felt that the most important job that I could do here is to explain really the answer to your first question of why was Will so important; to put a context and a logic to his work. It’s an unfortunate facet of humanity that there’s limits to our memories and even the most wonderful creative artists can have a sort of half life. Will’s gone a decade now. It was important to tell the story of why his works mattered, why he was influential, and why he did what he did because he had a very unusual career path over the course of his life. If I did my job well, I hope so, I added context to all of those things and then filled in little gaps like tracing the origin of the term graphic novel and how it ebbed onto the covers of things, how it became a part of the vernacular. Or tracing Will’s own path in all of it even going back a little bit and tracing the business reasons why The Spirit existed as a newspaper section which I don’t think anybody has tracked as fully previously.

Original art for the splash of “Il Duce’s Locket,” The Spirit no. 365, May 25, 1947. Eisner’s postwar women such as P’Gell were far sexier and more dangerous, perhaps reflecting the artist’s wider experience, and with a nod to the Quartier Pigalle, Paris’s red-light district.

Original art for the splash of “Il Duce’s Locket,” The Spirit no. 365, May 25, 1947. Eisner’s postwar women such as P’Gell were far sexier and more dangerous, perhaps reflecting the artist’s wider experience, and with a nod to the Quartier Pigalle, Paris’s red-light district.


Westfield: You mentioned that there will be a lot of art and photos in the book. Can you say more about what some of those are?

Levitz: Sure. We have a wide range from the familiar to the “huh?”. There are three Spirit stories, including Gerhard Shnobble, shot from the original art, which is absolutely amazing to look at Will’s adjustments and changes and transitions. You have a lot of stuff for his later graphic novel work including Contract, again shot from originals or shot from pencils; different stages of evolution. Original art going back to the Spirit period. There’s a lot of material from his period of doing the custom or commercial work that people haven’t seen. Some of it is just a fun smile. There’s material from people he influenced including work he did as a teacher, some things that he created for the classroom or for lectures to explain how to use comics effectively. But also things that connected him to the wider world. I received a gift from my son’s then-girlfriend at Christmas one year of a collection of Nelson Mandela cartoons from South Africa by their preeminent political cartoonist who signs his name Zapiro. In reading the book, I discovered he was one of Will’s students at SVA. There’s a beautiful Nelson Mandella political cartoon in there by one of Will’s students. A cover by Joe Quesada who was one of his students. And other pieces of the story, I guess is the best way to put it.

Westfield: Something that I’ve always been fascinated about with Eisner’s work but haven’t read much about is work on PS Magazine, which he did for the military. Do you do much with that?

Levitz: A little bit. We tell the story of it. Abrams put out a whole volume from PS a couple years ago so that’s fairly easily available these days. PS comes into the story more as a transition process for Will. How he learns to be a businessman on a bigger scale. Of the first generation of comic creators, Will was pretty much inarguably the best businessman and maybe one of three guys I’m aware of who was really a businessman as well as a first string creator, with Joe Simon and Joe Kubert as the other two. Nonetheless, Will went on to by far the most successful business career peaking at the point when he was CEO of a publicly traded corporation and all of that evolves from his work on PS and before PS on Army Motors.

Idaho Fish and Game Commission Posters, c. 1952. Eisner created cartoon campaigns to sell products and ideas, addressing political and social issues as well as simple public safety measures such as these.

Idaho Fish and Game Commission Posters, c. 1952. Eisner created cartoon campaigns to sell products and ideas, addressing political and social issues as well as simple public safety measures such as these.


Westfield: You interviewed a number of people for the book. Who are some of the people and how did you choose the interviewees?

Levitz: The interviewees who I talked to for the book fell into a couple of classes. First, people who had worked closely with Will. I spent an absolutely fascinating day with Jules Feiffer who’s incredibly sharp, has a very vivid memory of everything that’s gone on, and has gone onto an amazing creative career of his own. I think he’s the only person who’s ever done comics who’s won an Oscar, a Pulitzer, and a Tony.

Next, people who were Will’s students. Teaching’s kind of ephemeral as a profession. We’ve all had great teachers, hopefully, who had lasting impressions on us. But you don’t keep your note books and in most cases the lectures aren’t recorded. How do you identify who the students were? In Will’s case, enough of them went on to interesting work in our field that I was able to talk to maybe a half classroom worth.

Then a bunch of people about why he was important and how he was important. Included in the book is a complete wonderful panel we did in San Diego a couple years ago with Neil Gaiman, Scott McCloud, Jeff Smith, Denis Kitchen, and myself discussing Will and why he mattered. It’s hard to assemble a cooler, smarter bunch of people to talk about the subject. I thought running the panel as a whole was a worthwhile use of space.

Westfield: You’ve mentioned Will teaching a few times. Where did he teach?

Levitz: Most of his teaching was at a school called the School of Visual Arts or SVA here in Manhattan. It was a school founded by Burne Hogarth and a man name Silas Rhodes essentially to teach returning GIs from World War II. Over the years, it’s mutated into a full scale art college. In the early 1970s, Hogarth had retired and their comics department had gotten very, very thin and very, very weak. A number of cartooning students who had come to the school because they wanted to go where Steve Ditko went or where Archie Goodwin went, went into the school’s management and said, “Please, sir. We want more.” They were asked, who would you like to teach these courses? They made a short list. At the top of the list were Will and Harvey Kurtzman. They were both called and they both said yes. I think for about a decade, both of them were teaching there. For a number of those years, Art Spiegelman was there as well. An incredible time to be a student there.

A nostalgic look back at Eisner’s early characters, 1974. Eisner’s poster combines the probable but unprecedented combination of the Spirit and Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, with less probable appearances by Uncle Sam and the Hawks of the Sea.

A nostalgic look back at Eisner’s early characters, 1974. Eisner’s poster combines the probable but unprecedented combination of the Spirit and Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, with less probable appearances by Uncle Sam and the Hawks of the Sea.


Westfield: As you were working on the book, is there anything you learned about Eisner that you didn’t know before?

Levitz: Absolutely. I discovered that Will and Denis have been telling the story of their first meeting incorrectly for their whole lives. Both of them have told it in all the biographies and in all of the documentaries, any time they chatted about it, as being Will’s first comic convention. But in fact, he was guest of honor two years before that at the New York Con. That had been a particularly traumatic year in Will’s life, it was the point in which his daughter was passing away so it’s not surprising that the memory got a little fuzzy and the two got conflated in his head. To me that was one of the really fun pieces of detective work.

I found, maybe more usefully for the real world, what Will actually did while he was in the commercial business and how the pieces came together in all of it. I knew him well for many, many years so I knew an awful lot of the story, but there were still nuances in all of it. And I found things that weren’t Will specific like the path of the graphic novel. I’m particularly pleased to have found the first time the words graphic novel appeared on a comic book in a place that is utterly improbable and unlikely that we get to reproduce in the book. I was able to, I think, fairly reasonably figure out how it got there.

Westfield: Do you have any closing comments?

Levitz: I think it‘s really important to understand where we’ve come from. The graphic novel is becoming a really interesting, really important part of American culture, not just the world off comic books but the impact we’re having on the broader culture. You look at Fun Home on Broadway winning all the Tonys, you look at the films that have been made out of graphic novels, including many graphic novels that people don’t know or think of as “comic book movies.” I think that people who are Westfield customers are generally people who are very interested in comics beyond being their afternoon’s entertainment. You have a lot of choices today in books to learn about the history of comics but I think Eisner’s story is a particularly interesting and important one. It’s also a really important story in terms of how a person can make a difference in the world above and beyond their own creative work. He really was an inspirational figure to generations of creative people. A lot of that was because of choices he made along the way and I think we can all learn from that, too.

Purchase

Will Eisner: Champion of the Graphic Novel

Will Eisner: Champion of the Graphic Novel

By Paul Levitz

Published by Abrams ComicArts

THE SPIRIT and WILL EISNER are trademarks owned by Will Eisner Studios, Inc. and are registered in the U.S. Trademark Office.

Illustrations/photographs provided by the Estate of Will Eisner and the collection of Denis Kitchen unless otherwise indicated.

 

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