After four years of relentlessly
producing comic book material, by 1940 Will Eisner
was combat-ready to begin The Spirit. The pace was going
to be grueling; besides singlehandedly producing a page of art a
day, weekends included, Eisner also had to conceive Spirit stories
and supervise Lady Luck and Mr. Mystic,
the four-page tales that filled out each Sunday section. Add to
this his partnership agreement with Busy Arnold
and Henry Martin to oversee production of three
Quality comic books, and the 22-year-old artist could see life was
not going to be simple.
But Eisner was convinced that the potential of comics
was not yet tapped. And he had managed to create a situation in
which he was intimately involved in both newsstand comics and newspaper
Of the two, it had always been newspaper strips that
captured Eisner's heart. He had grown up adoring them, especially
E. C. Segar's Popeye, which had a tremendous
influence on both his early and later work. He got into comic book
work because he believed in the medium, and work was easier to find
than in the rarefied atmosphere of the newspaper strips. But he
knew his potential for expression in comic books was ultimately
In making the move from the Eisner and Iger studio
to the Sunday section, Eisner became the beneficiary of increased
esteem from his new colleagues, the newspaper cartoonists, to whom
breaking into strips from comic books was considered a move uptown.
Then as now, there were two comics "fraternities"
— books and strips, with only a slight overlap. Through The
Spirit, Eisner had standing in both groups.
"Comics in the late '30s, early '40s, were seen
as chintzy items consumed by young boys, and that was a correct
analysis," he said. "The public thought of comic books
as a few notches above pornography. There was no respect for them
or their creators. Although I enjoyed working in comic books, I
always saw the strips as the aristocracy of my profession. At that
time, comic strips filled a void that no other media form could
— visual entertainment. Nowadays that's supplied largely by
television; back then, they stood alone. Everyone read them, and
they ran in a respected medium — the daily newspaper."
"The Spirit was a mutant, if you will,"
Eisner said. "It was a comic book, so it was part of an inferior
medium, but it ran in a newspaper, so it was part of a superior
medium. It was Milton Caniff who invited me into
the National Cartoonists Society, which had formed around that time,
and which didn't consider comic book [artists] as appropriate members.
Caniff championed me because of my newspaper credentials. He was
always a very gracious man. However, because I appeared in newspapers
they welcomed me. There cartoonists saw comic books as beneath their
level; snobbery, to be sure, but it was the standard of the time.
But instead of rubbing elbows with his colleagues,
Eisner spent his time rubbing eraser against paper. "I didn't
have time for social contact," he said. "I was doing more
work than most comics artists. Besides, it's a very solitary business,
so I rarely socialized at all.
Eisner had frequently sequestered himself to work, preferring solitude
to create. So it was on the evening when Eisner sat down to invent
the characters for the Sunday section. "What I originally wanted
to do was a straight detective character that would give me room
to do stories," he said. "I was interested in the short
story form, and I thought here at last was an opportunity to work
on short stories in comics. I could do the stories I wanted, because
I was going to have a more adult audience." Although Eisner
had little idea then of the range of expression or the number of
voices that lay inside him, he knew his new feature must give him
flexibility. "As I conceived him, The Spirit
was an adventurer who would enable me to put him in almost any situation,"
From there, Eisner added the other ingredients; on
a piece of scrap paper, he doodled the police commissioner and his
daughter. He knew she would be the hero's love interest. As the
concept crystallized, he imagined that the hero would operate outside
the law, creating tension between him and the commissioner. "In
the wee hours of that night, I had roughed out the seven pages and
I began writing dialogue."
Eisner said that as he sat there, he realized the
wonder of his position: in a real sense, no one had ever been in
his particular position before. And everyone who tried such an experiment
would be following in footprints pressed by Will Eisner. "I
was writing the rule book, fashioning the rules out of experience.
As the concept for The Spirit evolved, I knew it must come
from my own idea of what it should be, not from anyone else's. I
was dead serious and I knew what I was about."
Things were going smoothly and perhaps that should
have been his first
warning. The phone rang; it was Busy Arnold, wanting
to know what Eisner was concocting. When Eisner described the concept,
Arnold was underwhelmed. "He said he and Martin felt that newspapers
were expecting a costumed character, because of the tremendous popularity
of Batman and Superman. After all, he said, the
Sunday section was a response to the popularity of these characters.
"I reluctantly agreed that he had a point, so
I compromised on the costume," he added. "That's when
I gave The Spirit the mask. But that's as far as
I was willing to go. Any kind of costume would have limited the
kinds of stories I could do: it would be an inhibiting factor. Later
I put the gloves on him. Those were the two concessions I made.
As far as Arnold and Martin were concerned, they were trademarks
that were necessary to make a marketable character. They were pragmatists,
not creative men. Martin felt that if editors liked it, it was good.
Don't make waves. I think Arnold and Martin were disappointed because
they expected to get a costumed character, and they got The
"Amold had enough respect for me that he pretty
much left me alone — after all, he had come to me; I was the
resident expert," Eisner said. "But he was mindful of
staying with what was marketable and saleable. He didn't want anything
too far out, and I didn't give him anything too far out. I just
didn't give him a typical costumed character."
But Arnold, impossible to satisfy, insisted that The
Spirit, as Eisner dubbed the character, have otherworldly
powers, since he was technically a dead man resurrected to battle
evil. (The Spectre debuted later in 1940, should anyone
be wondering why that sounds familiar.) Eisner sidestepped that
one. "It was nothing like I imagined, and I saw no common ground
between the two concepts," he said. "I dropped it, and
it mercifully was forgotten."
Eisner had begun his journey into the competitive
world of newspaper syndication. The growth of syndication, starting
in the 1920s, had allowed comic strips to attain unprecedented popularity
and gave many strip creators huge incomes. Comic strips were acknowledged
circulation builders, and syndication spread them across the country.
But the method also had a downside: Syndicates chose their strips
with an eye firmly on the largest client base, so idiosyncratic
strips were often left out in the cold. The Register & Tribune
Syndicate, which would distribute The Spirit, was in the
business of making money. Henry Martin was not
a patron of artists; he was not interested in the cutting edge.
He wanted his market share to grow. The end.
while Eisner was not a loose cannon, he wasn't one to play it safe,
either. While creating a Superman clone would have been
the safest move commercially, Eisner had no intention of doing such
a thing. (No doubt the memory of Victor Fox's Wonder
Man debacle was still fresh in his mind, as well.) Eisner laughs
at what he terms his inability to draw superheroes in a convincing
manner, saying they "look like they're made of foam rubber
in a costume." But far more than inability, one suspects, is
boredom with the subject. "I never would have developed a typical
costumed hero, because I would not have had any interest in writing
such stories," he said. "The costumed superheroes are
locked into stasis — they always have to cater to the preconceived
demands of their readers, and the themes are always those of pursuit
and vengeance. I wanted to create a character who could allow me
more creative latitude and permit me to deal with more complex themes."
Arnold relented and stopped trying to inflict his
approach on the project. He had always had a great deal of respect
for Eisner as a creator, and would often use him as the yardstick
against which all other artists were measured.
But he didn't think much of Eisner's ability to write
a selling story. "Arnold saw me as a player-manager, which
meant I could do it all. And he saw me as an idea man, which is
how he would describe me from time to time. But he didn't think
much of my stories because they weren't formula. He once suggested
I hire a radio man to write stories from my ideas. But I rejected
it, and continued to write the stories. Reader response, I think,
justified my opinion."
To work on The Spirit, Eisner turned his
back on the assembly line method he had perfected at Eisner and
Iger. The Spirit was something that I wanted to do myself,"
Eisner said. "It freed me from the 'manufacturing' material
for comic books with a staff. The only help I wanted was a background
man, and I didn't even have that early on, but I did get Bob
Powell and some others later.
"It was my feature, it was me, and it was directly
connected to my primary ambition, which was to establish myself
as a newspaper comic-strip artist. I felt it was a revolutionary
idea, and I wanted it done as close to my ideas as possible. The
only way to ensure that was to do it all myself."
There were eight pages in the 16-page section on which
he didn't work directly. Both Mr. Mystic
and Lady Luck were created by Eisner and
he wrote the first few scripts to set the approach he wanted. After
that, Dick French did the scripting on Lady
Luck, with art by Nick Viscardi and Chuck
Mazoujian. With some personnel changes, Lady Luck
lasted nearly 6 1/2 years. Lady Luck followed
the adventures of Brenda Banks, a social butterfly
when not donning her green vigilante costume.
After The Spirit, perhaps
the best drawn feature in the section was Powell's Mr.
Mystic. Eisner created Mr. Mystic
by retooling his Yarko the Great, which
had been syndicated overseas. After running through Eisner's scripts,
Powell wrote and drew the feature until he was drafted a couple
of years later. (A very good artist, Powell was a journeyman writer
who tried but never managed to sell Eisner on some Spirit scripts,
a situation that rankled Powell for some time.) Mr.
Mystic was cut from the Sunday section's lineup in
1944, by which time Fred Guardineer was handling
Work on The Spirit section
and the Quality books was run out of a studio Eisner set up in Tudor
City, on the east side of 42nd Street in New York, near the future
site of the United Nations building. The Quality headquarters were
in Stamford, Connecticut, which was good and bad: while the two
locations sometimes made the logistics of publishing ticklish, at
least Eisner didn't have Arnold peering over his shoulder all the
time. "The studio was actually an apartment," Eisner said.
"My office was the bedroom, which had a drawing board and a
couch, which I frequently used because of the late hours. And there
was a small closet that had some kitchen equipment.
"The living room, which is where you entered,
had drawing boards lined up against the walls. We worked cheek by
jowl," he added. "It was a good situation because there
was a lot of interaction. It was a good place to get feedback, have
conversations about the work and whatever else was the topic of
"The couch in my of office was busy. Bob
Powell and some of the other guys were going with girls,
and they were constantly borrowing my key so they could use the
apartment at night.
"The building was very upscale — Milton
Caniff had an apartment there for a while. I felt I was
now part of the big time. I had moved uptown and I was part of the
One thing Eisner was not was a Quality Comics employee,
a misperception that has endured for decades. Will was head of Will
Eisner Productions, which was independently contracted to produce
material for Quality. His income was based on profit sharing from
the syndication of The Spirit section
and the sales of the Quality comic books, not on a salary from Quality.
Although Arnold and Martin were careful to treat Eisner
as the equal partner he was, Eisner always felt they perceived him
as a kid. "Henry Martin was a top salesman
and a vice president of the Register and Tribune Syndicate; a man
of some stature. He was impressive looking man, very dignified.
And Busy Arnold was a married man with kids...
these guys had a world that I had nothing to do with. Even if I
were 10 or 15 years older, I wouldn't have belonged in their circle.
"They had social lives, and I didn't. I was
coming out of a period where I was working day and night, and my
social circle consisted of a few people I would see from time to
time. I would occasionally see Bob Kane, but he
was busy working on Batman. He could always
get girls and I couldn't, so he used to fix me up with a blind date
now and then. And that was almost it," Eisner chuckled. "I
really imprisoned myself, but I was so steeped in the work and so
ambitious that I didn't mind."
While not intimidated, Eisner was awestruck by the
age and experience of his partners. "A couple of times, Arnold
invited me to his country club in Greenwich; I was the bright young
Jewish boy having dinner with a bunch of WASPs," he said. "It
was almost like a black kid going to the all-white country club
— they're nice to you, but you know they don't want you there."
Where Eisner knew he belonged was in front of a drawing
board, riding herd on The Spirit, the
comic books, and the staff that went along with them. "I always
enjoyed working — I could never have survived unless I was
in love with the work," he said. "I never minded dealing
with the business side, but now it was all being handled out of
Arnold's office, and it left me free to concentrate on the creative
side. As it turned out, it was a good thing, because I had no time
left over to spend on anything besides the books."