The Spirit Section

2: Setting Up Shop

Tom Heintjes

Art by Will EisnerWill Eisner's debut as a professional comic book artist met with something less than resounding success; the periodical that published his work — Wow! What A Magazine — went belly-up after four issues. Under ideal conditions, most magazines face early cancellation, but Wow! labored under the dual burden of the Depression, and the fact that the publication was neither fish nor fowl. Comics composed only a portion of Wow!'s content, the rest was given over to articles, fiction, and hobby columns. But the 19-year-old Eisner, determined to forge a victory from the rubble of Wow!, responded to the magazine's cancellation by displaying the tenacity and inventiveness that would mark his career.

His first step was to approach Jerry Iger, Wow!'s suddenly unemployed editor, about forming a partnership to capitalize on what both men believed to be the prosperous future of original comic book material, which had heretofore comprised mainly repackagings of previously published newspaper comic strips. (In that sense, this comic book is not very different from the earliest comic books.) Eisner's plan: He would create the material, and Iger would peddle it to client publishers.

"I was out of work, so I had some time to sit at home and think about things," Eisner said. "I don't think it took a genius to see the way things were shaping up in the comic book field. At Wow!, Iger was looking for original material, and other publishers were entering the field, and they were going to be using original material. The idea I had was to supply complete, finished stories to the publishers, because that's what I had been working toward in my own work. What I was doing was emulating the pulps, which had complete short stories in every issue, and I really enjoyed that aspect of them when I was growing up. I thought that approach would be great in comics form." Iger was initially reluctant. Embroiled in a divorce, he wanted to avoid sinking money into what was undeniably an entrepreneurial venture, risky given the times. Sensing Iger' s hesitation, Eisner attempted to reassure him by, among other efforts, fibbing about his age. Eisner was 19, but he told Iger he was 25.

"He found out when we drew up the papers of incorporation, and I had to tell the truth about my age, but by then things were far enough along that it didn't matter," Eisner said. Though not well off by any definition, Eisner put together the cash — $35, which covered the first few months' office rent — that enabled the partnership to get off the ground.

"Iger was going to be the salesman, which he was very good at," Eisner said. "He wasn't much of a cartoonist; his cartooning was limited to a couple of kid strips called PeeWee and Bobby, which featured characters that had big heads and little bodies, much like Peanuts. But he could really sell. He was a wiry little bantam of a guy, and he would rev himself up to make a sales pitch. He could and would call on anybody, which was something I could never do."

With Eisner's cash, the two rented office space on 40th Street in a building that still stands. "They were very small offices, and they were generally rented out to bookies and other fly-by-night operators," Eisner said. In fact, the walls of the offices were so thin that Eisner was able to overhear conversations in adjacent offices, and once he discovered this, he thought he had stumbled upon a wonderful fringe benefit.

"I usually worked late at night, and so did this bookie in the office next to mine," he said. "I could hear how he was betting, and I thought I could really make some money. So I called the track and placed a bet on that same horse, and I lost every penny, of course. As I listened more, I found out that this bookie had a guy at the track call him at the end of each race to pass on the results, and then the bookie would take bets on the race that had just been won, knowing that no one would win any money on it. This was the type of people who rented these offices."

Eisner and Iger formed their shop at a propitious time, and in fact the timing helped pave the way for the success of their young company. After years of being the 800-pound gorilla of the periodical world, the pulps' sales were faltering. The Street and Smith titles, which had been enjoying immense popularity, had seen their prices lowered from 15 cents to a nickel in an ultimately futile effort to keep alive.

Nor was Street and Smith alone; in 1935-36, all periodicals faced lower circulation. Some of the publishers hoped original comics material could serve as a nostrum. One of Eisner's oft-recounted tales involved the pulp publisher — whose name Eisner has lost to time — who came to Eisner and Iger in desperate need of original comic material, and who was willing to pay the reasonable price of five dollars per page for the finished product. But first, the publisher had to be sure Eisner and Iger's outfit was capable of producing an adequate supply of material — he wanted to know how many artists were on staff. "I told Jerry to tell him we had five guys, and I made good on it by drawing material in five different styles, signing five different names," Eisner chuckled.

As the shop's workload increased, so did the need for new talent. The question was, how do you solicit talent for an artform for which no ready supply of experienced talent exists? Imagine Winsor McCay looking for old hands to help him animate Gertie the Dinosaur. In their favor, the Depression had thrown many talented artists out of work, and such artists were eager to have a job, even if they would have to modify their skills to the demands of this peculiar new medium. "What I had to do was find talented artists, which wasn't a problem, and teach them what was essentially, to them, a new trade," Eisner said.

In short order, Eisner assembled a staff of older, experienced artists who were prepared to learn how to tell a story on a page, and young, hungry talent, thrilled to get in on the ground floor of the new medium. At the ripe age of 19, Eisner was in the vanguard of it. Staffers would eventually include Jack Kirby, who was then working under his given name Kurtzberg; Lou Fine, whose style could at times appear similar to Eisner's; Bob Kane, a highschool classmate of Eisner's; Dick Briefer, Chuck Mazoujian, who would later follow Eisner to the Quality shop and who would gain more renown as the artist of the Lady Luck portion of the Spirit sections; Bill Bossert, who later married staff writer Toni Blum; Bob Powell, perhaps best known for his work on Mr. Mystic in the Spirit section; and George Tuska, who went on to do a great deal of work for Marvel Comics.

Once the foundation was in place, Iger set out to secure work that would keep the staff busy churning out material. "The comic book publishers had been buying syndicate proofs for five dollars a page," Eisner said. "I had to figure out a way that we could produce and sell to them at a competitive price. The answer was to run a very mainstreamed, highly organized shop. I hired artists on a salary, rather than paying them by the page. If I hired an artist at ten or fifteen dollars week, and if I did the writing and Iger did the lettering, we could produce a fair amount of material, sell each page for five dollars and still make a profit. Bob Kane left the shop to go to work for DC, because they began offering seven or eight dollars a page, which was considerably more than what I could pay."

Soon, contracts began rolling in. Building on their reputation developed by producing quality work for pulp publishers, Eisner and Iger began creating stories for the first wave of comic book publishers. One of the first significant clients was the new publishing house founded by Victor Fox, who had previously been a bean counter at National Periodicals (now DC Comics), and who decided to strike out on his own to cash in on what appeared to be comic books' imminentbonanza. Fox contracted to buy 64 completed pages of cameraready comic book art for $1,000, which afforded Eisner and Iger a nice profit.

Fox's gamble that he could leave a successful comic book publisher to start his own profitable company was perceptive. According to Eisner, Fox was willing to set aside such matters as ethics to create a situation favorable to himself. Fox was one of comic books' early characters that helped give the industry its reputation as one that would gleefully take anybody for a buck.

"Fox was a real con man," Eisner said. "He was a thief in a very actual sense." Eisner's not the only creator from the industry's dawn who has anecdotes about Fox. Jack Kirby has said that as Fox' s artists sat at their drawing tables, Fox would walk around boasting that he was "the king of the comics!" — this from a man who could neither write nor draw.

The first package Eisner and Iger's shop created for Fox had specific stipulations: The lead character had to possess super powers, wear a red costume, have a chest insignia, etc. It was obvious that Fox was requesting a knock-off of Superman, which had appeared in mid-1938 and was fueling the comic book boom. Eisner, who had little training in copyright law but plenty of common sense, balked at infringing so blatantly on National's property. Iger tried to assuage Eisner's misgivings by arguing that the two men had little desire to go hungry. Fox himself dubbed the character Wonder Man.

It took National's legal department no time at all to pull the plug on Wonder Man. One night, Fox called Eisner to his office and told him that when the time came for Eisner to take the witness stand in National's instant law suit, Eisner was to swear that there was no intent to copy Superman. Eisner replied that, indeed, he was not copying; rather, he was merely following Fox' s dictates. Less than pleased, Fox informed Eisner that if he told the court the truth, he would never see the $3,000 Fox then owed Eisner and Iger. Although $3,000 was more than Eisner had ever seen in his life, he told the truth on the stand, and Fox lost the suit. Wonder Man died, and Fox made good on his threat to stiff Eisner and Iger. The two thought their young company was doomed.

Fortunately, Fiction House came to the rescue. Fiction House, a pulp publisher, had been seeking a way to carve its own niche in comic books. So it contracted with Eisner and Iger, and from that was born Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. Sheena debuted in Jungle Comics, Fiction House's comic book complement to its jungle oriented pulp magazines. Sheena became popular and enjoyed a run through 1953. Eisner conceived the character, drew the cover for the first issue, and had Mort Meskin, a staffer, render the interior art. Eisner said he created Sheena as a female counterpart to Tarzan, and that he cribbed the title from H. Ryder Haggard's novel She. (Iger claimed the character's name was derived from the anti-Semitic slur, "Sheenie," but Eisner termed that anecdote apocryphal.)

Art by Will EisnerFor Fiction House, Eisner created a wide variety of characters and concepts, the best-remembered of which are Sheena and Hawks of the Seas. But others include the SF-oriented The Diary of Dr. Hayward, the "bigfoot" rendered Uncle Otto, and Sports Shorts. Eisner said that at one point he was single-handedly producing so much of the content for Fiction House's Jumbo Comics, he deliberately adopted a crude rendering style for some stories, lest his client become upset that the production of one of their most popular comic books relied so heavily on one man. Talking about Jumbo's contents brought to Eisner's mind an anecdote: The Uncle Otto strip, which Eisner drew, bore the pseudonym of Carl Heck, a name derived from one of Iger's favorite exclamations: "By Heck!" So as a lark, Eisner wanted to create a property that was actually "by Heck."

Using pseudonyms became a way of life for Eisner during these years. Eisner used them with gusto, incorporating into his work such imaginative noms de plume as the aforementioned Mr. Heck, Willis B. Rensie ("Eisner" spelled backwards), W. Morgan Thomas (used on Mr. Mystic), Erwin Willis, Wm. Erwin, and a host of others.

As Eisner and Iger's contract work increased, the two evolved a comic book equivalent of an assembly line. A job traveled through the shop and each employee tightened a bolt or inked a line, and at the end of the line there was a completed story. Eisner's role was to create new characters, edit copy and art, write stories for others, and write and draw stories for himself. Typically, when launching a new character, Eisner would fly solo for the first couple of stories, then turn it over to one of his associates. This method was the only way Eisner was able to sustain the sizable output — around 100 pages at its peak — required of his company each month.

"I would start with a page, which actually had the panel borders already printed on it — we were that structured. On that page, I would blue pencil a story. Then, Toni Blum would write the story in balloons on the page. Then, it would go to someone like Lou Fine, who would do the ink rendering over my roughs. Incidentally, someone like Fine would have a certain amount of freedom in playing with my roughs, since he had such a good visual sense. What I did wasn't cast in stone. Then, the background men would get the story. They were usually young guys, fresh out of school and working for the experience. Last, the pages were lettered and cleaned up."

Eisner was never reluctant to improve on what one of his shop men had done. "It was my job to provide the best material we could produce, and sometimes it meant my stepping in and redrawing something another artist had done," he said. Talented greats such as Kirby and Fine often found Eisner superimposing his own work onto their own in sequences that he didn't feel passed muster. "There wasn't much egotism involved, and no one felt any resentment, because we knew that the only goal was to produce good work, and they respected my judgment."

Eisner's success made a believer out of his mother, who had despaired that her son would starve if he chose to pursue an art career. It was Eisner's work that was putting food on the family table. "The family dynamics changed with the success the shop was having," he said. "My father was still out of work — it was still the Depression, despite the fact that I was doing okay — and I was supporting the family. That was all right with them. My father was pleased that I was using my art to make a living, and while my mother had no real aesthetic judgments, she was happy that I was doing well."

But while Eisner had made a comfortable niche for himself in comics, fate in the form of Everett "Busy" Arnold was preparing to approach Will with the proposal to create a Sunday comic book section that would run in newspapers. Although we all know how that turned out, next issue Will discusses his separation from Eisner and Iger and The Spirit's genesis, not to mention what it was like working for Busy Arnold, not the kindest taskmaster one could hope to have.


'The Spirit' and Spirit artwork TM and © Will Eisner Studios Inc. All rights reserved.
This article originally published in The Spirit: The Origin Years #2 (Kitchen Sink Press, July 1992)
Article © Tom Heintjes. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.