The Spirit Section


Tom Heintjes

“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.” Will Eisner

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 strips.

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 limited.

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.

Art by Will EisnerIndeed, 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," he said.

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 Spirit.

"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.

Art by Will EisnerAnd 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 its production.

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 day.

"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 newspaper community."

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."

'The Spirit' and Spirit artwork TM and Will Eisner Studios Inc. All rights reserved.
This article originally published in The Spirit: The Origin Years #4 (Kitchen Sink Press, November 1992)
Article Tom Heintjes. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.