September 26, 2017

 




Interview:
Will Eisner

By Brian Jacks



 

Will Eisner is truly one of the pioneers of this industry.  Without his continued effort to utilize sequential art in more than simple superhero comics, Frank Miller, Art Spiegelman, and Joe Sacco may never have had a medium to publish their books in.

Aside from changing, and creating, the face of comics and graphic novels, Will also bears the distinction of being personally involved with three major conflicts - as a soldier in World War II, and a journalist in Korea and Vietnam.

Slush discussed with him the period from 1941 onward.

(Note: This interview was originally published in May of 2000.  Slush again spoke to Will directly after the 9/11 attacks.  To read that interview, click here)

 

Where were you when Pearl Harbor was attacked?

I was sitting in my studio eating a roast beef sandwich which my mother prepared for me [laughs]. I was working on The Spirit. I was really shook up listening to it. I was listening to the opera at the time. It was a Carnegie Hall concert I was listening to. I remember the thing was cut off and they announced the attack on Pearl Harbor. And I was really shook up because I realized that this was gonna be it. I’d be drafted.

In 1942, you were drafted into the Army.

Early ’42. The Army gave me a six-month delay because I was working on a newspaper feature.

What were you feeling when you received your draft notice?

Well, I was ambivalent. Remember, unlike the Vietnam War, everybody was very in favor of the war. Particularly because of the Nazis and because of the fact that the country seemed to be in danger. So I was kind of eager to be part of it. I felt that I’d want to be part of the war effort. On the other hand, this was a year after I had started The Spirit, which represented a whole new career for me. And I knew that if I went into the Army this whole thing would kind of fall apart on me. So I was torn between the two feelings. One was the eagerness to go and sign up. On the other hand, the loss of a possible career. So that was my feeling.

Did people recognize your name when you went into the Army?

Yes. I landed at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, which was just outside of Baltimore, and the Baltimore newspaper carried The Spirit. So I was something of a celebrity I suppose.

Did your drill sergeants go easier on you?

No, they didn’t. As a matter of fact, my drill sergeant was a sadistic S.O.B. [laughs]. I remember standing there in line and he came over and looked at me and stuck his nose in my face, as all drill sergeants do. And he said to me, “Sheeit, man. You don’t look like the character you draw” [laughs]. So he was really kind of nasty on me. Picked on me because The Spirit was a heroic character and I looked a little less than that [laughs].

But when the basic training was over, the camp newspaper editor came by with is assistance and asked me if I’d be willing to come on their staff and do artwork, and do cartoons and so forth. And I said yes.

Did the army ever send you overseas?

No, I was never shipped out. The Aberdeen Proving Grounds was a training center too and they had a school and were using visuals and graphics and so forth. And at that time, the Ordnance Corp, which later became the Ordnance Department, decided to install a new program called Preventive Maintenance. This was simply almost a non-disciplinary element in the business of maintaining their equipment. Preventive Maintenance, in short, is nothing more than putting oil in your vehicle and preventing rust. You know, this kind of basic, simply maintenance of equipment, which they copied from the British, who were using it very successfully.

Anyway, I remember talking to my commander officer, who was a lieutenant colonel in charge of the newspaper, saying the problem with this program was that it required a voluntary contribution and that the best instructional material that could be produced for this thing was in the comic form. I was, at that time convinced, that comics as a medium was a fine instructional tool and was capable of far more than the usual entertainment, gag-a-day stuff. Well apparently, he picked up what I said and was making a case at a meeting somewhere, unbeknownst to me. Actually, what he did was he lifted my speech and used it. And apparently they said, “Well, who the hell could do this?” And he came back and said to me, “Hey, would you like to get involved in this program?” And I said sure. And so, I was shipped out from Aberdeen to Holerbird (sp?) Ordnance Depot, which was a truck/vehicle depot, which the Ordnance Department had just taken over. And I began working with a new little mimeograph magazine called Army Motors. And I helped design that; bring it up to the point where it was using comics, or what they now call sequential art, as a training tool. Became very successful and ultimately had one million, two million distribution.

That became so immediately successful that I was transferred to Washington to work on the staff of the Chief of Ordnance. And  I remained there for the rest of the war.

At that time, were you already aware of what the Nazis were doing to the Jews?

Oh yeah, sure, we all know. We all knew that very well. As a matter of fact, I tried very hard to get me sent overseas. I kept applying for a transfer to get into a combat area. I was as charged up as everyone else. And particularly, as a Jew, I was really enflamed over it. But the Chief of Ordinance, General Campbell, refused to let me go because apparently he wanted to keep around him a staff of, what he used to refer to as, “bright young men.” So I remained in the Pentagon building. I created “Joe Dope,” and “Sergeant Half-Mast,” which ultimately led, later on, to P.S. Magazine after the war, which still exists today.

What the feeling like when you heard that the Germans had surrendered.

Oh, I was, like all of us, I was very overjoyed over the thing. Those who were Jews in the States at that time were bothered by two elements. We’re torn by the fact that they weren’t there involved in it. And at the same time, we’re really dismayed by what was happening. My father was bringing members of a Jewish family over from Europe.

Is that so?

Well, he and the rest of his brothers and sisters pooled a few dollars together. We were not rich. My father was quite poor. But we pooled a few dollars together to bring people over from Berlin who were able to escape somehow. But there was obviously joy. This is a real enemy that had to be defeated.

In 1950 you agreed to work for the Defense Department magazine.

At that time I had been back a couple of years and was working on The Spirit. I had started a company called American Visuals Corporation, which was using comics as a teaching tool for industrial purposes. We had companies like General Motors and U.S. Steel, and organizations who had a lot of employees and were looking for pamphlets to distribute to their employees and instruct them. And the Army, with the advent of the Korean War, they came back and asked me if I would reconstitute Army Motors, and we developed P.S. Magazine. The people who were still in the Army working on Army Motors came to me and asked me if I would agree to continue it. I was very interested in doing that because it would be a further demonstration of the use of comics as a teaching tool or as an instructional medium.

By then, The Spirit was becoming burdensome to me. I was looking for ways out of it. I became far more interested in the use of comics as an instructional medium than I was as an entertainment medium. I felt that was a new channel for the use of comics. All my life, professionally, I’ve been really obsessed with the idea of trying something new. I’m in love with innovation and experimentation. It’s risky, but it’s really very exhilarating.

Well, you’ve certainly done that with your graphic novels.

Yes, well everything I have done has been really a form of risk taking. But that’s the fun of the business.

When Korea broke out they sent you there. Was that trip something you wanted to do?

Well, part of the contract for the production of P.S. Magazine was the fact that I would go into the field, put that in italics, at least a couple of times during the year. This was in order to develop a familiarity with what was going on. Realism was very important in this medium because you were dealing with guys who were working on the line, so to speak. When I did a story or did a cartoon it had to have relevance to what they were doing. So I would go out into the field at least twice a year, sometimes three times a year. And my trips included going to the combat zone in Korea and later on in Vietnam. I went to Germany, spent some time with the troops there. Usually these were five to six week trips.

Was it odd being in a combat zone as a civilian?

Yeah, it was, and as a matter of fact it became embarrassing at times. I remember standing on a hilltop, in I think it was Korea, and this young GI was standing next to me. He looked up at me said, “These are combat boots you’re wearing.” And I said, “Yeah, they’re my old boots that I wore during World War II.” And he said, “Gee, my father has the same set” [laughs]. It suddenly occurred to me that I was getting older and that I was no longer part of it.

So it was interesting, but you know, war stinks. War is horrible and all those conditions…there’s no glamour to it. And you’re out there with a bunch of guys who are slugging around in harm’s way, if you will. As a civilian, I was well received because I was, in effect, a reporter. I traveled on a high grade. I remember in Vietnam I was traveling on the equivalency of a brigadier general so that I got fairly good accommodations and transportation preferences.

Many people call Korea the “Forgotten War.” Many people haven’t even heard of it. Why do you think this is? Is that because it's sandwiched between World War II and Vietnam?

I think so, and the public reaction to the Korean War was a little different. The Korean War was labeled as a kind of “police action.” We didn’t think of it as an action to either defend our way of life or defend our nation. World War II was a very frightening situation because Hitler was dominating Europe and it was very clear that sooner or later once he succeeded in beating England he would be over here. So we were defending the nation, so to speak.

The Korean War was a police action. We thought of it as sending troops over there to take care of it. Very much like the Gulf War. The Gulf War won’t be remembered except as a kind of police action that we took. The Vietnam war was something else again. That opened up a whole social struggle in the United States. A lot of people didn’t want to go. A lot of people protested. It exasperated the racial conflict that was brewing in this country because a lot of the blacks felt that they were being singled out to go fight. It was a whole, totally different situation that will remain with us for a long time. It’s still a wound that sometimes bleeds.


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