Rounding off the last few days of the unprecedented Will Eisner Exhibit at the Society of Illustrators during Book Expo, in New York City, publisher Josh O’Neill hosted a talk on the Lost Work of Will Eisner. Running at the same time in Angouleme was also a massive Will Eisner exhibit, also curated by Denis Kitchen and John Lind, O’Neill said.
What makes Eisner stand out is the “unmatched span of his relevance”, O’Neill explained. The exhibit currently being hosted reminds us of the ways in which Eisner revolutionized comics “twice”, O’Neill said, the first with a “game-changing level of design” to the new medium of comic books, and 40 years later in the mid-70’s he pioneered the graphic novel format.
He also, arguably, invented the field of comics studies, and spent 70 years at the “cutting edge” of the comics form. He saw “vistas of infinite possibility” in terms of “sequential storytelling”, O’Neill said.
The book that O’Neill has edited, The Lost Work of Will Eisner, however, is not about that guy. It’s about a kid who is “passionately hungry to tell stories” and the book collects the first known works of Eisner. It predates “all of his known sequential work” and so it sheds new light on how this person became the Will Eisner that we know.
The books collects “Uncle Otto” and “Harry Karry”. Both show a lot of imitation of influences and show his exploration. You can feel the “electricity” coming off this young creator, O’Neill says, as he’s “failing and growing”. This is all before he invented The Spirit at 23 years old.
In “Hawks of the Seas”, a strip from the 1930’s, we can see he’s reaching the level of professional cartooning that we see later from Eisner.
But his first published comics opening a fascinating window on that development, O’Neill said.
O’Neill explained how the book came about collecting Eisner’s lost works. While working at Locust Moon Comics, O’Neill had a visit from a customer who said he knew where there were some mid-thirties printing plates of Eisner’s works. This seemed impossible, since Eisner was known from his work in the 40’s onwards. When O’Neill visited his friend, who was a collector of printing plates, they found it was true, there were Eisner printing plates, credited to Willis Rensnei, Eisner’s name spelled backward.
High school and magazine work were included. This was “lost stuff” languishing in a White Plains storage unit since the 1930’s, the dawn of Eisner’s career. WOW Magazine published “Harry Karry” alongside Popeye and Fu Mancu.
WOW was published in four issues before folding. The publisher later went into business afterward with Eisner to form the Eisner/Iger studio when Eisner claimed to be 25 but was really only 19 years old.
Eisner was looking at the new fad of “comic books” reprinting strips from newspapers, and realized they were going to run out of material to print. His idea was to produce material specifically to be published in “comic books”. Working under various pseudonyms to make the studio seem larger than it was, they got underway.
“Uncle Otto” is a strip notable as a display of Eisner’s abilities and for how far it diverges from his other work, O’Neill said. O’Neill originally suspected that this “pantomime strip” was not by Eisner due to the style, but was proven wrong. It’s about a “rotund” guy who gets into trouble in the tradition of slapstick silent films like Buster Keaton’s films.
It’s a clear line cartooning style which Eisner would never really return to, O’Neill said. There’s a strong design sensibility that’s indebted to influences, as well as aesthetics. In later years, Eisner’s “gags” worked well, but were never what he was known for. This early work is gag-heavy, and is a little hard to parse, partly due to the fact that Otto’s sensibility is hard to understand, O’Neill said.
There were 52 Uncle Otto strips, and the last group were largely including a dog to add to the humor. There was no specific continuity in these strips, unlike “Harry Karry”. Some stylistic inconsistencies suggest the use of assistants and deadline crunches, but you can see Eisner making progress over time, with more texture and elaboration than you see in other strips of this kind, O’Neill said.
Eisner seems to have moved firmly away from clear line style with “Harry Karry”, where you can really see his style developing into what we know today. It changes drastically over time, presented as a parody of a spy thriller. The main character moves through a criminal underworld while constantly screwing up. There’s also a definitely Popeye influence, O’Neill noted. The ten strips that survive in a rather basic vein give way to an eleventh where Harry Karry gets assigned to another job, and the character vanishes, never to be mentioned again.
Then we jump to a totally different art style, no longer Popeye-like, but more noir in style, and this is the new “serious” action/suspense story that the strip pursues afterward. It’s “inspiring”, O’Neill said, that Eisner made such a big change in a major business venture that he was using to support his parents. He seems to be finding a new vein of inspiration and is unafraid to call out his sources. In this work, he’s “perched right on the brink of a truly great time-warp”, O’Neill said, that you often see with great artists, where they suddenly leap ahead in progress and are about to charge forward into their major stylistic developments.
Using caption boxes, a realistic and noir-based style, following characters in fedoras and trenchcoats, Eisner makes all of these things part of the “2.0” version of “Harry Karry” strips, of which 41 survive.
O’Neill read a synopsis of the plot from the 41 strips, which involved all kinds of international espionage, poisoning, machine-gunning, injures, surgery without anesthesia, and more. There’s something so wild and youthful about the plot that’s very appealing, O’Neill said. Here Eisner is not “looking back” to earlier comics for inspiration anymore. He’s charging ahead with recent and currently created comic strip influences. These were comics that Eisner was enthusiastically reading, instead, as they were released.
Eisner picked up a “dry brush” technique in the comic strip that he explored over time, and the characters become more expressive throughout the strips. There’s even a moment when this spy, ZX-5 puts on a domino mask to attend an event, and there are shades of The Spirit on the way for Eisner.
It’s hard to pin down exactly when these strips were published, and O’Neill hopes that the publication of the book will somehow shake loose more details about the provenance of the comics. The early days of comics are starting to “slide” into history, and we are losing people who could tell us about these strips, O’Neill said.
Though Eisner did some autobiographical comics, he doesn’t seem to talk much about this period, O’Neill added. That’s why it’s important to talk to people now who might know more, O’Neill encouraged. We need oral histories and interviews while they are still possible. To do that, we need more people involved, O’Neill said.
There are very few people doing this kind of work, and there’s very little academic framework, O’Neill lamented.
Denis Kitchen recently told O’Neill a story about A Contract with God. He said, in the story, we don’t see the actual Contract with God. Kitchen is working on a new two volume edition of A Contract with God and they are scanning volumes of pencils and inks to re-scan them. Kitchen came across a page to scan, and as he did so, a pasted out cut out falls off, and shows the wording of the actual contract with God. It’s an amazing historical find, something that Eisner decided to cover up.
O’Neill spoke about Herbert Crowley, the artist who he’s currently published a book about, whose work has been largely neglected. When O’Neill visited an archaeological site in Israel, he saw people tossing pottery that was a thousand years old into cardboard boxes. People said, “it’s just everywhere”. He feels like comics history is similar—there’s such amazing history and yet so much work to be done with the mass of material.
Visiting this early work of Eisner’s adds to this sense—that evidence of Eisner’s voice emerging is there—but remains to be studied. It may seem easy for “brilliant people”, but like a duck moving across the water serenely, there’s actually a lot of work, a lot of paddling, going on under the surface. And Eisner was certainly laboring at this time to develop his own style and trajectory.
During the Q & A, we talked about Eisner’s professional partnerships, and the fact that Eisner and Iger broke up, and Iger seemly felt a little “abandoned” by Eisner’s move to create The Spirit instead, when asked to do so.