The following is a transcript of Will Eisner’s keynote address at the “‘Will Eisner Symposium:’ The 2002 University of Florida Conference on Comics and Graphic Novels.”
I’d like to start this evening by talking about how important this gathering is. I think this is probably a turning point. I’ve been trying all evening to think of a decent metaphor to explain this wonderful thing that has been put together by Don Ault and his team. All I could think about is trying to explain to you how a Jewish boy feels being able to join a gentile country club. [laughter]
This seriously is a moment in time for which I have been dreaming all of my professional life, as most of those who worked around me dreamt about but weren’t even aware that this was possible. We now, for the first time, we’re being recognized, not yet accepted, but we’re now recognized in major bookstores and in the rooms of academia—in the academic community. We’re now being discussed as a form of literature, and this is what I’ve been hoping for in all these years.
Let me start by telling you how it was in the beginning. In the beginning, God made comics, and we drew on the walls of caves trying to tell everybody how we captured a mastodon that afternoon. Back in 1935-36, when comics as we know them got started—by the way, they were called comic magazines back then, not comic books as they’re called today—they were really a compilation of daily strips into a magazine, which then became a marketable product originally called Famous Funnies. These soon became obsolete because publishers were looking for complete stories. So, original stories were then being created.
That’s how I got started. I saw this wonderful opportunity, which didn’t take great genius to see, that comic books that were being published at the time were being put out by pulp magazine publishers, which were then being put out of business because pulp magazines were dying out at the time, and they were looking for something to distribute; they had distribution. In those days, distribution was tightly controlled by big companies like American News Company, and there were no small comic book shops of any kind around. These were sold at news stands, or kiosks as the French call them. Shortly after that, the comic magazines began to grow into a marketable product. The early ones sold huge amounts, a tremendous amount of copies. Somewhere in 1936-8, the stories began to be developed around superheroes. I want to mention an important part of my business career was the shop I had, Eisner and Eiger—a testimony to my business astuteness. Some of these fellows here have heard these stories before, because I told it at Yale a couple of months ago. I got letters of comment, condolences actually, after this. I had been contacted by two guys from Cleveland, one fellow named Siegel and the other named Shuster. They had sent me two comic strips. One was called Spy and the other was called Superman, and I sent them a long letter explaining why they weren’t ready for prime time, that they should go to Cleveland Art School for another year.
This is what was happening at the time—one of those things was being developed that we really hadn’t, we really weren’t aware of, nobody then was aware of what we were doing—we weren’t conscious of working in a medium that had any structure or any discipline, had any science to it. What most of those people were doing was telling funny stories or emulating what had appeared in pulp magazines or imitating the work that was done before them. There was another body, a whole other world of cartoonists who were the aristocracy, and these were the daily strip cartoonists. They were occupying a totally different world and were not in any way occupied with what we were doing. However, we were living in an environment that led us to believe that we were subhuman anyhow. I recall the incident, recounted many times. I was finally invited to a cocktail party on Madison Avenue, where it was uptown as far as we were concerned. And there were a lot of artists there. I was standing against a wall holding a drink, and this lady came by with long black hair, bangs, a long cigarette, and holding a drink, and she said to me, “What do you do?”
And I said, “I’m a comic book artist.”
And with a large balloon with very tiny letters, she said, “Oh, how nice.” [laughter]
It’s hard to describe, I suppose, how you feel working in the media at that time. The attitude generally among people in the shop was Jack Kirby’s attitude (he was working in the shop at that time). And his attitude was that it’s a way to make some money. It’s a good living. We’ll make enough money to be able to move uptown and work as illustrators. That’s where we were all hoping to go – to become illustrators or painters. Gallery painters were the epitome of art. We lived in a culture that regarded the hierarchy of art as having at its apex, painting. If you painted with oil on canvas, that was fine art. If you moved downtown and did woodcuts or anything below painting, it was on a scale until finally you came down to comics or comic books, which was just a step above graffiti. Graffiti hadn’t really been invented then, but graffiti came along and we were all delighted in the fact that there was an art form lower than ours. [laughter] Matter of fact, I remember teaching at SVA and one of my students came in and showed me his artwork, all airbrushed, and I said, “Where’d you learn to do that?”
He said, “You know that BMT subway car number 53–that’s my work on that car. That’s where I learned.”
So I finally realized that there was something below us. [laughter]
Nobody in the medium, working in that medium at the time would think that of it as a medium. No one recognized or accepted the fact that this artwork or this medium; that this strange, marvelous combination of words and images that were laid out in an intelligent sequence was a true art form or literary form, as I like to put it. In 1940, The Spirit had just appeared in the Baltimore Sun, the very paper that you are looking at Tom [Inge], and a reporter came by and did an interview with me, and I told him that I believed that this was a fine art form, and that someday it will be recognized as such. I got back into New York and the kids in the shops kept laughing and saying, “We read that, are you trying to be uppity?” Nobody really believed that this was what it later on seemed to prove itself to be, which is a true means of expression, story, and idea. By 1940, the beginning of the war, 1941, 42, and during the war years, this medium consolidated itself and better artists came in because things were larger, and money could be made, a little bit more than before. Siegel and Schuster sold their rights to their property for fifteen dollars a page because everyone else was paying less. Bob Kane, who was a former high-school classmate of mine, was working in my shop; that was Bob Kane who did Batman. I don’t know whatever happened to that. He left because I was paying him seven dollars a page. He said he’d go to Detective Comics where they’d pay him twelve dollars a page, and he said he was going to do a caped character. And I said, “Well, you can’t draw that kind of stuff.” And he said “I can get ghost for that kind of money. I can get fellahs to help me.” So at seven dollars a page, he moved on.
That was the beginning of “so-called” Big Money. By the middle 40’s, the medium had so established itself as a cultural medium, as a means of popular culture—the troops were reading them, comic books were being distributed all over the world, particularly in Europe, where the soldiers brought comic books with them—that the medium began to establish itself as a basic publishing form, in which publishers could make some real money. By that time, Superman was selling about a million copies an issue, Batman was selling quite a few issues, and The Spirit was established in the newspapers. It was the first time, and I might say the last time, anybody ever had a comic book or a comic magazine, in the Sunday newspaper. Something like that was never done again, and there was a good reason for that. I suspect it was recognized as an impossibility.
By the middle 50’s and 60’s, long after the Kefauver investigation of comics was being a vehicle of destruction, a vehicle that created children that would go out and kill people, and drive needles into people’s eyes, which was one of the examples that they used in their investigations, started by Dr. Wertham. Those of you who know the history, know that he was a psychologist or a psychiatrist, I believe, who went around the country studying juvenile delinquency, and whenever he came to a prison where they had juvenile delinquents and he asked them what they read, they all said comics. Ergo, comics cause delinquency. People believed that. By the middle 50’s and 60’s, comics had established itself very much like the pulp magazines. Harvey Kurtzman came along, and began doing a series of adventure stories, of war stories, solidly based on the storytelling that was part of the structure of the pulp magazines.
And then something happened in 1969-71, in San Franciso. An underground movement began, a bunch of “heads” got together in San Francisco, Crumb, Spain, Spiegelman, and they began turning out some really remarkable comics. They were, I guess, insulting in a way, but they took on the establishment. At that time, I was a suit. I was running a publishing company up in Connecticut, and my secretary came in, and she said, “Mr. Eisner, there’s a man on the phone named Phil Seuling, who says he’s got a comics convention down here in New York, and he wondered if you’d come down.” Then she stopped, and looked around the room to make sure there was no one else around, and she said “Were you ever a comic artist?” And I said “Yes, I was a comic book cartoonist at one time.” At any rate, I went down to the convention, which was being held in one of the hotels in New York, and there was a group of guys with long hair and scraggly beards, who had been turning out what spun as literature, really popular “gutter” literature if you will, but pure literature. And they were taking on illegal subject matter that no comics had ever dealt with before.
I talked to some of them, and there was a funny smell about them—cigarettes or perfume or something like that—and they laughed at the wrong times. [laughter] At any rate, I came away from that recognizing that a revolution had occurred then, a turning point in the history of this medium. I went back to Connecticut. Shortly after that, I had to sell my stake in this publishing company, which I did. I came back to White Plains and began working on what I believed was a solution to the problem of the loss of readers; that was the practical reason. I reasoned that the thirteen year old kids that I’d been writing to back in the 1940s were no longer thirteen year old kids, they were now thirty, forty years old. They would want something more than two heroes, two supermen, crashing against each other.
I began working on a book that dealt with a subject that I felt had never been tried by comics before, and that was man’s relationship with God. That was the book A Contract with God, which I showed to Tom [Inge], who was instrumental in my going forward with it because he looked at it and didn’t laugh. He said, “Yeah, that’s okay. That’s good. Go ahead and do it.”
That began what is known as the graphic novel today. Those of you who’ve heard me speak before know this now famous story about how it was called a “graphic novel.” I completed the book, A Contract With God, and I called the president of Bantam Books in New York, who I knew had seen my work with The Spirit. Now, this was a very busy guy who didn’t have much time to speak to you.
So I called him and said, “There’s something I want to show you, something I think is very interesting.”
He said, “Yeah, well, what is it?”
A little man in my head popped up and said, “For Christ’s sake stupid, don’t tell him it’s a comic. He’ll hang up on you.” So, I said, “It’s a graphic novel.”
He said, “Wow! That sounds interesting. Come on up.”
Well, I did bring it up and he looked at it and looked at me through his reading glasses and said, “This is a comic book, bring it to a smaller publisher,” which I did and from then on the term ‘graphic novel’ began to take on for some reason or another. I don’t know if I was really the inventor of the term. At the time, I thought I had invented the term, but I discovered later that some guy thought about it a few years before I used the term. He had never used it successfully and had never intended it the way I did, which was to develop what I believe was viable literature in this medium.
I’m here to tell you that I believe strongly that this medium is literature. It’s a form of literature, and it’s reaching its maturity now. We are at a point now where we’re beginning to get writers into the field of the kind of capability that would have entitled them to write novels. As a matter of fact, indeed, Neil Gaiman has just written a great novel that made the New York Times Best Seller List. He’s been writing comics for a long time, as you all probably know. The word “comics,” of course, we’re still living with, is a misnomer. We can’t get rid of the thing. We can’t get rid of it—it’s like “Kleenex.” It doesn’t belong here and it’s partly our fault because comics originally were designed to be funny stories. They were originally called “the funnies” and called “the jokes,” and later on “the comicals.” The name kind of stuck. We have absolutely no way of changing it any more than we could change comic magazines or comic books.
The future of the medium now hinges—hangs— on the support of the academic world because in order for the medium to grow and mature as it has been, it needs the attention and the interest of people who, in the academic world, are able to dissect it, to discuss it, to recognize it, and to evaluate it, which will establish a standard that young comic artists coming into the field will aspire to.
Comic artists today are doing very well financially, thank you, with many of them owning their own material, which didn’t happen while I was starting out—it was nearly impossible then. The new artists freed themselves from what I used to call—in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s—the slave mentality, which was that the cartoonists working in the field were told, “You’re an artist, you can’t write. Let me get a writer for you…Don’t aspire to anything more than what you’re doing because you’re not going to get anywhere anyhow – you’ll be a shoeshine boy for the rest of your life. Stay that way.” Today, artists and writers working in the field are beginning to recognize that what they are working in, medium-wise, has power, has influence, has an impact on society.
Joe Sacco—is he here?—I want to single him out because he’s doing something very, very remarkable. [applause] He’s reporting. He has lifted reportage to a higher level. As a matter of fact, he’s preceded historically by the first daily strip cartoonist, Bud Fisher, who started out as an illustrator—actually—in the early 1900 newspapers, they didn’t have photographers, and they couldn’t afford the process of making half tone plates. So they would send out an illustrator, an artist, an illustrator, to cover a fight, a baseball game, or a fire, and they would come back and do a story about it. That art seemed to disappear after a while, and what was left is the court room artists. It’s only in the past few years that Joe has come back and restored the essence of that art and brought it onto its present level, and I think that’s very important. There are other people in the field that are attempting major efforts. Eddie Campbell is working on a thing that has great historical quality to it. The field is filled now with men who are producing real—called, in italics, real—literature.
I think it’s important for me to close with the thought that we are here gathered at a moment in time when the medium is, at long last, coming of age. I guess I feel a little like Martin Luther King—Thank God Almighty, free at last—we’re here. I think from here on in, there’s no stopping the growth of this medium. This is a moment of great importance. You know, we used to feel very much like a Mama Rabbit and a Daddy Rabbit, who were running around, being chased by a bunch of dogs. They dove into a hole and the Mama Rabbit is quivering. She’s saying, “Oh, this is terrible. We’re doomed.” The Daddy Rabbit says, “No, don’t worry about it. We’ll stay here, and in half an hour, we’ll outnumber them.” [laughter] I always think of that when people ask me how I felt about all those years of so-called struggle—sooner or later, we’ll outnumber them, and I think we’re outnumbering them now. [applause]