Paul Levitz captures the spirited genius of Will Eisner

Will Eisner was a real New York institution. Born in Brooklyn, the cartoonist was instrumental in the early days of …

Will Eisner was a real New York institution.

Born in Brooklyn, the cartoonist was instrumental in the early days of the comic book industry and is most famous for his long-running Sunday comic strip “The Spirit,” which ran for 12 years starting in 1940.

In his later years, Eisner, who died in 2005, worked on comics for the Army, and in 1978 released “A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories,” one of the earliest graphic novels. The book looked at life for Jewish immigrants in New York City.

Paul Levitz, a writer, historian and formerly the president and publisher of DC Comics, chronicles Eisner’s work in “Will Eisner: Champion of the Graphic Novel.” He’ll be discussing the book with Jules Feiffer — a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist who got his start working for Eisner in the 1940s — at the SVA Theatre on Nov. 11.

We spoke with Levitz, 59, about all things Eisner.

What was your reaction to “A Contract with God” when it came out?

I have one of the original signed-and-numbered editions as a fan. I knew Will, I guess, for five or six years at that point, but not particularly well. I had interviewed him for my fanzine, and I knew his Spirit world relatively well, but I never envisioned him doing anything like this and I’d never seen anything like this. I’d seen the European comic albums — I was relatively familiar with that. But not anything that had been created in America and not anything that was this grown up, I guess. That’s the simplest way of putting it.

How did it change the comic world?

It’s really a pivotal moment for its effect for the creative people in the field. It came out at a moment when a lot of pent-up passion for doing creative work was being unleashed but no one really had a true sense of what the potential was. American comic creators were becoming aware of the European material. … The European stuff coming from “Heavy Metal,” some of the things that were being done in self-publishing or very small press publishing were aspiring to longer work, to something that was more important. … And a new generation of creative talent was coming into comics and coming of age. Some of the most important writers and artists who would fuel the growth of the graphic novel in America picked up “Contract” and got it from that. They said, “Oh, I don’t have to be doing things that would disappear tomorrow. I can be doing things intended to last. I could be doing things that talked to the subjects of humanity that literature talk to.” People reacted in very different ways. In some, it evoked the desire to do something more political and break templates that way. For some it was the ability to deal with human morality on different levels. But Will broke so many taboos simultaneously dealing with religion, mortality, morality. All subject matter that really had not been touched significantly in American comics for decades before that that some wonderful people looked at and said, “I could be trying harder. I can be aspiring higher.” And that’s a lot of what birthed the graphic novel movement.

Did you find anything surprising when digging through the archives?

It was wonderful to see — not just in the archives, but in what survived in people’s hands. … It was a hoot and a half to see some of the things that were attempts he made at projects, like the baseball comics from the 1940s that nobody’s looked at for decades since. It was fun for me, particularly, to see some of the stuff he did in the educational field where he was showing you what careers you might aspire to in the 1960s. Some of the things that didn’t make it into the book like, “You can be using an adding machine.” Exciting new technology of the moment!

Did you learn anything new about Will while researching this book?

Well, when you spend that amount of time with someone, you think about them in different ways. I knew him for many years, but there were things that I realized were hidden in his work that I had never focused on before. His favorite story from his long run on “The Spirit” he long said was the story of Gerhard Shnobble. [It’s] a beautiful, little, short seven-page story that we reprint in full in the book, about a kind of nebbish guy who, for reasons we never quite understand, has the power to fly [but he] doesn’t use it. And in one moment, uses it, flies, has the glory of the feeling and then is completely randomly shot down and dies. Gorgeous little story, very human, always something I enjoyed. It only occurred to me in writing the book, that perhaps the reason it was Will’s favorite was that in some ways it represented where his life was at the moment he produced it. It came in the late 1940s when “The Spirit” was probably the most brilliant thing being done in American comics. And nobody in the world was noticing in terms of it being regarded as anything that was art or literature. There were comic book writers and artists who were looking at it and saying, “Look at what Eisner’s doing over there.” But in the outer world, it was a Sunday newspaper supplement. People read it, they smiled, they threw it out and it disappeared. I think there was a part of Will that just said, “I’m flying and nobody’s noticing.” And I never made that connection before I spent that amount of time thinking about him. I wish he was still around to ask, whether that would make any sense to him.

What is Jules Feiffer’s connection to Will?

Jules was a 16-year-old kid who loved to draw who came knocking on Eisner’s studio one day saying, “Please take me in.” Comics have long been a field that you really apprentice to the masters to learn. There were not, in the old days, any textbooks or courses or anything available to you. And Jules, who is an incredibly smart man, had the good taste and the ridiculous chutzpah to identify the best master working in the field at that moment in the late 1940s, and Will had the good taste and good judgment — he always had a good taste for talent and an appetite for connecting with young people — to identify in Jules the potential. They spent the next several years talking, arguing, collaborating and doing interesting things together. It was a fascinating match on many levels, because even though [Jules] was a lot younger, he was in some ways more sophisticated than Will. He was brought up with a much greater political and social consciousness. Will, of course, was much more mature and more gifted at the art form, and I would give a lot to have a time machine to sit in the room and listen to it. It’s been a great joy to listen to Jules’ version of those conversations and hear them. [At] the SVA event, I hope, first of all, to have a good long conversation with Jules because he’s a delight. He’s as sharp as a tack, enormously politically witty. It will be fascinating to at least get a sense or two on the current election campaigns and the current candidates and even hear from Jules, who by his own description was brought up in a much more truly socialist tradition, to see what he thinks of somebody like Bernie Sanders. Is Sanders really a socialist? A lot of it will be about Will, and about why “The Spirit” mattered, why Will mattered. A piece of it will also be about Jules because he’s a unique treasure because he’s one of the few living masters of such a wide range of media. You don’t have anybody else who has been a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, an Oscar-winning movie maker, an animator, a Broadway playwright, and he’s come back to graphic novels at this point in his 80s wanting to do something different in that form than he had ever done before. I want to talk to him about what the differences between his different creative forms are and what he personally finds is the magic in comics, to see from that perspective of someone who has used the tools of the different media to see if he can articulate a philosophy of what makes each medium magic in its own way. One of the things I teach when I teach writing is different media are friendly to different kinds of stories. There’s reasons — you can’t always articulate them — why situation comedy works in television, but romantic comedy works in film. They’re related forms but they’re very different formats, formulas, whatever you want to define them as. And Jules is one of the very few people who has traveled through that range of forms, exhibiting mastery of all the different ones he’s touched.

Where do you teach?

Wherever I get away with it! Every couple of years Columbia lets me do the American Graphic Novel, co-taught with one of their regular professors, a friend of mine named Jeremy Dauber. I teach Writing for the Media up at Manhattanville in Westchester, most terms. And then Pace has a graduate program in publishing, most terms I’m teaching something there. I’ve alternated usually between a course in Publishing Comics and Graphic Novels — kind of the business aspect — and a course we call Transmedia and the Future of Publishing, where it’s essentially designed to explore what the evolution of publishing forms are.

How was New York City reflected in Will’s work?

There’s a piece of Will’s work that is very authentically not just New York, but particularly the immigrant Jewish experience in New York. A very significant percentage of the first generation of comic book writers and artists were first-generation Jewish kids in New York. A smaller group was first-generation Italians. … But Will was really the one who put the most energy into chronicling that childhood and that world. And he captures those street scenes beautifully. There’s some lovely color pieces, end papers, in the book that are scenes of the city, and he captures the emotional environment in many of his graphic novels of what it was like living in those closed immigrant communities. I’m much younger than he is and grew up in a different time, but I’m first-generation Jewish as well so there was a lot in that that I personally could really recognize in being my mother’s story as she had told it to me, and my grandparent’s stories as I had heard it. And it really helped transport me back to those worlds, and I think although we don’t have the same proportion of Jewish immigration going on in New York, the immigrant experience is still a very parallel, very powerful thing. But this is a city of immigrants, this is a city of assimilation, this is a city of tribal cultures both in how we come to New York and we become American, and Will captures some of that in his graphic novel work. But also how New York is full of all these tribes within tribes. The media world works in one little circle, the bank world works in one little circle, the fine arts world works in another circle. It is, I think, by far the most complex city in America in that fashion and each of these groups touch each other, but they have unique cultures, unique styles. I hope one of the things I’m able to do at least a little bit in the book about Will is to capture a little bit about what the comic book culture was … like in the old days.

If you go: Will Eisner’s “The Spirit” 75th Anniversary Celebration: An Evening with Jules Feiffer and Paul Levitz is at SVA Theatre on Nov. 11 at 7 p.m., 333 W. 23rd St., 212-592-2300, $20, $5 for SVA students

Scott A. Rosenberg