Sunday, October 25, 2009

Yarko's Master Speaks: An Interview with William Eisner, 1969

Greetings, friends of panelology! I regret that nearly half a month has passed since my last "posting."

It seems my gout has not significantly improved. My physician, Dr. Doynter, insists that my ureic acid levels are still dangerously high.

I have been sticking to the "microbot" diet he suggested--for the most part. Dorrie made a mocha fudge meringue pie the other night, and I couldn't resist two slices. Talk about the devil in disguise! I've asked Dorrie not to tempt me with her tastebud-bursting treats. She so loves to make sweets and rich goodies... I can't deny her the homemaker's joy of her kitchen concoctions.

On the other hand, I am powerless in their compulsive thrall.

Dorrie is, at present, baking for an upcoming church rummage sale. The heavenly scents of butterscotch brownies, double-dipped fudge bars, and her breath-taking Strawberry Sea-Foam waft through our humble home.

I've locked myself in our study, where I write this episode on a "laptopper" computer I have borrowed from the office. My gout has unfortunately restricted my movement in the world. But I'm still of able mind, if not able body. Thus, I do much of my work at home.

You know, it's a comfortable routine. Dorrie's coffee is far, far better than the brew we drink at the office. And it is much easier to take an afternoon nap at home. Part of me--dare I say it?--wishes my gout would never quite heal!

Yet part of me decries this as balderdash--rot--nonsense! I want to be well again. My vigor for panelology still drives me to hurtle forward, ever in search of the inspirational gems hidden 'neath the yellowing pulp pages of vintage comic magazines.

But today is a day of rest--and of reflection. Thus, I delve into my own past for our posting.

I have been asked repeatedly about the legendary interviews I conducted for various fan-zines in the 1960s and 1970s. I was fortunate to be there when the old masters of panelology were still walking amongst us. For the price of a hot dog, a pretzel or a gin and tonic, various greats would happily sit and reminisce, whilst my borrowed tape recorders captured their timeless talk for the ages.

I vividly recall the interview you are about to experience. It was a humble and great pleasure to speak with the famed William Eisner in New York City, on Sunday, March 13th, 1969, in downtown Manhattan. I was there to visit some fellow panelology buffs, and, on a dare, I dialed Mr. Eisner's number (then found in the common white page phone directory) and asked him to be interviewed.

I fully expected to be told to "get lost, kid!" To my delight, Mr. Eisner agreed to meet with me. "I love to talk about the old days," he said, a smile in his voice.

I only wish that someone had accompanied me, with a camera, to commemorate the event. Not that the photograph would have seen print. In those simpler times, our fan-zines were printed at home, on a foul-smelling hectographic press.

My thumbs bore the purple ink of the hectographic drum for years and years. The fumes of the ink sometimes threatened to knock me unconscious. Drops of sweat from my brow decorated many a page that went "to press" in the basement of the bowling alley (of which I, you'll recall, was assistant manager).

An occasional spot of blood might also touch those paper pages--paper cuts were amongst the frequent hazards of us pioneering "zineists." The same went for staple punctures. These wounds could easily become infected. Frank Fitzgerald, publisher of Wow Bang and Star Spangled Heroes, lost both his thumbs from infected staple wounds. He died a broken man in 1973.

Here, then, from the debut issue of Panelologist's Pride, is the interview of interviews with a man some might contend to be the true "king of comic magazines"--William Eisner!

The time: Sunday morning, 11:15 AM.

The place: a booth of the venerable "Snack Shoppe," in the prestigious outer lobby of the Waldorf-Lipkin Hotel, itself a nexus of the heart of Manhattan.

The objective: to obtain an interview with one of the greats of our panelological realms--William E. Eisner!

Your reporter sat nervously at the table, awaiting the entrance of true royalty. To make myself conspicuous, I sat beside a thick stack of classic Eisner panelology: various issues of WONDERWORLD COMICS, which contained Eisner's true masterwork--YARKO THE GREAT, MASTER OF MAGIC!

Though Mr. Eisner is perhaps better-known for his long-running popular success, THE SPIRIT, I feel that more than enough has been said about this admittedly clever but over-rated effort. It was about Eisner's earlier, more experimental work that I felt compelled to discuss with its creator. I only hoped that the great Mr. Eisner shared some of my appreciation for his own work.

Our conversation began after we shook hands, and we both ordered breakfast specials. From the start, it was evident that he recognized his old handiwork. Held in my own hands was WONDERWORLD COMICS #4--the home of one of Eisner's most fully-realized panelological masterworks.

WILLIAM E. EISNER: (gesturing to comic magazine) Haven't seen that old thing in years and years...

MASON MORAY: Sir, I knew you would recognize it! That is why I chose it as my calling card.

Well, you could have picked a better one! (laughs) Boy, we worked so hard on those things...

Yes. They are clearly labors of love.

(laughs) We were learning on the job! You see, we just batted those stories out. Lou Fine, Bob Powell, George Tuska--we were all kids, so excited to be doing what we were doing. We had so much left to learn...

Fine was great, right out of the starting gate. Man, could that boy draw! You know, when I went in the service, he took over my baby...

I wasn't aware you had children, Mr. Eisner.

(laughs) No, no! I mean THE SPIRIT. I always referred to it as "my baby." You see, I owned the feature. I was one of the first fellows in the field to retain the copyright on his work.

I'm aware that you are somewhat proud of THE SPIRIT. It did very well for you in the comics marketplace.

Well, yes, it did. I had all the fronts covered. You see, it got its start as a newspaper supplement. We sold a newspaper comic book to several prominent Sunday papers. And then we had it as a daily strip for a few years.

Meanwhile, Busy Arnold, over at Quality Comics, licensed the feature to reprint in his comic magazines. And then later, of course, Fiction House got the license for a bit. I didn't like what they did with it that much.

And then, you know, Harvey Comics had a little run with it a few years back. I thought it would sell better, but I guess the timing was off. I'm sure today's college kids would find THE SPIRIT of some interest.

Well, people tend to like what is popular--and THE SPIRIT was popular.

But today I'd like to focus on your really strong work in the panelological form...

Beg pardon?

Panelology. The study of the comic strip or comic magazine.

Panelology? Whew--that's real tongue-twister.

What would you and your colleagues have called this artform, back in its golden era?

Aw, you know--comics, mags, books, monthlies, quarterlies, four-color jobbies. We had a lot of "inside" lingo that we kind of made up on the fly.

(gesturing to WONDERWORLD COMICS #4) So what atrocities did I commit in that particular "mag?"

(paging through it) Oh, yes. "Yarko the Great." (sighs) Well, Fox wanted a magician feature, and by God, we gave him one. Victor Fox--I'm sure you've heard stories about him.

No, sir. But his comic magazines speak for themselves.

(laughs heartily) Oh, do they ever! You know, he really thought he was the king of comics! I'm sure he was in the rackets.

You know, he used to wear a grass skirt around the office. Like the Hawaiian hula girls wore. He'd march around his place, with this damned grass skirt over his business suit, and shout, "I'm the King! The blankety-blank King of Comics!"

He was obsessed with this product he'd dreamed up. I'm serious--it came to him in a dream. It was a soft-drink called--oh, hell. Kubla Khan Cola?

KOOBA COLA. Many a panelologist has dreamed of tasting it...

Kooba Cola! That's it! The crazy thing was--it never existed! Outside of his dreams, this crap wasn't real.

But he featured it on his covers! He ran regular advertisements for the beverage for years...

Fox was a sneak. He thought that if he advertised it, and got a lot of orders for it, he could take the money and run.

But no one wanted it. He never got one single order for Kooba Cola. That's probably for the best. He would have wound up in jail!

Fascinating, Mr. Eisner! You've given me a real "scoop" with this information!

Do you recall anything else about Mr. Fox? He is a real mystery figure in panelology...

(sighs) He was a mystery figure to everyone! It was a mystery he didn't get himself fitted for a cement overcoat!

He sure got me in some hot water! Are you familiar with WONDER MAN?

I once paid a man five dollars to read the story.

Wow! I don't think I made five cents off it! You know, Donenfeld and his cronies took us to court over that one. They claimed it was a rip-off of their SUPERMAN. Which it was--but that's what Fox told us to do. "Make me one of those blankety-blank Supermans!"

You see, Fox would just buy comic books from us, outright. He didn't care what went into them. I could have put in 68 pages of dancing dwarves. As long as it was camera-ready and printable, Fox would've run it.

But this one time, I bowed to pressure, and did something that really went against my ethics. I hated doing WONDER MAN. I suppose it shows in the published story. I couldn't sleep while I worked on that one. I'd wake up in the middle of night in a panic: "What if this thing takes off? What if I'm stuck doing WONDER MAN the rest of my life?"

Of course, that wasn't the case. We only ran that one story, and then the ax fell. And guess who got sweet-talked into appearing in court? Not "King" Fox. No sir, I took the stand and got my knuckles rapped. I had a kind of black mark on me for awhile. If it hadn't been for THE SPIRIT, I don't think I would have lasted in comics.

That's how YARKO was created. We had a contract for the second issue of WONDER COMICS, and SOMETHING had to be the cover feature.

One night I wrote down a list of the types of characters that comic magazines had, and ones they hadn't. Donenfeld had a magician feature already--ZATARA. Freddy Guardineer did that one. Zatara was a take-off of MANDRAKE--an obvious rip-off. So I felt safe in creating another magician. No one could sue me, because everyone else already had a knock-off magician feature!

YARKO was a means to an end.

Some, sir, would disagree...

You've got to be kidding! This was just make-work. Something to fill pages. A way for us to learn how to properly harness this medium of the comic mags.

It's been said that a creator is, by far, the least judge of his or her work...

Who said that?

I read it somewhere. It may have been Norman Mailer.


In other words, a creator may have a soft spot for certain ideas that might not be their strongest work. Whereas ideas they consider weak may have more effect on others... such is the case with YARKO.

YARKO was strictly one-dimensional stuff. Now, you take THE SPIRIT... that was where I feel my abilities as a storyteller, and as a cartoonist, began to solidify. I had high ambitions for THE SPIRIT.

We were seeing films like CITIZEN KANE, THE GRAPES OF WRATH, STAGECOACH, HIS GIRL FRIDAY... the look and feel of these landmark movies left a deep impression on us all. Everyone was trying to out-Welles Welles in our comic book stories.

In my humble opinion, THE SPIRIT was a means to an end. A pleasant enough feature, yes. And its success was a boon to you. It was a real crowd pleaser.

I'm sad that it took you away from your more personal, and, to me, fulfilling works in panelology...

You're really serious, aren't you?

YARKO is your obvious masterpiece. Everything you did in THE SPIRIT had already been accomplished in YARKO. In my opinion.

{Eisner looks around} This is a gag, huh? What, am I on CANDID CAMERA? Ha ha ha! You fellas got me! OK, you can come out now... (Eisner gets up from table, looks under booths, behind counter, wanders outside restaurant...)

Mr. Eisner returned to the restaurant some 10 minutes later. He looked flushed and sweaty--and most unhappy.

There weren't any cameras.

No, sir, just myself and my tape recorder...

(Eisner sits down) You mean you're serious? You really like YARKO more than THE SPIRIT?

Quite honestly--yes. YARKO, WONDER MAN, ESPIONAGE, UNCLE SAM, THE DOLL MAN--all superior creations to the over-rated SPIRIT.

Tell me why. Seriously--I'd love to know why you feel this way.

Sir, it is my opinion that THE SPIRIT weighted down your sense of imagination. While undeniably skillful in its approach, and pleasing to the eye, THE SPIRIT was earthbound, where YARKO and his brethren dared to reach for the skies--and fulfill the dreams of young readers.

(gesturing to closing panel of story) Yet you found a place for realism in YARKO. I've always quite appreciated the conclusion of this story. Here, you have a heroic figure--far more powerful than any mere mortal--and yet he feels warmth for the young woman.

I only wish THE SPIRIT had such moments of human interest.

Another instance I would cite is at the conclusion of the WONDER MAN story, in which Wonder Man kisses the unconscious woman he has rescued. It is a genuinely daring moment--one that expanded the boundaries of the panelological form.

I don't condemn you, Mr. Eisner. THE SPIRIT was your "bread and butter" feature. It paid the bills. It kept you going through the 1940s. And it was liked by many who read it.

It had a large regular readership. It was in several big papers. They begged us not to shut it down. But it was going stale. That's why we folded it in late '52. I'd done all I felt I could do with the feature. And I didn't want it continued. I'd seen what happened when less inspired creators took over a feature. It's heartbreaking.

I want to make sure I'm getting you correctly. You honestly prefer THE SPIRIT to all your other panelological works.

Yes. All my other panelol--works in comics were just a dress rehearsal for THE SPIRIT. You've expressed your opinion--I'll express mine.

Are we done?

I must confess I am disappointed by our discussion, Mr. Eisner. I wish you the very best.

Well, I didn't mean to disappoint you, kid. You have some funny ideas about comics.

One last question, if I may.

You might as well.

Any hopes of a YARKO revival? With the growing popularity of Marvel Comics' DOCTOR STRANGE--an obvious knock-off of your early work--I believe a revived YARKO would capture the imagination of comic magazine readers in the same--

I've got a headache. I need to go.

Good luck to you and your fan magazine.

(to waitress) He's covering the check.

With those words, Mr. Eisner left the Snack Shoppe. He remains an enigma, a figure as dark and shadowy as the pen-and-ink figures that fill the panels of his variegated creations. I hope he will change his mind about the YARKO revival. He is missing a sure bet, in this humble writer/interviewer's opinion.

So many years have passed since that interview. I felt frustrated about it, at the time. Truth told, I was reluctant to "run it" as the head feature of my first significant publication. But reader response was strong. Letters, pro and con (mostly the latter) filled the columns of future issues for a year or so.

With all due respect to the deceased, I still feel Mr. Eisner was wrong about his life's work. While THE SPIRIT has paled, and lost its appeal in the years since 1969, YARKO's strengths have only increased. Never did Mr. Eisner's brilliance shine more brightly than in this regrettably short-lived series.

Here is the very YARKO story we discussed in our all-too-brief interview. I'm sure you will acknowledge it as the work of greatness is truly is.

My foot has begun to throb. I had best eat a carrot. I hope to be back sooner than later.

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