Eisner and Iger

When WOW magazine folded after only four issues, Eisner formed a partnership with friend Jerry Iger, and the Eisner-Iger Studio was born.

The studio was a veritable comics factory, churning out strips in a variety of genres in the hopes of placing them with American newspapers. Towards this end, Eisner-Iger recruited a number of young artists who would go on to become comics' legends in their own right: Bob Kane, the creator of Batman, Lou Fine, and Jack Kurtzberg (later Jack Kirby), co-creator of Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four, and Mort Meskin.

The most enduring of Eisner's work to come out of this period is Hawks of the Seas, the high-seas buccaneer strip that had begun as The Flame.

While partnered with Jerry Iger, Eisner created Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, Yarko the Great and soon after, Dollman and Blackhawk. Eisner also famously turned down a crude submission called Superman by equally young creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. An autobiographical account of those formative years can be found in Eisner's The Dreamer.

* * *

The 19-year-old Eisner, determined to forge a victory from the rubble of Wow!, responded to the magazine's cancellation by displaying the tenacity and inventiveness that would mark his career.

His first step was to approach Jerry Iger, Wow!'s suddenly unemployed editor, about forming a partnership to capitalize on what both men believed to be the prosperous future of original comic book material, which had heretofore comprised mainly repackagings of previously published newspaper comic strips. Eisner's plan: He would create the material, and Iger would peddle it to client publishers.

Iger was initially reluctant. Embroiled in a divorce, he wanted to avoid sinking money into what was undeniably an entrepreneurial venture, risky given the times. Sensing Iger's hesitation, Eisner attempted to reassure him by, among other efforts, fibbing about his age. Eisner was 19, but he told Iger he was 25.

"He found out when we drew up the papers of incorporation, and I had to tell the truth about my age, but by then things were far enough along that it didn't matter," Eisner said. Though not well off by any definition, Eisner put together the cash — $35, which covered the first few months' office rent — that enabled the partnership to get off the ground.

With Eisner's cash, the two rented office space on 40th Street in a building that still stands. "They were very small offices, and they were generally rented out to bookies and other fly-by-night operators," Eisner said.

Eisner and Iger formed their shop at a propitious time, and in fact the timing helped pave the way for the success of their young company. After years of being the 800-pound gorilla of the periodical world, the pulps' sales were faltering. In 1935-36, all periodicals faced lower circulation. Some of the publishers hoped original comics material could serve as a nostrum.

One of Eisner's oft-recounted tales involved a pulp publisher — whose name was lost to time — who came to them in desperate need of original comic material, and who was willing to pay the reasonable price of five dollars per page for the finished product. But first, the publisher had to be sure Eisner and Iger's outfit was capable of producing an adequate supply of material — he wanted to know how many artists were on staff. Eisner told Jerry to tell him they had five guys, and Eisner made good on it by drawing material in five different styles, signing five different names!

In short order, Eisner assembled a staff of older, experienced artists who were prepared to learn how to tell a story on a page, and young, hungry talent, thrilled to get in on the ground floor of the new medium. At the ripe age of 19, Eisner was in the vanguard of it. Staffers would eventually include Jack Kirby, who was then working under his given name Kurtzberg; Lou Fine, whose style could at times appear similar to Eisner's; Bob Kane, a highschool classmate of Eisner's; Dick Briefer, Chuck Mazoujian, who would later follow Eisner to the Quality shop and who would gain more renown as the artist of the Lady Luck portion of the Spirit sections; Bill Bossert, who later married staff writer Toni Blum; Bob Powell, perhaps best known for his work on Mr. Mystic in the Spirit section; and George Tuska, who went on to do a great deal of work for Marvel Comics.

Once the foundation was in place, Iger set out to secure work that would keep the staff busy churning out material. Soon, contracts began rolling in. Building on their reputation developed by producing quality work for pulp publishers, Eisner and Iger began creating stories for the first wave of comic book publishers. One of the first significant clients was the new publishing house founded by Victor Fox, who had previously been a bean counter at National Periodicals (now DC Comics), and who decided to strike out on his own to cash in on what appeared to be comic books' imminent bonanza.

The first package Eisner and Iger's shop created for Fox had specific stipulations: The lead character had to possess super powers, wear a red costume, have a chest insignia, etc. It was obvious that Fox was requesting a knock-off of Superman, which had appeared in mid-1938 and was fueling the comic book boom. Eisner, who had little training in copyright law but plenty of common sense, balked at infringing so blatantly on National's property. Iger tried to assuage Eisner's misgivings by arguing that the two men had little desire to go hungry. Fox himself dubbed the character Wonder Man.

Wonder Comics front cover.
Cover to the short-lived Wonder Comics, starring Wonder Man (1939).

It took National's legal department no time at all to pull the plug on Wonder Man. One night, Fox called Eisner to his office and told him that when the time came for Eisner to take the witness stand in National's instant law suit, Eisner was to swear that there was no intent to copy Superman. Eisner replied that, indeed, he was not copying; rather, he was merely following Fox' s dictates. Less than pleased, Fox informed Eisner that if he told the court the truth, he would never see the $3,000 Fox then owed Eisner and Iger. Although $3,000 was more than Eisner had ever seen in his life, he told the truth on the stand, and Fox lost the suit. Wonder Man died, and Fox made good on his threat to stiff Eisner and Iger. The two thought their young company was doomed.

Fortunately, Fiction House came to the rescue. Fiction House, a pulp publisher, had been seeking a way to carve its own niche in comic books. So it contracted with Eisner and Iger, and from that was born Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. Sheena debuted in Jungle Comics, Fiction House's comic book complement to its jungle oriented pulp magazines. Sheena became popular and enjoyed a run through 1953. Eisner conceived the character, drew the cover for the first issue, and had Mort Meskin, a staffer, render the interior art. Eisner said he created Sheena as a female counterpart to Tarzan, and that he cribbed the title from H. Ryder Haggard's novel She.

Hawks of the Seas
Panel from Eisner's pirate series Hawks of the Seas (1939, Fiction House).

For Fiction House, Eisner created a wide variety of characters and concepts, the best-remembered of which are Sheena and Hawks of the Seas. But others include the SF-oriented The Diary of Dr. Hayward, the "bigfoot" rendered Uncle Otto, and Sports Shorts. Eisner said that at one point he was single-handedly producing so much of the content for Fiction House's Jumbo Comics, he deliberately adopted a crude rendering style for some stories, lest his client become upset that the production of one of their most popular comic books relied so heavily on one man.

Using pseudonyms became a way of life for Eisner during these years. Eisner used them with gusto, incorporating into his work such imaginative noms de plume as Mr. Heck, Willis B. Rensie ("Eisner" spelled backwards), W. Morgan Thomas (used on Mr. Mystic), Erwin Willis, Wm. Erwin, and a host of others.

As Eisner and Iger's contract work increased, the two evolved a comic book equivalent of an assembly line. A job traveled through the shop and each employee tightened a bolt or inked a line, and at the end of the line there was a completed story. Eisner's role was to create new characters, edit copy and art, write stories for others, and write and draw stories for himself. Typically, when launching a new character, Eisner would fly solo for the first couple of stories, then turn it over to one of his associates. This method was the only way Eisner was able to sustain the sizable output — around 100 pages at its peak — required of his company each month.

Eisner was never reluctant to improve on what one of his shop men had done. Talented greats such as Kirby and Fine often found Eisner superimposing his own work onto their own in sequences that he didn't feel passed muster.

Eisner's success made a believer out of his mother, who had despaired that her son would starve if he chose to pursue an art career. It was Eisner's work that was putting food on the family table. "The family dynamics changed with the success the shop was having," he said. "My father was still out of work — it was still the Depression, despite the fact that I was doing okay — and I was supporting the family. That was all right with them. My father was pleased that I was using my art to make a living, and while my mother had no real aesthetic judgments, she was happy that I was doing well."

* * *

At 22 years of age, Will Eisner had fashioned the kind of success that many of his colleagues could only envy — never mind the fact that the year was 1939, and the United States was still economically wobbly from the Depression. Eisner and Iger, as well as their staff of writers and artists, were all making money, and the future for Eisner, already acknowledged by client publishers as one of the most gifted young artists in the business, looked promising.

But even at this early stage, Eisner was engaged in what would become a lifelong trait — that of peering at the next mountain, longing for the fresh challenges that would confront him there.

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This article in its unaltered form was originally published in The Spirit: The Origin Years #1-4 (Kitchen Sink Press, 1992). Text © Tom Heintjes. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.