Spirited Work

Of the comics publishers of the late '30s, Quality Comics was one of the most important. The line was published by Everett M. Arnold (though he was always referred to by his very apt nickname, "Busy").

Whether it was this constant exposure to comics or business acumen that led Arnold to form his own comic company is infinitely debatable; for whatever reason, Arnold decided his future lay in the nascent field of comic books, and he tapped George Brenner to edit his line, which would eventually include Smash Comics, Police Comics, National Comics, Plastic Man and Uncle Sam, among others.

"In the early fall of 1939, Arnold called me and asked me to have lunch with him," Eisner said. "Although we weren't doing any packaging for Quality, he knew of us and we knew of him. It was over lunch that he proposed to me the idea of the newspaper section."

Eisner said Arnold was a classic case of the guy who didn't know art, but knew what he liked. As we shall learn, Arnold was nothing if demanding — he knew what he wanted (even if he himself could not supply it), and he was not shy about haranguing Eisner to achieve the level of quality and commercialism he deemed necessary.

Attempting to respond to the Register & Tribune Syndicate's desire to circulate a feature that would meld comic books and newspapers, Arnold had George Brenner, his editor at Quality, try and develop one. "The syndicate rejected it," Eisner said. "That's when Arnold came to me. By then, I had developed a pretty good reputation, and Henry Martin, an executive vice president and top salesman at the syndicate, liked my work. He specifically mentioned that he liked Hawks of the Seas. What he really liked was my reputation of being able to deliver on time."

Arnold proposed that Eisner package a weekly, 16-page comic book section for Quality Comics. There was one catch: It would be a full-time project. Eisner would have to quit Eisner & Iger. Arnold was not interested in dealing with a production shop; he needed to deal with a single creator. By this time, Eisner and Iger employed about a dozen writers and artists, including Jack Kirby, Bob Powell, Chuck Mazoujian, George Tuska, Bill Bossert, Toni Blum, and Dick Briefer; overall, the shop was producing more than 200 pages of comic book material each month. "Leaving Eisner and Iger wasn't easy," Eisner said. "I was making good money, but I've never been able to resist the opportunity to climb new creative mountains.

Once his decision was made, Eisner went about the task of separating from Eisner & Iger. "Iger and I had a corporation, and we had an agreement that if either partner wanted to leave at any time, he had to sell his half to the remaining partner, which protected the remaining partner from having to deal with someone he didn't want to deal with.

Occasionally, Eisner would discuss his career with his father, who harbored a lifelong affinity for the arts, and his father would support whatever Eisner wanted to do. Eisner's mother was included in these discussions less frequently, because she had always held grave reservations about the viability of Eisner's art career.

When Iger realized that he couldn't change Eisner's mind, he offered him about $20,000 for his half of the company. Eisner didn't really care about the money at that point. He was anxious to start The Spirit, he was anxious to get the company for himself, so he felt it was a good deal.

No divorce is without trauma. Their separation agreement stipulated that Eisner could not raid talent, and that any personnel changes that resulted would be due to voluntary moves on the part of staff members. From the shop, Mazoujian, Powell, Fine and Klaus Nordling volunteered to follow Eisner into his new frontier. Eisner would singlehandedly produce the seven-page Spirit stories, and the other staffers handling the chores on the Lady Luck and Mr. Mystic stories, each of which ran four pages in the weekly section. In January, 1941, the Spirit stories grew to eight pages a week, bringing Eisner's contribution to half of each section.

Eisner also needed the additional talent to help produce the other two jointly-owned Quality comic books that Eisner would have to edit.

Once Eisner made the break with Iger, he formed a three-way partnership with Arnold and Martin. Prescient, Eisner insisted on owning the copyright to his new creation, a situation almost without parallel in comics at that time and almost without parallel on any popular basis for several decades to come.

Eisner said: "Since I knew I would be in comics for life, I felt I had every right to own what I created. It was my future, my product and my property, and by God, I was going to fight to own it.

"I agreed to let Arnold copyright it in his name rather than mine, but with the stipulation my ownership was acknowledged in the contract, and that at any time the partnership terminated, all rights to The Spirit would revert to me."

* * *

The Spirit, press advert
Press advertisement announcing the new Spirit Section.

After four years of relentlessly producing comic book material, by 1940 Will Eisner was combat-ready to begin The Spirit. The pace was going to be grueling; besides singlehandedly producing a page of art a day, weekends included, Eisner also had to conceive Spirit stories and supervise Lady Luck and Mr. Mystic, the four-page tales that filled out each Sunday section. Add to this his partnership agreement with Busy Arnold and Henry Martin to oversee production of three Quality comic books, and the 22-year-old artist could see life was not going to be simple.

But Eisner was convinced that the potential of comics was not yet tapped. And he had managed to create a situation in which he was intimately involved in both newsstand comics and newspaper strips.

In making the move from the Eisner and Iger studio to the Sunday section, Eisner became the beneficiary of increased esteem from his new colleagues, the newspaper cartoonists, to whom breaking into strips from comic books was considered a move uptown.

Then as now, there were two comics "fraternities" — books and strips, with only a slight overlap. Through The Spirit, Eisner had standing in both groups.

* * *

Eisner had frequently sequestered himself to work, preferring solitude to create. So it was on the evening when Eisner sat down to invent the characters for the Sunday section. "What I originally wanted to do was a straight detective character that would give me room to do stories," he said. "I was interested in the short story form, and I thought here at last was an opportunity to work on short stories in comics. I could do the stories I wanted, because I was going to have a more adult audience." Although Eisner had little idea then of the range of expression or the number of voices that lay inside him, he knew his new feature must give him flexibility. "As I conceived him, The Spirit was an adventurer who would enable me to put him in almost any situation," he said.

From there, Eisner added the other ingredients; on a piece of scrap paper, he doodled the police commissioner and his daughter. He knew she would be the hero's love interest. As the concept crystallized, he imagined that the hero would operate outside the law, creating tension between him and the commissioner. "In the wee hours of that night, I had roughed out the seven pages and I began writing dialogue."

Eisner said that as he sat there, he realized the wonder of his position: in a real sense, no one had ever been in his particular position before. And everyone who tried such an experiment would be following in footprints pressed by Will Eisner. "I was writing the rule book, fashioning the rules out of experience. As the concept for The Spirit evolved, I knew it must come from my own idea of what it should be, not from anyone else's. I was dead serious and I knew what I was about."

Things were going smoothly and perhaps that should have been his first warning. The phone rang; it was Busy Arnold, wanting to know what Eisner was concocting. When Eisner described the concept, Arnold was underwhelmed. "He said he and Martin felt that newspapers were expecting a costumed character, because of the tremendous popularity of Batman and Superman. After all, he said, the Sunday section was a response to the popularity of these characters.

The Spirit, circa 1940

"I reluctantly agreed that he had a point, so I compromised on the costume," he added. "That's when I gave The Spirit the mask. But that's as far as I was willing to go. Any kind of costume would have limited the kinds of stories I could do: it would be an inhibiting factor. Later I put the gloves on him. Those were the two concessions I made. As far as Arnold and Martin were concerned, they were trademarks that were necessary to make a marketable character. They were pragmatists, not creative men. Martin felt that if editors liked it, it was good. Don't make waves. I think Arnold and Martin were disappointed because they expected to get a costumed character, and they got The Spirit.

* * *

Will Eisner's work on the Spirit was interrupted in 1942 when he was drafted into the Army for service in World War II. The Army took advantage of his skills as a cartoonist, and during the war he was engaged in producing posters, illustrations and strips for the education and entertainment of the troops.

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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.