Getting Hy on Comics: A Profile of Hy Eisman
MARK SQUIREK interviews Hy Eisman, the Zelig of the comics
Editor's note: This article originally appeared in Hogan's Alley #15.
GHOST ARTISTS SELDOM get the recognition they deserve. Heck, they seldom get any recognition at all; anonymity is part of the job description. Like the character in Woody Allen's 1983 mockumentary Zelig, ghost artists adapt so naturally to their surroundings and often fit in so perfectly that you can barely tell they're there. If they're doing their job properly, you can't tell they are there at all. Still, you have to wonder: How many people actually start out their careers with the aspiration of becoming a great ghost artist?
For more than 45 years, Hy Eisman has been a ghost artist. It certainly isn't what he started out to be. But considering the number of strips he's worked on, he may be one of the greatest. The number of characters and strips that Eisman has ghosted on is amazing: Bringing Up Father, Smokey Stover, Mutt and Jeff, TheKatzenjammer Kids, Little Iodine, Kerry Drake, Tiger, Bunny, Archie, Tom and Jerry, Nancy and Blondie have all flowed from his pen.
He penciled, by his own estimate, over 1,000 pages of romance comics for Charlton Comics. His first recognizable credits came from work he did at ACG Comics. The chances that you have seen the work of Hy Eisman are very, very high. The chances that you knew it was his work (at least during the first 20 years he was a pro) are very, very low.
Today, at age 79, Eisman is currently the artist on the Sunday Popeye as well as the Sunday Katzenjammer Kids. In addition, since 1976, he has been a teacher at the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art in New Jersey. The journey to becoming one of the greatest secrets in the comics field is a long one.
Art was a very early career choice for Eisman. Like many comic artists, his beginnings are in the Sundays and dailies he read as a kid. "When I first saw comic strips in the newspaper, I was hooked," he said. "I read Dick Tracy when I was 5. Since I was unable to actually read at the time, I would make up my own words because Gould was such a good visual storyteller. His layouts and the forward movement of the stories inside his strips was just so strong, I didn't need to actually read it!" For the next 13 years Eisman read every strip he could and drew every minute he wasn't reading.
Like many young artists, he figured that he would create his own strip and go on to a long and successful run just like Chester Gould or Alex Raymond. His professional start came at age 18 with a job as a contributing cartoonist on an army newspaper, along with future playboy Hugh Hefner. Today, after a career of more than a half-century, he is still a professional cartoonist, although his plans didn't really work out exactly like he had thought they would.
At 18, Eisman found himself in the army. "The war ended while I was in basic training. So, they had to do something with all these trained killers," he said. "I ended up being sent to Fort Pickett in Virginia and being assigned to a hospital unit. I started drawing for the Fort Pickett News. This was the paper that had been started by Bill Mauldin when the 45th Infantry came in. That unit went overseas and the paper hung on. When I got there, the staff was two WACS and an editor. There was one other cartoonist. His name was Hugh Hefner, and he was contributing gag panels."
About his early days working with the founder of Playboy: "When you are 18, you have a tendency to sound off a lot, and I didn't think he was any good! He loved cartooning, though. Hef was being discharged, and the Fort Pickett News was publishing his last issue. The staff decided that Hef and I caricaturing each other would be a good photo op for the paper. While we were posing, I said 'I hope you have a candy store going for you when you get to Chicago!' " Laughing at his own audacity, he adds, "People always think of Playboy for the girls. However, Hef clearly took his love of cartooning into the magazine. He has always been a real champion for the art." When their army outfit was preparing its 50th anniversary, Eisman suggested that he and Hefner get together to reminisce. Hef declined the offer but replied that he was pleased that Eisman became a cartoonist rather than him, since failing as a cartoonist put him on the path to founding Playboy.
GIVEN THE ESCAPISM comics afford the reader, it's not surprising that the young Hy sought refuge in them. From age five to about ten, he lived in an orphanage. "I was born in 1927 and spent my first days in Paterson, N.J. However, by the time I was five, Paterson was being torn apart by the Depression." The city's once-thriving silk industry was collapsing, and the economic ravages of the Depression cost Eisman's father his job. Unable to take care of his family, Hy and his older brother were sent to live with one of the boys' aunts, but that solution proved sadly temporary. His aunt lost her home, and his mother contracted tuberculosis.
"The only thing they could do was place us in an orphanage," he said. "It was something that was done at the time. There was simply no other way out. There was no foster care in those days. It was a difficult time."
Despite its relatively harsh conditions, the orphanage provided Eisman with a much-needed distraction. "Other kids would have parents or relatives come to the orphanage form the city and surrounding areas," he said. "Every one of them would pick up Sunday newspapers to read on the train." As the newspapers accumulated in the reading room, young Hy had a bonanza of comics sections each week from all of the area's major newspapers.
"For a couple of years there, I probably saw every color newspaper comic being published," he said. While his favorite strip was Dick Tracy, he would devour Smilin' Jack, Flash Gordon, Bringing Up Father, Boob McNutt, Brick Bradford, Barney Google (long before Snuffy Smith showed up) and the strip he ritually saved for last: Prince Valiant. "Before I understood what was going on, I was attracted to that strip," he said. Comics meant everything to the young Eisman. "I found them an escape, they taught me to read, and they created a desire to do the art form. Finding comics was the turning point in my life."
A few years after Eisman entered the orphanage, his mother returned home from the hospital, and his father secured new employment. The family was reunited in a house in Paterson, and everyone contributed to the family coffers. "I shined shoes, sold newspapers, my brother ended up in a wholesale dry goods store and put in ten hours a day, six days a week," he said. "My mother was a sewing machine operator. When the factory work came back to Paterson, my father worked as an elevator operator. I used to tell people my father had 5,000 people underneath him. Of course, I left out the fact that he was on the top floor with his elevator!"
WHEN EISMAN WAS mustered out of the service in the late '40s at age 19, he knew exactly what direction he wanted to take in his life. "There was never any choice about what I was going to do. I went to school for art. Specifically, I was going for comics, but no one taught comic art at the time. So, I had to go to a regular art school. There was a good school named The Art Career School in the Flatiron Building in New York City, so I commuted from Jersey to the city every day."
Eisman found a couple of classmates in the Flatiron who shared his love of comics. "There were three of us in the class who just loved comics: Frank Thorne, who went on to do Red Sonja, Al Kilgore, who ended up on Rocky and Bullwinkle, and me. We tried to do assignments in a comic-strip fashion so we could learn what everyone now calls sequential art. The formal training I received helped me immeasurably, but in the end, I just wanted to do comics. It became a sickness. There was nothing else that I could really do. I had no other real plans. That is what I tell my students--you must have a fire in your belly."
That fire helped him survive some tough times after his graduation in the early '50s. "Looking back, it was at the worst possible time in the industry," he said. "The Senate investigations were going on, and shops were closing down overnight. The very summer that I was walking around Manhattan with my portfolio, they were showing the Senate hearings on television."
In the early '50s, television had little if any daytime programming available for broadcast. Consequently, the local channels in New York, which was the top market and eager to fill time slots, would fill their afternoons with the Senate investigations into comic books. Absent any counterprogramming, many viewers tuned in. "I would come home after pounding the pavement all day and they were showing comic-book covers on TV! In my naiveté, I loved it. I thought that TV coverage could only help me," Eisman recalled. "What I didn't realize at the time was that the Kefauver Committee was actually shredding my job prospects!"
In an ironic twist, Eisman received the perfect job offer at the exact same time as a key moment in the hearings. "Hillman Publications had seen my portfolio and told me to come back in one week, there would be some work," he said. "One week later, I show up bright and early at their offices and they aren't there! The place is flat-out empty. They had literally gone out of business and packed up and closed in one week!" The hearings were killing what Eisman loved. "If I remember, there were over 40 publishers in New York at the time, and by the time the hearings were over, there were maybe four or five."
While the congressional hearings had a devastating impact on a once-vital industry, Eisman kept walking up into all the major publishing houses, diligently trying to sell his work. As publishers left the comic field in droves, the need for artists, no matter how talented or how cheaply they were willing to work, was diminishing. He remembers one telling episode at DC Comics: "In the early '50s, it was a lot easier to walk into the publishers' offices. Nowadays, that just isn't going to happen. But back then, they would at least see you and then just put you off. Early on, I made a visit to the offices of DC Comics. I waited patiently in the lobby with my portfolio, and finally someone came out to see me. He looked at my work; he evaluated it honestly and then made some suggestions. We spent a good amount of time together. I was thrilled by the attention and especially the professional advice. After all that, he said they would call if they could use me. Years later, I find out that the guy I was talking to was really the guy who was operating the elevator! They would send anyone they could out to the lobby to deal with the artists who were showing up."
A visit to the Timely Comics offices in the Empire State Building at the same time in his career didn't turn out much differently. "Stan Lee sent someone out to meet me. The guy kept calling Stan 'Mr. Lee.' I would show this guy my work, and then he would take it back into the offices. The guy kept coming back out and telling me that 'Mr. Lee liked what I was doing.' So naturally, I asked to just see 'Mr. Lee,' who I knew in fact was only a few years older than me, and the guy wouldn't let me see him." It was one of the few times Eisman lost his temper with a potential client.
Eisman's adventures in those days stand in marked contrast to what he sees as a teacher today. "I know I sound like an old man, but the kids I am teaching today don't know how lucky they really are," he said. "One of the things that the Joe Kubert School is able to do is take our third-year students and get them real time with actual reps from DC and Marvel. Their work is evaluated by professionals in the industry, not an elevator operator."
DURING THE FALL of 1950, Eisman was trying to figure out any way he could to get into comics. "One of my earliest experiences was a direct result of having read the book Comics and Their Creators by Martin Sheridan. I read that book cover to cover. It was the first book I ever ran across that had actual histories and short biographies of the cartoonists themselves. One of the guys Sheridan wrote about was Alfred Andriola, who was doing Kerry Drake. The book said that he never turned down an interview.
"I got the phone book out and I quickly found him listed," he added. "After a call or two, Andriola was kind enough to see me. I start telling him I can't find anything and asked him for suggestions on what I could do. Looking at me for a second, he suddenly hands me six dailies and a Sunday page and then asks me what I could do with it. Needless to say I was stunned. I was so happy that I went out and I celebrated for two days."
Eisman's decision to celebrate early and with such duration brought consequences. "It took me almost two weeks to turn the six dailies and Sundays around," he said. "Also, by the end of the second week of working on them, I also knew that they weren't that good." The sequence Andriola gave him concerned a ventriloquist inside Grand Central Station and came complete with video cameras. "I just didn't do the right research, so I faked it," Eisman acknowledged. "My inattention to detail clearly showed, and I got busted.
"When I returned to Andriola's office, he was very nice about it. He basically said that I wasn't ready for prime time," he added "What Andriola was really showing me was something that no real school can ever teach you: I needed to know about the importance of working on an actual deadline. He also taught me a lesson about the importance of doing research." Although Andriola cleaned up Eisman's work, some of it got published, which he called a small consolation for a humbling experience.
Finding little if any work in the New York comic business of the early '50s, Eisman needed to support himself. With an insatiable desire to gain any possible foothold in the comics field, he found a job drawing Valentine cards for The Fuld Co., which supplied large retailers such as Sears. Still, he knew his life lay in comics. So he started to think of ways he could get himself established, eventually developing a Believe It or Not-style strip titled It Happened in New Jersey, which first appeared in 1953. "The original plan was to take the strip around to all the little newspapers in New Jersey. I figured could charge them all 10 dollars each for the strip," he said. "Naturally, my first stop is the largest local paper in Jersey, the Newark News. They love the strip and decide to publish it. I am ecstatic!" Eisman cannily incorporated the look of the popular Ripley strip. Meanwhile, he took the lesson he learned from Andriola to heart. "For the New Jersey strip, I wrote it and properly researched every single part. I did everything I could to make it completely professional on a national standard, even though it was just a local strip."
Soon after its debut, Eisman told his client about his plan to peddle his strip to other Jersey papers. "They smiled and reminded me that they are the largest paper in the state," he said. "They quietly pointed out that they cannot allow me to sell the strip to their competition. While I suddenly had a regular job in comics as well as a large readership base, I had accidentally screwed myself out of a couple of hundred bucks! Having already been through a few years of struggle, I didn't really mind, though."
For the next three years, drawing Valentines cards was Eisman's bread and butter, even as he turned down an offer to join the Fuld staff full time. "It would have meant benefits, a salary and everything that goes along with that," he said. "I loved comics so much that I turned down this incredible job!" So he freelanced for Fuld while It Happened in New Jersey disciplined him to meet deadlines and deal with the business side of cartoooning.
WHILE HIS DAY job on the Valentine cards didn't satisfy as cartooning did, he later realized that the skills he honed working for Fuld--designing fonts and display lettering, for example--helped him later as a cartoonist. So when he got his break, he felt ready. A classmate from Art Career School, Frank Thorne, was working for on Turok for Dell Comics in the mid-1950s. His acquaintance with Thorne got him a meeting with Dell editor Matt Murphy. "While he knew what I was doing on the Jersey strip, he was still a bit concerned about my ability to work on a full page," Eisman said.
Murphy asked Eisman to produce some model sheets for the popular Smokey Stover comic book that Dell was publishing, and those model sheets won Eisman a Smokey Stover script to illustrate. "For me, this was a great chance, the big break I had been working for, and I did everything I could to make the best of it," Eisman said. "Once I started, I ended up doing everything, from cover to cover." Eisman's Smokey Stover breakthrough appeared in Four Color #730, and as with any great ghost, you would swear Bill Holman himself drew it.
That assignment represented a crucial step in Eisman's learning process. "I got the idea to have a model sheet ready when I went to the next job. If I knew what the character was going to be, I would bring model sheets with that character. My preparation always seemed to be the thing that would get me the job."
His growing body of cartooning work led to his membership in the National Cartoonists Society in 1957. Hobnobbing with people whose work he admired, he again encountered Alfred Andriola, who remembered their meeting years ago. "He kindly asks me how I am doing," Eisman said. "Naturally, I tell him about the Jersey strip and that I am also doing Smokey Stover for Dell." Andriola asked to see some of his work, curious if the young cartoonist had learned his lesson about drawing professionally. Andriola was sufficiently impressed to give Eisman a second opportunity to assist him. "It turns out that he needed somebody to help on the pencils for Kerry Drake," he said. "Because he was trying to sell a new strip called It's Me, Dilly, he needed to someone to pick up the Kerry Drake dailies." Eisman walked away with six Kerry dailies and a Sunday.
"For this work on Kerry Drake, I had to work directly from Andriola's proof sheets because he didn't have model sheets," Eisman said. "This time, I didn't run out and waste two days celebrating. I gave him the work back in less than a week. No one had to research or change a single line or panel. He liked what he now saw in me, and I worked for him from 1957 to 1960. I wasn't worried about a byline; I was just happy to have the chance to work on Kerry Drake. Back than, no one, even his writer, Alan Saunders, got a byline. The '50s were different time in our industry."
With his work on the Smokey Stover comic book and now Kerry Drake, Eisman saw another door open, and Maggie and Jiggs stood behind it. In 1958, Eisman began assisting Vernon Greene on the daily Bringing Up Father--one of the same strips he had devoured in the orphanage. "I started penciling for him, and when he took ill, I ended up doing the art for him until he passed away," he said. "At first, I was just doing a few pencils, just filling in. But as he became more ill, I would do more on the strip." Eisman found the experience different from his Kerry Drake work. "Vern didn't really have a model sheet. Still, there was a definite way that McManus drew Jiggs' hands. There was a way that he squared them. That was something he would definitely pay attention to, and so would Vern. When you're getting breaks like these, you try to keep it as true to the original as possible."
By this time, Eisman realized the importance of fidelity to other cartoonists' styles. "When I first started to ink, I would try to find the kind of material that the artist used," he said. "That way, I could duplicate the line they had. A lot of the old-timers used pens. Specifically, a lot of them would use the 290 Gillott pen, a dip pen with a nib. This is what I used on Maggie and Jigs and eventually Little Iodine." For paper, Eisman always used a Strathmore board with a vellum finish. "When it comes to paper, there is a type of finish that you want to achieve. The vellum finish gives you a little resistance. When you erase the pencil line, the black ink stays black. That turned out to really work for me."
As their working relationship flourished, so too did Eisman and Greene's friendship. "Vern and I were both involved in the NCS," he said. "Soon we were having dinner together, and our families began socializing. Even with the wide distance in our ages, he still treated me like an equal, like a friend, but to me he was still Vern Greene, the man who had drawn The Shadow! He was so good to my family and me. When he contracted cancer in the late '50s, it was the first time in my life I had to deal with anything like that. It was heart-breaking."
GREENE TAUGHT EISMAN a lesson about belonging to the cartooning fraternity, describing Greene's effort in the 1950s to create a fund to aid indigent cartoonists. Although the notion failed to catch on, Greene was privately lending assistance to Charles Payne, creator of S'Matter Pop?, a strip that had once been popular but by the 1950s had been largely forgotten, as was Payne.
"By the mid- to late '50s, Payne was living in a walk-up in Manhattan," Eisman said. "I would ride to NCS meetings with Vern, and he would often stop in quickly to see Payne. He would talk to Payne for a few minutes, tell him about the guys back at the NCS, maybe bring him some food or slip him a few bucks. I was never allowed to go upstairs with him; I just waited in the car."
Payne lived in a neighborhood that had seen better days, and the cartoonist had gotten mugged there. Eisman said Greene helped Payne get a refrigerator so he wouldn't have to go out every day for groceries. "The walk-up where Payne lived was so small that the refrigerator had to be placed in the hall," Eisman said. "Vern ended having to buy a lock and chain for the fridge."
One evening, Greene told Eisman that Payne had given his permission to bring Eisman upstairs to meet him. "Vern had offered to introduce me to the man as a new talent, and so Payne had apparently gotten all dressed up," Eisman said. "Apparently, without a reason, Payne suddenly changed his mind. As Vern shut the door, I could only see the image of a slight man in a full tuxedo, with top hat."
Greene had spent the Christmas holiday in 1964 visiting family in Washington state. When he returned to New York, he found that Payne had gone missing. Calling area hospitals, he learned that Payne had been found in the street. No one seemed certain if he died in the street or in a hospital. "The city paid for the cremation and was just about to bury him in Potter's Field," Eisman said. "Vern retrieved the ashes and offered to send them back to Payne's family. For whatever reasons they had, Payne's family refused to accept his ashes."
Greene owned property in New Jersey and worked out of a barn there, and a file cabinet in the barn became the final resting place of Payne's ashes. "One day he asked me if I wanted to see Popsy Payne--which is what his friends had always called him--because he knew I always wanted to meet him," Eisman said. "Vern pulls open the file cabinet and pulls out the box. I could only look on." Greene's morbid joke still brings a wry smile to Eisman's face more than 40 years later.
ABOUT A YEAR after Payne's death, Greene himself fell ill. Eisman took his Bringing Up Father strips to the Veterans Administration hospital where Greene was so he could sign them. After Greene died in 1965, Eisman and his wife visited Greene's New Jersey barn/studio. "As we walked through the kitchen, a minister happened to be visiting Mrs. Greene," he said. "Mrs. Greene introduced me to the minister as 'Vern's ghost' and walked away." Stammering, Eisman tried to explain his role as Greene's ghost. Failing to explain to the minister's satisfaction, the men awkwardly parted company.
Working as a ghost on two strips was a bit uncomfortable at times. Eisman felt that he should keep the two strips separate. "I have always worked from home, so Andriola didn't know I was doing work for Greene. Not that I think he would have really cared, but I still didn't want to cause any problems for either strip. I loved working on both of them."
King Features asked Eisman to continue Bringing Up Father after Greene's death, but he declined. "I had grown very close with Vern, and it was a difficult last year," he said. "His passing had put a pall over the strip for me. I was just too close to the guy." King gave the strip to bullpen stalwart Hal Campagna, who worked on the strip into the 1980s.
WHEN HIS WORK on Bringing Up Father was over, Eisman found himself back at Dell. "In 1960, I started doing Nancy and Sluggo books for Dell," he said. "For just about two years, I did almost everything Dell published on Nancy." His last Nancy work came in late 1961, when a sales downturn led Dell to pull their work in-house to their Poughkeepsie offices. Since Eisman worked at home in New Jersey, his Dell work dried up.
But another job showed up for Eisman shortly thereafter: pencilling for the prolific and pragmatic artist Vinnie Colletta at Derby, Conn.-based Charlton Comics. "This guy could literally ink 70 pages a week," Eisman said. "He had a group of guys penciling for him so that he could give Charlton the 70 pages each week."
Colletta had his own ideas about comics. "He saw the industry in terms of money. He had to do X number of pages and had had to get them to Charlton to get the money," Eisman said. "I needed work and was glad to do the pages. I did at least a thousand pages of romance comics for Colletta and Charlton, possibly even more than that."
Eisman was aware of the artistic pitfalls of valuing quantity over quality. "That much work can either make you a hack, or you can choose to use the time to improve your art," he said. "I will say that I am glad my name didn't appear on it, because he had a way of inking the work so it all looked exactly the same. He controlled the work in such a way that it didn't look like your work anymore." Despite Colletta's ability to make his personal style disappear, Eisman remembers Colletta fondly. "He himself was a great guy," he said. "He always paid us on time and was fair."
IN THE 1960s, through his NCS connections, Eisman became known in the industry as a reliable, talented artist. Other established artists sought out his ghosting skills. "Between 1961 and 1965, I started to do jobs for guys who were going on vacation," he said. "Al Smith had me do regular work on Mutt and Jeff. I always would do a few Sunday pages for him. I also helped Paul Fung on Blondie comic books, which were always consistent sellers. This was great work for me, because I learned to adapt to another artist's individual style even more. At the time, I didn't realize how valuable this adaptability was going to become."
A man determined to draw comics will find work where he can. For more than a decade, he produced cartoons for Planned Communications, a public relations firm that would place Eisman's work in various trade journals and industry newsletters. "Eventually these assignments were coming into me pretty regularly. The idea was that the feature they created would end with a small, barely noticeable plug for whoever was making the product," he said. "These little strips were very successful and kept me very busy during the ebb and flow of the regular comics business."
In the early '60s, Eisman began to develop his own syndicated strip, Joe Panther (see the sidebar below). When the syndicates passed on the strip, Eisman redoubled his efforts in the comic-book work. By 1962, the work became more plentiful. Eisman was friendly with Kurt Schaffenberger, an established comic-book artist who was doing covers for ACG Comics. Schaffenberger introduced Eisman to ACG publisher Richard Hughes, and ACG became a frequent client, giving Eisman the long-awaited opportunity to see his own name on his work. "I loved the chance to work on something of my own. However, I didn't know Hughes was writing these stories himself," Eisman said. "He would use various pen names. Not knowing this, I was always complaining about how the writers were clearly overwriting.
"When I would say this to him, he would make the editorial cuts right at the desk, like he agreed with me!" he laughed. "I could never understand why he was still giving theses individual writers so much work! The guy could really turn out an amazing amount of writing. While it may not have been the greatest on the planet, it was always a challenge to illustrate what he gave me."
Once Eisman was able to sign his work, he became more particular about others' treatment of it, and this particularity led Eisman to begin lettering his work, a practice he continues to this day, using a Speedball B-6 pen. "When you get your name on something, you don't want somebody else to come in and mess around with what you were doing. Doing the lettering also meant that I didn't have to carry the work back to the office as often as I had," he said. "It wasn't that I thought my lettering was any great shakes. It just worked out better that way."
ACG's Hughes was ambivalent about the future of comic books, Eisman said. "When he heard that one or two specialty stores were starting to sell comics, Hughes thought that would be the death of the industry," he said. "Then, he felt that when the mom and pop stores and the candy stores lost comic books, the form would finally die. Thankfully, he turned out to be very wrong."
THE COMING OF the comic book's Silver Age in the late 1950s and 1960s didn't translate into a bumper crop of job opportunities for writers and artists. And the success of comic books in the 1960s had little effect on newspaper strips; his Joe Panther experience taught Eisman that selling a strip remained difficult. "The business was very slow during this time," he said. "No matter where I went to show samples, they would tell me that they were trying to keep their own people busy. For freelancers like myself, the Batman show and the surge in interest in superheroes made little difference."
In 1965, Eisman was approached to produce some samples for a proposed Underdog strip. He produced the samples, got paid (he knew enough by now to request payment up front) and never heard about the project again. "From where I was sitting at the time, [asking for the money up front] just made sense," he said. "I know there are unsavory characters in every business, but in comics, you have to really be on the lookout."
In 1967, Sylvan Byck, comics editor for King Features Syndicate, contacted Eisman. Byck remembered Eisman's work on Bringing Up Father. He told Eisman that King had him in mind for a strip, gave him no information about it but asked him to visit their offices. "Naturally I was interested," he said, and he showed up as agreed. "When I got there, they asked me if I knew anything about Little Iodine." Eisman told them what he knew about the character: that she was a spin-off from Jimmy Hatlo's They'll Do It Every Time and that she had her own Sunday strip but no dailies.
Eisman also knew that Bob Dunn, Hatlo's original ghost, had been producing the Iodine strip with artist Al Scaduto since Hatlo's 1963 death. King wondered if Eisman could assume the Sunday Iodine to reduce Scaduto's workload. A longtime Hatlo fan, Eisman only had two questions: whether he would receive a byline and what the pay was. "The byline was more important to me than the check," he laughed. "It all worked out. I got the byline and also a steady check." For the next 17 years, Dunn and Eisman collaborated on Little Iodine. Eisman brought his characteristic attention to fidelity to the job, even learning to letter with a Probate 212 pen, which he had never used, because it was the pen Scaduto lettered with.
Producing Little Iodine and jobs for Planned Communications mostly filled the next few years for Eisman, but he still found time to tackle the occasional side project, such as the proposed book adaptation of Bud Blake's Tiger comic strip. Eisman worked up a presentation based on drawings Blake supplied, and--much like the Underdog strip--never heard anything about it again. But with the Iodine Sundays and other work such as Nancy comic books for Gold Key, Eisman stayed busy.
IN 1976, CARTOONING veteran Joe Kubert, a friend of Eisman through the NCS, called to ask if he would like to visit Dover, N.J., to take a look at a school he was thinking of opening. Eisman agreed, seeing it at worst as an opportunity to take a trip to the countryside. "It never dawned on me what he actually had in mind," he said. "Kubert had bought a mansion about an hour west of where I live. So I brought my wife and we went out to Joe's for the day. I looked at the mansion and thought to myself, 'This is never going to take off.' It's a good thing that I didn't say anything out loud!"
After a tour of the building and some small talk, Kubert asked Eisman if he would be interested in teaching at the school. "This possibility had never entered my mind," Eisman said. "I never wanted to teach. Neither did I know how to teach. I had never even thought of teaching. But still, Kubert is Kubert; what can you say?" Eisman's wife, Adri, encouraged him to try, as it would occasionally get her husband out of the attic in which he worked.
Eisman had much to learn about teaching. It had been well over 20 years since he had been at the Flatiron building with Frank Thorne and the others. He had built a nice reputation for himself as a ghost and had plenty of work coming his way. Not until he started teaching did he realize that he needed to do almost as much learning as his students. "This is how out of touch I was," he said. "I was amazed that the kids weren't using a dip pen. Most people were now working with Rapidographs. The kids in my class weren't interested in learning about any of the older techniques. They didn't want to learn about the dip pen or anything else that wasn't current. I had to explain to them that you could get a better calligraphic line with a dip pen. It didn't matter; they saw no use in it."
When Eisman taught lettering--a skill he sees as essential to getting the entry-level jobs that lead to bigger opportunities--Eisman faced another uphill battle. "The kids would than tell me that they would never do lettering," he said. "A couple of them told me that they would pump gas before they would do lettering."
As with many generational differences, it took a while for each side to see the other's point of view. "Funnily enough, the guys who swore they would never do lettering were the same guys who would end up coming back and thanking me for what they learned," he said. "Every one of them ended up doing lettering for their first job."
Eisman saw a lot of his younger self in his early students. "I had to have the reason for almost everything explained to me before I would actually do it," he said. "Now, at 79 I am really glad that I learned all those things so many years ago. I'm still using them today. With my teaching experience, I can see the patience my instructors must have had with me!" Gradually, he found great reward from teaching. "By showing these kids what I knew, it made me better when I sat down at the drawing board," he said.
Other job opportunities made their way to Eisman's drawing table, including assisting Al Smith on Mutt and Jeff. When King Features decided to cancel Little Iodine, the editors offered Eisman his choice of another strip: either the Sunday Katzenjammer Kids (then produced by Bill Musial) or the daily Popeye (which was done by Bud Sagendorf). While the sailor man held appeal, coming up with six gags a week (and his comfort level with constructing Sunday strips) persuaded him to opt for the Katzenjammer Sunday, opting to pass up the opportunity to draw Popeye . . . or so he thought.
In the summer of 1994, Sagendorf became ill. Outside of his family, only King Features knew he was sick. One Friday afternoon, Eisman got an unexpected call from a King editor, who said the syndicate needed a Sunday Popeye ready to roll by Monday. Could Eisman produce one? "I had no idea where the sense of urgency came from and, truth be told, I didn't want to ask," he said. Only later did he discover that Sagendorf had been falling behind on his Popeye deadlines. "Suddenly, they found themselves down to less than five weeks ahead of schedule. That's when they decided to call me." Using Sagendorf's work as a template, Eisman had a page ready by Monday. Shortly afterward, Sagendorf died.
WHILE EISMAN WAS glad to help King meet its deadlines, he was quietly dealing with a more personal crisis. His wife had been diagnosed with cancer in 1993 and was undergoing painful treatments. Assuming the responsibility of the Sunday Popeye page in addition to the Katzenjammer page on a long-term basis was the furthest thing from his mind; apart from his work, he was spending a lot of time at the hospital. He told Adri he was turning down the Popeye assignment. "She wouldn't hear of it," he said. "No matter what excuse I gave her, she wouldn't budge from her decision. Even through the chemo and all the hospital visits, she made me do the Popeyes. Against my own desire, I decided to commit to the Sundays." For several years, Eisman juggled the responsibilities of his work, his teaching and Adri's needs. In October 1997, she died.
Only afterward, Eisman began to understand why she had been so insistent. "Somehow, she knew I would need the work after she was gone," he said. "That's what she did for me when she made me take the Popeye Sundays."
The millions of people laughing at a squinty-eyed sailor or two rambunctious hellions had no way of knowing that the creator was grieving. "During the first year after her passing, the two Sundays were my only distraction from what had happened," he said. "My mind would get lost on the page. Drawing Popeye or the Kids was the only thing that could keep my mind off of what had happened."
Eisman worked to keep his mind off his loss, aided by a support group he joined. "The group would give assignments," he said. "One of them was going out to a restaurant by yourself. Another was going somewhere and start talking to someone you didn't know." Through this latter assignment, Eisman met a woman named Florenz at a local library. He found he wasn't very good at talking about himself, so he encouraged her to view his work on the King Features website, hoping she would find his work interesting.
Florenz was indeed interested, and a five-year courtship ensued, capped by a 2004 wedding. "The best thing I can say is that she made life worthwhile again," Eisman said. "She writes. She's a managing editor for a publishing company, and we both work out of the house. I find her completely engaging and just so interesting to listen to."
TODAY, EISMAN IS still doing the Katzenjammer Kids and the Popeye Sundays. He's still not sure how he ended up where he is. "I backed into being a ghost," he said, adding that although he hasn't felt like a ghost for a long time, he knows that it was his ability to adapt that helped him carve out his career. "In some ways, I feel that I'm one of the last in a long line of cartoonists keeping these long-term characters alive," he said. "When I got my first byline, I stopped being a ghost. A true ghost is never heard from or recognized. I somehow was able to evolve enough to be allowed to get out of the ghost. When you come down to it, it's really just ego. I was just always happy to be drawing"
The original cover art to a 1972 Little Iodine comic book hangs in the Geppi Entertainment Museum at Camden Yards in Baltimore. Although it's signed "Dunn/Eisman," it's pure Eisman. Featuring a bright and mischievous Iodine on a green background, it's just one of the thousands of pages he has done over the past 50-odd years. Eisman can't remember doing it, but there, in a museum dedicated to the best in popular culture, is his name on a piece of art that he drew. Told that his work hangs among that of his heroes, Caniff, Raymond, Herriman, Disney and many others, Eisman is momentarily caught off guard. After a second, he smiles and laughs. And gets back to work.
Selling Joe Panther (Or, the Strip that Eventually Starred Ricardo Montalban)
THE COMICS FIELD is littered with strips that never made it. Paradoxically, some near-misses are more interesting than the ones that made it. Hy Eisman got really close with the adventure strip Joe Panther, but the strip fell apart for a reason that no one could have foreseen.
In the early '60s, Eisman and writer Zachary Bell (the pen name for author Kelly Masters) collaborated on Joe Panther. Bell was the writer behind a series of books featuring the character, and he was interested in leveraging its success into a daily strip. With only a fourth-grade education, Masters had built a career writing hunting and adventure stories for magazines including Collier's and the Saturday Evening Post. When he began the Joe Panther book series, he didn't want the magazines to know that he was also writing teenage adventure stories, concerned it might threaten his regular magazine work.
Masters initially contacted Lank Leonard, who was enjoying modest success with his Mickey Finn strip. Leonard declined the Panther opportunity but knew that Eisman had recently lost his job ghosting Kerry Drake. Leonard put the two in touch, and they began collaborating on the strip by phone and mail. They altered the premise of the books for the strip vehicle. The 17-year-old Seminole on a Florida reservation became a nearly 30-year-old detective living in Miami and driving a Corvette. I swear that when Miami Vice came on in the '80s, I thought it was based on Joe Panther!" Eisman said.
Preparing the strip for submission to the syndicates wasn't easy, as Eisman was in New Jersey and Masters lived in Florida. But the men put together two weeks of samples as well as a few months of storylines. When they were ready to present the strip to syndicates, Masters traveled to the Eisman home, where Hy and his wife, Adri, moved their baby out of its nursery so Masters could sleep there.
Selling the strip was no picnic. "We went everywhere with it. There was no interest at all. We couldn't figure out what was wrong," he said. "We knew we had a good script and, from everything we could see, the art was tight." Following another round of rejections, they visited United Feature Syndicate, which told them it would get back to them with a decision.
Neither man was prepared for the feedback they received. "They were really concerned that the idea of a Seminole Indian moving through white society wouldn't be able to sell to Southern newspapers," Eisman said.
To counter any anticipated problems selling the strip in the South, United Feature came up with some changes: they wanted to make him a decade younger and place him on a Florida reservation--the same premise Masters used in his books. Eisman said United favored this approach so the Native American could interact with white tourists.
So Masters and Eisman brought in the book's supporting cast, including Jennie Rainbow and an uncle who served as a sidekick. They cobbled together a new set of strips and sent them to United, which seemed pleased with the changes. They sent the men a contract proposal, and nearly a half-century later, Eisman still bristles: "Let's just say that it was their version of a contract!" he said "The standard contract of the time was this: 50-50 split, after the syndicate's expenses and all that entailed. Expenses included salesmen paying for lunch when they pitched the strip to clients. That meant my share was 25 percent after those deductions, and I still had to pay for all my own brushes, pens and boards!" But since United was the only syndicate to express interest, they were forced to consider the offer.
Eisman and Masters went into the negotiations thinking the terms were negotiable and that United was establishing a starting point. "Turns out they were absolutely inflexible!" he said. "Their offer was their standard contract. and we were given the impression that we should be thankful we were being offered that!"
Eisman began to have grave doubts about what lay ahead. "By this time I knew that it can take over a year for a strip to begin to earn money," he said. "So, what they were offering us meant we had to support ourselves while this whole year was going on. In essence, we were being asked to do the strip on spec. I asked one of the syndicate guys how we were supposed to make a living while we were working on the first year. He told me to take out a loan. I asked him if the syndicate would do this for us, and he told us that they weren't in the loan business."
Faced with what they felt was a no-win situation, Eisman and Masters broke off negotiations. They took the retooled strip to another syndicate and got an editor to look at a sample. Her rejection was succinct, Eisman said: "Who wants to see alligators on a Monday morning?"
By 1963, the two men pulled the plug on the Joe Panther strip. By this time, Eisman was getting plentiful work from ACG Comics and ghosting assignments. But Joe's story doesn't end there. Joe Panther showed up on the silver screen in a 1976 movie. Starring Brian Keith and Ricardo Montalban, its premise was largely that of the retooled comic strip (which was also similar to the source novels). Masters sent the Eismans tickets to the premiere, but they were unable to attend. Several years later, Eisman saw the movie for the first time. "You know what?" he asked. "It looked like they had taken the dailies I did and used that as a storyboard for the opening scene!"
The Creation of Bunny (Or, the Swinging '60s at Harvey)
HARVEY COMICS KNEW that Archie had the lion's share of the market for comics geared toward the teen market, but Harvey also felt that that the company was vulnerable in certain areas. For some time, it had been searching for the perfect character to compete head to head with Archie. In 1966, thanks to a failed doll, the company thought it might have found her. The comic book was eventually titled Bunny, and Hy Eisman was brought in to work on the book.
Bunny was planned as a Barbie knock-off, complete with a house, car and friends. (Her hair's length was adjustable, distinguishing her from Barbie.). The doll's maker wanted to cross-market the toy with a comic book. However, shortly after work on the comic book began, Bunny's maker decides not to go into production with the doll, leaving Barbie unchallenged. "Regardless, Harvey felt the concept was exactly what they had been looking for to compete with Archie," Eisman said. "So they decide to go through with comic anyway."
Leon Harvey, one of the company's owners, conceived the general Bunny setting. "He was thinking along the lines of the preteen, female audience," he said. "He wanted that audience more than anything." He also had strong preferences that he wanted Eisman to follow: as many full figures in every panel as possible. "He didn't like to see half figures, or heads, or partials in any panel," he said. "He also liked to see as many characters in the panels as possible. Being a neophyte, I followed his instructions completely."
Warren Harvey, son of the owners, wrote the scripts. "Warren would describe the covers to me, and while they sounded crazy, somehow they seemed to work for everyone," Eisman said. (Below are some examples of Bunny; click to enlarge.)
The Harveys also wanted to take advantage of Eisman's ability to draw in the style of other artists. "I was definitely told to develop everything in the Archie house style," he said. "In addition, Harvey also told me to find a way to incorporate the Harvey simplicity." The character that Eisman developed was based on the doll itself. "The only guidance I had to work from was the actual prototype of the doll--no model sheets, nothing. Early on, we even had to give the doll and all the accessories back to the toy company."
The Harvey Comics approach to character development made Eisman's work even more challenging. "This is a company that literally had an actual cutout to use when drawing Casper and Richie Rich," he said. "I am almost sure it was the same cutout for both! So I didn't have much room to breathe when it came to fleshing out Bunny. They knew exactly what they wanted, and it was my job to get it on paper."
WHEN THE POWERS-that-be determined that Bunny would be a swingin' model, Eisman began looking high and low for inspiration for the pop-art style that Warren sought. "This was the mid-'60s, and I would see these posters for modern art everywhere," Eisman said. "But the style I ended up using actually came from fashions that we would see around us." Life magazine and teen magazines provided the fashions that Eisman incorporated into Bunny. The first issue weighed in at a hefty 68 pages in December 1966.
For many collectors, Bunny's covers are the comic book's standout feature. Eisman took Warren Harvey's descriptions and did a pencil drawing that he brought into Harvey's New York offices for approval. Then he would ink the cover and deliver it to the offices for in-house coloring and production. The covers, melding Eisman's swirling backgrounds with Day-Glo color schemes, were designed to call out to customers from the spinner rack. The covers to Bunny #4, 5 and 6 saw Eisman hitting a psychedelic stride, creating images that would be right at home in an Austin Powers movie.
Harvey's strategy of targeting the preteen girl market appeared to be paying off. The company even borrowed a page from the Winnie Winkle/Katy Keene playbook, inviting readers to send in their fashion designs for publication. "Right from the start we were getting mail from all over the world with costumes and suggestions," Eisman said. Despite its popularity, Eisman received neither a pay raise nor credit in the comic book. "Harvey seemed to have a definite rule that they didn't credit the artists, so that Harvey wouldn't have to deal with fans clamoring for the work of a single artist," he said.
Eisman was aware of the nascent movement in the '60s for creators' rights, spearheaded among mainstream creators by superstar artist Neal Adams. "The younger guys didn't have that fear that the Depression had left with so many of my generation, so these younger guys were more willing to stand up to management," Eisman said. "Guys my age seemed happy just to be paid for drawing."
Eisman acknowledges the mark the Depression left on him. "That Depression mentality had a lot to do with why we never really went all the way with our requests for money and the return of our art," he said. "Many of us were just worried about our lives. We either remembered our own poverty or the stories our parents had told us. That may have made us a little more reluctant to stand up to some of these people who were low-balling us on pay and taking us for granted."
Eisman drew the first six issues of Bunny cover to cover, relinquishing the interiors when he received the Little Iodine assignment from King Features Syndicate. And though Bunny had her day in the sun, Harvey ultimately wasn't able to sufficiently eat into Archie's market share. Bunny was published as a 68-page comic book through #18, slimming down to 52 pages until November 1971, when it was canceled with #20. The doll who wasn't briefly reappeared with #21 in November 1976.
Note: To purchase a copy of Hogan's Alley #15, where this feature (and so much more; cover at right) first appeared, just click here.