The legacy of cartoonist Will Eisner may be immeasurable, but Paul Levitz is hoping to draw a unique picture Eisner's work and influence in Will Eisner: The Dreamer and the Dream, a book due next year from Abrams ComicArts.
Levitz is a legend himself as a comic writer, historian and former DC president and publisher, but he also lists among his accomplishments a 30-year friendship with Eisner. Now that Levitz just cleared his schedule somewhat by ending his run on the Legion of Super-Heroes comic this month, he's putting the finishing touches on the Eisner book.
Will Eisner: The Dreamer and the Dream will examine the life, work and creative impact of Eisner, utilizing Levitz's extensive research and interviews with comic creators and people who were influenced by Eisner and his work.
As a preview of the type of stories that can be expected in the Eisner book, Levitz helped pull together an Eisner panel last month at Comic-Con International: San Diego, including Denis Kitchen, Scott McCloud, Jeff Smith, and Neil Gaiman.
Newsarama spoke with Levitz to find out more about his research into Will Eisner and how his work on projects like The Spirit and A Contract with God.
Newsarama: Paul, how did the idea to publish this book on Will Eisner come about. I assume Abrams approached you about doing it?
Paul Levitz: Charlie Kochman, the editorial director at Abrams Comics Arts, had approached me some time back about doing a coffee table book on Will Eisner. He's published lovely books on [Jack] Kirby [by Mark Evanier] and [Harvey] Kurtzman [by Denis Kitchen], and he really views this as the third of the great trinity of comic book artists. And since I'd been a friend of Will's for 30 years, I was a likely suspect for doing it.
When I began to puzzle how to do a book, I started focusing in on what was most important about Will, and what the current generation was most interested in and needed to think about.
Will is a very unusual story in the history of comics. You talk to creators of multiple generations, and they talk about him as a role model. You have a man with a body of work in the 1940s that was precedent setting and really raised the bar of what comics could be, then effectively sort of vanishes for several decades, then comes back and once again does something that changes the dynamic of the business. That's a story worth telling.
Then you take the lid off the box and begin to look under it, and you say, so why was Contract with God important? It was an early graphic novel, but not the first — there are a number of ancestors. Will didn't even coin the term "graphic novel." So what made this graphic novel so important to so many people in such a way?
And pursuing that type of thing has just been a lovely journey of exploration.
Nrama: As you mentioned, you knew Will very well. But as you've been researching for the book, have you been surprised by what you found? Or is it more about the light you put it in?
Levitz: Well, it's the light you put it in, the stories you hear behind it, and really laying out all the evidence and looking at it.
The surprises have come in all sizes. On the subject of the term "graphic novel," I discovered that the first use of the words "graphic novel" on a cover was actually on one of DC's periodicals, about six years before Contract with God, of all things, on an issue of Sinister House of Secret Love. And a little bit of research there indicates that, in all probability, the copy on that cover was written by a man named Mark Hannerfeld, who was among the first generation of comic fans and was probably familiar with the term from Richard Kyle's use of it in Graphic Story Magazine. And Mark was a wonderful guy and good friend who passed away quite a number of years ago, so it's nice to discover his fingerprints on something like that and be able to connect that into the story.
It was fun to do the research and find what may have sparked the existence of the "Spirit Section." And to discover that the first newspaper supplement in the style that we would now recognize Parade to be had premiered a couple of years before the Spirit Section, and that's probably what sparked the Register Tribune guys to be interested in doing something.
So the history is about assembling all these pieces and putting them together in a story.
Of course, who Will is and who his friends were gave me the chance to spend some time with a fascinating group of people. I got to spend time with Art Spiegelman, I was able to assemble some guys for a panel in San Diego — [Denis Kitchen, Scott McCloud, Jeff Smith, and Neil Gaiman] — many of whom were friends of Will and are about as smart a bunch of human beings in our industry as you could fit on a single panel.
Nrama: How long were you doing research? Was some of it done in San Diego when you gathered people there together?
Levitz: I've been doing research for the last few months. I guess I was at it before Memorial Day. And San Diego was not quite the end of the research phase of the project, but it was a great opportunity to, in one fell swoop, get four of the people talking about Will and his work and his influence.
Now, I'm rolling forward from there, filling in gaps, talking to Will's students from the School of Visual Arts.
Nrama: You said it was a coffee table book, so I assume this is an art book as well?
Nrama: And I know the release date is next year. What month are you aiming for right now?
Levitz: I think the goal is to have it out in fall 2014. I haven't heard a firmed date then that from Charlie yet. And it depends on me getting all the cool pieces of art together. Every time I turn around, there's another wonderful thing I'm reminded of. Like Google, a few years ago, celebrated Will's birthday by doing their logo online as an Eisner-style logo with a Spirit head in the middle of it. I had to add that to the list of things we want in there.
Nrama: So the art is not just a collection of his works, but it's also reflective of the important role he played in both comics and popular culture?
Levitz: Yes. This is a man whose life was extraordinarily well documented. There have been a couple of biographies. There's been a beautifully documentary. He gave as many interviews as anybody in their right mind who isn't a politician would give in the course of their life. And yet there's still a lot that's never been published, possibly because it was things that only make sense when you put them together in context. It's fascinating just to look at the set of graphic novels that were being developed for publication in 1978 and look at that moment in time and how those things came together, but then to ask, why, out of all the amazing work being done at the time, did Contract with God affect the creative community in a unique way? Buy the book and read the answer.