One of the interesting facets of writing Will Eisner’s biography was determining the reliability of my subject’s memory.
Eisner was 85 when I met him in February 2002 and, with repeated exposure over the next almost three years, I came to believe his mind and recall were easily as sharp as mine — and I was half his age.
There were only a few stories that Eisner told me that gave me pause over that time, tales that didn’t quite add up with independent confirmation. One of them was about an encounter he had with artist Howard Chaykin at a Barcelona comic book convention.
When I was dubious about his account, Eisner told me to call his old friend Joe Kubert. “Joe will confirm what I’m telling you,” he insisted.
So I called Kubert, who got his first job working for Eisner at his studio in Manhattan’s Tudor City in 1941. Kubert told me a lot of great stories, but he didn’t exactly recall the Barcelona incident the same way that Eisner did. Here’s the way I wrote it for draft of Will Eisner: A Spirited Life:
Eisner told a story about attending a comic book convention in Barcelona several years ago. He and several prominent artists, including Howard Chaykin and Joe Kubert, were talking about different comics. Chaykin mentioned “Blackhawk,” which he once illustrated.
“Will created ‘Blackhawk,'” someone said.
“It was one of the few fascistic things I’ve done in my life,” Will said.
“Fascist?” Chaykin said. “I’m one of the most liberal guys you’ll ever meet!”
Eisner, as gentle and amiable as he was about most things, on occasion antagonized a fellow artist and this was one of those times. Chaykin felt Eisner was calling him a fascist and it made him quite angry.
“It looked like it was gonna get into a fistfight,” Eisner said. “Joe Kubert finally separated us.”
Sounds like a great anecdote. And across two years of being interviewed for this book, Will told many stories that were confirmed down to the final detail. But in this rare case, his memory of events was not shared by others who were there.
“Howie’s the kinda guy that says a lot of things for effect more than anything else,” Kubert said when asked about the incident. “It may have seemed to Will that it might have led to something. I’m sure it happened and that Will felt that way. But I couldn’t imagine Howard ever getting into an actual fight with Will.”
Eisner insisted the story happened the way he told it. He was pretty frustrated with me that I left it out of the book, in fact. But with Kubert deflating Eisner’s version, there wasn’t any point in going further and calling Chaykin.
Fast-forward to February 2006. I was a guest at Megacon in Orlando, promoting the book. On a break from my table, I dropped by to say “Hello” to artists Nick Cardy and Al Feldstein, both of whom I interviewed for A Spirited Life. To Feldstein’s left was Chaykin.
When I bid adieu to Cardy and Feldstein, I dropped promotional postcards for my book at several booths. Seeing Chaykin was occupied with a bunch of autograph seekers, I dropped a postcard on his table and tried to move on quickly.
“Hey!” Chaykin called out to me. “Why the fuck do you think I’d care about a book by Will Eisner?”
Trapped — and with an audience, too — I introduced myself. Chaykin didn’t have anything nice to say about Eisner, so I tried to excuse myself. Didn’t work. Instead, I told Chaykin about the missing story from the book. That stopped him in his tracks. He couldn’t believe Eisner would ever tell an unflattering story about himself.
More amazing for me, Chaykin confirmed the essence of the story and cussed Kubert for denying the seriousness of it. At that moment, the idea for extending the biography through a series of online interviews was born. There were so many people with Eisner stories to tell that I thought it would be fun to add to the legend.
Howard Chaykin agreed to be the first in the “Will Eisner: A Spirited Life Interview Series.” The following conversation took place by telephone on March 2, 2006. New interviews — featuring Dark Horse Comics Publisher Mike Richardson, cartoonist Drew Friedman, Anti-Defamation League Executive Director Abe Foxman, one-time Eisner assistants Scott & Bo Hampton, former Kitchen Sink art director Pete Poplaski, Eisner agent and friend Denis Kitchen and many others — will post every Monday for the forseeable future. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
BOB ANDELMAN: Do you recall the first time you encountered Will Eisner’s work in any significant way?
HOWARD CHAYKIN: Absolutely. That was the summer of 1966—the Harvey reprints. I had never seen the stuff before, and it absolutely boggled my mind.
Howard Chaykin (left), Bob Andelman at Orlando’s MegaCon 2006.
Wait – I’m wrong. The first time I was aware of it was in an article that ultimately became Jules Feiffer’s book,
Great Comic Book Heroes, published in the magazine section of the New York Herald Tribune. I’m pretty sure this pre-dated the Harvey material. I could be wrong. Eisner did a strip about The Spirit working with John Lindsay for his re-election. Ebony objected to it because of his relationship with HarYouAct, a local civil rights group of the time.
Then I saw the Harvey material. I was impressed with that. It was very intriguing. I was really blown away by his drawing of women. I had no idea how much of an influence at the time he had on Wallace Wood, who I considered the archetype of drawing hot babes. Will’s women were very sensual—a cross between Milton Caniff and Woody.
ANDELMAN: How old would you have been in 1965?
CHAYKIN: I was 15. I think those books came out in the summer of 1966, was that right?
ANDELMAN: I think that is about right.
CHAYKIN: I was 15 and a total geek. Hugely fat. Very unhappy. Archetypal comic book fan.
ANDELMAN: Having been surrounded by them for the first time in years while promoting A Spirited Life, I am laughing.
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CHAYKIN: There’s been an invasion and a successful conquest—with commercial slogans like “Nerds Fuck Things Up, Geeks Do It Right.” I was totally asocial and living entirely in fantasy.
ANDELMAN: I was wondering if you were going to mention Nick Cardy. I was thinking that was a pretty big time for him.
CHAYKIN: I love Nick’s stuff. There’s bunch of guys, Nick among them, like Ross Andru, Frank Thorne, a few others. Nobody pays attention to them, nobody even acknowledges their existence. I just think their work is just brilliant.
ANDELMAN: Let me bring you back to Will Eisner.
CHAYKIN: By the way, did you like the guy?
ANDELMAN: Yeah, I did, actually. He treated me extremely well.
CHAYKIN: Because you came between him and the truth.
ANDELMAN: I hope not.
CHAYKIN: He obviously treated you well because you were going to be putting his life on paper, and he wanted to be revealed in the best light possible. He was very competent at manipulating his own image.
ANDELMAN: Well, I would agree with that to a point. I didn’t have any restraints in terms of what I would say or what I would write or who I would talk to.
CHAYKIN: I have to say, I am astonished he ever told you the story that brought us together in the first place.
ANDELMAN: He treated me very well. There were only two rules that we worked with on this, and I was with him for about two and a half years doing this. The first rule was laid down by Denis Kitchen and Judy Hansen, his agents, and that was, “Do not ask him about family, do not ask him about children.” And they wouldn’t tell me why, they just said, “Don’t.” We were together about a year and a half, and at that point I think I had his trust. We were at his kitchen table and it was very late. He was never up past nine o’clock, but there we were, still talking, still talking…
CHAYKIN: This was in Florida?
ANDELMAN: Yeah. And I was asking him about some pictures on the refrigerator. There was a picture of him and Neil Gaiman and Art Spiegelman and Scott McCloud, and then he just started showing me the others, and then he said, “And this is my son.” And I said, “I didn’t know you had a son.” And that was the night that he really came clean with me about stuff, that he had a son and a daughter and that his daughter had died of leukemia in 1969, she was 16, and that just destroyed him. They took all family pictures out of the house. Most people who knew him or met him after she died had no idea that he had children.
CHAYKIN: I had no idea. I had met Will’s wife a couple of times, and I am stunned.
ANDELMAN: The thing was, I was told by Denis and Judy not to bring it up, so suddenly Will brings it up, and he says, “I know that you need to know about this, and I appreciate that you haven’t asked, but I know you have to know,” so he told me the whole story.
It turned out that A Contract With God was basically his response after several years, that was the first time he ever dealt with her death, that it wasn’t about some religious Jew mourning the death of his daughter, it was about him mourning the death of his own daughter. And Denis has the originals and has been showing them this past year. In the book, the daughter’s original name was Alice. So we talked about that.
CHAYKIN: I am impressed by that, because he was so effective in controlling his own image and his own press. I think he was a great bamboozler. I think he manipulated the people who adored him, and used them to manipulate his own image. I really do.
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ANDELMAN: When did you start feeling that way about him?
CHAYKIN: It probably traces back to the interviews, the Shop Talk stuff that he did back when Kitchen was publishing The Spirit. I found out that he was completely re-editing his side of the questions.
ANDELMAN: Oh? I hadn’t heard that before.
CHAYKIN: I happened to be hanging with Gil Kane. Gil had ethical issues. I have no illusions. I loved Gil Kane despite his failings, okay? I take a lot of heat for this, but that’s life. I learned a great deal about being a guy from Gil, including tying a necktie. He went absolutely bug-fuck when he read the Shop Talk thing he did with Will.
Gil was an extremely articulate man, a man who liked talking to a man who liked to talk. He was astonished and appalled when he found that Eisner had re-written and re-edited his side of the interview, I guess to make himself sound more astute, I don’t know. And that opened that can of worms for me, and I began to be aware, with The Dreamer and all that stuff, that he was reinventing the past. This is guy created the modern system of the division of labor in the comic book business. He was a great businessman who passed himself off as an artist when it was necessary and as a businessman when that became necessary.
ANDELMAN: The main issue that brought us to this point was Barcelona, but I kind of wondered before we got to that if you had any previous encounters with him worth noting.
CHAYKIN: No. We had met in passing, at shows or conventions in San Diego. I always found it odd he moved to Florida. It seemed so “Jew-y.” I am serious. Florida seemed an odd place for someone as cosmopolitan as Will.
ANDELMAN: So kind of set the table for me in terms of Barcelona. Why were you there?
CHAYKIN: I was a guest at the convention. As per Joe Kubert’s recollection and Will’s recollection, we were talking about Blackhawk, but we got onto American Flagg, and Will accused me of producing fascist comics. I realized after the fact this was based solely on his interpretation of the cover imagery. I love fascist imagery, it’s extremely powerful. I like what the Italians did, I like what the Germans did. I don’t subscribe to their politics. I am a huge fan of Ludwig Holhein, for example.
ANDELMAN: I’m sorry, who?
CHAYKIN: Ludwig Holhein.
ANDELMAN: I don’t know his work.
CHAYKIN: He was an advertising artist in Germany in the ’20s and ’30s who became a very important player doing posters for the SS. Amazing graphic designer. Very influential to this day.
ANDELMAN: I will read up about him. I have probably seen the work, but I have just never heard the name.
CHAYKIN: The influences on the covers for the Flagg books were poster art. I’ve never been happy with my cover work, but I think I finally achieved some measure of success with those covers.
I don’t see my work showing any of the influence of Jack Kirby or Will Eisner. I have an enormous respect for Will’s work. In the book I hope to write, I give Will credit for basically creating the vocabulary for the medium in which we are working. He codified the language. Up to that point, it was a series of experimental ideas. Then Harvey Kurtzman made it better.
Will would make pronouncements based on what little information he had.
He tended to imply he knew more about something than he did and frequently got away with it. He never read much contemporary comics stuff. He had no understanding of the context in which those covers existed, and yet he was willing to call me a fascist. And that’s just something that I will not accept.
I am a child of liberal parents. I’m proud of my distinctly left liberal place on the planet. I have been called a left wing faggot on the Internet too often to accept otherwise. I am not a bleeding heart—I’m a Cold War liberal, a classic socialist Jew. I was raised in a predominantly secular home.
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ANDELMAN: I think that kind of brings us to what happened. I remember Will telling me, “I almost came to blows with Chaykin,” or, “He almost slugged me,” or something to that effect.
CHAYKIN: I’m not going to hit anybody—but I was very annoyed. I offered Kubert $10 to kick his ass, and Kubert said that for $20 he would think about it. I was being facetious. I found him insulting and condescending. And I found his relationship with most people was profoundly condescending, yet they were willing to take it because he was so beloved a figure.
ANDELMAN: Right. You were not planning to lay a hand on Will.
CHAYKIN: Oh, come on. I don’t do that sort of thing. I tend to shoot from the lip. I give credit to Jack Paar for having so profound an influence on my life.
One of the frustrations of working in the comic book business is the constant misappropriation of the word “cynic” when skeptic is what they mean. I considered Will a cynic, if you will, willing to say and do anything to remain in the good graces of his audience. I don’t think he was a bad guy, but he was condescending in a particularly German-Jewish way. I’m a Russian Jew, and I spent most of my boyhood being slum-lorded by German Jews, so I have my issues.
ANDELMAN: Is there any part of you that wishes you could have had this conversation with him and worked that out?
CHAYKIN: Not especially. I don’t really care. The weird thing is, the two guys I feel are most responsible for the evolution of comics storytelling were Will Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman—and I never got along with either of them.
My personal feelings aside from Harvey, the work remains brilliant. I don’t feel that way about Will’s stuff. I will crack open Harvey’s stuff and be amazed and intrigued by it, the Mad stuff, Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline. That rarely happens with Will’s stuff. It’s pretty, but I don’t really care. The only time I think about Will Eisner is in a conversation like this.
ANDELMAN: So you have read my description of what happened in Barcelona between you, Will Eisner and Joe Kubert. Is there anything you would fill in with the gaps of what was going on?
CHAYKIN: He was not referring to Blackhawk, he was referring to the Flagg covers.
ANDELMAN: All right.
CHAYKIN: And Joe did not separate us. I literally – facetiously – offered Joe $10 to kick his ass, and Joe said, make it $20 and we will talk.
ANDELMAN: And that was in front of Will.
CHAYKIN: Yes. We were kidding. I was pissed off, but not pissed off enough to lay a hand on an old Jew. Frankly, Kubert could have kicked my ass. Twenty minutes ago, I was talking about Joe with my assistant. Joe could still take me apart and put me back together any way he wanted. I ran into Joe in the lobby of the hotel at a San Francisco convention, and he gave me a shot to the chops with his knuckles; he rattled my teeth. Joe is an incredibly, physically powerful guy. He is in amazing shape
But no, there was no danger of any fisticuffs. On the other hand, I think what Will said was something he pulled out of his ass, because he knew nothing about me or the work. All he was basing it on was his cursory impression of the Flagg! covers.
The assumption Will made was there was him and everyone else—that the everyone else is doing work that’s by nature secondary to his vision. His dismissal of Jack Kirby is a classic example of this. I’m not a huge fan of Kirby’s, but I acknowledge his place in the pantheon. Will never thought very highly of the work. I am sure you know this.
ANDELMAN: It was never actually said to me.
CHAYKIN: Will regarded Jack as a guy who just turned the pages out.
ANDELMAN: If so, I think that had a lot to do with where they started together, and that is what Jack was doing at the beginning, and I don’t think he ever saw him any differently, but…
CHAYKIN: Like the work or not, Jack is the center of the universe in the evolution of modern work. The man was able to spew out work of astonishing, consistent quality over a period of fifty years. That’s mind-boggling.
ANDELMAN: After Barcelona, as you walked away from that situation, obviously your view of Will was changed. You went from just having a casual familiarity and knowledge of him in that sense to, “Boy, I really can’t stand this guy.”
CHAYKIN: I was not happy with this character.
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ANDELMAN: Were there other things that happened between then and now that grew that, or was it just…
CHAYKIN: Well, we were together again in Brazil in 1993 or 1994, and Kubert was there again. Joe is always a character in this story!
ANDELMAN: What happened in Brazil?
CHAYKIN: Eisner was baiting me. I don’t remember the specific details. Eisner was traveling stag, his wife didn’t come down. There was Jules Feiffer and his wife, Kubert and Muriel, Jose Delbo and his wife Mabel, me and my wife. Will baited me. I think he did so because he felt he could. Jules calmed down the situation and I appreciated that, because there was no reason for me to lose my temper.
I had a prickly relationship with Will that lasted until he died. The last time I saw Will was at an Eisner Awards at the San Diego convention. I’m an early riser, a go to bed at 10: 00 o’clock guy. It was 11: 30, and I am having to be social and comfortable and conscious while I was exhausted. I wasn’t all that thrilled to be there in the first place. I am a guy who never wins these things. I want the attention as much as the next guy, but by the same token, I don’t care that much about the enthusiasm of others. If I did, I would probably have done different work, so I accept the fact that I am the architect of my own adversity. By the same token, at 11: 30 at night, I want to be in bed.
Will was there. We were cordial. He understood that we were not people who were close.
ANDELMAN: Have you encountered anyone else over the years who has had similar exchanges with him?
CHAYKIN: Gil Kane.
ANDELMAN: What did Gil say about him?
CHAYKIN: he felt very much as I did.
ANDELMAN: Did Gil ever tell you any specific stories?
CHAYKIN: Not really. We had a shared antipathy. Will was made a saintly figure before he died. This guy really was a talented artist, but a major portion of his career was played in the same ballpark as Jack Liebowitz and Victor Fox. He may not have been as big an asshole or mobster, but the guy was ethically compromised in his own way.
ANDELMAN: After you are gone, do you think there is someone out there who will have any similar feelings toward you?
CHAYKIN: In terms of my behavior?
ANDELMAN: Well, yeah, or anything. You are a very strong personality. You say what is on your mind.
CHAYKIN: I’m roundly despised by people who don’t know me, but I believe I’ll be held in fairly high regard by most people. I’m not really worried.
ANDELMAN: Okay, I’ll ask. Who is the guy who is more widely despised?
CHAYKIN: I think John Byrne is more widely despised than I am.
As for how I’ll be remembered, I’m a cult figure. I never became a star, and I’m comfortable with that.
I live a small life. The work speaks for itself. I’m ashamed of some of it because I take credit and blame equally. And I am bitter about some stuff and okay with others, but as I get older, I get less bitter, because I give less of a shit.
ANDELMAN: As you look ahead, put on your forward-looking glasses…
CHAYKIN: As I become the old Jew as opposed to the late middle-aged?
ANDELMAN: There you go. How do you think the industry and the greater group who might have some knowledge of Eisner, how do you think he will be regarded in twenty, twenty-five, fifty years? Will people even remember him?
CHAYKIN: Well, does anybody remember Lou Fine
, does anybody remember Hal Foster? The industry is very much a reflection of contemporary culture. Look what happened to J.C. Leyendecker. Leyendecker was completely forgotten until Richard Amsel and Roger Huyssen borrowed images from his work, for movie posters and magazine illustrations in the 1970s. The poster for The Sting is what brought J.C. Leyendecker back to public awareness.
He was a Saturday Evening Post artist from the teens, who did his last cover for the Post in 1943. His work became passé in the last decade of his life. He died at 75 in 1950. Remember the poster for The Sting?
CHAYKIN: That was based on two, Arrow Shirt ads, I believe. It was by Richard Amsel, a talented poster and magazine cover artist who died in the early 1980s.
Interestingly enough, a lot of Will’s rendering of shadows and fold patterns, where he would take a brush and indicate a fold in a shadow not with a solid black but by a series of horizontal lines, that’s a black and white simplified version of what Leyendecker did with his interpretation of shadows and folds. Take a look—you’ll see what I mean.