Saturday, April 06, 2013

Eisner and Simon: giants of the comic book business

A biography and autobiography of two giants of the comic book business.

Book 43: Will Eisner, A Dreamer’s Life in Comics by Michael Shumacher
Book 48:  Joe Simon, My Life In Comics by Joe Simon

It's was once said that only two men in the comic book business could read a contract -- Will Eisner and Joe Simon.

That's significant for two reasons. Both men retained control over their creations, while so many others signed over their rights for a mess of pottage. And both men had lucrative careers, receiving full value for their artistry and their imagination.

While still in his 20s, Eisner launched his own studio. Such respected artists as Lou Fine, Reed Crandall and Jack Kirby worked in the bullpen Eisner assembled.

Eisner had a hand in creating Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, Blackhawk, Doll Man, Uncle Sam, The Ray and Black Condor. Yet he didn't especially care for superheroes, which led to the creation of his most famous character, The Spirit.

The Spirit was Denny Colt, who was something of anti-superhero. Denny, a former cop, lived in a graveyard. He wore a mask, but also a suit, tie and fedora.  The Spirit was notable for its mood-setting splash pages, femme fatales and inventive storylines. 

Eisner always believed the comic book format of text and sequential art could be written to appeal to adults.  It simply required more mature subject matter. That belief led Eisner to write and illustrate A Contract With God, which explored a man's loss of faith after the death of his adopted daughter. It was among the earliest graphic novels. Others followed.

Simon started his career drawing illustrations for newspapers.  Harlan Crandall, art editor for Macfadden Publications, which published slick publications like Photoplay, True Romances and True Detectives, saw something in Simon's work and steered him into comic books.

Simon soon teamed with Jacob Kurtzberg, who later changed his name to Jack Kirby.  Together, they created one of comics best known, best loved and most enduring characters -- Captain America.

Later, just because they could, Simon and Kirby created Young Romance, the first romance comic. Their prolific partnership also led to the Newsboy Legion, Manhunter and Boy Commandos. 

Michael Schumacher's biography of Eisner is superbly done.  A clear sense of Eisner as a man and an artist emerges. Schumacher also ably explains Eisner's importance to the industry, especially his influence on a generation of artist.

Simon's autobiography is breezy, fresh. The man's love for his work bursts from the pages.  

Eisner and Simon influenced generations of artists, as well as writers and readers.  It's not an exaggeration to say that the comics and graphic novels we read today, the movies and TV shows we watch, have their roots in the pencilings and fertile imaginations of these two men.

Will Eisner, A Dreamer's Life in Comics and Joe Simon My Life in Comics are foundational works for anyone wanting to understand the nascent comic book business and how we arrived at where we are today.

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