Will Eisner is my hero.
That line will surely come as no shock to anyone who has spoken to me about comics for more than five minutes or read any of my many articles or posts related to the man. To me he was a Promethean figure: creative, farsighted and flat-out brilliant. The fact that he was one of the few comic book creators to come out of the Golden Age financially well off, says as much about his business savvy as his artistic instincts.
I’ve admired, too, his apparent honesty. In a time when the comic industry was dominated by publishers with shady--if not criminal--pasts, Eisner played it straight. Nothing spoke more to his integrity than the story of his testimony in the groundbreaking lawsuit officially known as Detective Comics, Inc. vs. Bruns Publications, Inc., Kable News Company, and Interborough News Co., but more to the point, it was DC vs. Victor Fox.
In short, Fox had taken note of the spectacular sales of ACTION COMICS and hoping to catch the coattails of the comic’s lead feature, quickly contracted the Eisner/Iger shop to produce an imitation Superman. As the story goes, Eisner had his misgivings:
"…Iger made a very convincing argument, which was…that we were very hungry. We needed the money badly, " Eisner told interviewer John Benson in his 1979 fanzine, PANELS, "…when the first sequence was finished Fox decided he wanted to put the title on and he called it, strangely enough, Wonder Man."
"I suppose when you're young," said Eisner continued, "it is easier to adhere to principles…At any rate, when I did get on the stand and testified under oath, I told the truth, exactly what happened." [PANELS, pgs. 10-11]
Years later, Eisner told a more detailed version to writer Bob Andelman, which was then recounted in his posthumous biography, A SPIRITED LIFE.
“It’s simple. Go into court and say you thought up the idea and that’s it,” Iger said, “They can’t sue you because you were paid for it.”
“I can’t do that,” Eisner said. “It’s not true. Victor described the character exactly the way he wanted him in a handwritten memo. Obviously, a complete imitation of Superman.”
“Eisner agonized about what he’d say at the trial. Finally, he decided that he couldn’t commit perjury and, when called to the witness stand, he testified that Fox literally instructed Eisner & Iger to copy Superman.” [A SPIRITED LIFE, pgs. 44-45]
A thinly disguised fictional version even made it into Eisner’s graphic novel roman à clef, THE DREAMER.
THE DREAMER pg. 42 (1986)
[Eyron=Eisner, Reynard=Fox and Heroman=Wonder Man]
According to every version, Eisner’s confessional testimony led to DC winning the suit and Fox subsequently punishing the Eisner/Iger shop by failing to pay them $3,000 for the work they had produced for him.
This inspirational story fascinated me and prompted me to search for the transcript of the case. For years I tried contacting sources in New York City, where the case was heard by District Judge John M. Woolsey on April 6 and 7, 1939. I even imposed upon a Manhattan lawyer to see if he had access that I couldn’t get. All to no avail. The transcript was apparently lost forever.
Then out of nowhere, I recently received an email from a person who had read my online article, "Rare Eisner: Making of a Genius", telling me he had obtained a copy of the transcript and asking if I’d like to see it.
I could hardly type my affirmative reply fast enough.
In short order, my benefactor (who has requested anonymity) sent me a PDF file of transcript. For the next couple of hours I pored over the contents--and was stunned. It was like sitting in the courtroom listening to history. In my opinion, this transcript is one of the most important documents related to comic book history to ever come to light.
Both preceding and following Eisner on the stand were Jerry Siegel, Max Gaines, Sheldon Mayer and Jerry Iger, as well as the main combatants, Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz from DC and the defendant, Victor Fox. There is much revealed and much to discuss, but rather than try to do it all in one post, I’ll spread it out over several. This post will be all about Eisner.
To maintain the historical accuracy of Eisner’s testimony, I’ve decided to show you images of the scanned pages. All 27 of them. Following the page scans, I’ll be back for a summary.
[note: As the scans were made from bound pages, there is a waviness to them that I attempted to correct with an image editing program, with limited success.]
The people appearing in this transcript are:
-- William Eisner, defense witness herein referred to as The Witness
-- Asher Blum, attorney for defendant Brun Publications (Fox)
-- Samuel Fried, attorney for co-defendants Kable News Co. and Interborough News Co.
-- Horace Manges, attorney for the plaintiff Detective Comics, Inc.
-- Judge John Woolsey, herein referred to as The Court
The exhibits referred to in this suit were submitted along with the affidavit of Jack Liebowitz:
Exhibit I, pg. 1
Exhibit I, pg. 2)
Exhibit I, pg. 3
TESTIMONY OF WILL EISNER
If you’ve made it this far, I assume you’ve read Eisner’s testimony in total. And if you have, you too have noticed the obvious discrepancy between Eisner’s oft-repeated version and his words before the court.
[full disclosure: This posed a true dilemma for me. Part of me wanted to protect the image of my idol by keeping this information to myself. Part realized the importance of this document to comic history and my responsibility as a reporter. I can't deny history, so as much as this truly pains me, I set my personal emotions aside.]
There is no equivocation on his part. Eisner takes full credit for creating Wonder Man months before ACTION COMICS hit the newsstands, without any knowledge of Superman himself and without Fox‘s prompting. Eisner’s testimony was in lock-step with both Iger and Fox, which will become evident in a subsequent post. Contrary to the image of the idealistic young artist risking his financial well-being on principle, it appears he succumbed to the urgings of his partner and their client.
One point not mentioned in the transcript, but one which Eisner himself frequently mentioned: he was one of the editors that had rejected Siegel and Shuster’s Superman strip before DC bought it.
“One day Eisner received a letter and sample art from two Cleveland kids, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. They were peddling two comic strips, one called “Spy”, the other “Superman”.
“The truth of the matter is that when I saw their stuff, I didn’t think that any of our customers would buy it, and I was right,” Eisner said.” [A SPIRITED LIFE, pg. 43]
If the plaintiffs’ lawyers had known about this prior knowledge, or if Siegel had recalled his submission to Eisner, it could have made his testimony even more uncomfortable.
As I stated previously, there is much more fascinating testimony in this transcript that I will be presenting in future posts. The parade of witnesses provide a plethora of revelatory detail about their shadowy world of publication and the creation of Superman in particular.
Will Eisner is still my hero; creative, farsighted and flat-out brilliant. But flawed, just like everyone else. Just a man and not a Superman.