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.
Very helpful! My comics history class this fall will be enthralled! Thank you for all your hard work!ReplyDelete
Thank you Diana!ReplyDelete
I'll be presenting more testimony from this historic case soon. Very revealing and insightful information from some of the most prominent players in Golden Age comics.
I am not surprised. I think anything Eisner said should be taken with a grain of salt, as he had a way of turning his most troubling sides into a story that either showed him in a good light or as a loveable scoundrel. Point in case; the fact quoted by you that he was a succesful businessman. I think his years with PS and everything after that show one miscalculated enterprise after another. Until he finally turned his life around and became the first realgraphic novelist, he was anything but a succesful businessman.ReplyDelete
Amazing Ken! I look forward to reading the future transcripts as well. I'm totally curious how your source was able to find this gem! Thanks a lot for your great blog and sharing this information with it. It made my day reading such a great piece of history.ReplyDelete
Top notch stuff. The truth is always a great thing.ReplyDelete
Eisner did have his successes, Ger.ReplyDelete
His partnership with Iger was one of the more successful comic shops and The Spirit did run 12 years and spawn several comic book adaptations, so he made money there as well. I agree that his own comic book publishing ventures didn't work out well, but American Visuals provided him with a steady income for years. Not many of the Golden Age creators did as well.
Great stuff. Is there an easy way to scroll thought the transcript pages?ReplyDelete
Thank you, Joanna!ReplyDelete
I love sharing history with everyone--even when it is disappointing information.
Sometimes the truth hurts, but it still needs to be known.
Unfortunately, the limitations of this blog prevent a scrollable document. I know it's awkward, but I hope the content is worth the effort.
Incredible find! And I'm sure Wonder Man and Captain Marvel were not the only ones sued by DC at the time!ReplyDelete
Would you mind if I repost this on my blog? (Giving you the appropriate backlink, of course)
Amazing stuff, Ken. Woke up middle of the night, had to drink all this in, scrolling thru the transcript is a mind-blowing/opening experience.ReplyDelete
I do not remember Jerry Siegeel ever saying he and Joe had ever submitted Superman (or Spy) to the Eisner Iger Shop. They did say they shopped it around to many varied places though, Humor Publishing being the most well-remembered prior to it being sent to McClure from whence MC Gaines, with prompting from a youthful Shelly Mayer, sending it over to Vince Sullivant for Action 1
Eisner is clearly not telling truth here. That is a big bummer to digest. Looking forward to more, pretty please!
Wow! It certainly casts a very different light on Eisner's recollections of the incident. One has to wonder if Will felt humiliated being burned by Victor Fox and wrote himself as a principled hero in his frequent retellings of the story?ReplyDelete
Over time he may even have come to believe his own bogus version of events. It does make one question many of the stories in his Dreamer graphic novel.
Terrific detective work, Ken!
Michael T. Gilbert
This is awesome! Fantastic Work!ReplyDelete
How certain are you of the provenance of the transcript? Is there any possibility that it is a confabulation?ReplyDelete
I am a great admirer of Eisner too, but think we all must recognize his very real, human limitations (which are now even more visible than before, when I thought of Ebony as perhaps the strongest evidence of his limitations). So thanks for this, which enlarges the portrait, warts and all.ReplyDelete
In case anyone is interested, Wonder Comics #1 is now public domain and can be downloaded from http://goldenagecomics.co.uk/index.php?dlid=1797 . In addition to the only Wonderman story printed, it has some early Bob Kane work.ReplyDelete
Thanks for the kind words and sure, link away to this post as you wish.ReplyDelete
Thank you, Bob! And rest assured, there is more from this incredible document on the way.ReplyDelete
I'm 100 percent certain of the provenance, Greg. It was obtained from a very public and unimpeachable source and I wouldn't have considered posting it if I had even the slightest doubt about it.ReplyDelete
Amen to that, Corey!ReplyDelete
We all have our faults and Eisner is no different. This information doesn't alter any of the admiration I have for his talent or his work.
Per Kim's recommendation: I also recommend the Golden Age Comics download site to anyone who is interested in viewing these often priceless treasures. It's a great resource.ReplyDelete
Wow. To say I'm shocked is an understatement, but it shows everyone is fallible and subject to reinterpreting events over the years. It's astonishing that no one challenged Will's version of events before now.
Doesn't change my admiration of the man and his accomplishments but it is certainly fascinating.
Great investigative work!
Will Eisner: A Spirited Life (Dark Horse)
Your sentiments reflect my own, Bob.ReplyDelete
I believe you know how I feel about Eisner and while this was a shock, it didn't change my admiration of his accomplishments either.
By the way, folks, I HIGHLY recommend Bob's Eisner biography to everyone who has even the slightest interest in the man. A great read!
Absolutely an amazing find! I plan on plugging this link in my next ITCH column tomorrow. Just....wow.ReplyDelete
Thanks! I appreciate the link and the kind words.ReplyDelete
You mentioned that the person who sent this requested anonymity. In your response to Greg Morrow you said it came from a public and unimpeachable source. Without revealing the identity of the sender, could you at least let people know what the public source is?
Wow. What a fascinating and important piece of comix history you offer here... you have the scoop of the decade with this posting!ReplyDelete
I'm surprised that no one ever unearthed this court transcript 'til now. It reveals what really happened. If Eisner comes off much less heroic than he recalled, that's too bad.
Interestingly, DC also sued Fawcett's Master Man, which was ALSO created by Will Eisner. Kinda disheartening, if you think about it. But creatively speaking, Eisner is still my hero.ReplyDelete
With due time, Scott, I will reveal all--except for the finder's name.ReplyDelete
Don't be too hard on Eisner. Many comic book publishers were trying to capture the same lightning in a bottle as DC had.ReplyDelete
In the beginning, DC went after anyone producing a super-powered character--i.e. Captain Marvel. But soon they realized that the dam had burst and there were too many for them to pursue in court.
I wonder how accurate my own memory is of things that happened forty years ago. How does one know for certain if a memory is a true memory or a false memory?ReplyDelete
Well, though never confirmed, Siegel and Shuster probably got the idea for Superman from Philip Wylie's Gladiator, published in 1930.ReplyDelete
Jones, Gerard. Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book. New York: Basic Books, 2004 (ISBN 0465036562), pg. 346: Wylie threatened to sue Siegel for plagiarism in 1940, but there is no evidence he carried through with the litigation. Historian Jones writes that, "Siegel flatly denied that Wylie's novel had influenced him in any way," although Jones added his own conjecture that "the timing and striking similarities ... would seem to leave no doubt of Gladiator's role".
Eisner would've been wise to mention Gladiator as his influence for Wonder Man. Can you imagine that can of worms being opened at the trial?!!
Memories surely erode over time, Mark, and Eisner may have become convinced of the version he told so often.ReplyDelete
We will never know for sure.
Wylie's "Gladiator" was a far more obscure point of reference than the comic strip "The Phantom" cited by Eisner, et al. as a common source for both "Wonder Man" and "Superman". There's a distinct possibility that many of the participants--Eisner and Iger included--had never even heard of the book.ReplyDelete
And in any case, it would have been hard to prove that Siegel copied Wylie. 'Influenced' is one thing, plagiarized another.
fascinating stuff. I've printed it out to read through it and i'm sure i'll be doing a blog post about it as well, with attribution of course. thanks so much for taking the time to find and post this incredible historical information.ReplyDelete
Thank you, Ink!ReplyDelete
Thanks so much for the investigative work here. In some ways, I think we can better appreciate the work of our favorite authors when we are better informed about the history and context of what brought them to those creative places that formed both their writings and senses of self. These documents certainly help to better inform us a little more as to who Eisner the man really was, and perhaps, will allow us to revisit his work with a new perspective.
I agree totally, Forrest.ReplyDelete
Much of my research involves humanizing these comic creators that we as fans have almost mythologized. They were flesh-and-blood men and women and in many cases, their lives were more interesting than the one-dimensional personas we have imagined for them.
FANTASTIC Work on presenting this Ken.ReplyDelete
A small additional note concerning Page 25 of Eisner's testimony.
"Question: Mr. Eisner, did you have anything to do with the wording of this poster for Wonder Comics 1?"
The poster in question MIGHT have been one of the several promotional posters Fox released to distributors only. Heritage Auctions listed many of them, with pictures, in their
Heritage Comics Auctions, Dallas Signature Auction Catalog #817 - Page 254.
A date received was pencilled in on all of the posters. Wonder Comics #1 had TWO dates: 3/17/1939 and 3/21/1939.
You can see this catalog page at the following link:
Thank you for the kind words, Yoc!ReplyDelete
And thanks, too, for the link to the WONDER COMICS poster. I'll check it out.
I'm writing a book about the history of Marvelman, and I've gone as far back as Superman, and even to Philip Wylie's Gladiator, here.ReplyDelete
Along the way, I mention this very case, so I've now had to go in and insert a footnote to say that, after all, it seems that Eisner was lying. The truth is often bitter, as they say over here in Ireland: Is minic a bhíonn an fhírinne searbh.
Or as one of your famous countrymen, Oscar Wilde, once wrote:ReplyDelete
"The truth is rarely pure and never simple."
what are "goop comics" (transcript page 100, your pg num 22) ?ReplyDelete
Good question, Guy! And the answer is...ReplyDelete
...I don't know.
That particular bit of testimony from Eisner has generated comments from quite a few folks. To this point, I don't know if anyone has found any other reference to "goop comics".
But if I do, I'll let you all know!
For those with eyes to see it was always pretty clear that Eisner was a very self-serving man. I remember seeing Steranko back in 1979 at a London comicon, and when asked about Eisner's influence he snapped back "What did he ever draw?" It seems Mr S had been very put out to discover that the great Eisner story he had reproduced in full in THE STERANKO HISTORY OF COMICS had in fact been drawn entirely by Jerry Grandenetti. (I don't know the source of Steranko's info, but it must have been pretty solid for him to be so infuriated with his erstwhile idol). On a side note, I notice that as recently as 2005 Heritage Auctions were selling the original art for that story as 100% Eisner...)ReplyDelete
Many of the Spirit strips have been mis-identified as being "100% Eisner", Paul, but I can't lay that at his feet.ReplyDelete
Eisner was always very forthcoming about the artists who worked on his staff and the various parts they played in putting the strip together. To be sure, his name was on The Spirit and he took a lion's share of the credit (justifiably). But he honestly can't be faulted for later IDs that failed to discern who actually drew what.
Given the opportunity, most of us will re-write history to what we wished it had been, rather than what actually happened. This temptation is especially acute for someone praised by critics and fans like Eisner.ReplyDelete
It is an entirely understandable, entirely human temptation, AB. One that few people have resisted.ReplyDelete
My grandfather worked for victor fox as a penciller, inker, and cover artist for a few years before he volunteered for the draft and became a tank commander in the US army. He fought through Italy and narrowly escaped redeployment as a paratrooper for D-Day operations (lucky for me, perhaps)ReplyDelete
Fascinating! Who was your grandfather? Please, tell me more. You can contact me at: email@example.comReplyDelete