Written by Bryan Stroud
Hy Eisman (born March 27, 1927) is an American cartoonist - active since the 1950s - who writes and draws the Sunday strips for Popeye and (until the strip went into reruns in 2006) The Katzenjammer Kids. In December 2008, Eisman introduced the character of Bluto to the Popeye Sunday strips, as the twin brother of Brutus.
He entered the comic strip field in 1950 and worked on several strips, including Kerry Drake, Little Iodine and Bunny. In comic books he was the last artist doing Little Lulu before it was cancelled in 1984. He took over The Katzenjammer Kids in 1986 and the Popeye Sunday strip in 1994.
In 1976, Eisman became a teacher at the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art.
Eisman won the 1975 National Cartoonists Society's Award for Best Humor Comic Book Cartoonist (for Gold Key's Nancy comic books). In 1983, he received an award for his work on the Little Lulu comic book.
I took the opportunity to do a couple of more interviews with Kubert School instructors and thoroughly enjoyed talking with Hy Eisman, one of the originals.
This interview originally took place over the phone on October 22, 2010.
Hy Eisman: That’s true, yes.
Stroud: I know you’re still there. How long have you been at it now?
Eisman: Since 1976, so that would be about 34 years. Joe and I are the only two still left from the original teachers.
Stroud: Quite the accomplishment.
Eisman: Especially since neither Joe or I have much to do with computers. (Chuckle.) Nowadays everything is being done by computer. The students, of course, are all using computers.
Stroud: I sort of miss the handwork and craftsmanship of comics done the old-fashioned way.
Eisman: In about 10 years you’ll be watching the Antique Road Show and someone will bring up a thing and say, “Do you know what this is? This is a hand drawn cartoon. Done by dipping a pen into ink. Do you see this little thing?” “What is that?” “That’s worth $50.00, it’s called a steel pen.” (Mutual laughter.)
Stroud: Once when I spoke to Joe he was getting into the computerized coloring and as I recall he described it as a learning process. I know from chats with some of your fellow teachers and Joe, too, that he described the work at the school as a way of giving back and not necessarily for the money. Any comment?
Eisman: (Laughter.) It’s true. When he started the school, he didn’t tell me he was starting a school. He just told me, “Why don’t you come out and see what I’m doing?” I live east of him near the George Washington Bridge. He’s about 45 minutes west of me in Dover. It was a nice day and I said to my wife, “Do you want to ride out to Joe’s? He said he’s doing something.” That was a mistake, taking her along. (Chuckle.) Because when I got out there, he’s got this old mansion and he says, “I’m going to put a school here.” I thought, “Well, that’s nice.” Why, I don’t know, but sure, that’s a good idea. He says, “I want you to teach here.” I said, “I don’t know how to teach, Joe. I’ve never taught.” He said, “No, all you have to do is do what you’re doing and show them and tell them as you’re doing it.” I said, “That’s all there is to it?” He said, “Yeah.” I realized at that point I’d been working in the attic of my house for 26 years. I wasn’t speaking to anyone except (chuckle) with people involved in the neighborhood. Everything went through the mail. I hadn’t got up and talked in front of anybody. I can’t do this kind of thing.
My wife said, “Yeah, why don’t you do it? It will get you out of the house once or twice a week.” There was the mistake. I said, “All right, I’ll try it.” It worked out. He developed the school and Ric Estrada, of course, was teaching at the same time. I read that thing you sent me that Ric said. He’s actually the guy that taught me how to teach.
Stroud: How was that?
Eisman: Well, I didn’t even know how to begin and he told me, “Try to stay basic.” I didn’t know how basic to stay because at that time guys didn’t know about steel pens any more because they were using mechanical pens and bits and I was talking about putting a pen nib into a holder and dipping it into an inkwell and they never said anything and I didn’t know they didn’t know what I was talking about. So you had to go back and say, “These are steel pens that you can use that are flexible and they work like a brush if you use, say a 290 Guillot. I kept going back and back, more basic. “This is a pencil.”
Another thing Ric told me that I never forgot because it happened to me often: He said, “Don’t ever show your students your own work. It’s like asking for a bullet in the back of the neck.” Slowly but surely, he guided me on my approach. He had done some prior teaching, I think. I was sad to see him go. I didn’t realize until I read your transcript that he had that offer in Mexico. I had no idea. You only saw people maybe once a week at the school, so it wasn’t really a social kind of thing and it made it kind of hard to keep track of people.
Most of the cartoonists at the time did one day a week. A little later on I took on two days, but I couldn’t keep that up doing two Sunday pages, freelancing and the other things I was doing.
Stroud: Was your schedule up to you or was a certain minimum required or was it whatever you could squeeze in?
Eisman: Well, today most people pick their own day. When we first started there were only 8 guys on the teaching staff, so we all picked a day. Two people would be trading off. One class would have one guy instructing in the morning and then have the other instructor in the afternoon. You switched off.
At the beginning I was teaching continuity, so I would teach one group in the morning and then a second group in the afternoon and whoever was teaching in the afternoon took the morning class. Of course, there were only 25 people at the time, to begin with.
Stroud: So that was pretty manageable at the time.
Eisman: Yes, and then it grew and there were a lot of guys. I think it got up to 30 cartoonists working at the school.
Stroud: Other than yourself and Irwin and Joe obviously, who were the original instructors?
Eisman: Henry Boltinoff, Ric Estrada, Lee Elias, who along with some comic book work did a strip about parallel life on another planet. I think they did it for the News Tribune Syndicate. Dick Giordano taught the first year. Irwin, Joe and there was a lady who I believe was a colorist for DC named Harris. That was the group.
After the fist couple of years people kept asking how to letter because of course they were still hand lettering then. So, Joe asked me to teach lettering. I did that for the next 15 or 20 years. Just lettering. (Chuckle.) That’s become an extinct curriculum. Just two years ago we phased out hand lettering because they all insisted on using the computer.
The letterers design their own fonts. Joe has a font and Adam Kubert has a font. They do their own. The kids at the school generally just use a commercial font and everybody’s stuff looks alike. Which turns it into a printing press. I think it loses that energy that old-time cartoonists brought with their own unique lettering styles. Some were good and some were bad, but it was their own stuff. If you know Walt Kelly’s stuff, you can’t do Pogo unless you letter the way he used to letter that material.
When the Reverend spoke, he spoke in “Olde English” and it looked like stuff coming out of the Bible. The kids can’t grasp that. They don’t understand that the lettering is like the drawing. It’s a part of the artist’s makeup.
Stroud: It’s an art all unto itself.
Stroud: Are the sound effects done the same?
Eisman: They pull the sound effects off these commercial fonts. So, the sound effects also tend to all look alike. It’s become very mechanical. I’m now teaching continuity again so I try to get them to look at the stuff and see the value in being a little different so you don’t look like you’re producing something mechanical. But you know young people grow up today with that computer in the crib and an iPhone, too. (Chuckle.) “Mom! Thirsty.”
All the students seem to know what to do with a computer and inevitably ask, “Can it be done on the computer?” The other thing we used to try and explain to them is that a morgue is a good idea. You clip photos and you shoot photos so that you have a ready file of material and you get a varied look of whatever you need. An automobile, a motorcycle. And they go to the computer. So, if it’s a motorcycle they’re seeing a profile of a motorcycle. What if you needed a ¾? Go out and shoot it yourself. You can’t seem to make them understand research.
Stroud: Of course. When you type in the same thing, you’ll get the same image result.
Eisman: That’s exactly what happens. Now Pixar had a big exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art a couple of years ago. They use sculpture, which is amazing, to sculpt the characters so that the animators can work from it and they had a big sign that said, “It all starts with a pencil.” And I try to impress upon them that very thing: “It all starts with a pencil.” Pixar had stuff done in crayon and wash and oil and pastels and they were concept drawings of stuff that the people were going to do and actually put on a computer, but it all has to begin with a creator. That’s what I’m trying to impart to them. “Close the computer. Sit down with your pencil and dig into your brain.” That’s what guys used to do.
Stroud: The very core of it all.
Eisman: Do you draw? Are you a cartoonist?
Stroud: No such luck. It flies completely in the face of Joe’s philosophy, but I don’t feel like I have any talent and got discouraged years ago. I know that Joe is convinced if you have the desire…
Eisman: Strong desire. It has to be what they used to call the fire in the belly.
Stroud: Yes, the strong desire and the willingness to put in the hours equal success in Joe’s formula. I’m just skeptical in my own case. (Chuckle.)
Eisman: Well, if you have a strong interest in this medium and you write about it, that’s also a talent.
Stroud: Well, thank you. This project has made me feel 10 years old again.
Eisman: That’s the way I felt with the old cartoonists.
Stroud: I don’t know where the industry would be without the Milton Caniff’s…
Eisman: Hal Foster. Alex Raymond. Raymond Van Buren. Al Capp.
Stroud: Roy Crane. All the pioneers.
Eisman: And they ended up taking on assistants and ghosts and that began even more careers.
Stroud: You did that, too, if I’m not mistaken.
Eisman: (Laughter.) It’s been my career. I could never sell my own stuff, but they’d look at it and say, “Well, we can’t use that, but how would you like to draw this?” Anonymously. That’s the worst part.
Stroud: As you taught, did any students particularly stand out?
Eisman: Oh, yes. Many of them went on to become professionals. One of them is doing Dr. Morgan. (Chuckle.) I have trouble coming up with the names offhand. Some of them, in fact, did very well and then retired, which makes me feel a little ancient. Tim Truman, Jan Duursema, Mandrake, Rick Veitch. Many of them went on to do solid comic book work and many of our current instructors at the school are former students. I taught most of them. Fernando Ruiz, for example, who does the Archie books, teaches at the school.
In fact, during some of the time I was teaching I was ghosting Archie material and used it as lessons. A lot of the fellas got work at Archie Comics. At least a half dozen former Kubert School students ended up there. Most of them wanted to work for DC or Marvel and every once in awhile I would say, “You know it’s great if you can do the underwear heroes, but if you want to get work fast work on Archie because fewer people are interested in doing that.” A few of them took me up on it and have been working there for years.
Stroud: Nothing wrong with steady work when you’re a freelancer. I’ve heard their rates are less generous, but bird in the hand and all.
Eisman: Comic book rates are less generous, that’s true. But they learn to work fast. That’s really the secret of the thing. Not only to draw, but be able to complete a number of pages in a given timeframe.
Stroud: That would go back to Joe’s work ethic of spending time at the board.
Eisman: Oh, yeah. Joe is constantly coming out with new stuff. Even as we speak. He’s my role model.
Stroud: As someone who has been employed long term in the industry, what drives you? Just a sheer love of what you do?
Eisman: Absolutely. It took me so long to actually put this all on a paying basis; I feel that I just got into the industry yesterday.
There is another thing. A personal thing. I grew up during the Depression and my father was out of work from about 1933 to 1942. He would pick up odd jobs, but never any long-term work during that whole time and it made life very precarious, so part of the drive is not to depend on anything but myself to make sure there’s enough so that I don’t have to ask for any help from anyone. That’s a large part of the drive for me.
Stroud: How did you go about coming up with a curriculum?
Eisman: As I mentioned before, Joe said, “Just show them what you’re doing.” So I showed them what I’m doing, but they didn’t understand why I did it. By that time, of course, I’d been doing it for 26 years, so you don’t really think. You don’t remember when you didn’t know how to do it.
Stroud: Second nature at that point.
Eisman: Yes. I was forced to actually put into words the techniques and in doing that I was sort of teaching myself what I was doing. One of the things that happened…you know the expression, “Work expands to fill the available time?”
Stroud: Oh yes. I’ve experienced it. (Chuckle.)
Eisman: I was doing a Sunday page amongst other things. Little Iodine, which was a Jimmy Hatlow panel. “They’ll Do It Every Time,” and Little Iodine was a spin off of that. King Features had called me and by then I had a reputation of being a ghost, so they called me and I started doing the strip. That’s what I was doing when Joe called. I was doing the strip and I was also doing comic books. The strip would take two days. I thought that was the only way you could do it. I would pencil one day and the next day I would letter and ink it. Now I’ve got the work at the school and I use up a day at the school, which means I have to get up early one day and go all the way out there, teach and come back. So, I realized I had to speed up a little bit. I found out, much to my amazement, that I could do this page in a day, by using the whole day. Rather than taking a long lunch and all those things I actually could do it in a day. So, the school actually helped me with my work. (Chuckle.) In talking about how I do it, I was able to eliminate some of the things I did because I really didn’t have to do that any more.
So, I would eliminate putting the stuff on a separate page and would go right to the Bristol board. I would do a storyboard and then go to the Bristol board, but I had been doing this thing so long that I really didn’t have to do that storyboard. Things I never would have thought of. I can speed it up and now I have to tell these guys how I do it. They would ask, “Why do you do it that way?” I’d say, “I don’t know. I’ve just always been doing it that way. I’m going to cut that out.” So, I really was teaching myself while teaching them. That’s the thing that’s kept me there, because in spite of the computer I still get feedback from them. At the beginning I was only twice as old as the students. Now I think I’m eight times as old. (Chuckle.) I’m further and further away and they look at me differently than the earlier guys did. But they keep me in touch with what’s happening and that’s really a big part of it.
Stroud: Sort of an energy and vitality to feed from I would guess.
Eisman: That’s exactly what it is. The other kick is that I bring in originals. Over the years I collected stuff just by trading material before the stuff had any value. The cartoonists used to just send you a strip if you sent them a note or some guys would want to trade, so I ended up with Prince Valiant originals and Alex Raymond originals and I’d bring them into the school and introduce them to cartoonists that even today these younger people really don’t have an interest, or they don’t think they have an interest in the old cartoonists of the past. I’d bring them in and they’d be amazed that this was done by hand.
On Prince Valiant I explained that he drew these animals, such as the horses, the figures, without reference because he knew how. His reference of the castles, backgrounds, the trees and such that he was depicting; those trees came from that area. It wasn’t just a generic tree. That’s how he produced that strip. They marvel at that. I love that feeling when I introduce them to it and their eyes open and they see something is done that you just can’t find today. You can’t find a man that’s working the way Hal Foster worked.
Stroud: One of the truly great masters. I was actually lucky enough to see an original Foster Sunday Prince Valiant at an exhibit last year.
Eisman: Not only is the current version very different, but they’ve got it down to the size of a postage stamp. I don’t know how anyone could work that size any more.
Stroud: No comparison.
Eisman: He produced that thing, the horses and the humans, without reference. He just knew the human body and he knew the animals. I had a student who ended up teaching and I had introduced him to Alex Raymond originals and he was so taken by it he ended up interviewing Raymond’s relatives and descendents and doing other research and put out a beautiful book on Alex Raymond.
You know Hal Foster didn’t really want to do a comic strip. He only went into it because it was the Depression and he had to keep a studio going. A strip was the only thing that would bring in enough money for the rent. A lot of the guys drank because of that. They thought they were losers because they weren’t doing real, respectable illustration work. Though many made a lot of money at it, they thought it was degrading.
Stroud: And yet the people doing comic books longed for a syndicated strip.
Eisman: Not only that, but if you look at early comic books a lot of the stuff was swiped, because they felt that if they weren’t signing their name to it and they’re getting three dollars a page, well, this is what I’m going to do. (Chuckle.)
Stroud: I remember reading a study comparing early Bob Kane to Hal Foster panels showing obvious swipes.
Eisman: Oh, they could do that with anybody at that time. Most of the stuff at one point was all Flash Gordon dressed up in a suit. The figures were definitely lifted from Sunday pages. Flash Gordon in a double-breasted suit and hat. You saw that constantly and the guys did it because of the anonymity. The publishers did it purposely because if anybody suddenly became a fan, they’d have to pay them more money. So, in turn the guys would say, “Well, it’s unsigned and I need speed, so this is what you get.”
Stroud: If you’re going to swipe, swipe from the best.
Eisman: Today it isn’t called swiping. It’s all homage.
Stroud: (Laughter.) I guess it’s like the old joke that if you copy one person it’s plagiarism, but if you copy three people it’s research.
Eisman: And if you copy five, it’s homage.