Will Eisner’s The Spirit at Kitchen Sink (pt. 4)

« Some men are like flies… without a plan – without direction… they flit restlessly about the world… escaping one danger… and another… only to fall into the spider’s web… » — Bleak’s prospects are grim (Jan. 4, 1948)

Here we are, making our way through Kitchen Sink’s valiant chronological reprinting of Eisner’s post-WWII The Spirit, namely strips from December 1947 to December 1948; still at the peak, with a bit of fatigue on the horizon. At any rate, this particular vintage inspired a score of the master cartoonist’s most sublime new covers… as you’ll witness.

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Kitchen Sink Press’ The Spirit no. 25 (Nov. 1986) cover-features Eisner’s famous and much-reprinted jailbreak saga, Slippery Eall (aka A River of Crime), originally published on November 30, 1947. The story features inmates bearing the mugs of Eisner studio contributors: letterer Abe Kanegson is Bellows; penciller-inker Jerry Grandenetti is Dapperish; and Eisner himself is Slippery Eall. Also in this issue: Death of Hugo (Dec. 7, 1947), Snow (Dec. 14) and Christmas Spirit of 1947: Joy (Dec. 21). Cover by Will Eisner. Cover colouring by Pete Poplaski.

Speaking of the slammer, Eisner muses sardonically on the cartooning life: « Working in this field is a very, not lonely, but solitary life. All of us come to realize how many hours we’ve been chained to the drawing board. We used to talk in the studio about how if we were sent to jail, it wouldn’t make any difference. We could still turn out comics and our lives would not be a hell of a lot different. »

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Here’s that celebrated opening splash, from its appearance in Will Eisner’s 3-D Classics featuring The Spirit no. 1 (Dec. 1985, Kitchen Sink); get those glasses out!

From Dave Shreiner’s ongoing talk with Eisner, published in The Spirit no. 26‘s Stage Settings column: “Eisner has always been a functionalist, rarely a decorative artist producing something for its beauty alone. He is a powerful artist in that nearly every device he uses serves more than one purpose. With a bit of prodding, he took issue with the seemingly prevalent attitude among comic book artists that splash pages serve as a second cover to a story: there for decoration and enticement, but redundant to the story.”

Eisner: « A lot of the artwork done in this field is for a kind of personal satisfaction. It’s used to display artistic muscle, rather than confining itself to an artistic purpose. I believe a lot of artists fear addressing themselves to a purpose because they’re afraid that the showiness, or dazzle dazzle of their artwork, will probably be diminished. 

Consequently, they feel the approval level, the applause meter, will fall off somewhat. We’ve talked before about one of the problems facing artists in the comic book field being that their work is judged essentially on the physical appearance of it. It’s the artwork, rather than the content. That fact contributes to comic books being looked down upon. »

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This is The Spirit no. 26 (Dec. 1986), and it brings us ‘Umbrella Handles’ (Dec. 28, 1947); The Name Is ‘Powder’ (Jan. 4, 1948); The Fallen Sparrow (Jan. 11, 1948); and Just One Word Made Me a Man (Jan. 18, 1948). Colours by Pete Poplaski, grey toning by Ray Fehrenbach.
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This is The Spirit no. 28 (Feb. 1987), and it features Life Below (Feb. 22, 1948); The Return of Roger (Feb. 29, 1948, evidently, like 2020, a leap year); The Strange Case of Mrs. Paraffin (Mar. 7, 1948); and War Brides (Mar. 14, 1948). Colours by Pete Poplaski, grey toning by Ray Fehrenbach.

On the subject of the inspiration behind cover-featured Life Below, Eisner explains: « I was trying to find a unique, or exciting and startling setting within a normal situation. It always intrigued me that cities, particularly New York City, had miles and miles of catacombs under the streets. People doing city stories frequently overlook the potential of them. Underneath the city are layer after layer of story material. »

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This is The Spirit no. 31 (May 1987), featuring The Last Hand (May 16, 1948); Assignment: Paris (May 23, 1948); The Emerald of Rajahpur (May 30, 1948); and The Guilty Gun (June 6, 1948). Colours by Pete Poplaski, grey toning by Ray Fehrenbach.
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This is The Spirit no. 33 (July 1987), featuring The Springtime of Dolan (July 11, 1948); Barkarolle (July 18 1948); cover-featured The Thing (July 25th, 1948), an adaptation of Ambrose Bierce‘s short story The Damned Thing and quite the Jerry Grandenetti showcase; and The Eisner Travel Agency (Aug. 1st, 1948). Cover colours by Dave Schreiner.
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This is The Spirit no. 35 (Sept. 1987), comprising cover-featured The Story of Gerhard Shnobble (Sept. 5, 1948); Cache McStash (Sept. 12, 1948); Lorelei Rox (Sept. 19, 1948); and Ace McCase (Sept. 26, 1948). Cover colours by Ray Fehrenbach. That poor Mr. Schnobble (the little flying guy with the grin and the bowler hat)… his is among the most tragic fates in comics.
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This is The Spirit no. 36 (Oct. 1987), and it brings cover-featured Tooty Compote (Oct. 3, 1948); Gold (Oct. 10, 1948); Nazel B. Twitch (Oct. 17, 1948); and Pancho de Bool (Oct. 23, 1948). Cover colours by Ray Fehrenbach. Striking shadow effects: the KS production team sure knew how to make the most of the relatively primitive mechanical means at its disposal.
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This is The Spirit no. 37 (Nov. 1987), and it hits us with Halloween (Oct. 31, 1948); cover-featured Plaster of Paris (Nov. 7, 1948); The Chapparell Lode (Nov. 14, 1948); and Quirte (Nov. 21, 1948). Cover colours by Ray Fehrenbach. Note the witty symmetry of the matching KS logo, top left.
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This is The Spirit no. 38 (Dec. 1987), which lands expertly and rolls with The Amulet of Osiris (Nov. 28, 1948); cover-featured The Coin (aka Stop the Plot!, Dec. 5, 1948), an action-packed humdinger featuring the return of The Octopus; Two Lives (Dec. 12, 1948); and Christmas Spirit of 1948 (Dec. 19, 1948). Cover colours by Ray Fehrenbach. A dizzying honey of a cover.

Past this juncture, the strip’s slow, inexorable decline commences, and the covers reflect that fact. But not to worry: Eisner was a consummate pro, and the rest of the run is not without its gems. Besides, I’ll be cherry-picking ’em for you.

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If you’ve just arrived at the intermission, fret not: take your seat and relax, here’s what you missed so far :

… or point your clicker on our general category, That’s THE SPIRIT!, and summon the lot at once… but in reverse chronological order; that’s the minute toll this dab of convenience exacts.

-RG

Hallowe’en Countdown III, Day 20

« Eeeeeeeeeee! A horrible monster! He wants to… to eat me! »

With the coming of Hallowe’en, you have to get all the bases covered: an ungodly hoard of candy, a pumpkin to carve and assorted decorations to array about the house. Thank your lucky stars for the lightness of your burden: the average Balkan peasant also has to polish his pitchfork, sharpen and set out wooden stakes, gather sprigs of wolfsbane, and round up the requisite number of torches.

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A detail from page eight: Grandenetti at his late-period finest, each page crackling with nervous energy and brimming with shadowy ambiance.

This merry nocturnal chase is brought to you by the team of Otto Binder, writer, and local favourite Jerry Grandenetti, illustrator. It comes from the sixth issue (January, 1969) of Cracked‘s go at a Warren-style Monster mag, For Monsters Only (10 issues… plus a  best-of “annual”, sporadically published between 1965 and 1972). This was Frankenstein ’68, the first of three entries in Binder and Grandenetti’s The Secret Files of Marc Vangoro*, featured in issues 6, 7 and 8 of the mag. Well worth hunting down.

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While this material has never, to my knowledge, been reprinted, and as copies of these long-neglected mags are getting scarcer and naturally pricier, fear not… for some kind souls have taken the considerable trouble of scanning, and more to the point, sharing them. In this particular case, look here.

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Here’s the cover you need to keep an eye for. This is Cracked’s For Monsters Only no. 6 (Jan. 1969). That handsome fella is said to be the creation of the renowned wildlife painter Charles Fracé, of all people.
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It’s heartening to know that the original art still exists and is in presumably caring hands.

– RG

*perhaps a knowing wink at Grandenetti’s (with fellow Eisner Studio acolytes Marilyn Mercer and Abe Kanegson) 1949-51 classic The Secret Files of Dr. Drew, blessedly available in an exemplary edition, thanks to the sterling efforts of cartoonist-scholar Michael T. Gilbert.

Edgar Allan Poe: Immortality Is but Ubiquity in Time*

« Be silent in that solitude
    which is not loneliness — for then
the spirits of the dead who stood
    in life before thee are again
in death around thee — and their will
shall then overshadow thee: be still. »
— Edgar Allan Poe (1829)

It was on this day, two hundred and ten years ago, that the great writer, poet and posthumous master of all media Edgar Poe (Jan. 19, 1809 – Oct. 7, 1849) was born in Boston, Massachusetts. I’ll spare you the usual biographical details, widely available elsewhere, and we’ll concentrate on his unflagging ubiquity in the medium of comics.

Poe’s literary reputation was in tatters in America, thanks to a rash of hatchet jobs and dismissals, some of the most vicious from the pen of one Rufus Griswold, the very worm he’d named his literary executor (!), as well as such notables as Ralph Waldo Emerson and T.S. Eliot… while his renown was undimmed in Europe, particularly in France (in no small part owing to Charles Beaudelaire’s legendary translations), rehabilitation at home slowly came as the 20th century crept along, but it was likely the publication of Arthur Hobson Quinn’s definitive Poe biography, in 1941, that sealed the deal and opened the floodgates.

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Top two tiers from page 2 of The Spirit‘s August 22, 1948 episode. Layout by Will Eisner, pencils and inks by Jerry Grandenetti. As Dave Schreiner puts it: « Grandenetti captures the asthenic look of Roderick Usher that Poe described. The man is a decadent waif; insular, fragile, high-strung, possibly in-bred. »

Classics Illustrated publisher Gilberton was first out of the gate with Poe adaptations, at first tentatively with a pair of poems (Annabel Lee, then The Bells)**, then more substantially with The Murders in the Rue Morgue, in Classic Comics no. 21 3 Famous Mysteries (July, 1944), sharing the stage with Arthur Conan Doyle and Guy de Maupassant. Read it here. Pictured below is Classics Illustrated no. 84 (June 1951, Gilberton), cover by Alex A. Blum. Read the issue here.

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A relevant passage from Simon Singh‘s fascinating (if you’re into that sort of thing… and I hope you are) The Code Book: The Secret History of Codes and Code-Breaking (1999): « On the other side of the Atlantic, Edgar Allan Poe was also developing an interest in cryptanalysis. Writing for Philadelphia’s Alexander Weekly Messenger, he issued a challenge to readers, claiming that he could decipher any monoalphabetic substitution cipher. Hundreds of readers sent in their ciphertexts, and he successfully deciphered them all. Although this required nothing more than frequency analysis, Poe’s readers were astonished by his achievements. One adoring fan proclaimed him ‘the most profound and skilful cryptographer who ever lived’. In 1843, keen to exploit the interest he had generated, Poe wrote a short story about ciphers, which is widely acknowledged by professional cryptographers to be the finest piece of fictional literature on the subject. The Gold Bug tells the story of William Legrand, who discovers an unusual beetle, the gold bug, and collects it using a scrap of paper lying nearby. That evening he sketches the gold bug upon the same piece of paper, and then holds his drawing up to the light of the fire to check its accuracy. However, his sketch is obliterated by an invisible ink, which has been developed by the heat of the flames. Legrand examines the characters that have emerged and becomes convinced that he has in his hands the encrypted directions for finding Captain Kidd’s treasure. »
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A page from EC Comics great Reed Crandall‘s exemplary adaptation of Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, from Creepy no. 3 (June, 1965). While Crandall’s work is outstanding, scripter-editor Archie Goodwin tried to ‘improve’ upon Poe by tacking on a tacky ending, a nasty habit he would indulge in again on subsequent adaptations, notably issue 6’s The Cask of Amontillado!. Read The Tell-Tale Heart. And don’t miss The Cask…, if only for the artwork.
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In the mid-70s, Warren would devote two full issues of Creepy to Poe adaptations; issue 69 (Feb. 1975), featured The Pit and the Pendulum, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Premature BurialThe Oval Portrait, MS Found in a Bottle!, Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar; issue 70 (Apr. 1975) comprised The Murders in the Rue Morgue, Man of the Crowd, The Cask of Amontillado!, Shadow, A Descent into the Maelstrom! and Berenice
All stories were adapted, with far greater respect than Mr. Goodwin seemed capable of, by Rich Margopoulos, and illustrated by a host of artists. The project was edited by Bill DuBay, and the cover painting is by Ken Kelly.
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Isidre Monés‘ fabulous opening splash from Creepy no. 70‘s Berenice. Read the story in full here.
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« The rays of the moon seemed to search the very bottom of the profound gulf; but still I could make out nothing distinctly, on account of a thick mist in which everything there was enveloped, and over which there hung a magnificent rainbow, like that narrow and tottering bridge which Musselmen say is the only pathway between Time and Eternity. » In 1976, a peak-form Berni Wrightson got out his brushes and paint tubes for a heartfelt portfolio of Poe-inspired oils. A sensitive and subtle sense of colour was among Wrightson’s chief assets; it’s a shame we didn’t see more of it. I opted to feature my favourite piece from the lot, A Descent Into the Maelström, but by all means feast your eyes on the whole shebang.
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In 1976, Marvel Comics set out to make their mark on the classics… with dubious, but predictable results. It wasn’t what their zombie readership had clamoured for. Here’s the best page (art by Rudy Mesina) from Marvel Classics Comics no. 28, The Pit and the Pendulum (1977), featuring three tales adapted by scripter Don McGregor, and including future superstar Michael Golden‘s abysmal professional début on yet another helping from The Cask of Amontillado, where he demonstrates how he believes wine is to be drunk just like Pepsi. See what I’m griping about here.
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Think Poe’s all about the horror? Think again! You don’t become a household name by putting all your eggs in the same basket. Meet Edgar ‘Eddie’ Allan Poe, romantic leading man. “Based on actual records…” and sanitized beyond recognition. Given that Virginia and Edgar were first cousins and that they married when she was thirteen, you can see how absurd this strip is. Read the full tale of romance and pathos right here. The Beautiful Annabel Lee appeared in Enchanting Love no. 2 (Nov. 1949, Kirby Publishing). Writer unknown, art by Bill Draut and Bruno Premiani.
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Kubert School alum Skot Olsen‘s cover illustration for the revised and expanded second edition (July, 2004) of Graphic Classics‘ Poe compendium.
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As with, say, Elvis or H.P. Lovecraft, when both legend and œuvre reach a certain tipping point of iconic fame, one can bend and twist the concepts any which way and they’ll still be recognizable. Here’s a panel from Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder‘s faithful-in-its-fashion take on The Raven, from Mad no. 9 (Feb.-Mar. 1954, EC).
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Michael Kupperman strikes again. From Snake ‘n Bacon’s Cartoon Cabaret ( 2000, HarperCollins)
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Hot off the presses! It’s Edgar Allan Poe’s Snifter of Terror no. 2 (Nov. 2018, Ahoy), featuring a collaboration between Rachel Pollack and the fabulous Rick Geary. Don’t miss it! Oh, and if the pose looks familiar, you’re thinking of this.

Whew — that’s it for now. In closing, I must bow and salute before the gargantuan endeavour accomplished by Mr. Henry R. Kujawa on his truly indispensable blog, Professor H’s Wayback Machine. Thanks for all the heavy lifting, Henry. I get exhausted just thinking about it.

Tintinabulate on, Mr. Poe — wherever you are!

-RG

*my thanks to Herman Melville for those words of wisdom.
**and thanks to the aforementioned Mr. Kujawa for that precious scrap of arcane lore.

Dateline: Frontline – The Cary Burkett Interview, Part 3

« From time to time a sputtering doodle-bug shatters the torpor of the overcast sky. One second, sometimes two … at most three … of silence. Visualizing that fat cigar with shark fins as it stops dead, sways, idiotically tips over, then goes into a vertical dive. And explodes. Usually it’s an entire building that’s destroyed. » — Jacques Yonnet

Perhaps the title gave the game away, but we’re back with part three to wrap up (in style!) our talk with Cary Burkett on his and Jerry Grandenetti‘s (and Ric Estrada‘s) Dateline: Frontline (1977-1981).

Who’s Out There: How hands-on an editor was Paul Levitz?

CB: Paul was more hands-on at the beginning. We would have a plot conference and he would toss out suggestions and sometimes specific directions. But Paul was a very smart guy, and he had a way of figuring out how to best to work with individual writers. With me, it usually worked better to plant a seed and let it develop rather than to nail things down too tightly. I didn’t think fast in a plot conference setting, I was too intimidated by Paul’s creativity and confidence. I think Paul figured this out and found ways to drop a little guidance in that I could take time to mull over on my own.

Paul was also extremely busy, not just an Editor but the Editorial Coordinator for the whole line of DC comics, and that is a whopping responsibility. So as things progressed, he was less hands-on. I like to think he began to trust the material I was giving him.

WOT: Was there much distance between the précis Mr. Levitz assigned you to do and the scenario you handed in?

CBI don’t think so.

WOT: Dateline: Frontline is clearly a bit of a ‘pill in the hamburger’, that is to say, instructive, eye-opening material. Was this ‘Trojan Horse’ approach considered and deliberate? (Surely it wasn’t just intended as pure entertainment!)

CBIn a way, it was deliberate, although not carefully considered or planned out. The trajectory was set by Paul when he passed on to me the book The First Casualty as background guidance. The tone of that book and all the eye-opening material in it definitely influenced the approach to the series. The very idea that the main character would be a war correspondent, not a soldier or fighter, meant that these stories would have a different kind of focus. That concept came from Paul, along with the title of the series.

Of course, in comics, you could do a series with a war correspondent where the protagonist becomes a fighter, a behind-the-lines de-facto special forces soldier. If this had been a Jack Kirby strip in the ‘60’s, the correspondent would probably be thrown into situations every issue where he had to fight his way out to save threatened soldiers from some Nazi ambush. You know what I mean.

So we knew we weren’t going for pure entertainment, sure. And the more research I did, the more interested I became in the reality of what happened in the war, and the more I wanted to portray that. And since it was just a 6-page, irregular backup series, we could go in that direction.

WOT: If you were to write this series today, what, if anything, would you do differently? What effect might the intervening years and the current political climate have, for instance?

CBToo much to think about. But I will say this, I think to try to tie the series to any current political issue would tend to push it into something contrived to fit the agenda. In a way, then, it would become a kind of political propaganda, the very opposite of what the series grapples with.

That’s part of why I wasn’t so interested in setting it during the Vietnam War back in 1976 or ’77. Today, it could be put in that setting without triggering a firestorm of controversy which might drown out what the series is trying to show.

My point is that the issue of seeking truth in a time of war is not limited to any time or place. By attaching the theme to a current political hot button issue, it becomes weaker, not stronger. It becomes more limited, not broader. And it’s more difficult to hear.

My preference would be to see the series deal with the questions outside of the current political setting, and hopefully along the way to see in some way how they apply today.

Maybe that is the ‘Trojan Horse’ method you mentioned.

WOT: I’d say you nailed it.

WOT: Were you writing and planning much in advance? Are there any contemplated, but unpublished, plotlines you’d care to share?

CBI wasn’t planning specifically very far in advance. I was never sure which set of stories might be the last. But I had a vague outline in my head that I would progress through the major events of the war, choosing specific ones for Clifford to be present reporting. They would be chosen for their historical significance but also to advance general themes of the conflict between reporting the truth and trying to win a World War.

The final series of stories, I think, would have been centered on events in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and somehow Clifford would have found a way to write a story about it which revealed some of the horrible details … which of course, would never have seen the light of day. Even now, thinking about this, some lines of dialogue closing out the series kind of come to my mind.

I see Clifford, exhausted and disappointed, having given his all to get this incredible story, bitter and at the breaking point. Like it happens to all of us sometimes, the fact that he can’t publish this story seems to him to be an event that sums up his whole life as a failure. He questions why he made such a herculean effort to get the story, why he ever even bothered to try. All his previous failures to get the truth out come back to accuse him.

Maybe it’s his old mentor, the older reporter who tried to ground him a few times, who has the last word. And those words would be about the truth, and the value of searching for it no matter the outcome. And that the truth itself will stand even if only one person knows it. And the old reporter, cynical as he might have seemed at times, would be shown to have his own ideals which have sustained him through the same battles that Clifford has fought.

Yeah, maybe it sounds a bit corny out of the context of the story. But I think I’d go there. I might even have the old reporter say something like, “Truth may seem to be the first casualty in a war. But Truth can never really die, right? Someday people will know the truth about what happened.”

HA! I never expected a story idea for Dateline:Frontline would pop into my head like that after all these years. Seems like this would be a good closing question for this interview. I appreciate you bringing it up, and thanks for giving me a chance to reminisce.

WOT: And thank you for doing it so thoughtfully and graciously.

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And now, to see our readers off with a story, here, as promised last time, is the concluding episode of Dateline:Frontline’s London trilogy.

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And as a parting bonus, a vintage in-house biography of young Mr. Burkett!

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-RG

Dateline: Frontline – The Cary Burkett Interview, Part 2

« A reader has the right to ask for all the facts; he has no right to ask that a journalist or historian agree with him. » — Herbert Matthews

And we’re back with part two of our examination of Cary Burkett and Jerry Grandenetti‘s Dateline: Frontline (we’re not forgetting the famously-ambidextrous Ric Estrada, who took over illustrative duties in the second half of the series). In part one, Mr. Burkett graciously opened for us a window on the series’ genesis. In light of these privileged behind-the-scenes gleanings, as well as a reading of the series’ springboard text, Phillip Knightley’s The First Casualty, I formulated  a series of follow-up questions, of which we present the first half, along, of course, with Mr. Burkett’s insightful and modest responses, followed by chapter 2 of the first D:F trilogy.

Who’s Out There: Was there much deliberation on your part regarding the specific setting of the series?

Cary Burkett: I vaguely recall that in an early meeting with Paul Levitz we mentioned the possibility of setting the series during the Vietnam war. Or rather, I think he may have mentioned it. But I never had any interest in that from the beginning. That war was too close at the time, and I didn’t think I could do it. Research was a lot harder to do in those days, and I was too green as a writer to want to tackle that controversy.

If my memory is right, I think he left it up to me, and I very quickly settled on the World War II setting. There were a lot of reasons in my mind for that, including the wealth of research material available.

But the biggest thing was the fact that the U.S. started out as “neutral” in that war. I felt a story arc right away of a young reporter who began as a “neutral” observer, wanting to be an objective journalist, but over a series of events finding himself unable to keep from being drawn in and taking sides, despite his proclaimed neutrality.

At the time I didn’t know how long the series might last, but it was my intention to gradually move Wayne Clifford from a naïve journalist with laudable ideals into a conflicted character grappling with the very gray areas of war reporting and the messy questions of patriotism and propaganda.

WOT: In writing the series, did you ever find yourself at odds with the, er, ‘official record‘ of history?

CBI wouldn’t say that exactly. The truth is, I had only a sketchy knowledge of World War II history, and little idea of what the “official record” said. So I set about to educate myself.

One really good current documentary at the time was The World at War narrated by Laurence Olivier. I watched a number of episodes of that. What I realized from watching it was how much the history I had heard and read was centered on how the U.S. and England had won the war. This documentary was one of the first western pieces which really pointed out the importance of the Russian contribution.

That led me to other research and made me want to do a series of stories set in Russia. Of course, the insane difficulties of trying to report the truth during a war in the middle of Russia appealed vastly to me and provided a lot of opportunities for conflict on a lot of levels. I felt I barely scratched the surface in those Russia stories.

One thing about doing research; you start to get interested in all the little details. You want to include much more than you really can. You have to be careful to let the story reveal the details when it is important to the story, but not to let the research itself become the story.

I struggled with that in writing those Russia stories, because much of what I was finding out was really eye-opening to me. What I knew about the war in Russia I had learned mainly from watching Hogan’s Heroes. In that TV comedy, the Nazis all feared being sent to the Russian front, so you knew it was cold and terrible. But that’s about all I knew.

When I began to read about the scope of the tragedy and brutality of the war in Russia, I wanted to bring the reality of it into my stories. I wanted to shove it all in somehow. But my stories were a mere 6 pages long in each issue, so I had to just try to give little glimpses that implied a lot more.

Stephen King’s advice to writers is to “kill your darlings”, that is, to get rid of your pet favorite bits so they don’t bog down the story. Those Russia stories were ones where I felt I had to keep killing those “darlings” over and over.

WOT: Was there any friction with DC’s brass, or was the series too far under the radar for them to notice? If so, did that allow you more leeway?

CBWe were definitely way under the radar, but I don’t think that the stories would have caused any stir even if they had been noticed. I don’t think there was anything subversive or strongly controversial about them. They were different from the usual comic book war stories, but not in a way that would cause any issues.

The lead stories of the books featured Gravedigger, or later, The Unknown Soldier. These were the stories that were there to sell the book, and these would have gotten more scrutiny. They were the typical action-oriented comic book war stories, sometimes just a step away from fantasy. Sometimes not even a step.

With a long-running lead character in a war series, you have to be a bit looser with timelines in the war. I suppose it’s a convention of the genre that the character might pop up in Okinawa in one story, then many issues later have a story related to D-Day, even though D-Day would have happened well before Okinawa.

Maybe it’s because the main character was a journalist who was dedicated to getting the facts right, but I decided that my timeline was going to be accurate. The series would start with the U.S. as a neutral country, and we would later see the USA join the war, and all of the historical events would follow in the order they occurred.

WOT: Was the rotation of backup features decided from the start? Was it some sort of commercial compromise?

CBI don’t really know. I think the idea was mainly to have variety in the backups. It was a common template for older DC titles like Action Comics or Adventure Comics in the ‘60’s. One issue would have a Green Arrow backup, the next maybe Aquaman.

My own speculation is that as an editor, Paul was drawn to that kind of setup, and felt it gave the reader a little something extra. That’s just my own thought, he never told me that. But I know he was a comics fan, and I think he was glad to have a place where Enemy Ace could still fly through the pages of a DC Comic.

WOT: Given the wealth of material you dug up in the course of your research, it must have required considerable effort of concision to craft such spare chapters. Did you go through a lot of drafts?

I did struggle to find ways to get my stories into the six-page frame and did quite a few re-writes, trying to balance the pace so the story didn’t seem rushed but also had enough meat.

There were compromises, for sure. In what I considered to be one of the key stories, Clifford, still a neutral reporter, takes a rifle and kills an Axis soldier attempting to kill his English friend. I had been leading up to this decision since the beginning of the series. Here he is forced to admit that he is neither neutral nor objective as he thinks of himself.  I would have loved to have had a bit more room to let that sequence play out with more significance.

No doubt, I could have done a better job even in the space I had. In the end, I felt that it came out a bit weak and contrived.

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Now, let’s rejoin Wayne Clifford and his buddy Ed Barnes, who were, when we saw them last, off to the pub…

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That’s it for now! Stay tuned for the conclusion of our talk with Cary Burkett, along with part three of Dateline:Frontline’s London trilogy.

-RG

Dateline: Frontline – The Cary Burkett Interview, Part 1

« All studies of propaganda tell what a powerful weapon it is; that since armies fight as people think, it is essential to control that thought. This means some form of managing the news, and the only question is the degree to which the news should be managed openly and the degree to which it should be managed subtly. » ― Phillip Knightley, The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth-maker from the Crimea to Vietnam

In most collectors’ lives, there’s a degree of more casual, automatic accumulation. Things you pick up for a song, just because the opportunity arises, and that you file away, planning half-heartedly to look them over when you find the time. As a devoted Jerry Grandenetti fan, I always pick up his work… but I favour some genres over others. Mr. G has crafted, for instance, a lot of war comics for DC over the years (1952-1984!), most of which I haven’t seen. For me, it’s always been about his horror/mystery work. So… I had picked up, somewhere along the line, a consecutive pair of issues of DC’s Men of War (26 issues, 1977-80), numbers 9 and 10, featuring the first two parts of a Dateline: Frontline backup sequence, « Bathtub Blues » and « Glory Soldier ». I was very, very impressed.

Now, most of DC’s war books were scripted by a small cadre of authors, namely the indefatigable Robert Kanigher, as well as Bob Haney, Ed Herron, Jack Miller… but mostly Kanigher. In the Seventies, things changed a bit, with solid help and variety coming from Frank Robbins and David Michelinie on The Unknown Soldier, for instance. I had encountered Cary Burkett’s name here and there, being a regular reader of Batman titles The Brave and the Bold and Detective Comics, where he scripted backups (Nemesis, Batgirl) and the occasional lead feature. But this was… different. Hard-hitting, quite free from convention, and damn well buried in the back of a second-tier war book.

I hunted down the rest of the D:F series, and my initial impression did not fade… quite the contrary, indeed. The third serial (MoW 21-23), set on the Russian front, actually brought some tears to my eyes. Why was this feature so little-known? Oh, I know… the usual reasons. But I wanted to find out more, and the next logical step was to reach out to the series’ author, who was happy to oblige, to my delight. And so here we are. The stage is yours, Mr. Burkett.

Dateline: Frontline recollections, by Cary Burkett

« Paul Levitz was editor of a new war comic called ‘Men of War‘ featuring a character called ‘Gravedigger’.  He wanted to have backup stories in each issue, and he came up with the title ‘Dateline: Frontline‘ and the idea that it would feature a war correspondent as the main character. I was working as his assistant at the time (1976), and he asked me to do a series of 3 six-page stories.

He pointed me toward a book called ‘The First Casualty‘ by Philip Knightley. The title was inspired by a famous quote ‘The first casualty when war comes, is truth‘.  The book was a history of war correspondents from early days of reporting through the Vietnam War. It became a basis for the new comic series in terms of setting up the inner dilemma of the main character, which was how to report ‘the truth’ in time of war.

I chose to set the series in World War II and named the main character Wayne Clifford. My idea was that he would begin his career as a war correspondent being very idealistic and naïve. Over the series of stories, he would come face to face with wartime situations which challenged his assumptions about news reporting, war, ‘truth’ and about himself.

That, in a nutshell, was the core of the series.  I chose to set the narration in first person, which I guess is pretty much the standard in comics now, but was not common then.

After the first 3 stories, Paul asked me to continue the series. But we kept the idea that the series would be done in groups of 3 related stories.

I did a lot of research to depict true, historic wartime settings which I hoped would show more aspects of war than to just have the hero ‘fight the enemy’ and stop the Führer’s latest grand plan.

Paul had gotten Jerry Grandenetti to be the artist on the series from the very beginning. I admit, when I first heard this, it didn’t thrill me. I was not that familiar with Grandenetti’s work, but I had seen a few stories he had done and had been put off a bit by his strange, exaggerated style.

But when I saw his art for my first DF story, I realized why he was such a respected artist. His expressionistic kind of style emphasized certain qualities that gave a distinctive mood to the story.

But what I felt the most strongly was that Grandenetti understood how to make the story flow. If you could let yourself be drawn into the visual universe he created, it would come alive. The sequences of images he created would merge into one storytelling stream.

I didn’t know at the time that Grandenetti had worked on The Spirit with Will Eisner, but that strong storytelling aspect of his art was what I responded to most when I saw Jerry’s work on my stories.

My Dateline:Frontline stories were done ‘full-script’, meaning I wrote out full panel-by-panel breakdowns for the artist to follow. And I could see how Jerry would take my panel descriptions and make them flow into each other. If I was going for a specific kind of pace or mood with a sequence, Jerry immediately knew what I was after, and knew how to emphasize it visually.

I worked with very few artists who had Jerry’s instinctive grasp of this and his skill for executing it. »

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Each Dateline: Frontline episode was conceived to stand on its own, but be part of a larger trilogy. This London entry, the series’ introduction, appeared in Men of War No. 4 (Jan. 1978). In part two of our talk with Cary Burkett, we’ll feature the second London chapter, « Human Interest Story » and our guest will generously answer some of WOT’s questions.

Incidentally, but not coincidentally, one hundred years ago today, on the 11th  of November, 1918, the Armistice of Compiègne was signed, formally ending the First World War. The event is commemorated each November 11 as Armistice Day or Remembrance Day.

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This eloquent little tag appeared at the end of DC’s war stories, at least those edited by Joe Kubert, in the early 1970s.

Continue to Part 2 of the Cary Burkett interview.

-RG

Will Eisner’s The Spirit at Fiction House

« Our story opens on a rainy night on Central City’s waterfront… »

Continuing our chronicle of The Spirit’s wanderings from harbour to harbour over the decades, we make land today at pulp and comic book producer Fiction House, whose “Big Six” were the blandly-named but action-packed Fight Comics (86 issues, 1940–1954), Jumbo Comics (167 issues, 1938–1953), Jungle Comics (163 issues, 1940–1954), Planet Comics (73 issues, 1940–1953), Rangers Comics* (69 issues, 1941–1953) and Wings Comics (124 issues, 1940–1954). Compared to these, The Spirit’s five-issue stay was but a blip. Still, since FH’s art director was none other than Eisner’s old partner Samuel Maxwell “Jerry” Iger (1903-1990), this particular match is unsurprising.

Of course, it wasn’t common knowledge at the time, but these issues comprise little else but what came to be known as “the post-Eisner Spirit”, inarguably inferior work with the occasional highlight, generally a Jules Feiffer script let down by the visuals.

According to Eisner, interviewed in 1990 by Tom Heintjes: « Looking back, I have to say that it’s a blemish on my career that I allowed The Spirit to continue through this period, because I compromised the character just because I was busy with other things. That’s not to say that these are all bad stories, but they just don’t have the consistent outlook they had when I was directly involved. » « I look at these stories and I want to cringe – again, not because they’re bad, but because only the merest essence of the character is retained. »

If such is the case,  then it’s no small mercy that Will didn’t live to witness Frank Miller‘s masterwork of desecration.

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This is The Spirit no. 1 (Spring, 1952), featuring “The Case of the Counterfeit Killer” (Sept. 16, 1951), cover-featured “The Curse of Claymore Castle” (Nov. 4, 1951), “The Plot of the Perfect Crime” (Oct. 28, 1951), and “Panic on Pier 8” (Aug. 19, 1951), each scripted by Feiffer. Cover artist unknown, but it’s a considerable improvement over the actual story.
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This is The Spirit no. 2 (Summer, 1952), reprinting “The Amazing Affair of the First Man on Mars” (Jan. 27, 1952), “Contraband Queen” (May 20, 1951), “The Case of the Baleful Buddah” (Nov. 18, 1951), and “The $50,000 Flim-Flam” (Apr. 15, 1951), the final three benefiting from some Eisner involvement. Again, cover artist unknown., but isn’t that gorgeously coloured?
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Ah, we’re getting more Eisner-ish, though not quite all the way. This is The Spirit no. 3 (1952), featuring “The Walking Corpse” (Mar. 9, 1952), “It Kills by Dark” (Feb. 24, 1952), “The League of Liars” (Nov. 25, 1951), and “A Man Named Nero” (Feb. 3, 1952). The first three are scripted by Feiffer, and the fourth is undermined; I wouldn’t brag about that one either.
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This is The Spirit no. 4 (1953), featuring “The Last Prowl of Mephisto” (Apr. 1, 1951), scripted and illustrated by a heavily-assisted and pressed for time Eisner; “Design For Doomsday” (Jan. 13, 1952), “The Sword and the Savage” (Sept. 2, 1951), and “The Great Galactic Mystery” (Apr. 20, 1952), these last three scripted by Feiffer. And another nearly-Eisner cover… he never would have made it this busy, I think.
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This is The Spirit no. 5 (1954), cover-featuring “Dragnet For Johnny Buffalo” (Apr. 8, 1951), and also “The Target-Man in 16-A” (July 22, 1951), “Damsels in Distress” (a relative oldie from August 3, 1947), and “The Loot of Robinson Crusoe” (July 8, 1951), scripts a toss-up or a collaboration between Feiffer and Eisner. Now this cover I can buy as the genuine Eisner article: it’s a characteristic composition for him, and it’s sloppy in all the right places. The Spirit’s sidekick in this instance is Walkalong Haggerty, who saves his hide in “Dragnet..

So concludes our masked crimefighter’s passage at Fiction House. Fortunately, the publisher’s art department and production values were top-notch, so accommodations were quite cozy. Next time out, we’ll see how The Spirit would fare at the hands of Harvey Comics and (separately) of that nefarious rascal, Israel Waldman, in the swinging Sixties.

-RG

*Fiction House’s Rangers Comics featured the excellent “The Secret Files of Dr. Drew“, which ran in issues 47 to 60 (1949-51); the feature was the combined work of several of Eisner’s top Spirit alumni, namely writer Marilyn Mercer, penciller-inker Jerry Grandenetti, and letterer Abe Kanegson. The first ten (of fourteen) episodes just about out-Eisnered Eisner, until he protested and put an end to that gorgeous nonsense. This lot was lovingly restored and collected by Michael “Mr. Monster” Terry Gilbert (2014, Dark Horse). If you ask me, it’s the sole reprint of vintage colour material bearing the Dark Horse brand worth a damn… because Gilbert handled the work himself.

Will Eisner’s The Spirit at Quality

« I tell ya, Spirit… this neighborhood is like a lit firecracker… »

I’m surprised that it took us this long to get to Will Eisner and his signature creation, The Spirit. Is it perhaps too obvious a topic? Nah. Though the ink and the pixels may flow, and even if everyone and his chiropractor has already waxed rhapsodic about old Will, the subject retains its depths of evergreen freshness.

For most generations of cartoonists, Eisner is an irresistible influence. My own initial encounter came in the early 1970s, when I glimpsed ads for Warren’s Spirit reprints in the rear section of Famous Monsters of Filmland. And then I was introduced to his groundbreaking style and storytelling approach… only it wasn’t, in this case, quite his.

In 1975, I had stumbled upon a Dutch collection of WWII-era Spirit newspaper strips (The Daily Spirit, Real Free Press, 1975-76… a publication designed by none other than Joost Swarte), and I was captivated… by the ghost work of no less than Plastic Man creator Jack Cole!

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« You can do that in a comic strip? » was my general feeling as a ten-year-old aspiring cartoonist. From The Spirit daily strip, January 3, 1942 (scripted by Manly Wade Wellman, illustrated by Jack Cole).

I won’t go over the action-packed history of the character… what I’ll focus on here instead is inextricably linked to Eisner’s terrific business acumen: having held onto his character’s ownership, he could shop him around the publishing world, a process still unfolding to this day, well beyond his own passing.

The Spirit, that well-travelled rascal, has witnessed his exploits bearing many a publisher’s imprint, from Quality to Fiction House, through I.W. (naughty, naughty!), Harvey, Kitchen Sink, Warren, and DC… so far. And the coolest thing is that Eisner was along for most of the ride, creating glorious new cover visuals for the venerable archives.

Today, we’ll focus on Quality’s output (1942-50), which alone was contemporary to the strip’s tenure. About half of it was Eisner, but I’m no purist: the man hired some of the finest ghosts in the medium’s history, when it came to both story and art. To name but a few favourites: Manly Wade Wellman, Jerry Grandenetti, Jules Feiffer, Wally Wood

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Speaking of Jack Cole… before he got his own title, The Spirit was featured for a couple of years in Quality’s Police Comics anthology. He occasionally ran into his fellow headliner, Plastic Man. This is Police Comics no. 23 (October, 1943). Cover by Jack Cole. Read this issue here.
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This is The Spirit no. 12 (Summer 1948), cover by Eisner, and featuring a bunch of Manly Wade Wellman / Lou Fine Spirit tales, which is to say “Eye, Feets, and Lock” (August 12th, 1945), “The Case of the Missing Undertaker” (September 30, 1945), “Skelvin’s School for Actors” (November 18, 1945), “The Whitlock Diamond Caper” (June 24, 1945) and “Nitro” (October 21, 1945).
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This is The Spirit no. 13 (Autumn, 1948), cover by Eisner, and gathering a clutch of Wellman / Fine outings, i.e. “Mr. Martin’s Pistols” (September 23, 1945), “Red Scandon” (June 3, 1945), “The Strange Case of the Two $5.00 Bills” (December 9, 1945), “Mr. Exter” (May 27, 1945) and “Vaudeville Vinnie” (November 4, 1945).
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Another high-wire master class in design and tension from Mr. Eisner. This is Quality ComicsThe Spirit no. 14 (Winter, 1948), featuring reprints of Spirit adventures (“The Alibi Factory“, “The Kuttup Shop“, “Prominent Executives Vanish“, “The Masked Magician“, “Belle La Trivet“) from 1945, written by Chapel Hill‘s foremost scribe, Manly Wade Wellman, and illustrated by Lou Fine and the Quality shop.
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This is The Spirit no. 15 (Spring, 1949), cover by Eisner, and gathering a bouquet of Wellman / Fine offerings, namely “Rosilind Ripsley” (June 10, 1945), “Madame Lerna’s Crystal Ball” (September 16, 1945), and “The Case of the Will O’Wisp Murders” (November 5, 1944).
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This is The Spirit no. 16 (Autumn, 1948), boasting an Eisner cover and rounding up a rogues’ gallery of  Spirit exploits scripted by Bill Woolfolk: “The Case of the Uncanny Cat” (October 8, 1944) and “Jackie Boy” (September 9, 1944) and Manly Wade Wellman: “The Case of the Headless Burglar” (September 24, 1944), all pencilled by Lou Fine.
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I’ll bet Dolan could kick himself if he wasn’t so tidily trussed up. Fooled by a pretty… er, face again. This is The Spirit no. 20 (April 1950), featuring “The Vortex” (September 8, 1946); “The Siberian Dagger” (January 27, 1946); “Magnifying Glasses” (May 26, 1946), plus a couple of Flatfoot Burns stories by Al Stahl. Cover by Will Eisner, and a gold star and a hearty round of applause for the colourist. 

As for the insides… I’m tickled to inform you that all of Quality’s issues of The Spirit are available gratis on comicbookplus.com. Enjoy!

– RG