by Paul Levitz
We don’t stop to celebrate enough in our busy lives, and that’s particularly true in comics with the whirlwind of deadlines, and the increasing geographical diversity of the creative process. Film and television have a longstanding tradition of the wrap party celebrating the end of a project or a season, but we don’t have an equivalent. So last night we had a lovely evening in this celebratory spirit.
The high point of the evening was the uncorking of a bottle of THE SPIRIT OF CHARDONNAY, complete with Wildwood Cemetery Vintage label, which was originally presented by a vintner fan named Richard Pryor to Will Eisner, and then given by Will to me at his passing. I had set aside the moment to celebrate our completion of the portion of THE SPIRIT ARCHIVE project devoted to the original Sunday sections, the heart of the legendary material which established Will’s reputation, and taught several generations how good comics could be. The first copies of THE SPIRIT ARCHIVE #24 have now come off the press in China, so we gathered to pour out the libation and toast Will.
Joining my wife Jeanette (no, not Jenette Kahn) and I around the table for the toast (and a fine dinner) were Ann Eisner and a sizeable contingent of Will’s family, including nephew Carl Gropper, who now has the high honor of leading Will Eisner Studios. From the DC side, we brought the team responsible for the ARCHIVES creatively, including Richard Bruning (who launched the series so long ago), Georg Brewer, Bob Harras, Robbin Brosterman and current SPIRIT ARCHIVES editor Scott Nybakken, plus the original designer of the series, Amie Brockaway-Metcalf. Representing the business side of THE SPIRIT ARCHIVES was Bob Wayne, whose passion for the program began when the first possibility of the project emerged. And equally importantly, we had a key contingent of the people who have kept THE SPIRIT alive: Dennis Kitchen, who has been friend, agent, provocateur and publisher to Will, accompanied by his family (including daughter Alexa fresh from signing a graphic novel contract that afternoon); Judy Hansen, literary agent for the property; THE SPIRIT film producer Michael Uslan and director Frank Miller (armed with a set photo from my cameo moment).
Present only in spirit, but vital to the project, were original series editor and continuing contributor Dale Crain, who does much of the production work from China and was unable to return for the occasion, Bill Blackbeard, one of the great archivists and collectors, who has been invaluable in filling gaps in the project, and, of course, Will’s legion of talented collaborators.
Besides energetic discussion of Will’s qualities intermingled with toasts, there was a feisty diversion into current electoral politics, updates on families, recollections of moments when our lives crossed, and a general satisfaction on a job well done. The graying fans division in the room recalled the white envelope sets of SPIRIT reprints from the early ‘70s, and discovered that Will himself had printed them on a machine in his office, and that there were six of us at the dinner who had collected them in the hope of having the whole set…a hope our ARCHIVE project had finally fulfilled, decades later.
We really should do this sort of thing more often.
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Question time II
Time doesn’t permit me to answer all the questions left over from previous blogging, but let me address a few:
OM asked “What would it take to get you to [write the LEGION regularly] again?” I’d probably have to give up the day job, and Jim would have to move on to something he’d enjoy more…I’ve been a fan of his LSH since I was 9 years old and wouldn’t want to push him off it.
Steve wanted to know what three things was I proudest of in my time in DC’s management, and what major decisions would I do differently with hindsight? It’s hard to pick three things out of three decades, but: I’m particularly proud of having written the first standard written contract for talent in our field in 1977—embodying basic concepts like return of original art, reprint fees, and laying out simple policies like the period of time in which the company was obliged to accept delivery. Up until then, most of these things were done at the discretion of the publisher, and could be suspended or withdrawn at will. Similarly, my part in establishing a royalty plan that covered all of DC’s freelance writers and artists in 1981 was a peak moment. There have been royalty deals back to at least 1940, but they generally affected only the talent who had the most negotiating leverage or savvy, and it was a critical event when any talent whose work sold enough copies could benefit—especially when Marvel followed suit in response a month or two later. Less a single moment, but equally proud an accomplishment has been my part in building the direct side of the distribution of comics. I came in at the literal beginning (being asked as the house fan if this idea of Phil Seuling’s had any merit), and have had the opportunity to do a number of things that built the system through the ‘80s onward. There are folks who disagree with some of those steps, of course, either because they’re not privy to information that only a few of us shared at the time, or because of legitimate differences of opinion of what was good for the field, but none the less I’ll stand by my record.
There’s a much longer list of things I’d hope we’d have done differently with the benefit of hindsight, since in many cases decisions have to be made on very imperfect information, or hastily to deal with circumstance. One non-controversial one is an easy example: when we introduced that first talent contract, it had a flat guaranteed reprint fee per page. In the pre-royalty days, that was an important step forward…but in the royalty era, it turned out to be cumbersome and uneconomical for some projects (most talent would rather receive a royalty stream than have a project not get published). This is the situation that’s limited our ability to a few SHOWCASE projects we planned last year, and we’ve successfully amended many of the relevant agreements since, so hopefully some of those projects will see the light of day.
A few people here and elsewhere seemed to take issue with my comment that manga was more “increasingly dominated by a handful of properties” than American graphic novels. I went back and checked a bit, and for the fourth quarter last year, something north of 20% of bookstore manga sales came from four properties, and over 40 of the top 50 titles were from those four. That seems pretty concentrated to me, and more so than our core business, so I’ll stand by the comment.
Scott King commented “Nice job avoiding any serious questions.” There are times when I’d love to invite the whole community into my office, spread out a decade or two’s worth of history, and make the case for whatever’s under debate; particularly when the debate’s about my competency, sanity or decency. Unfortunately, that’s not even remotely appropriate, practical, or likely to work. There’s a certain fair expectation of privacy, even in disputed situations, and while our fans’ curiosity sometimes knows no boundaries, we won’t always satisfy it…even at the price that we might look worse than if the facts were all available…because we want people we do business with to have comfort with our discretion and confidentiality. I hope this space permits some serious dialog, where some meaningful subject matter can be touched on, and where I can share with a later generation of fans some of the moments that I treasure about being in this business, and some observations from a vantage point that most fans don’t have. Some of the questions also brought up interesting subjects that deserve more than a two sentence answer (like the future impact of the digital world) and that I hope to address as we have interesting developments to talk about.
Editor’s update: David Hyde at DC sent us an update on the release schedule of The Spirit Archives; currently there are three volumes in the works that haven’t arrived in stores yet. They are:
–The color Sunday Spirit sections have all been collected in Will Eisner’s The Spirit Archives Vols. 1-24 — the section ended in October of 1952. (Paul referenced the last of these up top).
–From October 1941 to March 1944, there was also a daily, black and white newspaper strip of The Spirit, and Will Eisner’s The Spirit Archives Vol. 25 will collect all of these strips.
–Everything that Eisner did with The Spirit after the end of the weekly section in 1952 will be collected in Will Eisner’s The Spirit Archives Vol. 26, which will include his covers for the various Spirit reprints for Warren and Kitchen Sink.