Will Eisner is well known today for creating "The Spirit," his blue-clad superhero that's currently receiving the Hollywood treatment at the hands of Frank Miller. But lesser known is that Eisner was a veteran of no less than three major wars: World War II (where he was an enlisted man) and Korea and Vietnam, where he was a civilian contracter eventually obtaining the rank equivalent to a brigadier general. I was fortunate enough to know Will, and four years before his death in 2005, we chatted at length about his military service, how it related to "The Spirit," and his views on the extreme stresses of war. In honor of both Veterans Day and Will Eisner, enjoy this rare look inside the mind of the revered comics legend on this most serious of topics.
MTV: Where were you when Pearl Harbor was attacked?
WE: I was sitting in my studio eating a roast beef sandwich which my mother prepared for me [laughs]. I was working on “The Spirit.” I was really shook up listening to it. I was listening to the opera at the time…it was a Carnegie Hall concert. I remember the thing was cut off and they announced the attack on Pearl Harbor. And I was really shook up because I realized that this was gonna be it. I’d be drafted.
MTV: And in 1942, you were drafted into the Army.
WE: Early ’42. The Army gave me a six-month delay because I was working on a newspaper feature.
MTV: What were you feeling when you received your draft notice?
WE: Well, I was ambivalent. Remember, unlike the Vietnam War, everybody was very in favor of the war, particularly because of the Nazis and because of the fact that the country seemed to be in danger. So I was kind of eager to be part of it. I felt that I’d want to be part of the war effort. On the other hand, this was a year after I had started “The Spirit,” which represented a whole new career for me. And I knew that if I went into the Army this whole thing would kind of fall apart on me. So I was torn between the two feelings. One was the eagerness to go and sign up, [but] on the other hand, the loss of a possible career. So that was my feeling.
MTV: Did people recognize your name when you went into the Army?
WE: Yeah. I landed at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, which was just outside of Baltimore. And the Baltimore newspaper carried “The Spirit.” So I was something of a celebrity I suppose.
MTV: Did your drill sergeants go easier on you?
WE: No, they didn’t. As a matter of fact, my drill sergeant was a sadistic S.O.B. [laughs]. I remember standing there in line and he came over and looked at me and stuck his nose in my face, as all drill sergeants do. And he said to me, “Sh-t, man, you don’t look like the character you draw” [laughs]. So he was really kind of nasty on me. Picked on me because The Spirit was a heroic character and I looked a little less than that [laughs].
But when the basic training was over, the camp newspaper editor came by with his assistant and asked if I’d be willing to come on their staff and do artwork, and do cartoons and so forth. And I said yes.
MTV: Were you ever shipped out?
WE: No, I was never shipped out. What happened was that… Aberdeen Proving Grounds was a training center too and they had a school and they were using visuals and graphics and so forth. And at that time, the Ordnance Corp, which later became the Ordnance Department, decided to install a new program called Preventive Maintenance. This was simply almost a non-disciplinary element in the business of maintaining their equipment. Preventive Maintenance, in short, is nothing more than putting oil in your vehicle and preventing rust. You know, this kind of basic, simply maintenance of equipment, which they copied from the British, who were using it very successfully.
Anyway, I remember talking to my commander officer, who was a lieutenant colonel in charge of the newspaper, saying the problem with this program was that it required a voluntary contribution and that the best instructional material that could be produced for this thing was in the comic form. I was, at that time convinced, that comics as a medium was a fine instructional tool and was capable of far more than the usual entertainment, gag-a-day stuff. Well apparently, he picked up what I said and was making a case at a meeting somewhere, unbeknownst to me. Actually, what he did was he lifted my speech and used it. And apparently they said, “Well, who the hell could do this?”
And he came back and said to me, “Hey, would you like to get involved in this program?” And I said sure. And so, I was shipped out from Aberdeen to Holabird Ordnance Depot, which was a truck/vehicle depot that the Ordnance Department had just taken over. And I began working with a new little mimeograph magazine called Army Motors. And I helped design that; bring it up to the point where it was using comics, or what they now call sequential art, as a training tool. It became very successful and ultimately had a distribution of two million.
That became so immediately successful that I was transferred to Washington to work on the staff of the Chief of Ordnance, where I remained for the rest of the war.
MTV: Were you aware at the time what the Nazis were doing to the Jews?
WE: Oh yeah, sure, we all know. We all knew that very well. As a matter of fact, I tried very hard to get me sent overseas. I kept applying for a transfer to get into a combat area. I was as charged up as everyone else. And particularly, as a Jew, I was really enflamed over it. But the Chief of Ordinance, General Campbell, refused to let me go because apparently he wanted to keep around him a staff of, what he used to refer to as, “bright young men.” So I remained in the Pentagon building. I created “Joe Dope,” and “Sergeant Half-Mast,” which ultimately led, later on, to P.S. Magazine after the war, which still exists today.
MTV: There obviously must have been a feeling of absolute elation to hearing the Germans had surrendered.
WE: Oh, like all of us, I was very overjoyed over the thing. Those who were Jews in the States at that time were bothered by two elements: we’re torn by the fact that they weren’t there involved in it, and at the same time, we’re really dismayed by what was happening. My father was bringing members of a Jewish family over from Europe. He and the rest of his brothers and sisters pooled a few dollars together. We were not rich. My father was quite poor, but we pooled a few dollars together to bring people over from Berlin who were able to escape somehow. But there was obviously joy. This is a real enemy that had to be defeated.
MTV: In 1950, you agreed to work for the Defense Department magazine.
WE: Well, by 1950 I had been back a couple of years and working on “The Spirit.” I started a company called American Visuals Corporation, which was using comics as a teaching tool for industrial purposes. We had companies like General Motors and U.S. Steel, and organizations who had a lot of employees and were looking for pamphlets to distribute to their employees and instruct them. And the Army, with the advent of the Korean War, they came back and asked me if I would reconstitute Army Motors, and we developed P.S. Magazine. And I was very interested in doing that because it would be a further demonstration of the use of comics as a teaching tool or as an instructional medium.
By then, by the way, parallel that was that “The Spirit” was becoming burdensome to me. I was looking for ways out of it. I became far more interested in the use of comics as an instructional medium than I was as an entertainment medium. I felt that was a new channel for the use of comics. All my life, professionally, I’ve been really obsessed with the idea of trying something new. I’m in love with innovation and experimentation. It’s risky, but it’s really very exhilarating.
MTV: You’ve certainly done that with your graphic novels.
WE: Yeah, well everything I have done has been really a form of risk-taking. But that’s the fun of the business.
MTV: Then Korea breaks out and you’re sent into the theater. Was that something you wanted to do?
WE: Well part of the contract for the production of P.S. Magazine was the fact that I would go into the field, put that in italics, at least a couple of times during the year…in order to develop a familiarity with what was going on. Realism was very important in this medium because you were dealing with guys who were working on the line, so to speak. When I did a story or did a cartoon it had to have relevance to what they were doing. So I would go out into the field at least twice a year, sometimes three times a year. And my trips included going to the combat zone in Korea and later on in Vietnam. I went to Germany, spent some time with the troops there. Usually these were five to six week trips.
MTV: Was it odd being in a combat zone as a civilian?
WE: Yeah, it was, and as a matter of fact it became embarrassing at times. I remember standing on a hilltop -- I think it was in Korea -- and this young G.I. standing next to me looked up and said, “These are combat boots you’re wearing.” And I said, “Yeah, they’re my old boots that I wore during World War II.” And he said, “Gee, my father has the same set” [laughs]. It suddenly occurred to me that I was getting older and that I was no longer part of it.
No, it was interesting, but you know, war stinks. War is horrible and all those conditions…there’s no glamour to it. And you’re out there with a bunch of guys who are slugging around in harm’s way, if you will. As a civilian, I was well received because I was, in effect, a reporter. I traveled on a high grade. I remember in Vietnam I was traveling on the equivalency of a brigadier general, so that meant I got fairly good accommodations and transportation preferences.
MTV: Korea is often called the “Forgotten War,” even though 30,000 Americans lost their lives. Why do you think that is? Was being shoved in between World War II and Vietnam responsible for it sliding from our collective consciousness more than it should've?
WE: I think so, and the public reaction to the Korean War was a little different. The Korean War was labeled as a kind of “police action.” We didn’t think of it as an action to either defend our way of life or defend our nation. World War II was a very frightening situation because Hitler was dominating Europe and it was very clear that sooner or later once he succeeded in beating England he would be over here. So we were defending the nation, so to speak.
The Korean War was a police action. We thought of it as sending troops over there to take care of it. Sort of like the Gulf War. Very much like the Gulf War. The Gulf War won’t be remembered except as a kind of police action which we took. The Vietnam War was something else again. That opened up a whole social struggle in the United States. A lot of people didn’t want to go. A lot of people protested. It exasperated the racial conflict that was brewing in this country because a lot of the blacks felt that they were being singled out to go fight. It was a whole, totally different situation that will remain with us for a long time. It’s still a wound that sometimes bleeds.
MTV: Did you ever believe that Vietnam would become as big a conflict as it did?
WE: No, in the beginning, like most Americans, I felt that we would come in there and we’d win very handily because we were, after all, the most powerful army in the world. We had all this tremendous equipment. And I remember, in Vietnam I was amazed with how much sophisticated equipment we had and how small the enemy looked [laughs]; the little people running in and out of the forests. But we had underestimated the will of the people there. So in the beginning I felt that we would win it and then after awhile, after I visited Vietnam, I was certain we were going to lose.
MTV: When did you go over to Vietnam?
WE: I can’t remember the exact date. I think it was ’67, ’68, somewhere in there. I think it was just before the Tet Offensive.
MTV: What were your first impressions upon arriving?
WE: Well, I was kind of shocked by what I saw, I felt that I had landed in another planet, because I’ve never been in a tropical environment like that before. And then the people I saw were little people; they were tiny. I remember walking down the street in Saigon and I felt like we were ten feet tall and these were all very little people. I remember saying to the guy I was with, “I wonder what would have happened, how would we have felt if the Germans had prevailed in World War II and they were walking down the street in New York in their uniforms, big and tall and arrogant. The way we are.”
I remember a conversation I had with a correspondent sitting and having a beer., saying, “You know, isn’t this like the British coming into America during the Revolutionary War, and fighting an action against people who were living there?” And he agreed with me. He said it’s very much like that. So that was my reaction. I was kind of shocked. I felt a little embarrassed, I guess.
MTV: They say Vietnam is either really cold or really hot.
WE: Well, it was hot. It was very tropical. The weather was wet and sticky. When I stayed one night in a hotel room I felt there were bugs all over the place. It was a sticky, hot place.
MTV: How long were you in Vietnam for?
WE: About six weeks.
MTV: Only one visit?
WE: Just once, yeah.
MTV: Did the troops you met feel they were fighting a losing war, or that they didn’t know what they were fighting for?
WE: Most of them didn’t really know what they were fighting for, but they were fighting. You know, if I took you and put you into a gang fight in the middle of the street, you would soon not remember anything about the basic principals you were fighting for but you would be looking to survive. And that’s what most of these guys were doing. They were struggling to survive.
A lot of the guys felt that they were being hamstrung. They didn’t feel that there was a clean, clear enemy. The enemy was all around them. It wasn’t like World War II where the enemy was clearly defined. They had a uniform, you know what they looked like, you knew where they were, and so forth. Here the enemy was all over. You’d walk down the street in Saigon and somebody would zip by on a motorcycle and you’d wonder whether they were gonna throw a bomb. As a matter of fact, I think I picked up a story from this in “Last Day In Vietnam.” One of the hotels in Saigon was entirely encased in a screen. Very much like a fire screen, in front of a fireplace. The whole hotel had it. The reason for that was that they’d find that people would go by the hotel and fling hand grenades in through the windows.
I remember attending briefings where they’d give us body counts. I remember this colonel giving us a briefing and saying that this would soon be over because they are now putting teenage kids in combat. The military was certain about winning. They had no idea of losing.
MTV: What did you think of the anti-war protestors in the United States?
WE: Well, I understood where they were coming from. I was sympathetic with the idea that we should get out. It was hard to sympathize with the street action because of the kind of person I am. By then I was fairly establishment, well-established person. Street demonstrations were understandable but I didn’t find myself terribly sympathetic with it.
MTV: Were there any dicey situations in Vietnam where you felt you were really in danger?
WE: Well, yeah. One scary thing was the first story I did in “Last Day In Vietnam” where I went down to the Delta in the gunship. And the story centers around the fact that where I was coming under fire and we had to get out. So yeah, that was a hairy moment for me.
MTV: Having been in three wars, what common threads have you found between the soldiers who fight in them?
WE: There’s one common thread of all soldiers and that is survival. To stay alive. They all feel the same way. For the G.I.’s, there’s a common anger at the officer groups; what they refer to as “them.” The powers-at-be, the War Department, the people who were directing. Remember, as a soldier, you feel that you’re being directed by someone above, and that’s not very comfortable. Not for Americans, anyway.
A lot of guys did enjoy it. A lot of guys remained in the army because they liked the life of a highly-defined, highly-ordered life.
MTV: Do you know whether any of the soldiers you wrote about in “Last Day In Vietnam” have read the book?
WE: I got a letter from one guy who started a letter that said, “Dear Mr. Eisner. I am George.” It was the last of the stories, “A Purple Heart For George.” And he went on to say that he had shipped out and so forth and so on. But I don’t know how many have read it. I sent copies to the old people at P.S. Magazine, but they’re all civilians now. So I don’t know. I’ve gotten some letters from guys who were G.I.’s who said it was right on, which is one of the most flattering things I could get. I appreciated that.
What should people keep in mind this [Veteran's] Day?
WE: Well, I guess the only thing they should keep in mind is the fact that we are dependant on the military, just as we’re dependant on the people in the fire house down the street. These are guys who are there when and if we need it. And I think the military is a very important part of our society.
Will Eisner, the creator of the graphic novel, passed away January 3, 2005 at 87 years old. With projects like "The Spirit," "A Contract With God" and "Last Day In Vietnam" (among dozens of others) he remains a pinnacle of the comics industry, living on through his work and inspiring generations of writers and artists. For more information on Will Eisner, visit http://www.willeisner.com.