Sunday, December 5, 2010

Will Eisner and the "Graphic Novel"

I recently returned from a trip to the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library at the Ohio State University, where I went to examine the library's Will Eisner Collection, which contains, among other things, letters, original art, and most of Eisner's publications over his long career. While there, I found what is, as far as I can tell, a previously undocumented source that sheds some light on how Will Eisner arrived at the term "graphic novel" to describe his 1978 work, A Contract with God.

First, some background: Bob Andelman, in the biography Will Eisner: A Spirited Life, describes the scene where, in 1978, Will Eisner tried to pitch his book, A Contract with God, to Bantam Books.

Eisner called up Oscar Dystel, then president of Bantam Books, and pitched the concept. Dystel not only knew Eisner but was said to be a fan of his work on The Spirit. Dystel remembered him, but he was a busy man, as publishers usually are, and he was impatient. He wanted to know what it was that Eisner had, exactly. Eisner looked down at the dummy, and an instinct told him, Don’t tell Dystel it’s a comic book or he will hang up on you.

So Eisner thought for a moment, and said, “It’s a graphic novel.”

”Oh,” Dystel said, “that sounds interesting; I’ve never heard of that before.” (290)

As the story goes, Dystel ended up rejecting the work once he saw it and determined that it was a comic book. But this story, repeated frequently by Eisner and his biographers (Michael Schumacher repeats it on pages 200-01 of his recent biography, Will Eisner: A Dreamer’s Life in Comics), is cited as the point, in a fit of sudden and desperate inspiration, where Eisner first came up with the term “graphic novel” to describe A Contract with God.

It is now fairly common knowledge that Eisner neither invented the term itself nor the form that we call a “graphic novel,” but it is fair to say that he popularized the term when he later used it to promote the book upon publication from Baronet Books in 1978, and, for better or worse, the term has stuck.

However, for some time after, Eisner was credited as the “inventor” of the graphic novel and the first to use the term. Even as late as 2003, Stephen Weiner wrote in Faster than a Speeding Bullet: The Rise of the Graphic Novel,

“The first modern ‘graphic novel’ was written and illustrated by veteran cartoonist Will Eisner, who coined the term while trying to persuade the editors at Bantam Books to publish the book-length comic book” (17).

There are, of course, a few contentious points in this statement, leaving aside the point that A Contract with God is a series of short stories, rather than a novel per se. First, it is well known that Eisner did not “coin” the term. In North America, the term “graphic novel” has been traced back to fanzine writer Richard Kyle, who first used it in November 1964, and the term later appears on the dust jacket of George Metzger’s 1976 work, Beyond Time and Again, as well as Richard Corben’s Bloodstar and Jim Steranko’s Chandler that same year.

Also, several earlier works that could now be described as “graphic novels” precede the publication of A Contract with God in North America, in addition to the ones mentioned above, and, therefore, make it difficult for one to call that work “the first modern ‘graphic novel.’” This is by no means an inclusive list, but Gil Kane and Archie Goodwin’s His Name Is … Savage (1968) and Blackmark (1971) and Arnold Drake, Leslie Waller, Ray Orsin, and Matt Baker’s It Rhymes with Lust (1950) all fit most formal definitions of “graphic novel,” and those alone are enough to call into question the statement that Eisner’s was the first modern one. However, such claims persisted even beyond the point that comics historians had proved them wrong.

Later in life, Eisner did admit that he was not the first to come up with the term, as Schumacher quotes:

”I thought I had invented the term,” Eisner admitted, “but I discovered later that some guy [probably Kyle] thought about it a few years before I used the term. He had never used it successfully and had never intended it in the way I did, which was to develop what I believe was viable literature in this medium” (201).

And this has become the accepted story of how Eisner arrived at the term independently, and how he managed to begin popularizing it around 1978, with the publication of A Contract with God. Yet no one has found a connection between these earlier uses of the term "graphic novel" and Eisner's own use of the term.

At the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum, I read through Eisner’s surviving letters, including business correspondences and fan mail from around 1963 to the late 70s and early 80s, mainly doing research on my larger project on race and comics. About 90% of the fan mail consists of requests for sketches and original art, accompanied by Eisner’s polite refusal (most of the time-he did provide sketches and prints on some special occasions). Therefore, while there was a high volume of fan mail during this period, much of it was very easy to move through quickly.

One of the qualities that struck me in Eisner’s correspondences, though, was how generous, encouraging, and detailed he was in the critiques he provided to up-and-coming comics pros who sent their early work to him.

One such pro was Jack Katz (often cited as the creator of one of the precursors to the graphic novel) who began a correspondence with Eisner in August 1974, with the inclusion the first book of Katz’s epic fantasy series The First Kingdom. In his introductory letter, dated Aug. 7, 1974, Katz writes,

Here is the first book of a series of 24 books which it will take to complete the epic. … What I am starting is a graphic novel in which every incident is illustrated.

Katz goes on to explain the plot and themes of the entire epic at length, and he thanks Eisner for his continuing inspiration.

On August 26, 1974, Eisner responds in his typical polite and encouraging fashion:

My compliments to you on an imaginative piece of work. There is strength, drama and great picture value.

I’m particularly impressed with the enormity of your undertaking. It is efforts like this that move the standards of our art form upward. (The Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, The Will Eisner Collection, Box WEE1, Folder 22)

The correspondence between Eisner and Katz went on for many years, at least to the end of the Eisner letters that OSU has collected, which is about 1978. In all, exchanges survive through January of 1978, in which Katz sends Eisner book 7 of The First Kingdom. Throughout these exchanges, Eisner is detailed in his praise and critiques of Katz’s work, citing in particular the improvement of Katz’s inking skills from the first book on, and continued recommendations for Katz to work on integrating images and text better (anyone who has ever read The First Kingdom will know that this is sound advice). Eisner, in fact, frequently refers back to earlier letters to note this progress, and he often cites how Katz’s project renews his faith in the progress of the comics form. Notably, it is during the latter part of these correspondences that Eisner is generating the idea for and composing his first graphic novel, A Contract with God.

Now, I want to resist speculating too hard on what all this really means, but it is safe to say, at least, that Eisner was introduced to the term “graphic novel” by Jack Katz in 1974, and Eisner exhibited a clear memory of their exchanges over the course of four years, up to the composition of A Contract with God. Some kind of cross-pollination between Eisner and Katz is likely here.

Beyond that, what can we say? Did Eisner recall that first letter from Katz while under pressure to come up with some descriptive term for Bantam? Or did the term just float through his transom at that point in 1974, only to emerge on its own again in 1978 with no connection to its past use? We probably won’t find answers to those questions, but the latter may be the most likely scenario. I would hesitate to conclude that Eisner’s use of the term and subsequent failure to credit Katz with introducing him to it constitute some kind of willful omission on Eisner’s part (though, as Ken Quattro's recent discovery reveals, Eisner was prone to a kind of historical revisionism that tended to place him in a better light than the historical evidence would otherwise prove).

But what remains is still useful: we now know Eisner’s earliest known exposure to the term “graphic novel,” which at least provides an addendum to the oft-repeated story of how he came to use the term to describe A Contract with God. And, therefore, the accepted wisdom of that story needs to be revised.

Works Cited

Andelman, Bob. Will Eisner: A Spirited Life. Milwaukie: M Press, 2005. Print.

Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, The. The Will Eisner Collection.

Schumacher, Michael. Will Eisner: A Dreamer’s Life in Comics. New York: Bloomsbury, 2010. Print.

Weiner, Stephen. Faster than a Speeding Bullet: The Rise of the Graphic Novel. New York: NBM, 2003. Print.


Allen Mauldin said...

Interesting and enlightening stuff. I was just one of the herd that thought that Eisner coined the term. So is "A Contract with God" considered to be the very first graphic novel then? I know that you said it's more of a collection of short stories but does this information discredit Eisner in that capacity?

Dr. K said...


As I mention in the post, it's been well established that Eisner was neither the first to use the term, nor the first to create a work that could be called a "graphic novel." What was the first depends on a lot of things, too many to get to here, but I tried to show, at least, that there were works that preceded Eisner that either used the term or otherwise fit the definition. What I'm more concerned about in this post is how Eisner himself arrived at the term, as he claimed that it came to him independently. I think the term "discredit" is probably overly harsh for what I discuss here.

Henebry said...

It was great to read this account, after following the vociferous discussion which your inquiry about Eisner engendered over on the comixscholars list.

Tom Stewart said...

Good post, always enjoy throwing light on the side alleys of comics history. I for one, never believed that Eisner came up with the term on his own, and suspected that Katz might have done so at some point before. Really, It's a fairly obvious term and who used or popularized it first is an academic sidenote at best.
Has there been a decent collection of the entire First kingdom? There really should be.

Eddie Campbell said...

Somewhere else I drew attention to John Benson's 1969 interview with Eisner, which originally appeared in either Graphic Story Magazine or Witzend, I can't recall without digging it all out, toward the end of which Benson discusses the 'graphic novel' concept with Eisner and whether Eisner would return to the field to attempt such a thing. They also looked at Kane's Savage in relation to the concept. Eisner was critical of Kane's book because, if you read between the lines, it lacked literary ambition, and also, more explicitly, it betrayed the integrity of the concept of comics as Eisner understood it. Elsewhere too I have opined that Eisner's idea of literariness was crucial to his thinking, which is probably why he dismissed all the other attempts to create a 'graphic novel'. This all showed categorically that Eisner was aware of Kyle, Graphic Story Magazine, and the concept of 'graphic novel' as entertained therein, nine years ahead of A Contract With God, and five years ahead of the exchange with Katz you refer to above. the interview was reprinted in the Comics Journal's big Eisner obituary issue in 2005.

ps. Not relevant, but I can't look at First Kingdom without feeling nauseous.

Eddie Campbell said...

pps Dr K, I didn't mean to imply that your discovery wasn't useful. All in all, if you add up all these incidents, Eisner was well aware of the development of the idea over a number of years and we can show specific points where it is referred to. There was an undercurrent in comics circles since the mid-sixties and while he did not mentally reside in those circles, he did visit from time to time.

Ref: John Benson, "An Interview with Will Eisner," Witzend #6, 1968.


Dr. K said...

Eddie, thanks for that reference, and I'm honored you stopped by the blog. I had a chance to read Benson's typescript draft of that interview, which originally appeared in Witzend 6 (1968), while going through the Eisner papers. And while they definitely do talk about the concept of a book-length comic story, they don't actually use the term "graphic novel." They do, however, come really close, with phrases like "novel in comics form."

So, it may only be a semantic distinction, but we're talking about two different things here: the term "graphic novel" and the concept of such a thing. While what I was concerned about in the post was expanding the story of how Eisner arrived at the term, it is definitely also interesting to see how he was motivated to create a book-length comics story. And I think you're right that the "idea of literariness" was a strong motivating factor--that these other books were not moving the medium forward into the realm of the literary. That attitude can also be seen in Eisner's responses to the underground comix movement, where he had enormous enthusiasm for the potential of it, but often came down hard on the actual content of the books being produced.

And I share similar feelings about The First Kingdom as well.

Eddie Campbell said...

Dr K, yes you're right, they don't specifically use the term in the interview, though they are clearly discussing the concept. I jumped in too quickly. But I think the value of it is that it shows that Eisner had seen Graphic Story magazine, and the discussion was framed by that. And of course, Graphic Story is where the term originated. Thus it can't be claimed for Eisner that he arrived at it independently, which is really what we are trying to prove or disprove here. Your own discovery is the clincher.
well done.

Eddie Campbell said...

another ps. I think I got touchy about this, which as you say is just a 'semantic distinction' after i was taken to task in a review for skimming over it in my Fate of the Artist, thinking oh what the hell it's not really important anyway, and who wants to know fifteen years of the backstory of a terminological phrase out of dusty old fanzines, I'll just give the credit to Eisner and get on with the story. later I got to thinking that just about everything has an underground history before it cracks the surface and often that turns out to be the interesting part, which I'm not saying is the case here however. Nevertheless I might have done that differently if I were to do the book over again.

Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. said...

I quote from the letters column of Bill Spicer's Fantasy Illustrated #7 dated Spring 1967: "I don't see why the concept of 'graphic novel' should necessarily imply immense amounts of pages." Letter from Harry Warner, Jr.

From this casual usage, and the very idea of trying to define it, comes the impression that the term has appeared earlier still.

Peace, Jim (|:{>

Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. said...

In Fantasy Illustrated #6. Richard Kyle's Graphic Story Review column, after a lengthy review of Eisner's Harvey Spirit #1, contains the following:

"IF THE TALES of the Spirit represent an almost complete development of the graphic short story, the new Gold Key adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan novels represent the first steps in the creation of the graphic novel. With the August issue of Tarzan of the Apes magazine, a three part graphic story version of the book Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar was begun, drawn by Russ Manning and scripted by Gaylord Dubois. Completed, it will be 72 pages -- longer, probably, than any previous graphic novel."

Even the name of Kyle's column, Graphic Story Review, contains the inference of the Graphic Novel within it. The column began in FI #4, Summer, 1965.

Peace, Jim (|:{>

Eddie Campbell said...

Hi, Jim, good to hear from you.

I realise this is beside the original point, but this info has long disappeared off the net, so I'll drop it here.

Our pal Bob Beerbohm awhile back (2004) on the TCJ forum wrote a long post tracing stuff like this. he didn't mention the one you stated above, but he did go back earlier (or, it DID appear earlier still):
1) Fantasy Illustrated #5 Spring 1966, letter from one Henry Steele: "I'm Impressed by the suggestion that very long graphic stories would better exploit the artistic possibilities of the medium. Do you envisage the publication of hardcover "graphic novels" of several hundred pages, not on a periodical basis, but as individual publishing ventures like conventional novels?"
Bob believed that to be the earliest ever usage of the term. As you say, it was more or less inferred in Kyle's column in the issue before this one
I also filed this from Graphic Story Magazine, spring 1969, interview with Alex Toth:" Interviewer: Someday graphic novels will take up where comic books are leaving off, but what about the artist who has to sit down and draw them?"
by that time it appears to have become a regular conversational topic.

To bring things back: the original point of Dr K's post, if I may take the liberty of phrasing it for him, was "When did this ongoing conversation in an obscure fanzine filter through to Will Eisner's consciousness?" It had certainly been around long enough.

Dr. K said...

Jim, thanks for those very specific references. As I state in my post, Richard Kyle's use of the term can be traced back to 1964. Just to clarify, as Eddie Campbell points out, my goal was not to establish who came up with the term first--I say that that has been well established--but to show this new evidence of how the term made its way to Eisner. There is still the likelihood that Eisner read it in Kyle's Graphic Story Review also, but the Katz correspondence is a concrete piece of evidence that Eisner was exposed to the term before 1978, when he claimed to have come up with the term on its own.

As I discuss in my post, Eisner's story that he came up with the term suddenly, in a fit of inspiration while trying to convince Bantam to publish his new book, has been accepted as fact, and all the biographical data on Eisner repeats it. Eisner is even a little dismissive about past uses of the term in the quote I provide, saying that "some other guy" came up with it first, but in a different context than his. That different context is probably something like the "idea of literariness" that Eddie mentions. My post was meant to bring in this new information that enhances Eisner's anecdote, but I am by no means trying to prove something that already has been proved.

However, I do think that the way Journalista and Bleeding Cool linked to this post, they make it look like I'm trying to prove that Eisner didn't come up with the term first. What I'm doing is much less dramatic, but those two links seem to show that the myth that Eisner created the graphic novel still persists.

Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. said...

Hi, Eddie,
Alas, I own just about every issue of Fantasy Illustrated EXCEPT #5. Kyle doesn't mention the term in his inaugural column in issue #4.

Dr. K: I missed the 1964 reference in the post. Sorry. Where did Kyle's first usage appear?

Part of what I learned and meant to convey with my second post was that Kyle wrote an extensive (and not altogether flattering) review of the new Eisner material in the Harvey SPIRIT #1. I think it's pretty unlikely that Eisner would NOT have seen or been shown that review column, especially since it contained a negative review of his current work (and, yes I realize that there are way too many negatives in that sentence). If he had seen it, then he had been introduced to the term "graphic novel" in 1966.

As for the "first" graphic novels, I believe that it's been pretty much established, but possibly since lost to fannish history, that folks like Frans Masereel, Lynd Ward, Otto Nückel, and Milt Gross can easily lay claims to them as early as 1928 - although there are several books on the market today discussing and reprinting them.

Peace, Jim (|:{>

Eddie Campbell said...

in answer to your question.
(Again, I realize this is off topic from Dr K's post, but it can be useful to have all the references in one place for anybody who wants to cut and paste it for storage.)
I don't have it but this appears to be the accepted historical record:

"While Richard Kyle initially coined the terms "graphic story" and "graphic novel" in Capa-Alpha #2 (November, 1964), Capa-Alpha was only available to members of the APA and was extremely limited in circulation (less than 50 copies). Thus, Richard Kyle's Graphic Story Review column is the 1st public coining and explanation of the terms to general comicdom..."

Dr. K said...

Eddie, thanks for adding that information. As this post has gotten a lot of attention for both it's content and the quality of the discussion in the comments, I welcome these additions. And in case anyone is interested, the special collection library at Michigan State University has a near-complete run of Capa-Alpha, including the rare early issues that feature Kyle's seminal work. I was there a few months ago, and I was amazed that they had this valuable resource.

SangorShop said...

I seem to recall that the CAPA-alpha collection at MSU was originally one of the McGheehan brothers copies. (each brother had one set), although my memory could be wrong. Certainly saying 50 copes only is off, as many of the folks in the early days actually printed off a lot more copies than just for the membership (and wan't 60 the copy count back in 1964?). I also see a suggestion that Kyle's Fantasy Illustrated , Graphic Story Magazine and Graphic Story World were obscure fanzines - they're only as obscure as any fanzine from the period would be. it's hard for me to imagine anyone in fandom in those years who hadn't heard of them. Even if all they saw was the ads in RBCC.

Steven Rowe

Rudra455 said...
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