Will Eisner is well known to many comic fans. During the 1940s, Eisner produced the famed strip The Spirit, an urban-crimefighter series. Then, in the 1970s, his career shifted to graphic novels, the genre Eisner birthed with groundbreaking A Contract With God?
Eisner's output between The Spirit and A Contract With God? has been somewhat undervalued. That is, until now.
PS, produced by Eisner for the U.S. Army from 1951 to 1971, is celebrated in the new book PS Magazine: The Best of Preventative Maintence Monthly. PS (or postscript) functioned as an educational tool for American soldiers, presenting safety measures with humor and easy-to-understand colloquial language.
Eddie Cambell, a comic artist in his own right, selected the best of PS for the book. It is a not just a look at the missing link in Eisner's career, but the first ever collection of this material presented in digest format.
We spoke to Cambell about Eisner and the makings of PS Magazine: The Best of Preventative Maintence Monthly.
How did you first become aware of Will Eisner?
I discovered Will Eisner's comics when I was a kid in 1967, when harvey comics did a reprint of the Spirit. It was a revelation.
What is the most important thing to know about Will Eisner?
Eisner is certainly one of the great American comic book artists.
What are the basic things we should know about PS Magazine?
PS was a little monthly magazine he produced for the military for 24 years. It's not really a comic book, more a supplement to the official technical manual, but it's full of Eisner's cartooning, which is reason enough to be interested in it. You might come away from the experience knowing how to keep your 1954 jeep battery from freezing. One day you might need that knowledge. who knows?
What was the process of selecting the materials for PS Magazine: The Best of Preventative Maintenance Monthly?
We rounded up what we could find here and there. But, since we had l ready decided to call it 'The Best of..", well we faced up to the fact that we needed to borrow Eisner's personal archive volumes and get permission to bust the spines to photograph them properly. My editor lost a night's sleep working up to that one.
How important is the PS period to Eisner's career?
It fills in the gap between The Spirit of the 1940s and Eisner's graphic novels that he started in the 1970s.
Eisner got some stick from the US Government about some of the PS characters. Some were considered to depict soldiers in a bad light. Did Eisner face other difficulties in transforming official technical manuals into more digestible cartoons?
Yes , there was one character, Fogsnof, that was so ugly and disheveled that he couldn't be rehabilitated, so he had to go. And the other was Joe Dope, he got a facelift following a miscalculation of the headspace on a .50 caliber machine gun. And in the period when more women were being enlisted into he army, Connie Rodd's sexiness had to be toned down.
In the larger context of American cartoons of the period, what can we learn about the genre though this comprehensive look at PS?
I don't think Eisner's work in this period can tell us much about comics or cartooning in general. I think he was cut off from the mainstream somewhat. And also, the late 1950s was a dull period for comics. Lots of cartoonists had to find safe berths elsewhere when the business went through a downsizing period. The comic Mad had to turn into the magazine mad to survive. Most of the superheroes had disappeared until the revival in the early 1960s. It would have a difficult time to get through for cartoonists. You had to find your own thing, or attach yourself to a newspaper artist as his assistant or something (quite a number of accomplished artists did that) and dig in until things changed. But all of that makes it an interesting period to study.
PS Magazine: The Best of Preventative Maintence Monthy by Will Eisner; selected and with an overview by Eddi Campbell; preface by Ann Eisner; introduction by General Peter J. Schoomaker, releases on September 1, 2011 from Abrams ComicArts.