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A Short Interview With Bob Andelman
posted December 11, 2005
 

Bob Andelman is a former Comics Buyer's Guide columnist, a journalist whose subject matter has been as far removed from comics as a journalist can get, experienced autobiography "as told to" writer, and the author behind one of the prime "book about comics" gift choices for the holiday season: the new biography of cartoonist Will Eisner, Will Eisner: A Spirited Life.

Unlike many past biographies of comics figures, Andelman's book keeps focused on the life of its subject rather than the second life Eisner work took in the imagination of its fans. In the following chat, we talked about his background, his basic approach to working with Mr. Eisner and the source material, and one or two snags that developed on the way.

You can visit Andelman's site here, and purchase his book wherever books are sold, like Amazon.com (where you can also search its pages).

imageTOM SPURGEON: How were you selected to do A Spirited Life? I understand you were Judy Hansen's choice for the book based on some other work you had done.

BOB ANDELMAN: My former agent, a guy named Kevin Lang, had called me up out of the blue and said, "I don't know why I haven't done this before, but you need to talk to Judy Hansen. She has an agency, she represents comic book creators and journalists. Since you have an interest in comics, and some people say you're a journalist [laughter] you two should talk. Maybe you could do a book on one of her clients." I said, "Great, I'd love that."

So I called her up that evening. I called at 6 pm thinking I was getting an office and could leave a message. Judy was like "I work at home" and there she was. We spoke for about two hours. We hit it off pretty well. She was saying, "We represent Will Eisner, we represent the state of Harvey Kurtzman, we represent the estate of Al Capp. We've talked about biographies on all of them at one point or another. We talked to Will, and we've been trying to convince him to do an autobiography. You may be the right person because you're not coming at it as a comic book fan, you have journalism training, and that might be enough to tip the balance." I said, "Okay." She said, "Now, you'll have to talk to my partner." So I go through the same thing with Denis [Kitchen].

I knew Denis very vaguely at that point. I'd been away from comics for a while. I'd been very heavily into comics in the '70s, very active in comics fandom. I did a column for the Comics Buyer's Guide. All these hidden secrets. [Spurgeon laughs] I sort of knew Denis' work. I knew a lot of his publications from the '70s. I didn't know what he had been doing. And I didn't know what Will had been doing, really. Denis and I talked, we hit it off pretty good. I'm sure he was a little dubious. He said, "I'll call Will, and we'll talk to him about it. If he's game, you can call him and set up an appointment. So I guess he's got Will's interest.

At that time we were talking about an autobiography. I'd done a lot of those, as told to book mostly with business people. The founders of Home Depot, for example. He calls me back and says, "Call Will and set something up." We set up to meet for lunch. It was the beginning of February '02. It was a weird time in the world, a couple of months after 9/11. I did something I'd never done before. I told my wife and daughter they were coming with me to a business appointment. My daughter -- let me do the math -- she was about five and a half. We'll leave out my wife's age. I said, "You're coming with me. Come on. This is a great a guy, a talented guy and come down and meet him with me."

Will was absolutely charming. We met at the tennis club near his office where he went to lunch a lot. My five and a half year old is sitting across the table from Will, she's bored, so she turns over the placemat and starts drawing. She covers the back with lines. In the middle of the conversation, she says, "Mr. Eisner, I'm an artist, too, you know?" "Oh, really?" "This is for you." He looks at it, and it's this white background with lots of lines. "Rachel, what is it?" "It's a snowman in a snowstorm." He laughs. He says, "I have a place on my bulletin board in my studio where when children send me pictures I put them up." She was very excited. "After lunch I want you to come back to my studio and I'll draw a picture for you."

This is weird, because Dave Sim told me this story -- he was a fan at a Canadian convention, and he was working on a story for a fanzine, and he has a pad in his hand, and he says, "Mr. Eisner! Mr. Eisner!" He pulls his right hand up, because he had stopped doing drawings. I didn't know that when he did the sketch for my daughter. Afterwards I knew this was really special. So we hit it off. I wish he were here to tell people why he decided to do it. I don't know if it was a couple of Jewish boys who aren't very Jewish, or we're both from New York. My wife says I'm a pretty good listener, which is a good thing to be in this line of work.

SPURGEON: Can you talk a bit about your 1970s involvement with comics?

ANDELMAN: I can tell you I owe my entire career to my 1970s interest in comics. Seriously. I had a couple of friends, a guy named Bob Pinaha, who went on to letter for a lot of DC Comics; he did stuff for Comico. You know the company?

SPURGEON: Sure.

ANDELMAN: Diana Schutz was there -- he did work for them. I can't remember how it all started. I started with Pinaha and a guy named Chris Padovano. I don't remember how we met, but we started something called the Fans of Central Jersey. '74, maybe? There were not many comics clubs -- there was Pittsburgh and Ithaca the only ones I can remember in those days. We started collecting names and addresses from the comics pages, put together a newsletter, and started this club. We would meet once a month. There were two brothers, Dave and Neil Bronstein, they had a company called El Dorado Comics. They used to come up to the meetings with brand new comics. It was really cool. We had a lot of fun.

Right around then I started learning about fanzines. I think at one point I was writing for about 19 different fanzines. I met Murray Bishoff at a Creation Con in '75 maybe? I met him there, and I don't remember why I met him, he started talking to me about Maxfield Parrish. Murray was a huge Maxfield Parrish fan. I didn't know anything about Maxfield Parrish. He said to me, "Come on, I'll show you." He took me to a bunch of galleries in New York, not fou-fou galleries, but places where you could buy prints and stuff. I was like Wow. In '75 I'm like 16 years old. I don't know about this stuff. It was a different era. I would never let my kid run off to New York galleries with anybody today. It was different then. "Let's go."

SPURGEON: I've asked Mom the same question about some of the older fans I used to hang around with.

ANDELMAN: I have a lithograph of Daybreak in my living room. I think it was at that point that Murray said I should write a column for the Buyer's Guide. I was doing our newsletter and was in all these fanzines. I got to know Mark Chiarello, who is now the art director. Michael Dooney, who went on to do stuff for the [Teenage Mutant Ninja] Turtles. Frank Thorne, we got to know him very well. George Perez, the group of us met up with him at Marvel one day. He took us back to his apartment and a bunch of sat on the floor while he did pages. The whole thing was, the column was called "Jersey Scene." It was not particularly well written, but it was there. There's Don and Maggie Thompson, and you turn the page, and there's Andelman. Everything was weird back then.

Between that and a weekly or monthly called Compass out of Connecticut, I did a lot of writing for that. These experiences came about because of comics. Some people involved went on to become writers or artists in comics. I never had that pull or opportunity, but I liked interviewing people. I liked listening to people. The fanzines opened up a lot of opportunities for me that way. As Will said to Joe Quesada after he failed his class: "Well, here you are."

imageSPURGEON: Tell me about your research beyond first-person interviews. Did you go to Ohio State, or access the Eisners' own material?

ANDELMAN: No, I made that shit up. [laughter] I went to Ohio State. Lucy Caswell, who is the curator, I had called ahead and she said I could have access to some stuff but without Will's permission I couldn't have access to all the stuff. So Will called her. I spent about three days up there. They give you the catalog of everything they have. You have to do this advance, pick out the stuff you're interested in, and you look at it in a hermetically sealed room.

SPURGEON: We did something similar with Stan Lee's papers at the University of Wyoming. Can you characterize what of Mr. Eisner's is at OSU?

ANDELMAN: There's some art. Most of the Spirit art now is with Denis. They sell the old stuff. Some of the early graphic novel stuff was done on really cheap paper and disappeared.

SPURGEON: Did you ever see some films that Eisner made? I've heard that he made films.

ANDELMAN: I didn't see the films. Jon Cooke and his brother Andy saw the films.

SPURGEON: Do you recall what was on them?

ANDELMAN: They were personal films. There was actually film of Buck and the boat. Let me think... I didn't see them. Cat Yronwode told me about them and Jon and Andy Cooke actually used some of that film in their documentary. An hour or so. It was amazing to see the films I heard about but hadn't seen. There was also another cool thing -- cool in that it exists, not cool in that it's well done -- there was a TV series done in the late '40/early '50s based on The Spirit. It was just atrocious. They took the seven-page section and there would be a voiceover and they would show the art. [Spurgeon laughs] It was kind of like a film strip. It was just awful.

SPURGEON: How was your experience at this year's ICAF [International Comic Arts Festival] meeting of comics-savvy scholars in Washington, D.C.? They gave a significant portion of time during their meeting over to presentations concerning Mr. Eisner.

ANDELMAN: They did. It was the biggest chunk of time, I think, in the three-day thing. I will leave it someone else to tell you how I did. I can tell you I had a great time. I was flattered to be a keynote presenter, seeing as how I've never presented a talk to anyone in my life. I've spoken to groups, but never with the formality of that. Realizing it was a thoroughly academic event, you're at the Library of Congress so there's a certain amount of gravitas.

I have to be honest -- I didn't take it seriously enough until Wednesday of that week until Benjamin Herzberg called me. He says, and he's such a sweet guy, "I thought we could compare what we're going to be talking about." I said, sure. He told me what he was going to do, which was bacially a review of Will's life and career. I said, "I don't know how to say this to you, Benjamin, but I think that's why they have me coming." I encouraged them to invite you, but I think the idea is that I come and talk about his life and career, then they show the Cooke Brothers documentary. Then the academicians took a Spirit story and discussed its merits. Then they have you come in -- I think -- and talk about the end of his career, because you worked with him on Fagin and The Plot.

"Bob, I see what you're saying there. I think there's something to that. But I did this whole work and have a powerpoint show." I said, "You and I have spoken, and it seems to me you could fill an hour talking about The Plot -- he was a great influence on how it was structured. What about you take it from there?" Now the funny thing is I taught myself Powerpoint the previous Saturday. I'd never done a slide presentation; the only time I'd ever opened Powerpoint before that was when a friend would send me some girlie show. Other than that, it was a useless part of Microsoft Office as far as I'm concered. But I had over 250-300 pieces of art for the book -- they only used a fraction of it. I had scrupulously scanned hundreds of things at Ohio State and the Eisner home.

I said, "Benjamin, the really tough thing is you don't have a choice. I'm going on first!" For all I know, the Cooke Brothers may repeat things I have! I have an index of all the art, so you know what I have access to. A couple of hours later he calls me back. "Bob, I see there's a bit of a problem. Forty to sixty percent is overlap. I said, "We should talk about this."

imageHe's such a sweet guy, he sends me a link later in the day where he's posted his powerpoint presentation so I can see what he's got. So I called him back and said I'll take these thigns out and you leave these things to me. So it works out. It goes over well. The documentary repeats a lot of what I had. [laughter] I can't remember if they had the blackmail pictures of Will ironing in an apron. Ben came in about halfway through mine and the Cooke Brothers and the symposium. I sat through his, and it was a wonderful talk. He did not take the items out that we had discussed, but he zipped through them. But his stuff about The Plot and Fagin was just great. No one has those insights.

SPURGEON: Did Eisner ever have close relationships with his editors in a give-and-take sense, or was he mostly left alone to create as he saw fit?

ANDELMAN: He recognized the need for someone else to be looking at what he did. He relied on Denis for that. He relied heavily on Dave Schreiner for that. I think there were one or two people at DC when they were publishing some of his newer graphic novels -- you had to reach a comfort level with yourself and with him that you could speak up. He wanted the feedback. He didn't want to print something without an editor or someone giving him feedback.

SPURGEON: What was Eisner counting on those people to tell him?

ANDELMAN: His thing was always -- and I think there's an anecdote with Batton Lash, about one of the graphic novels, maybe Contract, and Batton was like "The art is so great." And Will was disappointed, because he wanted feedback as a writer. He wanted to be recognized as a businessman, he wanted to be recognized as a writer. He kind of took his art for granted.

I think that Bob Weil, who edited The Plot, gave him a real run for his money. Dave Schreiner I'm sure was an excellent editor, but I don't think Will ever dealt with an editor who looked at things the way Bob Weil did. I can tell you there were times he was frustrated that things kept coming back to him for changes or corrections, or clarification. It was challenging. But he appreciated the input, and loved the give and take with a good editor.

image

SPURGEON: And were you able to talk to everyone in Eisner's life? And was there any person who had a different view of the way events occurred that you had to negotiate in doing the book?

ANDELMAN: Frank Miller and Art Spiegelman never returned my calls, but they were the only ones on the whole project who didn't. And I did meet Miller the night before the memorial service in New York. Diana Schutz invited me to what I call a wake; she doesn't call it that. It was fascinating for me. I never said a word to Miller about it, because the book was done. That wasn't so much an issue.

The only person... was Cat Yronwode. That was a very... I heard stories about here from so many different people. I knew I had to call her, because she was such an integral part of Will's re-emergence. The stature that he enjoys today, a lot of it has to do with Cat. I don't think anyone can deny that. But because of the stories I had heard, and the stories I had planned to use, it was very awkward to call her and talk to her about stuff. But she was so sweet, and she was so generous with her time. Fast forward, late in the process I felt uncomfortable with what I had. I called her and I said, "Look, I'd really like to send you this and have you look it over."

As a reporter, I don't generally give people the opportunity to read things before I publish them. I try to get it right the first time and live with the consequences. But in this case I said can you read it over.

That opened up a tremendous can of worms. She was not happy with the way she was portrayed. At one point she published the chapter about her on her web site. With all our correspondance. She published my home phone number. She posted responses to things in notes. I tried to e-mail her and call her and say, "Look, if you're not happy with the portrait..." Because I didn't know her! I said I will change it. I'm not out to hurt her reputation. She was very upset. It took months, but she finally took it down. I didn't understand the logic of that. It seemed to me she was making the situation worse. She was publishing the things that upset her. Unfortunately the uncorrect galleys went out with that version that she was unhappy with. Between the galleys going out without those corrections and her publishing it herself it was unfortunate.

I haven't have any contact with her sense. I think that I'm very direct in the book in the acknowledgments how much I appreciated her time and acknowledging what an important factor she was. But other than that, there were no issues of any real consequence. There's a whole faction out there that doesn't want Will to have credit for Blackhawk. I met -- I won't go into it -- but I met someone like that at ICAF, who was giving me the third degree about that. Michael Chabon told me he had gotten an earful about that and Will had told him to stop crediting him because it wasn't worth it.

I'll tell you something really funny. Well, funny in an ironic way. I met Jerry Iger long before I ever knew Will Eisner existed. Going to these comic book conventions in the '70s, and having these fanazines, I can't remember how I met him but I met him. He was a sweet old guy at that point. I had no idea his part in the history of comics. No concept. I'm a teenager. We didn't have the benefit of the wealth of knowledge we have now. He would send me little sketches. I'm such an idiot, just until recently, that the character of Bobby also referred to me. I know that I have a letter from Jerry somewhere in my stacks of stuff. One day Will and I were talking about Jerry, and I said, "I gotta tell you, I met Jerry." He said, "You did? When?" I told him in the '70s, before I knew he existed. I think really what was going on is that he was looking for some attention. I never made the connection. He was just a sweet old guy. The utter craziness of it was Will hearing from Bob Iger at Disney and me calling Iger -- before he became chairman or whatever he is now -- and I was amazed he made time to talk to me. I got to tell him I knew his great-uncle. Small world.

SPURGEON: The world of comics is even smaller. Let me ask you a broad question...

ANDELMAN: About the broads? [laughter]

SPURGEON: Well, since you ask, I do have a very specific question about the broads, although it's so specific it's probably more self-indulgence than journalistic inquiry. At one point you detail Cat Yronwode's analysis of Eisner's art in terms of a recurring character in Mr. Eisner's work. It was a mystery lady, someone very troubled. Was that particular person any of the people you profiled in the biographical portions of your book?

ANDELMAN: No.

SPURGEON: Last question. As one who was there at the start, but also someone who had to operate within how it developed decades later, was Eisner generally satisifed with the way the industry had progressed? Did he have a take on the industry with which he was involved, being one of the original architects?

ANDELMAN: I do think he was always surprised that more artists didn't retain control and that more didn't self-publish. He found what Denis Kitchen did to be revelatory -- he could publish whatever he wanted! The independent comics, companies like Eclipse, these fascinated him. Also because he failed when he tried to publish himself -- which he later laughed about. I think he was surprised that artists didn't take greater control over what he did.

SPURGEON: What about the state of the art?

ANDELMAN: I know that he liked a great deal of work he saw over the years. He was devoted to a lot of particular artists. He was very fond of Frank [Miller]. He was fond of [Art] Spiegelman. And [Scott] McCloud. And lots of people, so I don't want to single any more out.