Sunday, November 6, 2011

Interview with Will Eisner about Blackhawk

Blackhawk #260 (1983). Cover art
by Howard Chaykin.
In reviewing this revival of Blackhawk for a new series of profiles, I unearthed the following interview, which adds to the mythos surrounding the creation of “Blackhawk,” which artist Chuck Cuidera consistently maintained was his creation, and specifically not the creation of Will Eisner. 

This 1983 interview with Eisner precedes all of the documented accounts made by Cuidera on the issue. The first of these wasn’t until 1999, the year that Cuidera publicly claimed sole creation of “Blackhawk.” There is anecdotal evidence told to Jim Amash by industry professionals that Cuidera made those same claims as far back as the 1950s/60s. In characterizing Cuidera below, Eisner was probably dancing around his true opinions. Cuidera, on the other hand, rarely minced words on the subject, and held some disdain towards Eisner (again, both witnessed and transcribed by Amash). Naturally, this issue is covered more in the Quality Companion! Read Jim Amash's interviews with Cuidera and Eisner in Alter Ego #34 and #48, respectively.

Written by Cat Yronwode, originally published in the letter column of Blackhawk #260 (July 1983).

Ask the average comic book fan of today who created the Blackhawks and you will get a vague answer. "The Blackhawks? Uh ... didn’t Reed Crandall do them originally... or was it Chuck Cuidera? …no, Reed Crandall ... it was Crandall... I think."

Reed Crandall did draw a number of Blackhawk adven­tures, and he is certainly the artist associated with their glory days. Chuck Cuidera was the feature's first illustrator, and it was he who gave most of the characters their distinctive looks. Dick Dillin drew a lot of Blackhawk stories. Even Gene Colan put in his stint on the series, long ago. But the man who created Blackhawk and his multi-national crew of adven­tures was, believe it or not, Will Eisner, known not for this accomplishment, but for his magnum opus, The Spirit, a costumed detective series which is still kept in print 30 years after Eisner ceased work on it.

Blackhawk was, to hear Eisner tell the story, created in reaction to two compelling stimuli. The first is prosaic beyond belief: "I needed a feature to fill one of the two magazines that I was doing in partnership with Busy Arnold of Quality Comics, over and above the weekly Spirit section I produced for the newspapers. The magazine was Military Comics, and it was designed to showcase tales of bravery on land, on sea and in the air.

This brings into focus the second stimulus which produced “Blackhawk”—the certainty of impending war. The first issue of Military is cover-dated August 1941. Remembering that then, as now, comics are put on sale about two months before their cover-date, and that they go into production about three or four months before they are printed, this means that Will Eisner probably scripted and roughly laid out the first Blackhawk story in March, 1941, nine months before America entered the second World War. And yet there they were, that many-nationed band, fighting the Nazis. Was Eisner prescient… or did he just have a good grasp of current events?

“Most of my thinking, that is, my plot development, from 1940 on, originated in the newspapers. If you read through all the Spirit stories I did over the years, for example, you will see this. I was very, very attentive to news articles, to what was happening in the world. I've always believed that the best fictional material comes from life itself. Current life—it's always a good plot. In the case of Blackhawk, the war was on already in Europe. Germany seemed invincible at the time. This was adventure. The Blackhawks represented to me, a super-guerilla group. I liked the idea of a group having an island of its own, outcasts from every nation. I had a fascination with the Foreign Legion then. Today, that idea doesn't mean as much. But for me, at the time, it had the same strange fascination that the Wild West has for Europeans. Everybody had a gun and was his own law. And men would band together and form gangs. It was the gang idea, guys belonging to a kind of private society."

He chuckles. “I read a lot of pulp adventures when I was younger," he admits.

Eisner not only came up with the concept of the Blackhawks, he designed their costumes, named the characters and selected the type of airplane they flew. In all of this, however, he openly acknowledges the help of his fellow artists in the shop, particularly Bob Powell and Chuck Cuidera. For instance, in the matter of names, Powell had a big influence. Of Polish extraction, his real name was Stanislaus Pulowski. [NOTE: It was actually “Stanley Pawlowski,” verified by his son in Alter Ego #66.] As Eisner explains, "We were trying to put together a whole group of guys from different countries. That followed a traditional, time-honored pattern, which came from the pulps. If you go back to the stories of the French Foreign Legion, you'll see that they always had guys whose names represented their countries. They generally were popular names. So I turned to Bob and said, 'Hey, you're Polish. What's a good Polish name?’ And of course he said, 'Stanislaus'!"

As for the origin of Andre, Eisner offers the suggestion that the name was chosen "because it was a good French name. I knew that because I knew that Andre LeBlanc (a fellow artist, then working for Fiction House Comics [NOTE: And later for Quality, too—MK]) had a French background.”
Chop-Chop seems to have been Chuck Cuidera's contribu­tion. [He debuted in Military #3] "I decided to have a Chinese cook," says Eisner, "and Chuck said, 'How about calling him Chop-Chop?' In fact, the entire idea might have been his. Chuck was a feisty kind of guy. He would suddenly stand up and walk over as though he was going to quit or make a big proposition. He would have thought something out, and he would propose it with a great deal of seriousness. I'd say, 'What exactly do you have in mind, Chuck?’ and he would say very earnestly, ‘Well, I think we ought to have THAT in the next story!' So I would respond with great seriousness and say, 'Yeah, I think that's a good idea. Let's do that.' He had good ideas, but he really had to work himself up before he would present them. I know I designed all the characters, but Chop-Chop may have been Chuck's idea in large part."

The matter of the planes the Blackhawks flew is another area in which Eisner acknowledges Bob Powell's contribution. ''There was a kind of friendliness, a kind of workshop or team atmosphere in the studio back then," Eisner explains. "I think everyone there wanted to identify himself or his work somehow. Remember, no one was getting much individual attention at the time. Not every feature carried a credit line. Nobody was getting much personal exposure. So anyway, this feature was created in the shop. At that time I generally talked out the idea for a new feature with the guys in the shop. I would talk it out much the way a baseball manager or coach would... 'Okay, here's the strategy, here's what we're going to do, here's the feature, here's the kind of character." And out of this process, we developed the ideas. Now Bob Powell was hung up on planes. He ultimately joined the Air Force, as a matter of fact (in World War II). So we came up with the idea of using a certain model Grumman airplane, which had a very strange configuration. It had tailfins coming out from under a wing. It also apparently had the capacity to make a rapid take­off from the deck of an aircraft carrier. It was a Navy plane, as I remember, not an Army Air Force plane. Actually, in real life, it turned out not to be as good a plane as everybody thought it would be, but it sure looked sexy!"

Eisner was what his fellow cartoonists called "an idea man." He would create a new feature, design costumes and props, write and layout the first few episodes, and then turn the story-line over to a team of writers and artists who would continue to produce it under his editorial direction, “Blackhawk” was no exception to this rule." I drew the first cover, as I remember, and wrote the story. Chuck Cuidera drew it, with great attention and singleness of mind, and used tons of white paint," says Eisner, laughing. "Just caked over with white paint… but he was good. Anyway, I don't think I wrote —fully scripted—more than the first ten stories. After that I edited it, supervised, made changes, revised it as needed. The next writer was a fellow who did a lot of work for us, a man named Dick French, who was (artist) Tex Blaisdell's, brother­-in-law. He did a lot of “Blackhawk” stories, and other things as well. He also wrote the “Blackhawk” songs. He was musically inclined. I think he could also write music."

"We then bought freelance stories from all kinds of people. There was one fellow whose name I forget. His head was shaved clean. I always thought he was Russian. He had what sounded like a Russian accent, a bullet head, totally shaved, and he graduated from N.Y.U. l don't remember his name, but I could draw you a picture of him. He looked like Khruschev, sort of a jolly Khruschev. Then one day I discovered that he wasn't a Russian at all and the reason he had this strange accent was the fact that he was not only deaf, he was also mute, and he had just simply taught himself how to speak. He'd come up and deliver his stuff. I remember his scripts, were very, very good. Good strong writing."

Because Eisner has always, to this very day, written his scripts directly on the art boards, he sometimes found it difficult to deal with writers who turned in their assignments in conventional form. The “Russian" and Dick French were some of the first writers Eisner dealt with who did not supply their stories in the form of rough layouts. “Around this time, I was getting used to dealing with typewritten scripts. I still hate typewritten scripts—I find them hard to work with. But the boys in the shop were getting used to them. They didn’t mind them. Now in those days, in my shop at least, no script was written in concrete. Anybody, who wanted to change a script had a right to do it. If the penciler or inker (they were usually the same guy) came up with something better, they would just change the dialogue. That's how we did it in my shop; everybody had a hand in it."

Letterer Sam Rosen completed the original creative team on “Blackhawk.” In time he was replaced by Martin DeMuth, whose distinctive banner-shaped captions contributed to the look of the entire Quality Comics line. Reed Crandall then took on the art chores, although by this time Eisner had been drafted. "As I remember, by the time Reed Crandall got there, I was in the Army. The whole shop in Tudor City (a part of Manhattan) had to be closed down and moved to Stamford, Connecticut. Busy Arnold then monitored both my books (including The Spirit) and his books, as well as the books we did together. Reed Crandall had come over from Jerry Iger's shop (which produced work for Fiction House Comics). You see, Iger and I made an agreement that for two years after we broke up our partnership (in late 1939), we would not raid each other's shops for talent. I couldn't  deal with Reed because he was not one of the guys who was on waivers, but eventually Busy Arnold got him to come over.

“Dave Berg also worked on Blackhawk; l think he did back-up stories, helped with inks, things like that."

Eisner was in the Army throughout World War II, and when he returned, he severed his relationship with Quality Comics, preferring to concentrate on the weekly Spirit newspaper section. Although Quality did publish a comic book containing reprints of Spirit sections, Eisner never again wrote or drew a feature for Busy Arnold's company.

By the time Quality Comics was sold to NationaI Periodical Publications (now known as DC Comics), Eisner was virtually out of the comic book business, though he did produce a regular monthly comic for the Army. He thus missed Dick Dillin's tenure on the feature, its cancellation, revival, and second cancellation, and current revival.

When asked his opinion about the group's "super-heroic” phase, he just laughs. ''What did they do—turn black and fly around like hawks?" The idea is patently ridiculous to him. As for the latest incarnation of the series, set in the glory days of World War II, Eisner offers an unconventional opinion. "They should stay back there. They, don't beIong in the modern world." He chuckles. "But I still wish them all the best."

© 1983 DC Comics


  1. Great article! I've been meaning to do write-ups on the Blackhawk sections of The Steranko History and All In Color For a Dime on one of my blogs since last year, but the subject is overwhelming!

  2. No lie! That's why I'm going in reverse, covering the Silver Age DC run last while I amass all (or enough of) the issues. I've got the rest, and will be posting the Chaykin era history very soon, then moving on to the disco Blackhawks and the DCnU too! Just covering the Quality era for my book took forever (also saved for last). But it's a good 7+ pages in there.