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Welcome to the three hundredth and forty-second in a series of examinations of comic book legends and whether they are true or false. This week is an all Will Eisner edition of Comic Book Legends Revealed! Discover the bizarre tale of Eisner’s “feud” with Al Capp! Learn the mystery of John Law! And was Midnight created to replace the Spirit?
Click here for an archive of the previous three hundred and forty-one.
COMIC LEGEND: Will Eisner was tricked into starting a “feud” with Al Capp.
In 1947, Will Eisner’s the Spirit newspaper feature did a series parodying both Al Capp’s world-famous Lil’ Abner comic strip and Capp himself…
The story was a bit of a curiosity. It was never mentioned again after it first came out and Capp never responded.
Many years later, though, Eisner explained the bizarre situation. You see, he was asked to start a feud with Capp…by Capp himself!! Here’s Eisner describing it…
Somewhere in 1947, I got a phone call from Al, whom I’d known professionally. ‘Will,’ he said, ‘you know I’ve been doing a satire of Dick Tracy [One of Capp’s most popular bits in Lil’ Abner was his parodies of Chester Gould and Gould’s Dick Tracy comic strip as Lester Gooch and Fearless Fosdick], and I thought it would be a good idea if we did a satire of each other’s characters.’ Of course I was quite flattered, because Al was big time, the big man on the block, and I was just a little newcomer. So I said yes indeed, I’d be glad to do that, and I went ahead and did a story. I remember calling the syndicate, and they were quite excited, because in those days, the idea of a crossover – which is quite common in comic books today – was virtually unheard of, especially in the syndicated strips.
So I published the story and I waited, watching Abner in the newspapers, and the same week my story came out, Newsweek called and asked to do an interview with me. And they printed this whole story about Al, and the satire I’d done on him…but it was mostly on Li’l Abner, and Al’s problems with his syndicate. I found out later that Al had called Newsweek and told them I would be doing the satire, so they could do a story about him.
He never did satirize The Spirit in his strip. Of course, looking at it in hindsight, I had no real right to expect him to reciprocate at all. He was a big man and I was a little fellow; everyone knew Dick Tracy and comparatively few knew The Spirit, so he had nothing to gain from that. But, I’ve got to admit that my lower lip trembled for a few days.
Check out James Vance’s site here for more information about the feud-that-wasn’t, including a hilarious response from Harvey Kurtzman!
Thanks to Vance for the information and thanks to Travis Pelkie for suggesting I run this (I was already planning to do so, but he didn’t know that!).
COMIC LEGEND: Will Eisner recycled a rejected comic strip into Spirit stories.
In the late 1940s, Eisner was thinking about expanding his comic franchise with other characters other than the Spirit. One such character was John Law, a hard-boiled detective.
Here is the original John Law strip, Meet John Law, from an early 1980s reprint of the strip (with color!)…
If that seems familiar to you, that is not a surprise. You see, after Eisner failed to sell the new strip, he did not want to let a good story (and “Meet John Law” is a GREAT story) go to waste, so he did some edits and he released it as a Spirit story in 1950 – one of the most famous Spirit stories ever, as it turned out!
Here’s a snippet from the Spirit story…
A great example of wasting not, wanting not!
COMIC LEGEND: Midnight was created to replace the Spirit during World War II.
STATUS: False Enough for a False
Awhile back, I did a Comic Book Legends Revealed about how the Quality Comics character Midnight had a two-way wrist radio BEFORE Dick Tracy had one in the Dick Tracy comic strip. Midnight, however, is even more interesting than that.
Midnight is typically described as Busy Arnold’s (head of Quality Comics) attempt to come up with a knock-off of the Spirit during World War II to replace the Spirit.
In some ways, that is true, but I think it is misleading enough for it to be better categorized as false. You see, Arnold was the publisher of Will Eisner’s The Spirit newspaper comic book feature. Arnold had the copyright on the Spirit, however, part of the deal was that if he and Eisner ever split up for any reason, the property would revert to Eisner (I felt like writing “revert back to Eisner” just to see people howl). Well, in 1941, Eisner was drafted into the United States Army for World War II. Eisner did not end up fighting overseas, but at the time of his drafting, how could Arnold know WHAT was in store for Eisner? So Arnold began to worry a bit. If Eisner were to die during the War, what would become of the Spirit?
With that in mind, Arnold had Jack Cole (renowned creator of Plastic Man for Quality Comics) invent a Spirit knock-off, the aforementioned Midnight.
Rather than being a replacement per se, Midnight was more of an insurance policy – something that Arnold could possibly slot into the newspaper feature if something happened to the Spirit franchise. And I have seen it repeated enough that it was intended as just a plain ol’ replacement that I think it is fair enough to spotlight the false aspects of this tale.
Anyhow, a few years into World War II Arnold realized that he had nothing to worry about. Eisner was not going overseas and the production of the Spirit was in capable hands with Eisner’s assistants. So in fact, rather than having Midnight replace the Spirit, Arnold began also reprinting the Spirit newspaper features in Quality comic books in 1944!
So for a few years, Arnold was publishing comic books featuring both the Spirit AND his knock-off character, Midnight!
Thanks to commenter Bicycle-Repairman for the information behind this one!
Okay, that’s it for this week!
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See you all next week!
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