Hy Eisman is celebrating 10 years as the artist/writer of Popeye (who, in 2004, is himself celebrating an anniversary: 75 years since his introduction in "Thimble Theater" by Elzie Chrisler Segar). Hy also has the distinction of drawing and writing (since 1986) the oldest comic strip still in circulation, the Katzenjammer Kids.
Speaking of celebrations, warmest wishes and congratulations to Hy and Florenz, who are exchanging wedding vows about the same time this little interview goes online!
No, Olive Oyl didn't get an extreme makeover. Popeye meets Eliza Doolittle, an inspired bit of nonsense by Hy Eisman. Previously unpublished.
CB: What's going on with Popeye's 75th anniversary?
HY: You know about the Popeye Fan Club. It's also the 15th year of their existence and they have a -- they call it a Popeye Picnic, but it's a celebration of Popeye that runs a weekend every year in September in Chester, Illinois.
CB: That's where they have the statue of Popeye, isn't it?
HY: Yes. Chester, right on the Mississippi. They're flying me and George Wildman out and we're the big guests of honor. Do you know George?
CB: Haven't met him, but I know his work, he did the Popeye comic books for Charlton.
HY: That's the guy. Oh and then there's a Popeye movie in the making, written by Paul Reiser, the guy from the TV show, "Mad About You."
CB: This must be the animated TV special I've heard about.
HY: Yes, it's going to be animated.
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The Popeye statue in Chester, Illinois, birthplace of Popeye's creator, Elzie Chrisler Segar.
(Photo: Marilyn Hedges)
CB: Do you remember when you first saw Popeye?
HY: When I was a child? Oh, sure. I was about six years old. I was in an orphanage, and when people came to visit, they would bring newspapers. Sunday newspapers. So I saw all the newspapers that were published in the New York area. The Sunday Mirror, the Sunday News, New York American, the Saturday Journal, the Post, the Herald-Tribune, the World Telegram, they all had comics. So I saw all of 'em, for at least four years. And Popeye ran on the front page of the New York Mirror.
CB: Did the Popeye strip make a particular impact on you?
HY: Oh yeah. The pictures did. The way Segar drew things, you could sort of make up your own stories. At that age I wasn't reading that well. But that and Dick Tracy you could follow and make up a story. It was Thimble Theater at the time and it ran right on the front page of the Mirror.
CB: I didn't know that you'd spent time in an orphanage as a kid. You're like Little Orphan Annie!
HY: Well I really wasn't an orphan. At that time a lot of people, because of the Depression, couldn't afford to have children in the house. It's a common story for that period of time.
The important strip of any paper would be the one they featured. The New York American had Bringing Up Father on the front page. Then on the inside page was Flash Gordon. Dick Tracy ran on the front page of the Sunday News. That was Chicago Tribune Syndicate. And you probably remember this, the Sunday paper was wrapped in the comics.
CB: That's how the Daily News was presented at least as late as '79, when I was living in New Jersey.
HY: It was important, because that's how papers were sold. The News and the Mirror were very similar but people picked them both up because of different sets of comics.
CB: So when you finally got the assignment to do the Popeye strip, how big an event was that for you?
HY: Every strip I ever did was a big event because they were the strips I grew up with.
CB: You're doing two very historically significant strips: Popeye, and also the Katzenjammer Kids.
HY: Right. The Katzenjammers were on the back page of the New York American. That ran with a top strip called Dinglehoofer and His Dog Schnappsie. And then the rest of the page was the Katzenjammers.
CB: You're doing both of these strips as Sunday only. What's your approach to juggling two strips?
HY: Well the drawing style on both is very similar. They have their own characters but there's a sort of a flavor to each. And my inking is the same on both strips because of the line that I use. I use that calligraphic line that ages the strip because everybody uses a Pantograph now. That line sort of went out of favor.
CB: How do you break down your work week? Popeye one day, Katzenjammers the next?
HY: Yeah. I do it that way but most of the time is spent just coming up with gags. That's 92% of it.
CB: Have you ever been tempted to do a Popeye/Katzenjammer Kids crossover?
HY: Yeah. I did a Katzenjammer where the Captain's lining up people for a boat trip and a guy comes in and he asks him if he's had any experience. And it's Popeye.
CB: Did he say "Didja think I was a cowboy?"
HY: (laughs) No, I didn't use that line. But Miss Twiddle says "Don't you know who that was?" It turned out to be a nice strip, I liked it.
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Hy teaches a lettering class at the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art in Dover, New Jersey. Here's Hy with one of his young charges in this 1978 photo. (L: Hy Eisman; R: Marc Vargas)
CB: Let's run down the list of characters and get your thoughts: "Little Iodine."
HY: That was the best gig I ever had. Working with Bob Dunn. He would come up with the gag so I wouldn't have to worry if they were good or not. That was his problem (laughs). And all I had to do was draw. I really enjoyed the drawing. You didn't have to worry that someone would say "What a crummy gag that was." It just flowed, and working with him was great. He was the Master of Ceremonies at the NCS when they were in New York. That's why people came to the meeting, because of him. He was fantastic. In early TV there was a thing called "Quick On the Draw." That was his stuff.
CB: What was the concept?
HY: He would draw a rebus, where you use pictures for words, on a big chart, and a panel would try to solve it. This is the one I remember: He had a thousand dollar bill -- you have to come from New York to understand this one -- and then a guy hitting a horse with a mallet. On the panel were usually cartoonists who were working for the syndicate. He had Ham Fisher on the panel a lot. The thousand dollar bill was "Grant," and the guy hitting the horse was "conk horse." So, that was "The Grand Concourse," which was in the Bronx.
CB: Oh no (laughs)! Did anybody get it?
HY: Yes! People would get this. He came up with crazy things like that.
CB: Iodine was a spin-off of "They'll Do It Every Time." Did you do Iodine from the beginning?
HY: No, no. Bob Dunn was a ghost for Jimmy Hatlo. Hatlo wrote it and Bob Dunn drew it New York. Hatlo lived in California. And when Hatlo died, Dunn became the writer and Al Scaduto took over both Iodine and They'll Do It Every Time. It just became too much for him so when they called me and asked me to do Iodine, I jumped at it. That was my first byline.
CB: Prior to that was "Kerry Drake?"
HY: Yes, I ghosted, penciled it. I did that for three years.
CB: You enjoyed that one, didn't you?
HY: Yeah! 'Cause I really wanted to do illustrative stuff. I wanted to be Hal Foster. When I found out there already was one I was very disappointed.
CB: I can imagine. You penciled, and who was inking it?
HY: You know, a lot of people were inking it that I don't know about (laughs). I know Jerry Robinson inked some of it.
CB: Did you jump straight from Kerry Drake to Iodine, then?
HY: I jumped from Kerry Drake into comic books.
CB: That would be "Bunny?"
HY: I was doing "Bunny" for Harvey Comics. And also "Nancy" for Gold Key. Also "The Munsters." But I was just doing comic book stuff and when they called me to do Iodine I had to drop Bunny, but I kept doing Nancy and Sluggo. Iodine was also only a Sunday page.
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Above: J. Wellington Wimpy and Roughhouse ala Eisman.
CB: Since Popeye was traditionally a story strip, how do you approach it as a Sunday only? What's your take on the character?
HY: When I got the Katzenjammers I had an opportunity to try out for the daily Popeye. That was at the same time that they were giving it to Bobby London. They gave me a choice of what I'd rather do. And, knowing how to do Sunday pages better than dailies, I opted for a Sunday page. 'Cause that's a whole different thing. Dunn taught me how to do a Sunday Page and how to write gags. I was just more familiar with a Sunday page.
CB: You've been doing both strips for quite a while now. When you first started you must have been very conscious of the work that had gone before.
HY: Oh yeah. I modeled my Popeye on Sagendorf's Popeye. He changed it a lot from the Segar. I made very slight changes but kept that particular style.
CB: I imagine after a while you stopped thinking about "How would Sagendorf do it?"
HY: If I look at his stuff and my stuff now I can see the things that I've changed. And I'm imagining that you can see it too. As far as the writing, I have my own streak of whatever. A lot of the stuff that Sagendorf did, I wouldn't attempt. Also I try to avoid the violence they used to do. I think the violence is why a lot of why papers dropped it. The guy is tattooed, he smokes a pipe and he punches guys out. So you're up against it immediately (laughs). And in Katzenjammers the thing was always spanking the kids at the end! So, I allude to it sometimes, but the gags are gone. This cartoonist from Sweden once said to me, "You've ruined it! You've ruined the strip! Why do they never spank them?!" and I said, "I can't!" He said "You're chick-en!"
CB: You can see where that reaction comes from. This was a large part of what those characters were.
HY: Yeah, but years ago people were able to differentiate between fiction and what happened in real life, but now everything has to be politically correct.
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Above: Hy's take on Mama and Der Inspector, classic characters from the Katzenjammer Kids.
CB: You've been a teacher at the Kubert School (The Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art in Dover, NJ) from day one. What can you say about that?
HY: We had a lot of people who came out of there that are doing very well. It's amazing how many of them are actually in the business. But that's the best thing you could hope to say about it. Whatever faults it had, it ended up helping a lot of people get in the business. I still do one class, one day a week. Lettering. Everybody says it's all being done by computer now and so forth, but I try to get these guys to understand that you should at least use your own font, don't buy the font off the rack. Some of them pick it up, some of them are doing it. They learn the way they used to learn. Fifty guys come in. Ten guys listen to what you're telling them to do. The rest of them do what they want to do and end up bagging at the Grand Union or whatever.
We had a letterer who did one year with me. Bill Oakley. He just died, by the way, a young guy. He was there one year, and he took the stuff I was giving him to do as a sample and he went up to Marvel, ended up leaving school and lettering. So some guys really pick up real fast.
CB: To shift gears a bit: You were honored in Italy in 2002. What was that about?
HY: Well, they were actually honoring Popeye. Popeye's very big in Italy. He's known as "Braccio di Ferro" which means "Arms of Steel." And they have a number of cartoonists in Italy who do Italian comic books using the character. But the American cartoonist of Popeye, that was a big deal. So they had this festival and they had me meet all the Italian Popeye artists. It was called "Cartoomix 2002." I was a big-shot there for three days. And once we left Milan, nobody gave me the time of day. (laughs) That's what I was doing. Kids would come by the ton and I was drawing and writing "Braccio di Ferro" over and over. We had about 45,000 people over three days coming to this. They had papers from as far way as Switzerland doing interviews with me. They had me talking Italian on TV!
CB: (laughs) And do you speak Italian?
HY: They had a 20-minute interview with me. The guy was talking to me in Italian and they would interpret. And then my interpreter would interpret my answer in Italian. This went on back and forth. Finally they say "Can he say something in Italian?" And they coached me to say "Mangi più spinaci!" So I did that, and we get back to the hotel at six o'clock. And my daughter had come to the hotel also. We all walked into the room and I decided to put on the news to see if we got on. And just as we turned on the thing, I'm there. The twenty minutes had been reduced down to "Mangi più spinaci!" Which means, "Eat more spinach." That was my big moment in Milan.
Hy's self-portrait, circa 1991.