F.J. DeSanto on Will Eisner

I was speaking with director (and Sequart alum) Patrick Meaney about our Will Eisner Week plans, and he said, “You guys should hit up [Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods and Warren Ellis: Captured Ghosts executive producer] F.J. [DeSanto]. I’m sure he’d be happy to talk,” and Pat was right. I internally kicked myself for not connecting the dots: F.J. is a great person to interview about Will Eisner. Firstly, F.J.’s an Eisner fan, but much more importantly, he produced a feature-film adaptation of The Spirit with Frank Miller, and he wrote a bunch of The Spirit comics for DC!

So what better way to wrap up Sequart’s participation in Will Eisner Week than speaking with a man who has had intimate experiences playing in Will Eisner’s sandbox?

MIKE PHILLIPS: What experiences, if any, did you have with Will Eisner himself?

F.J. DeSANTO: Only a few, but all were amazing. The first time I ever met Will was when he spoke at Cooper Union many years ago. I think I learned more about comic books in those few hours than in my entire life. Later on, I was fortunate to spend time with him, along with other members of the Spirit movie team at his last San Diego Comic Con. He gave us such interesting insight into the world and characters he created, and I will never forget him telling us, “Whatever you do, don’t make it a period film. Anytime I worked on the character, he was meant to be contemporary.” I was totally in awe of him. He was so sharp and funny. To me, he was the walking embodiment of New York.

PHILLIPS: Talk about your experiences writing the Spirit comics?

DeSANTO: I loved working on the Spirit books. However, I was really concerned that we were following up the Darwyn Cooke run, which, in my mind, is the only truly perfect non-Eisner Spirit comic book. It’s a modern classic. So we had two comic book geniuses – Eisner and Cooke – to try and respect, and I think we did a pretty good job of doing that. I had a really great idea for The Spirit: Year One for us to do after, but, sadly, the book didn’t last much longer.

PHILLIPS: Can you divulge any basics about your Year One ideas?

DeSANTO: Other than it starts with Denny’s life flashing before his eyes the moment before he dies… I won’t.

PHILLIPS: Wow. I definitely want to hear more about that! Hopefully you’ll be able to tell that story one day. Anyway, do you have any cool anecdotes about making the Spirit movie?

DeSANTO: Oh there’s too many! I really enjoyed spending time with Frank Miller at his studio or in LA throwing ideas around and really getting to the heart of what Eisner had done. Again, another education from a master. We had a lot of fun making the movie, and I think it gets a bum rap. I think it is visually stunning. Kyle Baker’s review is still my favorite thing ever.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: We looked around online for Kyle Baker’s review, but we couldn’t find it. If anyone has a digital copy of it, please post it below in the comments section. Thanks!]

PHILLIPS: As far as the movie getting a bum rap, what do you feel was the biggest misconception the naysayers had?

DeSANTO: I don’t think the naysayers, in some cases, are particularly wrong, but I think there was a genuine lack of education for the audience on the character and his world. The generation that knew or understood who this character is, quite frankly, is long gone, and I think there was a lot of mistakes in terms of introducing the character to the world. I felt it just marketed too much like the Sin City movie, when, in fact, it’s a very different movie. Again, this is why I like the Kyle Baker review so much. One thing to check out is Mark Cotta Vaz’s The Spirit: The Movie Visual Companion book, which has great detail on the history. I’m not saying the movie is perfect by any means, but it deserved better. I’m probably still too close to it.

PHILLIPS: In those movie brainstorm sessions in LA, what was the process like?

DeSANTO: Frank carried around tons of copies of Eisner’s original scenes. He would Xerox them and lay them out for inspiration. Early in the development, we had this fantastic lunch where he laid out the story in detail using panels from the original books. There was always a lot of discussion about Eisner, a lot of times via Frank’s own relationship with him, which was fascinating. The Eisner / Miller book is just a tiny fraction of that friendship. I would get calls from Frank’s office looking for random things, like a rare Warren Comics magazine with a specific cover Will did that he had remembered, which was this:

PHILLIPS: Why do you think the character endures?

DeSANTO: I think the character endures because he is the most human of super-heroes. Even though all this crazy stuff happens, Eisner gave the world a real person that existed in a real world. He wasn’t perfect, he was human and charming and wonderful, and his love for his city was infectious. When it comes to the Spirit, it’s his heart and soul that matters.

PHILLIPS: What is the one book you would recommend to an Eisner newbie?

DeSANTO: That’s tough because he has such a diverse range. Though it isn’t in print anymore (as far as I know), I would suggest the book that introduced me to the master, and that is The Spirit Casebook.

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Mike produces books and documentaries about comics. He's now trying to write his own comics. He tells everyone else at Sequart what to do. Do they listen? Eh.

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