Available now from Locust Moon, The Lost work of Will Eisner gives us a glimpse into the evolution of both an artist and a medium. The collection presents two strip-based comics runs from the master himself, both created in the mid-to-late 1930s, when Eisner was running his own comics production company along with editor Jerry Iger. Eisner was 19 years old in 1936 when they founded the company (on the advice of Eisner’s friend Bob Kane) and they soon found themselves quite busy, supplying content to newspapers and magazines. Written and drawn to order, often in a hurry, Eisner used pseudonyms for many of these projects, including the two presented here, and sometimes employed junior artist when demand outstripped supply. The two collected works here, Uncle Otto and Harry Karry, are about as diverse and wide-ranging as American comics got in the 1930s, and the latter sets out a very clear path that leads us directly to The Spirit.
Uncle Otto is basically a Vaudevillian exercise in tomfoolery, sometimes amusing, sometimes struggling too hard with half-baked jokes. There’s little resemblance, artistically, to Eisner’s later work and there’s no evidence that the strips ever ran in a newspaper. (Several did appear in later compilations of Sunday strips.) Most of the Uncle Otto pieces presented here are, in fact, being seen by the general public for the first time in almost 80 years, which makes this collection of great historical interest.
Eisner’s comic style in Uncle Otto is broad and designed for simple comedic ends. One strip, for example, features Otto bargaining for a better kind of milk, only to feed it to a cat living in a garbage can. Others end with an ironic twist and the word “heck” — probably the strongest language permitted in the newspapers of the time. (Probably the most linguistically clever has Otto emerging from a Turkish Bath House with a sign that reads, “This place is a sweat shop.”) But several of these strips are rather sloppily drawn and sometimes simply unclear in their storytelling. This was Eisner providing content, for a fee, which was how many comics artists operated during the depression.
Harry Karry, on the other hand, is fascinating, because of what it does and what it attempts to do with the medium of comics. Beginning as a lighthearted lampoon of 1930s secret agent or detective comics, complete with an unusual-for-the-time African-American sidekick character, the comic takes a sharp right turn eight strips in and suddenly transforms itself in a complex, dark, artful detective story with all the tropes of contemporary film noir and pulp fiction. Revolving around the adventures of “Agent ZX-5”, Harry Karry has style, sex, violence and intrigue to spare. It’s quite astonishing, for those of us not accustomed to reading pre-code comics, to see the level of adult themes and engagement here. There’s no attempt to round off the edges and use euphemisms: it’s abundantly clear what this story is about and how the characters relate to each other. This is a world of guns, long coast, filing cabinets, futurist cars. plot and counterplot. Reading it now, we see many of the elements that would make Will Eisner the revolutionary comics creator he would become.
The world can always use a little more Will Eisner art, and Locust Moon is certainly the right publisher for this material, presenting it with the dignity and respect that is due to whatever Mr. Eisner chose to create, at any point in his long career.