Comics legend Hy Eisman & the epic life of an old-school raconteur

By Jillian Risberg 


He’s the legendary cartoonist behind Popeye and The Katzenjammer Kids who’s been entertaining us for seven decades with his delightful storylines. 


Hy Eisman also lent his immense talents (ghosting) to Kerry DrakeLittle IodineLittle LuluArchie and many more.


“But the most enjoyable was drawing the Little Iodine strip for the King Features Syndicate. I worked with Bob Dunn, who was the writer,” Eisman says. “It was the best 17 years of collaboration I ever had.”


The comics icon sold his sole original feature, It Happened in New Jersey to the (Newark Sunday News) in 1950 and did that for the next three years. The Glen Rock native grew up in Paterson so he knows plenty about the Garden State. 


Now artist Marco Cutrone, veteran filmmaker Vincent Zambrano and cinematographer, Brian Timmons give us insight into the man behind the cartoons in ‘Hy Eisman: A Life in Comics’ — and they are aiming to finish the piece in time for Eisman’s 94th birthday in March 2021.


“Sometimes, I still can’t believe that we’ve brought this film as far as we have. We are wholeheartedly grateful that Irwin Hazen, the talented multi-generational contributor to ‘The Flash’ and ‘Green Lantern,’ ‘Wonder Woman’ and ‘Dondi’ participated so he could show his reverence for his life-long friend,” Cutrone says, adding that two months after they filmed, the 96-year-old passed.

International renowned illustrator, Greg Hilderbrandt also contributed. He is most recognized for his design of one of the earliest theatrical release posters for Star Wars in 1977. 

And you’ll hear the voice of Frank Thorne (best known for the Marvel Comics character Red Sonja) at the beginning of the trailer introducing us to Eisman.   


According to Cutrone, it is a tremendous honor to co-produce this documentary.

“His generation is leaving us one by one and eventually there will be no one left to give us actual written or verbal accounts of the cartoon industry,” says the realist painter. “I felt his collection of chronicled events needed to be preserved for the history books.”

Cutrone says a few more shoots are still needed to help round out the story.


So he and Zambrano launched a GoFundme page to offset the cost of logging, scripting, editing the footage as well as the potential rights and clearances, music, final mix, color correction, mastering and more.


“We still have a ways to go in seeing this production through. That will simply not be possible without the help of donors,” says the art professor, adding that all who contribute will be credited at the end of the film. 


He has mad admiration for the cartoon pioneer’s determination.

“Considering the hardships he had to overcome in his early life, he stayed the course and made his dream come true,” the painter says.

And they are first generation Americans.  

“I am the son of two immigrant parents and it makes me proud to be involved in this project about such a man for that reason,” he says. “I enjoy telling these stories of success and determination against all odds.”


The art professor’s connection to the legendary cartoonist goes way back — they first met when both were teaching at The Kubert School in Dover. Eisman started there in 1976. 


“I knew there was something special about Hy Eisman when we had lunch in the teachers’ room,” Cutrone says. “I noticed that all the other teachers wanted to hear Hy speak and share his accounts of the early days of the comic industry.”


He had the same esteem for those he worked alongside during those formative years, as the teachers did for him, according to the painter.

“He educated us every day with exciting recollections of the comic industry,” Cutrone says. 


Of the cartoon legend, the art professor calls him a multitalented virtuoso in many areas of comics and says nowadays, students often come to The Kubert School to specialize in an area of comics but only a handful become proficient in more than one aspect of this art form. 


“Hy Eisman can do virtually everything himself,” says Cutrone. “At age 93, his hand is still steady enough to ink his own conceived storylines (and) he still has all of his wits about him, which allows him to make us guffaw at his cartoon humor.”  


According to Eisman, doing a strip like Popeye, the basic gags were worked out years ago by the originator. What he does is a variation on the characters’ roles.


“Each character has a built-in role in the story,” the comics legend says. “And the story has certain set themes. Within that structure, Popeye goes fishing, he loves spinach, and he has an off and on relationship with Olive Oyl. Wimpy is the guy who’s always interested in hamburgers, Brutus is a menace, the Sea Hag is a witch, and so forth.”


He creates gags that fit the structure, then does drawings to illustrate the gags.


“The drawing and the gag are both important,” says Eisman.  “Ideally, they should both be funny.”


He created his own impactful lettering and captures our attention with his very own, hand drawn compositions.

“This makes Hy Eisman extremely relevant to this day, as too many of us rely on a computer application to execute these things for us,” Cutrone says. “Hy never relied on a computer and he never had to.  I remember the day we were changing everything over to Google classroom at the school.  As we left the meeting, I heard him say, ‘I think I just got Googled out of a job.’ Believe me when I say, that’s our loss.”


If you’re feeling nostalgic, luckily we’re treated to the cartoonist’s gifts to this day.


“Hy is still employed to draw, narrate and ink his two-syndicated stories,” says the painter.  “There aren’t many comic artists in the world who can claim that.  I don’t think there will be many like him in the future. It takes an immense talent to take those sour stories and turn them into unbiased life-lessons.”   


The cartoon legend looks to the comic strips of yore. 


According to Eisman, he read comics from the age of five and was inspired to become a cartoonist by Terry and the PiratesPrince Valiant and Flash Gordon.

“Real drawing, real illustration,” he says. “All along, I continued to look at the comics in the daily paper. But my inspiration came from the ones I grew up with.”


And Eisman has his process and tools down to a science. 

“I first use a pencil to create the figures on the page, then ink them with pen and ink,” the comics  icon says. “I do a rough composition in pencil of both the drawing and the words. This is on a plain sheet of 8 1/2 x 11 paper.” 


He then transfers it to a 12 x 17 two-ply sheet of heavy drawing paper (Bristol Board), using pen and ink, a T-square and triangle to set up the panels.


“It’s 100% rag paper — museum quality. It stays white instead of yellowing, and the surface stays smooth after you erase on it. This is important because after the inking is done, I erase the original pencil drawings.”


All his work is done in black and white, and the color is added later by the syndicate.


The decades long endurance and love for Eisman’s Popeye and The Katzenjammer Kids is directly due to the narrative ability and brilliance of Hy Eisman, since he is solely responsible for the charming story lines and all the artwork, start to finish, according to the art professor.  

“That alone is an innate ability,” Cutrone says. “In a time when we sometimes seem to reward bad behavior with our attention, we should definitely make a point of thanking those who have put a smile on our face and took us to another place, even if for just a moment.”  


The comics genius has always had a humble and unassuming way.

“It’s gratifying to learn of the impact I made in some people’s lives,” Eisman says of the documentary.


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