NJ man behind famous cartoons still getting laughs

By Peter Genovese

The Star-Ledger

Published: Saturday, Oct. 6 2012 10:10 a.m. MDT

Hy Eisman, 85, works on deadline drawing a Popeye cartoon at his home studio in Glen Rock, N.J., Friday, Oct. 5, 2012. After serving in the Army, Eisman, who knew by age 5 he wanted to draw comics, went to art school in New York City, eking out a living "ghosting" for other cartoonists, drawing strips under their name, until he got his first big break in 1967. King Features wanted him to take over a strip called "Little Iodine," a character created by Jimmy Hatlo in the 1930s.

Mel Evans, Associated Press

GLEN ROCK, N.J. — After Hy Eisman completed Army basic training after the end of World War II, he was sent to Camp Pickett, Va., where he was assigned to a hospital unit and drew cartoons for the base newspaper.

Eisman, who knew by age 5 he wanted to draw comics, told a fellow cartoonist at the Camp Pickett News that he'd better have a job waiting for him after the war; he couldn't draw, in Eisman's opinion.

The other cartoonist's name was Hugh Hefner.

Yes, that Hugh Hefner.

Hef would do quite well for himself, building the Playboy empire, while Eisman would go on to art school in New York City, eking out a living "ghosting" for other cartoonists — drawing strips under their name — until he got his first big break in 1967. King Features wanted him to take over a strip called "Little Iodine," a character created by Jimmy Hatlo in the 1930s. Eisman would draw "Little Iodine" for 17 years, and in 1986, his growing reputation led to an offer to take over a strip involving two mischievous boys named Hans and Fritz.

They were the Katzenjammer Kids, created by Rudolph Dirks in 1897 and the country's longest-running comic strip.

Eisman, now 85, has drawn "The Katzies" for the past 26 years; in 1994, the Glen Rock resident began writing and drawing another legendary comic book character: Popeye, created by Elzie Segar in 1929. Today, every Sunday newspaper "Popeye" comic strip is Eisman's creation.

Younger comic book artists may draw on a computer; this cartoonist still draws on Bristol Board, using pencils and ink pens. He professes complete ignorance of a computer; his wife, Florence, prints out or reads him his email messages.

In 1976, the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art (now known as the Kubert School) opened in Dover, and Eisman joined the faculty, where he remains to this day.

"I'm the only one at the school, including the janitor, who doesn't know what to do on a computer," Eisman told The Star-Ledger (http://bit.ly/SVdtaG ).

Despite penning two of the most famous comic strips in history, the cartoonist lives in relative anonymity. A neighbor who had done work on Eisman's house discovered, to his surprise, the cartoonist's name on the wall of the Popeye museum in Chester, Ill., and said, "I just did that guy's basement."

Eisman grew up in Paterson, but after his mother grew ill and his father lost his job during the Great Depression, Eisman and his brother, Mel, were sent to an orphanage in Clifton, where they stayed nearly five years.

"The orphanage wasn't a pleasant thing, but Sundays were fun," he recalls.

That was the day visitors from New York, Philadelphia, Washington and elsewhere brought — and left — their Sunday papers. Eisman devoured the comic strips: "Dick Tracy," ''Popeye," ''The Katzenjammer Kids" and others.

When he returned home, he would draw cartoons on city sidewalks using plaster broken off lamps, reproducing Popeye and other strips.

"The chalk on the black tar worked well," he says.

At Central High School in Paterson, he created his own comic strip, about a monkey, for the school newspaper.

After his discharge from the Army, he spent three years at the Art Career School, then housed on the top floor of the remarkable Flatiron Building in Manhattan.

It was a dark age for comics. A psychologist named Fredric Werthem had launched a war against comic books, calling them bad influences on kids. In his 1954 book, "Seduction of the Innocent," he cited comic books as a major cause of juvenile delinquency.

There was at least one mass comic book burning, in Binghamton, N.Y.

Get The Deseret News Everywhere

Subscribe

Mobile

RSS