NJ man behind famous cartoons still getting laughs

By Peter Genovese

The Star-Ledger

Published: Saturday, Oct. 6 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

"There were 40 comic book publishers in New York at the time," Eisman says. "By the time he was done, there were just five."

The cartoonist managed to find fill-in jobs here and there, ghosting on several strips, including the popular "Bringing up Father" and "Kerry Drake." He drew comic books and strips involving the Munsters, Blondie, Tom and Jerry, Nancy and Sluggo, and Mutt and Jeff.

He drew an adventure strip called "Joe Panther," about a Seminole Indian boy growing up on a reservation in Florida; the story was written by Zachary Bell, the pen name for Kelly Masters. They never sold the strip, although it inspired a 1976 movie starring Brian Keith and Ricardo Montalban.

Eisman also drew a Sunday comic strip called "It Happened in New Jersey" for the Newark Evening News, dramatizing events and figures in the state's history, from the serious (the discovery of the world's first complete dinosaur skeleton) to the not so serious (the colonial governor who was a cross-dresser).

The cartoonist works out of an upstairs room, where shelves are jammed with hundreds of books about comics and cartoonists: Charlie Brown, "Pogo," Mickey Mouse, "Li'l Abner," ''Herblock," Charles Addams, "Calvin and Hobbes" and more.

CDs on a rack include Brahms, Beethoven, Strauss, Dvorak and . . . Oingo Boingo?

Eisman's son-in-law, Leon Schneiderman, played in the California new wave band.

A comic strip usually takes a day or two to finish, but a story idea can take a year to percolate in his mind.

"Sometimes I have a gist and it sits there; finally it comes together," Eisman says.

He figures he has drawn 2,052 "Katzenjammer Kids" and 624 "Popeye" strips over the years. When his visitor suggests that someone in their 80s may not have the steadiest hand, he hushes him up.

"Not so far; don't say anything," Eisman says, smiling.

He considers the spinach-loving Popeye "the first superhero."

"He did things in a comic strip no one at the time thought could be done," the cartoonist explains. "He lifted things — cars, even houses. He took bullets. He only hit people who hit him first.

"Next to Mickey Mouse, he was the most recognized person on the planet for many years."

On his board is a "Popeye" strip that will run in December; Popeye is seeing a doctor, who tells him his blood pressure is up and it's time to go on a diet.

A cartoonist needs to draw well, of course, but he or she also needs to tell a story, and in the case of a humorous comic strip, get the reader to laugh, or at least smile.

"It doesn't always have to be ha-ha," Eisman says. "If you get seven out of 10 ha-has rather than a chuckle or smile, you're doing OK."

Information from: The (Newark, N.J.) Star-Ledger, http://www.nj.com/starledger

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