Ed Catto: The Spirit of 76… minus 1
Back in 1976 I loved comics (big surprise) but I didn’t really know who Will Eisner was. I didn’t know who The Spirit was either. But I still kind of got the gag on the cover of The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide that year. As you may know, this annual publication has a long tradition of showcasing different artists and characters each year. The Bicentennial was a big deal and everybody was getting in on it. That year, the guest cover artist for The Price Guide was Will Eisner. In order to get into the Bicentennial theme, his Spirit cover portrayed The Spirit’s supporting cast in patriotic regalia and the subtitle became The Spirit of ’76.
I know. That’s a long run for a short slide.
Over the years I’ve learned what a brilliant visionary and hard-working guy Will Eisner was, and I’ve read and re-read so many of his fantastic stories. And here we are now, nearly 40 years later, celebrating the 75th anniversary of Will Eisner’s signature character, The Spirit. It makes me wonder – how can one manage a brand like this with 75 years of history? America’s favorite cookie, Oreo, was an even older brand I managed for a few years in the 90s and sometimes I found it daunting. When I spoke with Carl and Nancy Gropper, who run the Will Eisner Foundation, I learned about the challenges of managing the legacy of an iconic brand.
As I was doing my research, my pal J.C. Vaughn, Vice-President of Publishing at Gemstone Publishing, alerted me to an intriguing opportunity: to explore the “secret origin” of that Overstreet Spirit of ’76 cover. So next week we’ll focus on the insights from the Eisner Foundation, and this week I have a real treat to share: insights from Robert Overstreet. As you might know, over the years Bob has never really been one for interviews. He’s always preferred personal, one-on-one conversations. That hasn’t changed much, even for the Guide’s 45th anniversary. But Bob Overstreet loves The Spirit, and in particular, that Bicentennial cover.
Bob explains how it all started. “In the fall of 1975 DC Comics recommended that I contact Crown Publishers in New York about bookstore distribution for the Guide. I called them and they pre-ordered 10,000 copies of my next book, which was The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide #6. I contacted Will Eisner to do a 1776 theme since it was our country’s 200th anniversary in 1976. He finished the art right away and upon receiving it, I sent Crown a copy of my new cover.”
“Crown called me on Christmas Eve 1975 and told me that Eisner could not have his name on the cover because his illustrated cook book series had sold awfully. I had to call Eisner on Christmas Eve to ask him if it would be okay to drop his name off the cover art,” he said.
Call Will Eisner on Christmas Eve and say his name couldn’t be on the cover? Piece of cake, right?
“This was very hard for me and something I did not want to do. I got him on the phone and surprisingly he agreed for me to delete his name from the cover art. However, I just couldn’t do it. I left his name on the cover, much to Crown’s chagrin,” Overstreet said.
“Incidentally, it ended up selling very well. This was so important because this was my very first book for bookstore distribution worldwide,” he said.
J.C. Vaughn’s experience with the cover started in the same place as my own. “The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide #6 was the first copy of the Guide I ever saw, so Eisner’s “Spirit of ‘76” cover has been lodged in my mind ever since that day at Eide’s in Pittsburgh (in their old location, where PNC Park now stands). I didn’t know anything about The Spirit at that point, but I loved the cover,” said Vaughn. “Pretty soon I saw the previous edition, which featured Joe Kubert’s powerful Tarzan, which also remains one of my all-time favorites, but there’s always been something about Eisner’s work, hasn’t there?”
And he also explained a little bit about his office, and I immediately got a bad case of ‘office envy’. “The Eisner piece was one of the few original Guide covers that Bob didn’t own,” J.C. explained. Will Eisner gave him a one-of-one litho. When I joined the staff, that litho ended up hanging in my office for a decade, so no surprise that I have such strong, fond memories of it.”
And to bring it all full circle, The Spirit will adorn the cover of the souvenir book from Comic-Con International, (which everyone really calls the San Diego Comic-Con). I’m in awe of a brand, and the creator behind a brand, that can last 75 years.
Of course, I’m wondering if some kid, like me 39 years ago, won’t know who The Spirit is when they see him on the cover of the souvenir book. But we’ll get into that more next week.
Note: Special thanks this week to J.C. Vaughn and all his help with and insights for this week’s column. He’s a real connect-the-dots kind of guy!