Throughout the twelve year run of Will Eisner’s THE SPIRIT, which appeared in a special comics supplement in some papers once a week, Eisner employed a number of assistants in various capacities, including letterers like Martin De Muth, Sam Rosen, Sam Schwartz and Ben Oda, but there was one man who worked on the strip mainly as a letterer from 1947 to 1951 who Eisner called “one of the great letterers of all time. I credit Abe [Kanegson] for an awful lot of what was turned out in THE SPIRIT.”
While often spoken highly of by Eisner and others who worked with him, like Jules Feiffer, not much was known about Kanegson until recently, when writer/artist Michael T. Gilbert unveiled some fine detective work in the pages of ALTER EGO 101-103 (TwoMorrows). Michael was kind enough to send me his three-part article in digital form, and in it I learned a lot about this man whose work I had long admired without knowing who had created it. As was common practice at the time, letterers were not given credit, and I had always assumed the work was all by Will Eisner himself, the only name on the stories.
I highly recommend the articles to anyone interested in lettering. In them you’ll find out about this quirky, independent character who knocked around the country doing all sorts of jobs before landing in the Eisner studio. His other great love was music, developed as a way to overcome a bad stutter. Like other singers, Kanegson was able to sing clearly without stuttering, and his chosen interest was folk music. I haven’t heard the one recording released after his death, but Gilbert reports it’s quite good, and Eisner remembers Kanegson bringing his guitar to the studio and entertaining the artists during breaks. Above is some of the great balloon lettering of Abe, no doubt laid out by Eisner in his pencils, but clearly enhanced greatly by the pen of Kanegson. I’ve always thought of this as Eisner’s own style because, after Kanegson left the studio over a pay dispute in 1951, Eisner was able to mimic it well himself, and used it throughout much of his later career, including on his own graphic novels.
Another style Kanegson used often was this serif upper and lower case one employed for poetry, newspaper articles, typewritten captions, and so forth. It became a staple of THE SPIRIT. Eisner remembers, “I had this idea for a comic only in poetry, you know, the entire [story] was in verse. And Abe said, ‘You can’t do regular comic book lettering. Let me work up a lettering style.’ ” And like all great artists, once Eisner saw the kind of creative options Kanegson could give him, he made good use of his abilities, and Kanegson’s lettering continued to enhance a wide variety of story types and styles.
Here’s another upper and lower case one with uncial letterforms that I love. And there were many more, a great variety of them.
Eisner’s SPIRIT splash pages also benefitted greatly from Kanegson’s work, as seen on this one from a 1948 story. I’m sure Eisner laid out the title in pencil, but the panache of the execution is glorious.
And on this splash page, which is entirely comprised of lettering, you can see how Kanegson’s work became the soundtrack for Eisner’s ideas in a partnership that has seldom been achieved in comics.
Sadly, after Kanegson left the Eisner studio in 1951/52, he vanished from comics, and Eisner was unable to find him again, despite many attempts. It wasn’t until Michael T. Gilbert’s research uncovered an album of folk music recorded by Abe and released in 1969, four years after Kanegson’s death from leukemia, that the rest of his story began to come to light. I’ll point you to those articles for more details, and add this from Gilbert: “After those were written and sent in I was able to contact and interview Abe’s son Ben, brother Lou, sister Rita and even his widow Liz. So now I have lots of first-hand info and even art by Abe! Those will appear in ALTER EGO 105-106.”
Can’t wait to read them!