ABE KANEGSON – WILL EISNER LETTERER

From THE SPIRIT Sept 5, 1948, “The Story of Gerhard Schnobble,” this and all Spirit images © Will Eisner Studios, Inc., original art courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

In 1936, Will Eisner, one of comics’ most innovative creators, began working in the new field, first partnering with Jerry Iger to form one of the earliest packagers of comics, providing material for publishers that didn’t have their own creators. For more on Eisner’s own lettering and logo design, see THIS article. The studio was a financial success, but in 1940 Will sold his interest in it to launch a new type of comics project. It was a sixteen-page supplement (later eight pages) inserted into Sunday newspapers known as the Spirit Section for its lead feature and character, Will Eisner’s The Spirit, a masked man who was legally dead and lived in a hidden lair in a graveyard, from which he fought crime. The Spirit had no super-powers, but was amazingly tenacious and able to take all kinds of physical abuse while pursuing criminals, helping his friends, and aiding the police. Each of his stories ran seven pages, and they formed a wonderful and influential body of work for many years. The series had several letterers, including Sam Rosen and Martin DeMuth, but in 1947, Will hired Abe Kanegson. In the example above, one of Eisner’s favorite stories, Kanegson has added a great deal to the page through his creative and energetic lettering, as he always did. In an interview with Cat Yronwode published in The Comics Journal #46-47 (1979, Fantagraphics), Eisner said about Kanegson:

“He was the best letterer I ever had. He worked with me from 1947 to about 1950. I don’t know what happened to him after that, but I miss him sorely. He brought far more to The Spirit than many of the background people ever did — he was very responsive to ideas and he added a creative dimension to comics, which I always thought was important. He’s the only one who ever really understood. I had other letterers before he came in, but he helped me reach out. Sure, I had certain standards I wanted him to follow—for instance, I did Old English before he came in, but he would take that Old English and really do it — his skill was enormous — even more, he understood the function of lettering in comics. He regarded it as something important. Everybody before him regarded it as a chore.”

Abe Kanegson, 1950s, courtesy of his sister, Rita Perlin and Michael T. Gilbert, used with permission.

Abraham Kanegson, birth-named Abram Chininson, was born either Sept 1 or 6, 1921, in Lubobin, Poland. Abe, his brother Morris, and his parents arrived in New York City’s Lower East Side in 1922. Abe’s father had a push-cart business selling ice, seltzer and other drinks from a wagon, later a truck. By 1930, the family was in The Bronx and had added Abe’s brother Louis and sister Rita. My information about Kanegson’s family comes from two sources, THIS article by Alex Jay, and a series of articles by Michael T. Gilbert that include family interviews from Alter Ego #102-107 (2011-2012, TwoMorrows). This article wouldn’t be as complete without their help.

Abe was very intelligent. He attended James Monroe High School in The Bronx and finished in about two years. Abe’s siblings Rita and Lou said they didn’t think he had any formal art training, but he was always drawing with pen and ink or charcoal, and painting. He was already a talented artist as a teenager. Abe went to the City College of New York for a year at about age 15, and did cartooning for their magazine, Mercury, but he didn’t like college and dropped out. Abe had a severe stutter, but found that it went away if he sang, so he learned to play guitar and piano and sing folk songs, something he enjoyed all his life. He was also a fine dancer. After college, Abe worked at various jobs, including draftsman (he’d had no training in that, but was a quick study, and had no trouble landing the job). Abe’s sister Rita reported he helped build ships for the armed forces during World War Two. He also spent some time traveling around the country on the cheap, visiting friends. When he began working for Will Eisner in 1947, a remarkable new talent emerged.

From THE SPIRIT, June 22, 1941, “The Tale of the Dictator’s Reform”

Will Eisner was a fine letterer himself, as this early page shows, and most of his Spirit stories also feature his creative logos, usually different every time, often becoming architectural elements in the art. Putting out a weekly newspaper insert was lots of work, though, and Eisner hired many assistants over the years. They carried on with the series while he was in the Army from 1942 to 1945. When he returned, Will brought even more innovative ideas to THE SPIRIT, and it reached its creative peak after the war.

From THE SPIRIT, May 18 1947, “Saree Falls In Love”

Abe’s brother Lou was a comics fan growing up, but he said that Abe was not. It’s not known how he was able to letter comics so well right from the start, but again, he was a quick study. The story above seems to be the first one he lettered to my eye, and right away it establishes his talent for variety and creativity, though of course he was working from Will’s layouts and with his direction. Even so, the regular letters are well made, and rather than having the stiffness usually seen in a new letterer, already have appealing bounce.

From THE SPIRIT, Jan 11, 1948, “The Fallen Sparrow”

This first page layout by Eisner is brilliantly simple and effective, but Kanegson’s graceful Spirit tltle and lettering make it better.

From THE SPIRIT, May 23, 1948, “Assignment: Paris”

Here’s a closer look at one panel of original art to show the Kanegson lettering in detail. The regular letters are made with a wedge-tipped pen, perhaps showing the influence of Frank Engli on the comic strip Terry and the Pirates, but by now a style being used by many letterers. Abe’s version is closer to Engli than some. The words made with a thicker pen point for emphasis all have squared corners on most strokes, something that took more time, and was probably done with a tiny pen point after the letters were drawn. That extra step was almost always added by Kanegson, and it makes the emphasis more effective. All the lettering has bounce, making it more appealing to the eye. This is accomplished through slight up and down variations, and slightly curved rather than perfectly straight strokes. You can see why Will Eisner liked what Abe was doing, it complements his lively art perfectly.

From THE SPIRIT, May 23, 1948, “Assignment: Paris

The next panel on the same page has larger display letters that are even more impressive, and I also like Kanegson’s balloon shapes, which have symmetry and lots of air, and yet they’re clearly drawn freehand.

Cartoonist and author Jules Feiffer was assisting Will Eisner in his studio at the time Kanegson was there, and said this about him in his book Backing Into Forward: A Memoir (2010, Nan A. Talese, used with permission):

Abe was the left intellectual of the office, which also included Marilyn Mercer, Eisner’s business assistant and secretary, and Jerry Grandenetti, Eisner’s background man. I enjoyed an active and bantering relationship with my boss and the others in the studio, but I was closest to Abe, with whom I had developed a big brother – kid brother relationship. Abe played utility infielder at the office: he lettered, he inked backgrounds, he finished inking Eisner’s half-finished figures. He came from The Bronx, on East 172nd Street. He was five years older than I, big, burly, very hairy, a dark, wry, sardonic Russian Jew who lumbered as he walked. A strong presence but oddly, for all his impressiveness, without charisma. Maybe it was the stutter. Abe had a quick mind and wit and forceful opinions expressed in a rumbling, resonant baritone undermined by the worst stutter I had ever heard…I looked up to Abe. He was a Communist or fellow traveler (I never asked, he never told) to whom I awarded more credibility than to my sister Mimi because he didn’t beat up on me. Abe didn’t accuse me of being an “opportunist” or “indecisive,” nor was he trying to change me into the protégé Red that was Mimi’s ambition for me. My sense was that Abe was more interested in prodding/goading me into becoming a better and more serious cartoonist, the cartoonist that I liked to pretend I already was.

From THE SPIRIT, Oct 3 1948, “Tooty Compote”

Look at the wavy letters expressing the emotion of a character in shock on this page. I also like the two exclamation points on their own line in the last balloon, something many editors would frown on, but it works just fine. There’s so much life and variety in the lettering here, it’s equally as important to the storytelling as the art, a point I think Will Eisner would have agreed with.

From THE SPIRIT, Oct 3 1948, “Tooty Compote”

In addition to the emphasized and wavy letters with pointed corners, Kanegson is using the style of breath marks around the word BAW that had gradually developed from parentheses over the preceding ten years or so, and continued to be used often by many letterers going forward. They have many names, and are unique symbols to comics, indicating extra breath being used on the word.

From THE SPIRIT Sept 5, 1948, “The Story of Gerhard Schnobble”

Another page from Will Eisner’s favorite Spirit story, where the lettering and art (with photograph background) combines to carry the idea of flying particularly well. There’s white correction paint in some places, a little heavy-handed on the one balloon, but it all works great. The writing, art, and lettering each contribute a vital component that makes the whole greater than its parts.

From THE SPIRIT. Sept 4 1949, “The Story of Rat-Tat the Toy Machine Gun”

There are so many fine examples from this period, it’s hard to pick just a few. Here Abe shows his mastery of upper and lower case letters made with a wedge-tipped pen in the style of a children’s story. The decorative capital letters are impressive, and I love the “Toy Dept” sign in the first one.

From THE SPIRIT, Dec 24 1950, “The Christmas Spirit of 1950”

Another fine design by Eisner which Kanegson enhances with excellent calligraphy, and impressive effects in the logo behind it. In a 2004 conversation with comics creator Dave Sim published in Following Cerebus no. 4 (Aardvark-Vanaheim), Will Eisner said of Kanegson: 

“He was a tall fellow with frizzy red hair. He used to bring a guitar to work and play it and sing songs on his breaks. He had a strong social conscience, very much on the side of the downtrodden and on the side of labor. We got along fine. In fact, he used to fix my writing. I would rough in the captions and the dialogue, and he’d bring a page back and point to a caption and explain that there was something wrong with the grammar, or that the phrasing was redundant, and ask if I minded if he changed it. I’d say, ‘No, that’s fine. Go ahead.’ In fact, after a while I just told him to fix them. He didn’t have to bring it back for my approval.”

Front cover of a 1969 record album, Abe Kanegson, no. 101, © Homesteadfast Productions

In 1950, Kanegson left the Eisner studio, possibly over a pay dispute, and cut all ties with comics. Eisner later regretted this, and for years he and Jules Feiffer searched for Kanegson. In 1952, issues of the Spirit Section ceased, and the character only appeared in new stories occasionally, while Will moved into commercial comics for clients like the U.S. Army. Jules Feiffer ran into Abe after he started working as a cartoonist for The Village Voice in 1956, and was rebuffed. He told me:

I was sorry that Abe, who I had learned so much from, discouraged contact. I think he was more comfortable with me as the Eisner office’s pip squeak and loudmouth. But seventy years later, he rings no less true, no less an original, and no less a key factor in my growth. 

Will Eisner was not able to find out what happened to his best letterer before he himself died in 2005. It wasn’t until Michael T. Gilbert discovered the record album above in 2010 that that rest of Kanegson’s story came to light. After leaving comics, Abe took up a new career as a square dance caller and teacher, and a folk singer. Further research by Michael, his wife Janet, and Alex Jay found evidence of this from as early as 1951. More details are on Alex’s blog. Abe worked in various folk music summer camps and clubs around the country. He also taught square dancing. In January 1956, he opened the Village Square Dance School at 237 Bleecker Street, Manhattan, not far from the newspaper offices where Jules Feiffer worked as a cartoonist. In addition to teaching, Abe performed ethnic and folk songs and taught square dancing at festivals, church halls, hotels and on the radio. Abe met Elizabeth Celbman at his school and they were married in 1958. They had two sons, Andras and Ben. Later, Abe was a quick-sketch artist on a TV quiz show that only lasted one season. According to his sister Rita, Abe would come out in an artist’s smock, he never spoke, and contestants would try to guess what he was sketching. The name of the show is unknown. 

Kanegson photo and bio from the back of the record album

In 1960, Abe was diagnosed with leukemia and began a battle with the disease that lasted five years, surviving longer than most at the time. He died on May 20, 1965 at the age of 44, a tragic loss to his family and friends. In a Michael T. Gilbert interview with Abe’s son, Ben Kanegson said about his father’s death:

It was just before my seventh birthday, so I was six. He had been sick for a long time. He traveled a lot. We didn’t address each other in the normal way because he knew he was going to die at the time of my conception. So he took more of the role of a friend, though he knew he was my father. He did act as my father also but a little more distant than with the other kids and in the last month I think, he was at home a lot and he was drawing.

Abe’s wife and friends put out the record album of his singing in 1969 as a memorial. The first track of the album can be heard HERE. The back of the album also says:

His friends often asked Abe when he was going to make a record; his answer was always, “I’m not ready yet.” He was waiting for the perfect moment, when his voice and style were fully developed, when his friends were gathered ’round, when the audience was in the right mood, when the surroundings were just so — a firelit room with perfect acoustics. While Abe waited, some of those friends, notably Norman Epstein, made informal tapes of his progress. It is from this “unauthorized legacy” that this record has been created. All money beyond costs goes into a fund for the education of Benjamin and Andras Kanegson, Abe’s two sons.

Abe Kanegson will long be remembered for his short but stellar career as a comics letterer, and for his other art and music accomplishments known to the world of his students, friends and family. Thanks again to Michael T. Gilbert and Alex Jay for research help and images.

Continue to next article. Back to The Art and History of Lettering Comics.

2 thoughts on “ABE KANEGSON – WILL EISNER LETTERER

  1. Todd Klein Post author

    Louis Epstein writes: as I commented on a blog you linked to, while I was too young to remember Abe Kanegson, my father, Norman Epstein, recorded most of the contents of the record of Kanegson singing that you illustrated…I have a few of the records and the original tapes rattling somewhere around the house. My father (who also did square dance calling in some of the same circles) recalled Kanegson’s talents as singer and dance caller with admiration.

    It was only in random Internet searches in recent years that I discovered Kanegson’s past connection with comics lettering and how he had a circle of posthumous admirers who only knew that side of him.

  2. Michael Grabowski

    Thanks for this essential chapter in your book. I was fascinated by lettering styles when I read comics avidly in the 1980s, and Kanegson’s work in Kitchen Sink’s Spirit series reprinting the post-war run really stood out to me. His letters are as bonded to Eisner & co.’s work of that time as Bruzenak’s is to Chaykin or Workman’s to Simonson’s. Makes me wish I had kept those comics so I could read them again.

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