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NJ man behind famous cartoons still getting laughs

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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.

"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