"[The comics form is] a combination of two of the most powerful means of communication we have, words and pictures, which accounts for the endurance of this medium and the progress it's making."
Will Eisner is widely considered the father of the American graphic novel. When Eisner began his work, comics were looked down on by those who worried about what young people were reading; by the 2000s, however, Eisner was widely appreciated as the man who elevated comic book methods—telling stories with words and sequential pictures—to respect in the form of the graphic novel. In a career that spanned seven decades, Eisner pioneered many of the techniques that became widespread during the graphic novel boom that began in the 1990s. In the late 1930s and 1940s, he invented a not-so-super hero called the Spirit to compete with Superman. In the Spirit stories, Eisner proved that comics could tell intelligent stories about serious themes like loneliness and doubt. In the 1950s and 1960s, he left comics to experiment with sequential art—the term he used to describe using a series of illustrations to tell a story—as a means of educating adults. Then, in 1978, he published what is considered the first graphic novel, A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories. From 1978 until his death in 2005, Eisner's experiments with the graphic novel form gained him the admiration of comics artists around the world. Eisner's impact on the comics community is so great that the leading award given to graphic novels is called the Eisner Award.
Helps invent the modern comic book
Will Eisner was born on March 6, 1917. The son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Eisner grew up in the tightly packed working-class tenements (apartment houses) of Brooklyn, New York, where he roamed the city streets, immersing himself in the hustle and bustle of urban life that later would become a large part of his work. Eisner was an avid reader from an early age, reading everything from classic literary works to pulp novels, the mass-produced detective stories that were printed on cheap paper, called pulp. While attending De Witt Clinton High School in the Bronx borough of New York City, Eisner developed an interest in art, especially cartooning. After high school he briefly studied art at New York's Art Student's League, but in his family college education was a luxury, not a necessity. He left school to take a job in the advertising department of a local newspaper, the New York Journal American, but soon quit this position to draw comics for Wow, What a Magazine!, a periodical that quickly went bankrupt.
Eisner had gotten his first taste of drawing comics for Wow, and he never looked back. In 1937, he convinced a friend from Wow, Samuel "Jerry" Iger (1903–1990), that they should produce their own comics and sell them to newspapers. Iger was afraid of committing his scarce money to the project, especially since the nation was suffering through the Great Depression (1929–41), the worst economic recession in American history. "So I said I would put up the money," Eisner recalled in an interview posted on the Two-Morrows Web site. "It was my money: $15. Which paid the rent for three months for a little office, a very tiny office." The pair called their enterprise Eisner & Iger; Eisner did the drawing and writing, and Iger did the lettering and marketing. Their first comics series were called Muss 'Em Up Donovan, Blackhawk, Sheena, and Hawks of the Seas. Though the pair didn't make much money from their fledgling business, Eisner was able to make important connections with others in the American comics industry.
In 1939, the Quality Comics Group offered Eisner an opportunity he could not pass up: he was to create a comics series that would appeal to those young readers being drawn away from newspapers by comic books, then slim paperback magazines sold at newsstands and drug stores. Quality Comics wanted Eisner to create a series that would be inserted in newspapers and compete with the new comic book sensations Superman and Batman, which were introduced in 1938 and 1939, respectively. Eisner did not want to create just another superhero, however. Instead, he created the Spirit, a series about a middle-class private detective named Denny Colt whose crime-fighting alter-ego was named the Spirit. Though Quality Comics insisted that the Spirit wear a mask and gloves, this was the only acknowledgement of superhero conventions: the Spirit had none of the superpowers of Superman or the equipment and wealth of Batman. And the stories, wrote David Hajdu in the New York Review of Books, "tended to focus on psychological themes such as loneliness, betrayal, and despair."
The Spirit, published serially (1940–52).
Spirit: Color Album. 2 vols. (1981–83).
The Spirit: The Origin Years (1992).
Will Eisner's The Spirit Archives 4 vols. (2000).
A Contract with God and other Tenement Stories (1978).
Life on Another Planet (1981).
New York: The Big City (1986).
The Building (1987).
The White Whale: An Introduction to Moby Dick (1991).
Invisible People (1993).
A Family Matter (1998).
The Last Knight: An Introduction to Don Quixote (2000).
The Name of the Game (2002).
Comics and Sequential Art (1990).
Graphic Storytelling (1996).
The Spirit was a huge success. According to comics expert Denis Kitchen, Eisner's longtime agent, "At its height the Spirit insert appeared in twenty major market newspapers with a combined circulation of 5 million readers each Sunday, quintupling the circulation of America's best-selling monthly comic book." Unlike the superhero comics, what distinguished Eisner's series was its intelligence and imagination. In one 1941 story, for example, Eisner imagines German dictator Adolf Hitler traveling in disguise to New York City where he realizes the folly of his attempt to conquer all of Europe and the error of his plan to exterminate European Jews. Eisner constantly explored new ways of presenting his stories and new illustration techniques. Hadju quoted fellow comic book creator Alan Moore (1953–; see entry) as saying that Eisner was the "single person most responsible for giving comics their brains."
Takes comics in a different direction
Eisner may have given comics brains, as Moore suggests, but he bristled at packaging his sophisticated ideas in the comic book form. "I was after an adult reader," Eisner explained to the Onion A.V. Club Web site interviewer Tasha Robinson. Comics were often looked down on by adults as a "trashy" form of literature; some people even believed that they caused juvenile delinquency. Eisner went in search of an adult audience. By 1942, he had left much of the work on the Spirit to assistants, though the series continued publication under Eisner's leadership until 1952. Eisner found his adult audience while serving in the U.S. Army during World War II (1939–45; war in which Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, the United States, and their allied forces defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan). From 1942 to 1945, he used his artistic skills to create training manuals in the U.S. Army. While creating these manuals, Eisner experimented with using the comic book form for educational purposes.
In 1952, Eisner left the world of comics to create the company American Visuals. For the next twenty-six years, Eisner dedicated himself to using sequential art to educate adults. Eisner took complicated military instruction manuals and turned them into lively illustrated guides. Instead of five pages of text telling a soldier how to repair a piece of equipment, for example, Eisner's guide would use one page of illustrations and words to make the procedure perfectly clear. Eisner also produced instructional books for other government departments and for corporations. Most of the copies of these works have been lost or destroyed, though there are copies of PS: The Preventive Maintenance Monthly that circulate on auction sites on the Internet. Comics scholars who look upon Eisner as one of the masters of the trade have complained that his years in private business were a waste of his talent, but Eisner told Hajdu "the commercial comics industry [in the 1950s] was a wasteland.… I saw an opportunity to show that comics could be an effective teaching tool as well as an art form."
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Invents graphic novel
By the mid-1970s, Eisner had enjoyed a long career as a graphic artist. He was often invited to appear at comic book collectors' conventions on the strength of his work on the Spirit, and it was at such a gathering that he received his next great inspiration. Eisner ran across the works of a new generation of comics artists who were creating underground comics, or comix, a term used to distinguish them from mainstream comic books and comic strips. These rowdy, sometimes crudely drawn comics, including works by Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton, are not intended for children. They explore racy topics such as sex, drugs, and rock and roll. These works inspired Eisner with their energy and their willingness to take on issues that traditional comic books would never touch. He decided to take a year off from his work to focus on some stories that had been in his mind. The result was the creation of the graphic novel.
By 1978, Eisner had created four stories to make the collection A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories. The stories relate some of the experiences from his youth growing up in Brooklyn during the Great Depression. The title story is about a man whose pact with God fails when his beloved daughter dies; the other stories tell of a young male singer's romance with an aging woman, a schoolmaster's inappropriate affection for a student, and vacationers experiencing class conflict. These were serious stories—literature—put to comic book form. But they weren't a comic book, Eisner realized as he presented the collection to potential publishers. Instead, Eisner called his collection a "graphic novel."
Eisner's graphic novel represented a new phenomenon in publishing. As in comic books, Eisner tells his stories using a sequence of images combined with words, but the subject matter is so much more serious, or novelistic, that it represented a real departure from what most people recognized as comic books. A Contract with God represented a departure from Eisner's early work as well: like many of the comix, it is drawn in black and white, and it avoids the elaborate detail and full color of the Spirit. The illustrations in A Contract with God are spare and stark. The words were given equal weight with the illustrations, thus perfecting the marriage of art and story that Eisner had been working on for years. Eisner's work represented a whole new direction in graphic storytelling.
Perfects the form
Until his death in early 2005 Eisner concentrated on perfecting the graphic novel form that he created. His work moved in two major directions, toward serious works for adults and adaptations of literary works for younger readers. Perhaps his most important works were those that followed in the footsteps of A Contract with God. These were works for adults, exploring issues of ethnicity, class conflict, and psychological drama, and nearly all were set in the New York City of Eisner's youth. Notable works in this realm were New York: The Big City, The Building, Invisible People, A Family Matter, and The Name of the Game, among others. Explaining his subject matter, Eisner told Robinson, "I'm dealing with the human condition, and I'm dealing with life. For me, the enemy is life, and people's struggle to prevail is essentially the theme that runs through all my books." Written over a span of nearly twenty-five years, these works saw Eisner continue to experiment with different graphic techniques for telling his stories.
In 1973, when he was still best known for the Spirit series of the 1940s and early 1950s, Will Eisner began to teach a course at New York's School of Visual Arts called "Sequential Art," the art of using a series of images to tell a story. Over the seventeen years that he taught the course, Eisner thought deeply about his craft. He created a series of lessons about how to use images to supplement storytelling; how to work within the frames of a comic strip, and how to break free of the frame; when to use detail, close-ups, and empty space to tell a story; and many other conventions of the trade. He used these insights to create a framework for thinking about an art form that was still struggling for acceptance. Numerous of his students went on to create comics after taking his class, and his influence is widely acclaimed within the industry.
Eisner spread his influence and shared his years of study in two important works: Comics and Sequential Art, first published in 1985 and still in print today, and Graphic Storytelling, published in 1996. Eisner not only provided wise guidance, he also asked penetrating questions, such as "unless comics address subjects of greater moment how can they hope for serious intellectual review?" He suggested that "the future of this form awaits participants who truly believe that the application of sequential art, with its inter-weaving of words and pictures, could provide a dimension of communication that contributes—hopefully on a level never before attained—to the body of literature that concerns itself with the examination of human experience." These were lofty goals for an art form that had once been happy with caped superheroes and comic stunts. Yet judging from the popularity of the form, one of the hottest publishing trends of the 2000s, many practitioners took up Eisner's challenge.
Though many of Eisner's works dealt with serious themes that were considered more appropriate for adults, he came to believe that graphic novels would be a great way to reach young people who might not otherwise read. In an interview with writer Judy Cantor, he recalled going to a teachers' convention and being scolded by a teacher who shook her finger at him and told him that comic books were destroying children's imagination. Yet Eisner had a vision for the comic book form, one that he hoped would encourage young readers to explore deeper, more lasting issues than those typically found in comic books. Eisner sought to prove this point when he adapted several classic works of literature—including Herman Melville's Moby Dick and Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote—as full-color graphic novels.
Though graphic novel readers in today's libraries might not find many of Eisner's books in their local collection, his legacy lives on. The influence that Eisner had on other graphic novelists, for example, was tremendous. From 1973 to 1994, Eisner was an immensely influential instructor at the School of Visual Arts, where he taught students the complex language by which graphic novelists reached their readers (see sidebar). In 1987, leaders in the comics industry recognized his importance when they named an annual industry award in his honor. The Will Eisner Comics Industry Awards are now considered the most prestigious awards given to graphic novelists.
Happily, Eisner lived to see the medium he loved so much gain respect. Graphic novels occupy large sections in most book stores, and librarians across the country scramble to keep their shelves stocked with the latest titles. In 2003, Eisner commented to Cantor: "I believe this medium is the new literacy in this country. Words themselves are not able to keep up with the speed of information. This combination of words and images will continue to grow and it will dominate." Eisner died on January 3, 2005, following complications from heart surgery. He was survived by his wife of many years, Ann Louise.
For More Information
Andelman, Bob. Will Eisner: A Spirited Life. Milwaukie, OR: M Press, 2005.
Eisner, Will. Will Eisner's Shop Talk (interviews). Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse, 2001.
Greenberger, Robert. Will Eisner. New York: Rosen Publishing, 2005.
Yronwode, Catherine. The Art of Will Eisner. Princeton, WI: Kitchen Sink Press, 1982.
Hajdu, David. "The Spirit of the Spirit." New York Review of Books (June 21, 2001).
Cantor, Judy. "The Amazing Adventures of Will Eisner." (November 7, 2003). Judy Cantor Navas, Writer. http://www.judycantor.com/moxie/books/the-amazing-adventures-of.shtml (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Depelley, Jean. "Will Eisner Speaks!" TwoMorrows. http://www.twomorrows.com/kirby/articles/16eisner.html (accessed on May 3, 2006).
"What Are the Eisner Awards?" Comic Con International. http://www.comic-con.org/cci/cci_eisnersfaq.shtml#oscars (accessed on May 3, 2006).
"Will Eisner." DenisKitchen.com. http://www.deniskitchen.com/docs/bios/bio_will_eisner.html (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Will Eisner, RIP (1917–2005). http://www.willeisner.com/ (accessed on May 3, 2006).