Eisner, Will 1917–2005

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Eisner, Will 1917–2005

(William Erwin Eisner, Will Erwin, Willis Rensie)


Born March 6, 1917, in New York, NY; died January 3, 2005, in Fort Lauderdale, FL, due to complications from open heart surgery; son of Samuel (a furrier) and Fannie Eisner; married Ann Louise Weingarten (a director of volunteer hospital services), June 15, 1950; children: John David, Alice Carol (deceased). Education: Attended Art Students League, New York, NY, 1935.


Author, cartoonist, publisher. New York American, New York, NY, staff artist, 1936; Eisner & Iger, New York, NY, founder, partner, 1937-40; Eisner-Arnold Comic Group, New York, NY, founder, publisher, 1940-46; author and cartoonist of syndicated newspaper feature, "The Spirit," 1940-52; founder and president of American Visuals Corp., beginning in 1949; president of Bell McClure North American Newspaper Alliance, 1962-64; executive vice president of Koster-Dana Corp., 1962-64; president of Educational Supplements Corp., 1965-72; chair of the board of Croft Educational Services Corp., 1972-73; member of faculty of School of Visual Arts, New York, NY, beginning 1973. President of IPD Publishing Co., Inc. Member of board of directors of Westchester Philharmonic. Military service: U.S. Army, Ordnance, 1942-45.


Princeton Club (New York, NY).


Comic book artist of the year, National Cartoonists Society, 1967; best artist, National Cartoonists Society, 1968-69; award for quality of art in comic books, Society of Comic Art Research, 1968; International Cartoonist Award, 1974; named to Hall of Fame of the Comic Book Academy; Eisner Award for Best Archival Collection, 2001, for The Spirit Archives.


A Pictorial Arsenal of America's Combat Weapons, Sterling (New York, NY), 1960.

America's Space Vehicles: A Pictorial Review, edited by Charles Kramer, Sterling (New York, NY), 1962.

A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories, Baronet (New York, NY), 1978.

(With P.R. Garriock and others) Masters of Comic Book Art, Images Graphiques (New York, NY), 1978.

Odd Facts, Ace Books (New York, NY), 1978.

Dating and Hanging Out (for young adults), Baronet (New York, NY), 1979.

Funny Jokes and Foxy Riddles, Baronet (New York, NY), 1979.

Ghostly Jokes and Ghastly Riddles, Baronet (New York, NY), 1979.

One Hundred and One Half Wild and Crazy Jokes, Baronet (New York, NY), 1979.

Spaced-out Jokes, Baronet (New York, NY), 1979.

The City (narrative portfolio), Hollygraphic, 1981.

Life on Another Planet (graphic novel), Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1981.

Will Eisner Color Treasury, text by Catherine Yronwode, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1981.

Spirit: Color Album, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1981-83.

(Catherine Yronwode, with Denis Kitchen) The Art of Will Eisner, introduction by Jules Feiffer, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1982.

Illustrated Roberts Rules of Order, Bantam (New York, NY), 1983.

(With Jules Feiffer and Wallace Wood) Outer Space Spirit, 1952, edited by Denis Kitchen, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1983.

Signal from Space, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1983.

Will Eisner's Quarterly, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1983-86.

Will Eisner's 3-D Classics Featuring …, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1985.

Comics and Sequential Art, Poorhouse (Tamarac, FL), 1985, published as Comics and Sequential Art: Principles and Practices from the Legendary Cartoonist, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 2008.

Will Eisner's Hawks of the Seas, 1936-1938, edited by Dave Schreiner, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1986.

Will Eisner's New York, the Big City, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1986.

Will Eisner's The Dreamer, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1986.

The Building, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1987.

A Life Force, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1988.

City People Notebook, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1989.

Will Eisner's Spirit Casebook, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1990-98.

Will Eisner Reader: Seven Graphic Stories by a Comics Master, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1991.

To the Heart of the Storm, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1991.

The White Whale: An Introduction to "Moby Dick," Story Shop (Tamarac, FL), 1991.

The Spirit: The Origin Years, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1992.

Invisible People, Kitchen Sink (Northampton, MA), 1993.

The Christmas Spirit, Kitchen Sink (Northampton, MA), 1994.

Sketchbook, Kitchen Sink (Northampton, MA), 1995.

Dropsie Avenue: The Neighborhood, Kitchen Sink (Northampton, MA), 1995.

Graphic Storytelling, Poorhouse (Tamarac, FL), 1996.

(Adapter) Moby Dick by Herman Melville, NBM (New York, NY), 1998.

A Family Matter, Kitchen Sink (Northampton, MA), 1998.

(Reteller) The Princess and the Frog by the Grimm Brothers, NBM (New York, NY), 1999.

Minor Miracles: Long Ago and Once upon a Time, Back when Uncles Were Heroic, Cousins Were Clever, and Miracles Happened on Every Block, DC Comics (New York, NY), 2000.

The Last Knight: An Introduction to "Don Quixote" by Miguel de Cervantes, NBM (New York, NY), 2000.

Last Day in Vietnam: A Memory, Dark Horse (Milwaukie, OR), 2000.

Will Eisner's The Spirit Archives, DC Comics (New York, NY), 2000.

The Name of the Game, DC Comics (New York, NY), 2001.

Will Eisner's Shop Talk, Dark Horse (Milwaukie, OR), 2001.

(With Dick French, Bill Woolfolk, and others) The Blackhawk Archives, DC Comics (New York, NY), 2001.

Fagin the Jew, Doubleday (New York, NY), 2003.

(Adapter) Sundiata: A Legend of Africa, NMB (New York, NY), 2003.

The Will Eisner Sketchbook, Dark Horse Books (Milwaukie, OR), 2003.

Will Eisner's The Spirit Archives, Vol. 11 (graphic novels), DC Comics (New York, NY), 2003.

(Archival material) Will Eisner's John Law, Detective, in Dead Man Walking, written and illustrated by Gary Chaloner, IDW Pub. (San Diego, CA), 2004.

The Best of the Spirit, DC Comics (New York, NY), 2005.

The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, introduction by Umberto Eco, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 2005.

Will Eisner: A Retrospective, Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (New York, NY), 2005.

The Contract with God Trilogy: Life on Dropsie Avenue, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 2006.

Will Eisner's New York: Life in the Big City, introduction by Neil Gaiman, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 2006.

Will Eisner's The Spirit Archives, Vol. 17 (graphic novels), DC Comics (New York, NY), 2006.

Life, in Pictures: Autobiographical Stories, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 2007.

(With Peter Poplaski) Expressive Anatomy for Comics and Narrative: Principles and Practices from the Legendary Cartoonist, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 2008.

Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative: Principles and Practices from the Legendary Cartoonist, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 2008.

Will Eisner's The Spirit Archives, Vol. 24 (graphic novels), DC Comics (New York, NY), 2008.

For U.S. Department of Defense, creator of comic strip instructional aid, P.S. Magazine, 1950, and for U.S. Department of Labor, creator of career guidance series of comic booklets, Job Scene, 1967. Also creator of comic strips, sometimes under pseudonyms Will Erwin and Willis Rensie, including "Uncle Sam," "Muss 'em up Donovan," "Sheena," "The Three Brothers," "Blackhawk," "K-51," and "Hawk of the Seas." Author of newspaper feature, "Odd Facts." Also contributor to Artwork for "9-11 Emergency Relief," issued by Alternative Comics, 2001.


Cartoonist Will Eisner, the creator of many popular comic strips, was also well known as a pioneer in the educational applications of this medium. Throughout his fifty-plus-year career, he created a host of comic-book characters to guide young people in their choice of a career, to instruct military personnel, and simply to entertain children of all ages. Eisner also produced a series of comic-book training manuals for developing nations, which teach modern farming techniques and the maintenance of military equipment. These booklets are used by the Agency for International Development, the United Nations, and the U.S. Department of Defense.

Eisner's career began in the mid-1930s, when he sold his first comic feature, "Scott Dalton," to Wow! magazine. He went on to create more comic strips, including "Sheena, Queen of the Jungle" and his best-known work, "The Spirit," a weekly adventure series published as an insert in Sunday papers from 1940 to 1951. This strip featured protagonist Denny Colt, a private investigator who is seriously injured and presumed dead after an explosion in the laboratory of evil scientist Dr. Cobra. Once Colt recovers, he vows to exploit his new anonymity to enhance his ability to bring hardened criminals to justice. The strip, renowned for its social satire, also featured the first African American character to make ongoing appearances in an American comic feature.

In 1942, Eisner was drafted into the U.S. Army, where he was put to work designing safety posters. He also used cartoon-strip techniques to simplify the military's training manual for equipment maintenance, Army Motors. After his discharge in 1946, Eisner continued to write and illustrate "The Spirit," but he decided to discontinue the strip in 1951. He then founded the American Visuals Corporation, a company that produced comic books for schools and businesses. In 1967, the U.S. Department of Labor asked Eisner to create a comic book that would appeal to potential school dropouts. The result was "Job Scene," a series of booklets designed to introduce career choices to young people in the hope that they would see the need for further education. "Job Scene" proved so successful that several national publishers have issued similar series.

Eisner also developed P.S. Magazine, an instructional manual for the U.S. Department of Defense designed to replace the verbose, unwieldy technical manuals formerly used by military trainers. Eisner wrote in a 1974 article for Library Journal: "The significance of comics as a training device is perhaps not so much the use of time-honored sequential art as the language accompanying the pictures. For example, P.S. Magazine … employed the soldier's argot, rendering militarese into common language. The magazine said: ‘Clean away the crud from the flywheel’ instead of ‘All foreign matter should be removed from the surface of the flywheel and the rubber belt which it supports.’" Eisner's version reduced the original one-hundred-word section describing that procedure to a sequence of three panels which quickly and simply presented the necessary instruction.

The immediate visual impact and simple language used in P.S. Magazine are assets that Eisner believed make comics desirable in more traditional classroom situations. Critics, however, complain that while teachers are trying to instill a healthy respect for proper language, comic books and strips violate every rule of grammar. In his Publishers Weekly article, Eisner responded: "This is an understandable criticism, but it is based on the assumption that cartoons are designed primarily to teach language. Comics are a message in themselves! … To readers living in the ghetto and playing in the street and school yard, comic books, with their inventive language, argot, and slang, serve as no other literature does."

Eisner believed it is remarkable that many reading teachers are still reluctant to adapt this "inviting material." He praised those educators who have recognized the merit in his art form. Eisner concluded his Publishers Weekly article with a commentary on the improving status of comics in the schools: "In schools, comic strip reprints are reaching reluctant readers who are either unresponsive or hostile to traditional books…. Certain qualities distinctive to comic books support their educational importance. Perhaps their most singular characteristic is timeliness. Comics appeal to readers when they deal with ‘now’ situations, or treat them in a ‘now’ manner. Working in a high-speed transmission, the author faces instant acceptance or rejection. He or she is writing for a transient audience who are in a hurry to savor vicarious experiences. Loyalties are to the characters themselves, so the need for imaginative storytelling is great. Equally vital is the choice of terms. The reader's instant recognition of symbols and concepts challenges the ingenuity and empathy of comic-book creators."

As satisfying as his educational- and vocational-based work had been, Eisner was drawn back to narrative forms again in the mid-1970s after he attended a comicbook convention and was inspired by the innovative work he saw there, in particular that of underground cartoonist R. Crumb. In 1975, he began work on what he called a "graphic novel," published three years later as A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories. Unlike his earlier adventure comics, this work is a serious treatment of such themes as religious faith, sexual betrayal, and prejudice. Other graphic novels, which depicted the lives of Jewish immigrants in America, followed, including Life on Another Planet, Will Eisner's New York, the Big City, A Life Force, and Minor Miracles: Long Ago and Once upon a Time, Back when Uncles Were Heroic, Cousins Were Clever, and Miracles Happened on Every Block. Eisner's 2001 graphic novel, The Name of the Game, is a multigenerational family saga about the Arnheim family, who expand their businesses from corset manufacturing to stock brokering. Though Booklist reviewer Gordon Flagg found the book melodramatic and predictable, the critic appreciated Eisner's "expressive" artwork and noted that the book reflects "a sensibility somehow appropriate to the period and subject."

Eisner also used the comic-strip medium to adapt literary classics, including Don Quixote and Moby Dick as well as fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm. These projects have received mixed reviews. Susan Weitz of School Library Journal found Eisner's version of Moby Dick "simplistic" and disappointing; Booklist contributor Francisca Goldsmith, however, considered it highly successful in conveying the original work's plot, characterizations, and mood. Similar differences marked critical reception to The Last Knight: An Introduction to "Don Quixote" by Miguel de Cervantes. Marian Drabkin commented in School Library Journal that, in Eisner's hands, Don Quixote becomes merely a "clownish madman whose escapades are slapstick and pointless," while Cervantes depicted him as a much more complex character. Booklist critic Roger Leslie, on the other hand, felt that Eisner's book is "faithful to the spirit of the original" and an excellent introduction to the great classic.

In Comics and Sequential Art, Eisner explains the unique aspects of sequential art: imagery, frames, timing, and the relationship between written word and visual design. Ken Marantz, reviewing the book's twenty-first printing for School Arts, praised its clarity, creativity, and detailed descriptions, and concluded that the book is a valuable introduction to an innovative medium for creative expression.

As an octogenarian, Eisner continued to work vigorously. In Fagin the Jew, published in 2003, Eisner takes the famous character from Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist and tells his personal story, one in which Fagin comes out in a much better light. As told by Eisner, Fagin was virtually forced into crime as a youth because of circumstances, not the least of which was the general prejudice against his family as Ashkenazi Jews. "As written by Eisner, Fagin gains depth and humanity, and he could have found success on the right side of the law had not persecution, poverty, and bad luck hindered him," wrote Steve Raiteri in Library Journal. The graphic novel includes a foreword explaining the probable historical antecedents of the tale and how they related to Dickens's portrayal of Jews. While noting that Eisner's depiction of nineteenth-century London is "wholly convincing," a Publishers Weekly reviewer felt that "the story errs on the side of extreme coincidence and melodrama." Library Journal contributor Steve Weiner commented that "Eisner masterfully weaves a Dickensian story of his own focusing on racism and stereotypes." Francisca Goldsmith, writing in School Library Journal, noted that the book would appeal to readers looking for another view of the Dickens classic but was "also for those concerned with media influence on stereotypes and the history of immigration issues."

In another 2003 publication, Eisner adapted an African story set in the thirteenth century for the graphic novel Sundiata: A Legend of Africa. The story revolves around the death of the Mali peoples' leader and their subsequent conquest by a tyrant who can control the elements. Sundiata, son of the former Mali leader, eventually leads his people in victory against their oppressor. Booklist contributor Carlos Orellana felt that the ending was unsatisfying but noted that "the plot flows smoothly; the telling never feels rushed; and the sequential art, which is full of movement and expression, gives the familiar good-versus-evil theme extra depth." Steve Raiteri, writing in Library Journal, commented that the book would interest not only children but that teens and adults as well would "appreciate Eisner's concise and clear storytelling and his dramatic artwork, distinctively colored in grays and earth tones."

On January 3, 2005, Eisner passed away in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, as a result of complications from open heart surgery. However, a number of additional volumes of his work have been published posthumously, either because they were already in the process of going to press prior to his death or because they could be put together from the wealth of materials that Eisner left behind. The Best of the Spirit, published in 2005 just after Eisner's death, represents a lifetime of achievement and decades of his popular comic, culled down into an accessible paperback edition containing twenty-two of the most beloved and representative stories told over the years. Ray Olson, in a review for Booklist, noted that the choice of inclusions successfully "demonstrate two of Eisner's strengths in the skewed perspective and the bold, anti-naturalistic color juxtapositions of virtually every panel." Scott LaCounte, reviewing for School Library Journal, found the images to be "dark and full of energy, perfectly complementing the text," if somewhat dated given the age of many of the comics.

Eisner's final original graphic novel is The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and was released posthumously in 2005 with an introduction from Umberto Eco. The work addresses the anti-Semitic work of propaganda known as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which has been a part of the culture of repression and prejudice for approximately the last hundred years. Its origins lie in Russia during the late nineteenth century, at which time the tsar, under the influence of a number of politicians, agreed to blame Jewish dissidents for a local uprising and to allow them to remain the designated scapegoats for a number of political upheavals. In order to keep this theory alive, they fabricated the Protocols and called in a forger to set them down on paper, creating a trail of supposed proof that the Jews had long been plotting to take over the world. Since that time, numerous power-hungry regimes have fallen back on these so-called Protocols as a reason to persecute, isolate, and even attempt to exterminate the Jewish people. Critics had mixed opinions regarding Eisner's final effort. While they praised the quality of his illustrations, several puzzled over his choice of subject matter, opining that it was appropriate as well as less visual than some stories he might have chosen to relay. Marc Bernardin, in a review for Entertainment Weekly, remarked that "Eisner's swan song reads like a beautifully illustrated textbook." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly considered Eisner's art to be "among his most exquisite work" but reflected of the subject matter that "there's basically nothing interesting for him to draw, and he adds nothing to well-documented history." Booklist contributor Gordon Flagg concluded that the graphic novel "lives as a vivid confirmation of Eisner's belief in the comics medium's potency for simply, effectively conveying ideas."

Published in 2006, The Contract with God Trilogy: Life on Dropsie Avenue collects three of Eisner's earlier works: A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories, A Life Force, and Dropsie Avenue: The Neighborhood. The first book, initially released in 1978, is credited by some with giving Eisner a secondary career and relaunching him in the public eye to a new generation of readers, as well as with serving as the precursor to the modern-day graphic novel. The first two books are set in the Bronx during the Depression and focus on the residents of a particular fictional street, first limited to a single building and then adding in more residents of the neighborhood. In Dropsie Avenue, Eisner goes back and provides the history of the street and the neighborhood from the late nineteenth century, explaining the influx of immigrants from Great Britain and how they eventually pushed out the Dutch farmers who had previously settled in that area. Gordon Flagg, again reviewing for Booklist, commented that "the trilogy compellingly if melodramatically portrays New York Jewish life."

Will Eisner's New York: Life in the Big City, which begins with an introduction by Neil Gaiman, collects four of Eisner's graphic novels that best reflect his attitude toward the city he called home: Will Eisner's New York, The Building, City People Notebook, and Invisible People. Gordon Flagg, reviewing for Booklist, found the works overly sentimental as a whole, a characteristic he attributes to much of Eisner's later work, but concluded that they are nevertheless "redeemed by his sage compassion and masterful storytelling."

Life, in Pictures: Autobiographical Stories, which was published in 2007, serves as a memorial to Eisner. The book gathers a collection of his more autobiographical works in order to provide readers with vignettes that reflect moments in his life. Because Eisner tended to bury the autobiographical references in his comics, there is a very loose interpretation over the course of the volume, and in some places the editors were forced to provide annotation to clarify the connections to Eisner's own life and experiences. A reviewer for the New Yorker commented that "whatever the subject, Eisner manages a light touch: every page is sure-handed." Flagg, again reviewing for Booklist, dubbed the book an "essential twilight work by a comics master who never stopped evolving."



Booklist, August, 1998, Gordon Flagg, review of A Family Matter, p. 1948; December 15, 1999, Stephanie Zvirin, review of The Princess and the Frog by the Grimm Brothers, p. 780; June 1, 2000, Roger Leslie, review of The Last Knight: An Introduction to "Don Quixote" by Miguel de Cervantes, p. 1884; August, 2000, Gordon Flagg, review of Will Eisner's The Spirit Archives, p. 2094; September 15, 2000, Gordon Flagg, review of Minor Miracles: Long Ago and Once upon a Time, Back when Uncles Were Heroic, Cousins Were Clever, and Miracles Happened on Every Block, p. 200; November 15, 2001, Francisca Goldsmith, review of Moby Dick by Herman Melville, p. 568, and "Sequential Art Meets the White Whale," p. 569; February 1, 2002, Gordon Flagg, review of The Name of the Game, p. 914; February 1, 2003, Carlos Orellana, review of Sundiata: A Legend of Africa, p. 984; September 1, 2003, Gordon Flagg, review of Fagin the Jew, p. 76; April 1, 2005, Gordon Flagg, review of The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, p. 1350; November 15, 2005, Gordon Flagg, review of The Contract with God Trilogy: Life on Dropsie Avenue, p. 34; February 1, 2006, Ray Olson, review of The Best of the Spirit, p. 40; September 15, 2006, Gordon Flagg, review of Will Eisner's New York: Life in the Big City, p. 35; September 15, 2007, Gordon Flagg, review of Life, in Pictures: Autobiographical Stories, p. 56.

College English, February, 1995, George Dardess, review of Comics and Sequential Art, p. 213.

Entertainment Weekly, May 20, 2005, Marc Bernardin, review of The Plot, p. 81.

Library Journal, October 15, 1974, Will Eisner, "Comic Books in the Library"; June 1, 1991, Keith R.A. DeCandido, review of To the Heart of the Storm, p. 134; October 15, 1974; September 15, 2000, Stephen Weiner, review of Minor Miracles, p. 66; March 1, 2003, Steve Raiteri, review of Sundiata, p. 74; November 1, 2003, Steve Raiteri, review of Fagin the Jew, p. 60.

New Yorker, November 26, 2007, review of Life, in Pictures, p. 167.

New York Review of Books, June 21, 2001, David Hajdu, "The Spirit of the Spirit," p. 48.

Philadelphia Magazine, August, 1984, Jack Curtin, "Signals from Space," p. 70.

Publishers Weekly, October 4, 1985, review of Comics and Sequential Art, p. 75; March 25, 1988, review of A Life Force, p. 61; March 22, 1991, review of To the Heart of the Storm, p. 76; June 21, 1991, review of Will Eisner Reader: Seven Graphic Stories by a Comics Master, p. 58; May 8, 1995, review of Dropsie Avenue: The Neighborhood, p. 293; January 3, 2000, review of The Princess and the Frog by the Grimm Brothers, p. 78; November 17, 2003, review of Fagin the Jew, p. 46; April 18, 2005, review of The Plot, p. 45.

School Arts, April, 2002, Ken Marantz, review of Comics and Sequential Art, p. 58.

School Library Journal, July, 2000, Marian Drabkin, review of The Last Knight, p. 115; January, 2002, Susan Weitz, review of Moby Dick by Herman Melville, p. 138; February, 2003, John Peters, review of Sundiata, p. 129; January, 2004, Francisca Goldsmith, review of Fagin the Jew, p. 166; July 1, 2006, Scott La Counte, review of The Best of the Spirit, p. 125.

Variety, September 28, 1988, "Comic Book Confidential," p. 30.

Whole Earth, spring, 1998, review of The Spirit: The Origin Years, p. 25.


Will Eisner Home Page,http://willeisner.tripod.com (July 22, 2002).



Economist, January 13, 2005.

New York Times, January 5, 2005.

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