Eisner, Will (1917—)

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Eisner, Will (1917—)

With a career as a writer and artist that spans virtually the entire history of the medium, Will Eisner is one of the most innovative and influential creators of comic books and graphic novels. From his earliest work on the newspaper supplement, The Spirit, Eisner strove to understand and develop his chosen art form. His career has been driven by his canny business sense and by a belief that sequential art (as he prefers to call comic books and graphic novels) is a valid medium of artistic expression that deserves wider acceptance and respect.

As a teenager, Eisner's artistic talent simply represented a way out of the grim reality of Bronx tenement life during the Depression. After a brief stint studying at the Art Students League and working in a magazine advertising department, Eisner began writing and drawing comics for Wow, What a Magazine! in 1936. Samuel "Jerry" Iger was editing Wow, and when the magazine folded after four issues, Eisner and Iger formed their own studio to package comic book material for Fiction House, Fox Comics, and other publishers. At first, the prolific Eisner produced most of the work under different pen names. As the Eisner-Iger Shop flourished, however, the young Eisner began supervising a staff of artists that included Bob Kane and Jack Kirby.

In 1939 Eisner was approached by a features syndicate about producing a comic book supplement for newspapers. He jumped at the chance to reach a more mature audience through newspaper distribution. Because the syndicate had approached him—they were not likely to find anyone else capable of producing a complete comic book every week—Eisner was able to retain ownership and creative control of the feature. He sold his interest in the Eisner-Iger Shop to Iger and took four of the staff with him to form Will Eisner Productions.

The newspaper supplement that debuted in 1940 was simply called The Comic Book Section, but it became better known by the title of the lead feature, The Spirit. The syndicate saw the supplement as a way to benefit from the growing national market for comic books that was sparked by the appearance of Superman in 1938 and The Batman in 1939, and they envisioned the Spirit as a superhero very much in the mold of these two characters. Will Eisner was more interested in telling good stories, and his only concessions to the superhero concept were a simple domino mask and a pair of gloves.

When Eisner was drafted in 1942, his assistants, primarily Lou Fine, took over for the duration of the war. Fine was true to the style Eisner had set for the book, and it was a subtle change compared to what happened when Eisner returned from the Army. Many early stories from The Spirit were whimsical and fantasy-oriented, but when Eisner returned from the war his stories had greater realism and concern for the human condition—in his work that usually means the condition of humans crowded together by big city life. As Catherine Yronwode puts it in The Art of Will Eisner, "New York, or more properly, Brooklyn and The Bronx, was, in Eisner's metaphoric world, transformed into a stage upon which the most wide-sweeping and the most intimate dramas of human life were enacted."

Eisner had used his art to escape from the tenements of New York, but eventually he used his art to explore the personal and universal meanings of those youthful experiences—it just took a while. Eisner stopped producing The Spirit in 1952 and devoted his time to his new venture, American Visuals Corporation, which was a successful producer of educational and corporate comics for the next 25 years. Then, in 1976, inspired by the decidedly non-adolescent material that he discovered in the underground comix of the late 1960s and early 1970s, he began creating a major comic book work that he hoped would find an adult audience. When his 192 page work, A Contract With God, appeared in 1978 it was not the first use of the graphic novel format (although Eisner did coin the phrase), but it was ground breaking in that it deviated from the usual adventure material to present more realistic and intimate human dramas. At 60, Eisner began blazing a new trail in the medium and followed his first graphic novel with innovative and deeply-felt works such as A Life Force (1983), To The Heart of the Storm (1991), and Family Matter (1998).

Eisner soon became the internationally acclaimed master of the comics medium. The major artistic awards of the American comic book industry, the Eisners, were named in his honor. He was asked to teach comics courses at the School of Visual Arts. Eisner reworked his lecture material and published two books, Comics and Sequential Art (1985) and Graphic Storytelling (1995), that have helped advance both artistic and critical understanding of the medium.

It was Eisner's experimentation with layout and composition in The Spirit stories that clearly established the comic book as a medium distinct from its comic strip origins. It was his championing of new forms and mature content in the graphic novel that helped establish comics as an art form. And, much of the visual language of the form was invented, or at least perfected, by Will Eisner. In the afterword to Eisner's New York the Big City, acclaimed comic book writer Alan Moore provides an eloquent statement of Will Eisner's importance to the medium: "He is the single person most responsible for giving comics its brains."

—Randy Duncan

Further Reading:

Harvey, Robert C. The Art of the Comic Book. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1996.

Steranko, James. The Steranko History of Comics. 2 Vols. Reading, Pennsylvania, Supergraphics, 1970.

Yronwode, Catherine. The Art of Will Eisner. Princeton, Wisconsin, Kitchen Sink Press, 1982.