Will Eisner and the Century of Comics as Art

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Cartoonist Will Eisner was such a life force that it’s difficult to believe that he’s not with us to celebrate his 100th birthday on March 6th. For seven decades, he was vitally instrumental in creating and shaping the comic book form, in elevating the quality of its writing and art, in revealing and expanding its graphic potential, in popularizing its respectability on a global scale, and in educating and inspiring generations of aspiring comics artists. And yet he died in early 2005, the year that went on debut the landmark “Masters of American Comics” exhibition. This show—conceived by Los Angeles’s Hammer Museum and held in conjunction with downtown’s Museum of Contemporary Art—was America’s first major step toward legitimizing the lowly craft in the high-browed eyes of the fine art establishment. Of course, this elevation in status would’ve been no revelation to Eisner. He fully believed in his profession’s transcendent value all along, and spent most of his career proving it through his massive and varied body of work.

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Still, “Masters” was important in many ways, such as its attempt to establish a canon of the past century’s fifteen most innovative and influential artists, from Winsor McCay to Chris Ware. And it came as no surprise to serious Eisner devotees that he set the foundation for the second half of the exhibition, as the key figure in comics’ progression from strips inside newspapers to stand-alone “funnybook” publications.

Centennial celebrations of Will Eisner are already under way. Last month I was among others who featured him in panels at San Diego’s Comic Fest. Naturally, the annual Will Eisner Week has already kicked into high gear. And this summer’s San Diego Comic-Con International – home of the Eisner Awards – has begun to formulate several Will-ful programming events.

Below is a reflection on Eisner that I wrote after learning of his death, originally published at AIGA online and resurrected here in his honor.
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The Spirit of Will Eisner

by Michael Dooley, January 11, 2005

When speaking of Will Eisner it’s easy to lapse into hyperbole. A giant in the comics field, his reputation has gained mythical status. A few of the popular myths are that he singlehandedly created the graphic novel and the educational comic, and even conceived the newspaper comic book format. And Eisner’s own embellishments to his history further complicate matters.

But exaggeration is hardly necessary when enumerating his actual extensive accomplishments. After all, this is the man for whom the industry’s most prestigious and coveted honor, the Eisner Award, was named. And deservedly so. In a career that spanned nearly 60 years, from 1936 to his death at age 87 on Monday, January 3, he consistently strived for, and succeeded in, furthering the art of comics.

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The term “graphic novel” had been used to describe long-form comics at least a decade before Eisner adopted it. It had also been applied to specific books in 1976, two years before the first printing of his A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories, blurbed on the cover as a graphic novel. In the introduction, he acknowledged his debt to Lynd Ward, himself no stranger to pictorial narrative. Not incidentally, Contract shares thematic concerns with Ward’s masterful, wordless 1929 God’s Man: a Novel in Woodcuts.

Although Eisner went on to write and draw books approximating novel length, his first paperback effort was more precisely a collection of four short stories. But ah, what stories: fables, really, of the flawed and struggling inhabitants of a depression-era Bronx neighborhood. The devoutly religious man who feels personally betrayed by his deity, the alcoholic street singer, the anti-Semitic building superintendent, all are portrayed with a humanist’s compassion and a minimalist’s economy. If not for their occasional detours into histrionic melodrama, his storytelling would rival those of Harvey Kurtzman, another legendary master of the artform, during his artist-writer-editor stint on EC’s combat titles during the 1950s.

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Eisner’s graphic style was often balletic in its grace. One Contract tale opens with a full-page aerial perspective of Dropsie Avenue with its stoops, fire escapes, clotheslines strung from building to building, its elevated subway line in the distance, and many other minutely indicated details rendered with deft, casual brushstrokes. Then it’s followed spread of panels that indicates a swooping down onto tenants chatting from their windows, then a zoom through to settle in on a domestic scene. With spare use of captions and cartoon balloon dialogue, a bounty of exposition is compacted into three small pages with breathtaking fluidity.

Eisner began teaching comics classes in the early 1970s, which led to such well-respected books as his Comics and Sequential Art and Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative. But in one of his last interviews – conducted by fellow artist-instructor Joel Priddy and published in The Education of a Comics Artist, edited by Steven Heller and myself – he recalled how his own early training was mostly instinctual: “Most of the artists I grew up with, my contemporaries, never really discussed the mechanics of the work. All of them were working on it… the only word I can think of is ‘viscerally.’ They just knew.”

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While serving duty during World War II Eisner was already a tutor of sorts: he provided training guides that were distributed by the Army. He wasn’t the first to use comics as an instructional tool; it didn’t take a visionary mind such as his to recognize the value of organizing complex information into a few basic words and pictures. But ah, what guides they were. Characters like Joe Dope would serve as frames to entertain and engage the empathy of the troops while explaining equipment care. Consequently, these strips significantly outperformed standard military manuals. Eisner went on to found American Visuals Corporation, through which he illustrated a monthly series of preventive maintenance booklets for the Defense Department, which lasted for twenty years, as well as educational materials for schools and for corporations such as General Motors.

Even as a youngster he was quite the entrepreneur. In 1937, at age 20, he co-founded the Eisner and Iger comics studio. A new, burgeoning market had recently been established – original comic books—and his shop and staff provided the product. It was a client, not Eisner himself, who conceived the idea of selling comic book stories to newspapers. They hired him to create, write, design, and produce a weekly 16-page syndicated package, no small accomplishment in itself. Plus, at a time when the artist-writer hyphenate was rare, he drew the first of the three feature in this Sunday comics supplement, about a crime fighter he called the Spirit.

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And oh, what a crime fighter. The field was already becoming glutted with simplistic adolescent power fantasies, but The Spirit had the texture of real life. He was decidedly not a costumed super-hero but simply a plainclothes sleuth who was prone to frequent noir-like pummelings from two-bit goons. He also displayed an ironic, smart aleck-y sense of humor, highly unique for this genre.

The strip, at seven or eight pages, reimagined itself every time. One week the format might be a fairy tale, another week a seven-page poem. Sometimes the Spirit would be shoved off to the sidelines or shunted altogether if Eisner felt so inclined. A Gerhard Shnobble episode – Eisner’s personal favorite – is a philosophical contemplation of man’s place in the universe disguised as a cops-and-criminals yarn. The Spirit was the first major milestone in his lifetime goal to explore and elevate comics as a mature literary form.

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Striving to appeal to adults, Eisner defiantly ignored the syndicate’s marketing demands to brand the section. He kept the feature’s title – which functioned as a front-page logo – in constant flux. Week after week he’d devise imaginative, and often flamboyant, ways to transform the word “Spirit” – windblown wisps of torn paper, prison bars, even skyscrapers… the list goes on and on – and integrate it into his overall composition.

He was as playfully experimental with his layouts as with his plots and lettering. He may not have invented the huge variety of visual devices he utilized with great flair – silent sequencing, theatrical lighting, cinematic stylings… the list goes on – but he did an exceptional job expanding and refining them. And the best artists in the field continue to springboard off his various, numerous innovations. Alternative cartoonist Chris Ware’s schematic flourishes with page structure seem a bit less revolutionary after one confronts a page from 1947 that shows an open cross-section of a multi-level house, with the rooms doing double-duty as a consecutive series of panels.

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Jules Feiffer, Lou Fine, Joe Kubert, Jack Cole, and Wally Wood were just a few of Eisner’s now-esteemed assistants during this feature’s 12-year run. They could be considered among the first for whom he’s served as a mentor, either directly or indirectly. The blue outfit and mask work by the dad in The Incredibles movie is director Brad Bird’s tip of the hat to the Spirit. The Greyshirt comic by writer Alan Moore and artist Rick Veitch is another recent homage. It’s impossible to estimate the total number of people in the visual arts he’s influenced. How many graphic designers were mesmerized by a “Spirit” splash page during their formative years? I, for one.

The world should be extremely grateful that Eisner’s “Spirit” archives and many recent works are currently in print and in demand. Additionally, a final project, The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, is scheduled for spring release. And it’s hardly a stretch to believe that Eisner’s spirit will continue for many generations to come.

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