Honoring Will Eisner, The Original Dreamer
The American comic book would not be what it is today without Will Eisner. A relentless innovator who initiated vital changes at crucial points in the medium's history and left behind a lifetime of literary art, Eisner has directly or indirectly influenced everyone who followed him. Born March 6, 1917 in Brooklyn New York, Will Eisner changed the world of sequential art, and it's only appropriate that we celebrate his comics, his accomplishments, and his spirit.
In its primordial form, the American comic book was largely a recycled medium. There had been newspaper inserts that featured original material, but in the industry's initial big bang, comic magazines like Famous Funnies were filled out with newspaper strips cut-and-pasted into tabloid-sized publications and given color. In the mid-1930s, a few publishers sought out original content, and on the advice of high school friend Bob Kane, Will Eisner submitted to Jerry Iger's Wow, What a Magazine!
Although Wow folded after four issues, Eisner and Iger began a partnership to produce original material for comic book publishers. The studio they formed has many official names --- Syndicated Features Syndicate, Editor's Press Service, and Universal Phoenix Features --- but most know it simply as Eisner-Iger.
The list of artists who produced work for Eisner-Iger is a murderer's row of industry legends, including Jack Kirby, Lou Fine, Bob Kane, Jules Feiffer, Wally Wood, and Bob Powell. Yet it was Eisner's creative and editorial vision that guided the studio. Eisner created the characters and wrote the first few stories by layouts, then handed them off to staff to carry on. Among the creations produced by Eisner-Iger were Sheena, Queen of the Jungle; Doll Man; and Blackhawk.
One of Eisner-Iger's biggest clients was Quality Comics, run by Everett "Busy" Arnold, who in late '39 or early '40 approached Eisner with an opportunity to create a tabloid-sized weekly comic book newspaper insert distributed by the Register-Tribune Syndicate. Eisner sold his portion of the studio to Iger and got to work on what would come to be known as "The Comic Book Section," creating characters like Mr. Mystic and Lady Luck for the backup features. But the lead story was breakout hit, featuring Eisner's most famous creation, The Spirit.
In a way, The Spirit acted as a repository of Eisner's greatest interests, none of which were superhero comics. Eisner appeased the need for a costume with a simple mask to hide the identity of Denny Colt, a presumed-dead criminologist who fought crime as The Spirit, but the subject matter and execution of the series was much more complex than the superhero fare of the day.
Visually, The Spirit quickly established itself as something ahead of its time. Eisner was one of the first to recognize the comic book page itself as a unit of composition, and he exploited that with dramatically forced perspectives and chiaroscuro that gave each page a sense of completeness. He picked up on the quirks of his greatest influences --- including E.C. Segar, Milton Caniff, George Herriman, the woodcuts of Lynd Ward, and the experimental films of Man Ray --- and synthesized them into a style that could be simultaneously cartoony and dashing; rollicking adventure with a touch of expressionism and the surreal.
The Spirit mixed noir, science fiction, horror, and adventure comics with an impish, almost existential sense of humor and genuine curiosity about the human condition. The conflicts were never as simple as good-versus-evil, with fascinatingly unpredictable stories that could handle crime and fantasy as readily as ambiguous morality plays, relationship drama, and the omnipresent ironies of life. Invisible alien invasions are halted by the unlikeliest heroes; Adolf Hitler is reformed into a benevolent leader, but killed by his lieutenants and replaced with a doppelganger; The Spirit even makes an appearance as a comic book found 1,000 years in the future.
Eisner was drafted into the Army in late 1941 or early 1942, where he became a part of the training program, creating instructional comics and even working in The Pentagon. During those war-time years, The Spirit was carried on by uncredited ghost artists like Lou Fine and Jack Cole. When the war ended, Eisner returned to The Spirit with an even more acute approach, and from 1946 to 1950 produced (with some assistance from Jules Feiffer and others) what is largely considered his best work on the title.
When people speak of the greatness of Eisner and The Spirit, it's this period they're often referring to, with the most memorable stories and characters: the unseen villain Octopus and a coterie of femme fatales Sand Saref, P'Gell, Dulcet Tone, and Silk Satin; the minor characters like Gerhard Shnobble, who push The Spirit to the background and take over narratives that were quirky, cutting, mood-inspiring and unabashedly human.
In the '50s, Eisner founded American Visual Corporation, a studio that provided illustration on demand, and due to the Korean War, the demand was for more instructional materials. Eisner worked as artistic director of P*S, The Preventative Maintenance Monthly for twenty years, producing comics that educated enlisted men on dos-and-don'ts up through the Vietnam War. (It must have seemed a bitter irony to Eisner, who wrote in "Invasion From Argos" that wars come along every twenty years to kill the healthy and young, that he made a lucrative income off of wars occurring every ten years.)
But in the late '60s, interest in Eisner's work was rekindled. He was well-respected among the creators of underground comix, and in 1966 The New York Herald Tribune published an article about Eisner and The Spirit that included a new five-page story. Harvey Comics published two reprints that included new material, soon to be followed by Warren Publishing and Kitchen Sink Press, which were often given brilliant new covers by the revitalized Eisner. Legend has it that around the early 70s, he encouraged Jack Katz to refer to his 700-page comic fantasy The First Kingdom as a "graphic novel."
Eisner later used the term himself to describe A Contract With God, the first of a series of self-contained original stories that came to define the later decades of his career. Gone was any sense of fantasy or genre adventure, replaced by quiet and compelling explorations of human experiences, particularly those set in the Bronx, where he grew up. And although he remains best-known as the creator of The Spirit, it's in his original graphic novels where one truly sees the best of Will Eisner.
Dropsie Avenue, A Life Force, The Building, To The Heart of the Storm, Invisible People, and his pseudo-memoir The Dreamer established a new kind of tradition in American literature, with graphic works that addressed the 20th century American urban/Jewish/immigrant experience with as much vitality as Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, from a completely different perspective. What's more, even as Eisner was entering what might be called his twilight years, his visual style continued to develop, with his latest works being some of the most beautiful of his career.
Eisner continued to make comics well into his eighties, releasing one notable work after another up until his death: A Family Matter, The Name of the Game, Last Day in Vietnam, Moby-Dick, Sundiata, Fagin the Jew. He crafted books on comics creation and theory, taught at the famed School of Visual Arts, and extolled comics' place as a literary medium until his death. His final work, The Plot: The Secret Story of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, was completed just before he passed away in 2005.
As impressive as Eisner's body of work is, his legacy is even greater. Through all the convulsions and crisis points that the industry has experienced, Eisner's dedication to storytelling and craft served as an example. In all those times that the industry could have sunk just as easily as it sailed, Eisner was the dreamer who steered the ship.