skip to Main Content

Will Eisner enjoyed a long, highly productive and ever-innovative career. He was still at his studio drawing board five days a week, with no diminution of skills, when he died with his 88th birthday approaching. Eisner’s bold artistry and imaginative storytelling made him one of the great masters of comics and graphic novels, the latter a genre he personally kick-started. He was a genuine pioneer of the medium. In the mid-1930s, a teen-aged Eisner quickly established himself as a prime talent as the comic book industry was being born in New York. Then, with his instinctive knack for business, at the age of only 20, he co-founded the Eisner & Iger Studio with older partner Jerry Iger to “package” comics for publishers hungry to feed the market for cheap entertainment during the Great Depression.

Initially Eisner worked in a 10-foot square office, rapidly churning out comic stories under several pseudonyms to make it appear to clients that the studio comprised numerous artists. As business expanded Eisner hired many who became legends themselves: Jack Kirby, Lou Fine, Bob Powell, Bob Kane, Mort Meskin, Nick Viscardi, George Tuska, and Alex and Toni Blum, a father/daughter artist/writer team. While drawing, writing, editing and overseeing the creator pool, Eisner also came up with original creations like Blackhawk; Uncle Sam; Dollman; and Sheena, Queen of the Jungle.

At 22, Eisner was approached by a mid-sized newspaper syndicate looking to launch a new comic property. Intrigued by the opportunity to focus on a single creation, and to reach a much larger and older audience, Eisner agreed to sell his half of the lucrative Eisner & Iger Studio and take on the risky proposal, but on one condition. Newspaper syndicates for many decades (like comic book publishers) owned the copyrights to everything produced by talent under work-for-hire laws. Most still do. Sensing he had leverage, Eisner, rather remarkably, insisted on a deal that would give him ultimate ownership of the new feature. His prospective partners, “Busy” Arnold of Quality Comics and the owners of the Des Moines Register & Tribune Syndicate, ultimately capitulated to Eisner’s equity condition and The Spirit was launched in the summer of 1940 as an innovative 16-page insert in Sunday newspapers. Eisner wrote and drew a seven- or eight-page Spirit story every week and oversaw the remaining features.

Eisner had earlier pioneered the use of “splash pages” to dramatize opening pages to more effectively engage comics readers, but he took splashes to new heights in The Spirit. His artistic use of typography was part of the strip’s groundbreaking visuals. Instead of a recognizable Spirit logo repeated like every other feature, his weekly logo constantly changed. One week it was an architectural element integrated into the splash, another week it might float whimsically above a cityscape. The unpredictable variation of the logo ironically became a Spirit trademark in itself

Ostensibly a masked detective story, Eisner defied genre boundaries: his versatile style and mastery of camera angles allowed him to maximize “realism” when danger, mood and mystery were paramount; his femme fatales are among the sexiest in comics; and often other cast members took front stage in plots. He sometimes stretched the rubbery features of characters and simplified his line for comedic effect or to tell a children’s story.           

Eisner was a lifelong innovator of what he called “sequential art.” Harvey Kurtzman, himself a giant in the field, called Eisner “the greatest” of the early comic book artists, noting “It was Eisner, more than anyone else, who developed the . . . the grammar of the medium.”        

A later comics genius, Alan Moore, observes: “Eisner . . . didn’t just come up with a few really spectacular devices and let his reputation rest upon them. He came up with a whole way of approaching comics . . . Eisner is the single person most responsible for giving comics its brains.”

In 1942 Eisner’s direct involvement in The Spirit run was interrupted by his service during World War II, but that career detour led to his pioneering work in another area: educational comics. As a Chief Warrant Officer serving in the Pentagon, he produced numerous humorous inspirational posters as well as comics-based how-to instructions in Firepower and Army Motors. These were so effective that they quickly supplanted the dry traditional training and maintenance manuals. Eisner left the army and returned to The Spirit in late 1945 (continuing the feature till 1952) but in 1948 he founded a new company, American Visuals, to supply custom educational comics for clients as diverse as the U.S. Government, and General Motors, and for two full decades, starting in 1951, he worked again for the U.S. Army, producing PS: ThePreventive Maintenance Monthly magazine.

In 1971, around the time he was leaving PS, Will and I met at one of the earliest comic conventions, in New York. There he discovered “underground comix,” the often-outrageous kind produced by young hippie cartoonists, intended for a pot-smoking counter-culture peer audience, and fully expected to shock and repulse any middle-aged straight person who came across them. Eisner, then 54, briefly exhibited generational repulsion, but he also showed characteristic curiosity about this newest development in his favorite medium. He had left the world of commercial comic books because the business model established by publishers like Marvel, DC and Archie held no appeal to him. Nor did reaching their predominantly juvenile audience interest him. But the underground model incorporated much that appealed: complete editorial freedom and no subject restriction; creators owned their copyrights and trademarks; creators were paid a royalty, not a flat rate; artists kept their original art; and, most intriguing to the businessman in him, the alternative distribution system sold comics on a non-return basis. I was 24, a longhaired, bearded publisher and cartoonist attending my first convention, but Will, in his three-piece suit, sought me out and grilled me about my generation’s more equitable, literary and experimental approach to comics. A seemingly disparate pair, we soon formed a business and personal relationship lasting nearly 35 years.

In 1978 Eisner finished an ambitious work: four interrelated Bronx tenement based stories. The cover of A Contract with God proclaimed it a “Graphic Novel.” At nearly 200 pages and with square binding it was a book, not a comic book. Bookstores carried it, not just comic book shops. Part painful autobiography, with portrayals of characters with ambiguous morality, sexual frankness and literary pretensions, A Contract with God inspired countless ambitious cartoonists to think outside the comic book box. Graphic novels soon became the fastest growing genre in literature. Today nearly every bookstore has a substantial section devoted to graphic novels.

In between A Contract with God in 1978 and The Plot, published posthumously in 2005, Eisner created nearly 20 additional graphic novels, at an age when most of his contemporaries had long retired. Late in his career he also enjoyed teaching at New York’s School of Visual Arts. His hands-on experience with students helped him to develop three astute how-to textbooks on sequential art, graphic storytelling, and expressive anatomy, all of which remain in wide use.

Every year around his March birthday, “Will Eisner Week” events celebrating graphic novels are held internationally. In 2015 over 50 such events took place, helping further underscore Eisner as one of the best-remembered and most influential cartoonists. Since the late 1980s the best-known awards for creative excellence in comics, presented annually at the San Diego Comic Con, are the Eisner Awards. But as much as he enjoyed seeing his own name used to distinguish mostly younger award winners, he never forgot those who came before him. Illustrators such as J. C. Leyendecker and cartoonists like Milton Caniff and Elzie Segar in particular were big influences on Eisner, and the ranks of the Society of Illustrators embodied his heroes. Nothing would please him more than being inducted into its Hall of Fame.

Denis Kitchen
Art agent for the Eisner estate

Back To Top