American graphic novelist, comic-book author, and publisher Will Eisner (1917–2005) was an immensely influential figure in the development of graphic storytelling. Eisner was the first to coin the term “sequential art” and one of the first to describe the new book-length comics-style stories as “graphic novels.” In a remarkable surge of late-life creativity, he made substantial contributions to the graphic-novel genre.
In Wizard magazine's widely quoted evaluation of comic artist and writer Will Eisner, he was “the most influential comic artist of all time.” The judgment may seem counterintuitive: although his super-hero creation The Spirit was syndicated in a variety of newspapers during the 1940s and early 1950s, Eisner did not create Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, or any of the other characters beloved of comic-book aficionados. Yet Eisner's career spanned eight decades, and he was seeking out new ways of telling stories in graphic form for much of that period. Revered by both the comic-book artists of the post–World War II period and by the pioneers of the graphic novel, Eisner was a prolific experimenter and innovator who paved the way for the emergence of comics as a serious art form.
Eisner attended New York's DeWitt Clinton High School, where one of his classmates was “Batman” creator Bob Kane. The school encouraged participation in the arts, and Eisner gained valuable experience writing comic strips, doing stage design, and illustrating school-published magazines, including one that he and a friend edited called The Lion and the Unicorn. They wanted to include illustrations printed from metal plates, and when the expensive procedure proved to be outside their budget, Eisner improvised by learning on the spot to do woodcuts. He also refined his drawing technique by taking summer classes at New York City's Art Students League, and at age 19 he left school for a job at the New York American newspaper.
After a short time, Eisner left the New York American and took a job as art director at a Jewish women's magazine called Eve. He also freelanced, selling drawings to editor Jerry Iger that were published in the comics magazine Wow! After the magazine folded, Eisner and Iger decided to form a partnership; in fact, Eisner lied about his age; although he was 19, he told his new partner that he was 25. The pair's new comics business was an instant hit; comics were a growing medium, and Eisner found he could sell as many comics as he produced. He quickly brought on board other artists—including Kane and future Incredible Hulk creator Jack Kirby—in order to meet the demand. It was now that Eisner created several superhero characters, among them Sheena, Queen of the Jungle (a female answer to Tarzan), as well as Dollman, Blackhawk, and Yarko the Great.
At age 22, Eisner was a business partner and supervised a team of talented artists creating a wealth of fresh, highquality comic-strip material. However, he was already eyeing new artistic horizons, and in the fall of 1939, he left his partnership with Iger and joined Quality Comics. Published by Everett M. Arnold, Quality Comics produced a 16-page Sunday comics supplement that was syndicated to major newspapers and Eisner's contribution was to write and draw a comic called “The Spirit.” This new comic was significantly different in content and style from other published strips, and its story development was interrupted in 1942 when its creator was drafted into the U.S. Army. Eisner was sent to the European theater, where he did drawings for military publications. In 1945 he returned to “The Spirit,” which had, in the interim, been drawn by other artists. One of these was future humor writer Jules Feiffer, who contributed highly original stories to the popular strip in its later days.
Trained as a detective, The Spirit has died and now returns to Earth to help those in trouble. He is a hero, but not a superhero; he wears a mask but has no special powers. Eisner's series was unique due to his narratives, which were both complex and highly imaginative. “The stories employed elements of German Expressionism, interlaced with Marx Brothers-like surreal comedy, and appealed to adults and kids alike,” explained Alan Woollcombe in the London Independent. Its unusual approach was not appreciated by everyone, however. Editors complained not only about the stories but about Eisner's artwork: “I think it is advisable to do away with most of the fancy angle shots in the daily strip,” wrote syndicate manager Henry P. Martin, Jr., as quoted by Andelman. “Too many times they are confusing and apt to slow down a reader.” However, at its peak “The Spirit” reached five million readers each Sunday. Eisner wrote and drew most of the weekly stories until 1952 when the strip ended. In the years since, it has become recognized as a classic and portions of “The Spirit” continues to be reprinted.
While still producing “The Spirit,” Eisner founded American Visuals Corporation, a company that produced commercial and educational illustrations and cartoons, and its immediate profitability was his primary motivation for retiring the strip. One of his major new customers was the U.S. Army, which used Eisner's illustrations in its maintenance magazine PS. For this purpose, he produced cartoons featuring Joe Dope, a character he had created while in Army service. (A PS digital archive is maintained by Virginia Commonwealth University, which also holds a collection of Eisner's physical artwork.) Other American Visuals clients of the mid-20th century included the Baltimore Colts, RCA Records, and New York Telephone.
Financially secure by the late 1970s, Eisner was able to pursue creative pursuits with no commission from a publisher. Over several months in 1978, the 60-year-old comics artist wrote and drew the 192-page A Contract with God, a set of four linked stories about a Jewish immigrant slumlord in the New York borough of the Bronx. The book had no adventure component; instead, it consisted of purely realistic elements. Attracting no interest from a publisher, Eisner arranged to have it issued by the small Baronet Press. On its cover, A Contract with God was billed as a “graphic novel,” becoming one of the first publications to display that term.
In creating A Contract with God, Eisner drew inspiration, in part, from the work of R. Crumb and other counterculture cartoonists of the 1960s and 1970s; much younger than he, they explored the serious themes he also addressed in his work. Major graphic novelists of the 1980s, including Maus author Art Spiegelman, would, in turn, cite Eisner as a major inspiration; as quoted by Sarah Boxer in the New York Times, Spiegelman called Eisner “a giant, a pioneer, a dynamo.”
In his later years, Eisner also taught cartooning at New York City's School of Visual Arts, and he numbered many young graphic artists among his students. He also shared his insights in three nonfiction books: Comics and Sequential Art (1985), in which he introduced the term “sequential art,” as well as Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative (1996) and Expressive Anatomy for Comics and Narrative (2008). In his personal life, Eisner married Ann Weingarten, with whom he had two children: a son, John, and a daughter, Alice, who died of leukemia in 1970.
Eisner won seven awards from the National Cartoonists Society, beginning with a Comic Book Award in 1967. He was inducted into the Academy of Comic Book Arts Hall of Fame in 1971, and into the Jack Kirby Hall of Fame in 1987. In 1988 the Eisner Awards, the comics industry's counterpart to the Academy Awards, were established and he sometimes appeared in the awards ceremony as a presenter. Eisner was active as an artist until the last weeks of his life. He died after complications from quadruple bypass surgery on January 3, 2005, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Andelman, Bob, Will Eisner: A Spirited Life, M Press, 2005.
Schumacher, Michael, Will Eisner: A Dreamer's Life in Comics, Bloomsbury, 2010.
Guardian (London, England), January 8, 2005, Paul Gravett, “Will Eisner,” p. 25.
Independent (London, England), January 6, 2005, Alan Woollcombe, “Will Eisner,” p. 43.
Midstream, January–February 2006, Rafael Medoff, “Will Eisner: A Cartoonist Who Fought Antisemitism,” p. 10.
New York Times, January 5, 2005, Sarah Boxer, “Will Eisner: A Pioneer of Comic Books, Is Dead at 87,” p. C14.
Will Eisner Official Website, http://www.willeisner.com (November 15, 2017), “A Short Biography.”□