Thursday, January 13, 2005

The Late, Great Will Eisner

On January 3, 2005, perhaps the greatest legend in comic books died. Will Eisner died at age 87 following quadruple bypass heart surgery in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Eisner not only created numerous comic book and comic strip characters (the most famous of which was probably The Spirit), but also changed the shape of comic books and introduced the concept of the graphic novel. Most importantly, perhaps more than any other single creator, he argued for the acceptance of comic books and comic strips as genuine works of art.

Will Eisner was born in Brooklyn, NY on March 6, 1917. He attended high school at De Witt Clinton High School in the Bronx, where Bob Kane (the creator of Batman) was one of his classmates. Eisner was 19 when he sold his first work to Wow What a Magazine! There he created two features, Harry Karry and The Flame (later renamed Hawks of the Sea).

Wow What a Magazine! folded after four issues, after which Eisner entered into a partnership with friend Jerry Iger to form the Eisner-Iger studio. The Eisner-Iger studio was the first of its kind, a studio dedicated to generating comic strips both for newspapers and the new medium of comic books. The studio employed many artists who would later become famous: Jack Kirby, Lou Fine, and Bob Kane. The Eisner-Iger Studio produced strips for such comic book publishers as Fiction House, Quality Comics, and Fox Publications. It was at the studio that Eisner co-created Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, with Jerry Iger.

Eisner parted ways with Iger in 1939 for a deal with Quality Comics. There Eisner created some of the most enduring comic book characters: Doll Man (one of the earliest superheros and the first with shrinking powers), Uncle Sam, Blackhawk, The Black Condor (co-created with Lou Fine), and The Ray (also co-created with Lou Fine). It was Quality Comics that would lead to his most enduring creation. Everett M. Arnold, Quality's publisher, had struck upon the idea of producing comic book like inserts to be placed in Sunday newspapers. Arnold asked Eisner to develop a comic strip for these inserts. The strip that Eisner created was The Spirit.

The Spirit was criminologist Denny Colt. Mistakenly thought dead after an attempt on life, Colt used his supposed death to his advantage, assuming the identity of The Spirit to fight crime. It was in the pages of The Spirit that Eisner introduced Lady Luck, one of the earliest female costumed characters. She soon got her own comic strip.

The Spirit proved very successful, so that naturally the newspaper strips were reprinted in Quality comic books. Eisner's original run on The Spirit ended in 1942 when he was draughted. Eisner was stationed in Washington D. C. where he practised his art in the service of his country. He created "Joe Dope," a comic strip through which Jeep maintenace was taught to servicemen. He also edited the army journal Firepower.

Demobilised in 1946, Eisner returned to The Spirit. For the next four years Eisner took The Spirit where no comic strip or comic book had been before. Rather than supervillains, The Spirit fought petty hoodlums and cheap criminals. Eisner's style became more cinematic, with unsual angles and panel shapes. His stories became epic in length. Effectively, The Spirit became one of the few adult strips around.

Eisner left The Spirit in 1950 to found the American Visual Corporation, which produced various magazines and manuals. His creation, The Spirit, now in others' hands, ended in 1952.

Eisner may well have been forgotten by all but comic book and comic strip fans had it not been for Jules Feiffer. In 1965, The Great Comic Book Heroes by Jules Feiffer was published. The Great Comic Book Heroes was not only a nostalgic look back at the Golden Age superheroes, but the first book to examine the medium with any amount of seriousness. Feiffer singled Eisner out for praise and included, among the other comic book stories reprinted in the book, one featuring The Spirit. Soon Eisner found himself deluged with requests for The Spirit's return.

Eisner wrote new Spirit stories for much of the Seventies. In 1978 Einser invented the graphic novel with the publication of A Contract with God. In fact, it was Eisner who coined the term "graphic novel." Thereafter Eisner produced at least one graphic novel each year.

Will Eisner was among the earliest proponets of comic books as a literary form. While many of his contemporaries in the Thirties were wanting to break into magazine illustration, Eisner was already looking at the comic book as an artform. He wrote the book Comics & Sequential Art in which he outlined the principles telling stories in comic books. Besides expressing his own ideas and theories on the artform, Eisner argues for its acceptance as an artform. Eisner wrote another book, Graphic Storytelling, which expands upon the ideas he expressed in Comics & Sequential Art.

Eisner was respected as an innovator in the field of comic books. Aside from the many important characters he had created, he had revolutionised the field. Eisner was the first artist to use panels with no dialogue or even thought balloons in which a character's facial expression showed how he or she felt. Einser was the first to address serious issues in the form of a comic book. He was the first to vary panel size, angles, and even lettering to suit the story at hand. With Iger he was the first to establish a comic strip studio. And as pointed out, he also invented the graphic novel. Is it any wonder that the comic book industry's equivalent of the Oscar or the Emmy is called the Eisner?

As a comic book fan, it is impossible to estimate the influence Will Eisner has had on my life. I read The Spirit as a child, as well as stories featuring other characters he had created. As an adult I read his grahpic novels, as well as Comics & Sequential Art. Even had I read nothing written and drawn by Eisner, it would be hard to escape his influence. Virtually every comic book, every graphic novel published today shows his influence in some way. It is for that reason that I am very saddened by his passing. It means that Plot, to be published later this year, will be his last work. It is doubtful that comic books will ever see one as great as Eisner.

No comments: