The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

Will Eisner Centenary


On the centenary of his birth, The Society of Illustrators in New York is celebrating the life of cartoonist Will Eisner with an exhibition of his work, including original artwork from his graphic novels A Contract with God (1978) and Life on Another Planet (1983), and over 40 pages of originals from The Spirit (1940–1952) newspaper section.

At the Village Voice R.C. Baker looks back at Eisner’s career:

Humanity leavened with contradiction, pathos, and humor describes the cast of characters Eisner (1917–2005) created in his trailblazing career, most notably in the adventures of a heavy-fisted, lighthearted crime-buster, the Spirit.

The Spirit has been called the Citizen Kane of comics, and it would be accurate to say that Eisner and Orson Welles — the actor/writer/director who brought Charles Foster Kane to life in that 1941 masterpiece — sprouted from the same loam of pulp magazines and cliff-hanging radio serials. Welles then apprenticed in classical theater, while Eisner studied narratives almost as psychologically complex (and more innately American): reams of newspaper strips and Sunday funnies. Both auteurs expanded their mediums in ways we still reckon with today.

Similarly, at Forbes, Rob Salkowitz looks at Eisner’s enduring legacy:

In 1941, comics were not considered high art; they were barely considered art at all. But to a 23 year-old cartoonist named Will Eisner who was just about to debut a new feature called “The Spirit,” comics possessed limitless storytelling potential. “Eventually and inevitably, [comics] will be a legitimate medium for the best of writers and artists,” said the young creator.

Over the next 75 years, Eisner was proved right, due in large part to his own output through the course of a remarkable career that saw him invent significant chunks of the comics’ storytelling vocabulary, pioneer the use of comics for education and training, establish a critical method for teaching and analyzing visual storytelling and virtually invent the long-form comics format known as the graphic novel. A large part of the $1 billion annual publishing enterprise and the multi-billion dollar entertainment, events, media and licensing industries that derive from it, are attributable directly to Eisner’s efforts and innovations.

The Guardian has republished a version of Neil Gaiman’s essay on Eisner from his collection of odds and ends The View from the Cheap Seats1:

Will’s life is, in miniature, a history of American comics. He was one of the very first people to run a studio making commercial comic books, but while his contemporaries dreamed of getting out of that ghetto and into more lucrative and respectable places – advertising, perhaps, or illustration, or even fine art – Will had no desire to escape. He was trying to create an artform.

In seven pages – normally less than 60 panels – he could build a short story worthy of O Henry; funny or tragic, sentimental or hardbitten, or simply odd. The work was uniquely comics, existing in the place where the words and the pictures come together, commenting on each other, reinforcing each other. Eisner’s stories were influenced by film, by theatre, by radio, but were ultimately their own medium, created by a man who thought that comics was an artform, and who was proved right.

And Print has reposted Michael Dooley essay, originally for written AIGA, on Eisner’s best known work, The Spirit:  

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.

I first came across Will Eisner and The Spirit in The Penguin Book of Comics by George Perry and Alan Aldridge (previously mentioned here). It was a tease — little more than a page of artwork and a couple of short paragraphs on Eisner’s genius. I didn’t actually read a complete strip until years later when I came across a series of reprints from Kitchen Sink Press in a comics shop in London. I could only afford to buy one issue — which collected 3 or 4 stories I think — but it was enough to get me hooked.

Critics tend to focus on the later strips where the Spirit is often peripheral to the stories. These are surely more inventive than Eisner’s early comics. But I miss the Spirit when he is not central to story. He is like Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe — forever getting knocked on the head, and forever waking up in the arms of women who look like Ava Gardner or Lauren Bacall. It doesn’t sound like much, but Eisner imbued even these simple stories with a charm and sophistication that makes them a pleasure to read. 

Will Eisner: The Centennial Celebration 1917–2017 is at The Society of Illustrators, March 1–June 3 2017.

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1. I think it’s originally from his introduction to DC Comics The Best of the Spirit — which is, truthfully, only a so-so collection — but I’m not 100% on that

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