Will Eisner died on Monday.
I hate that I have to start my first column of 2005 with those words. I also hate that most of you reading this will have no idea who I’m talking about. It’s not your fault. Will Eisner spent his whole life working in a field with only a few hundred thousand devotees. But among those devotees, he was revered.
Will Eisner was, unquestionably, the father of smart comics.
And when I say he worked his whole life in comics, that’s what I mean. He started his cartooning career in 1936. He died at 87 years old, having just completed a new graphic novel, The Plot. During that time, he never stopped working, never stopped making comics better by making better comics. Here are some of his achievements:
From 1936 to 1939, he co-ran Eisner and Iger Studios, which gave first jobs in the comic book field to such luminaries as Bob Kane, creator of Batman, and Jack Kirby, creator of and artist on the Fantastic Four and the Hulk and the Avengers and Captain America and on and on.
In 1940, he started The Spirit, a four-page-weekly adventure strip included in Sunday newspapers. Eisner worked on The Spirit until 1952, minus a three-year stint in the military during World War II, and he used it as a thesis on expanding the limits of the comic book form. At a time when even the best cartoonists considered their chosen field beneath contempt, Eisner took comics seriously as an art form, and significantly raised the confidence level of the burgeoning medium. Just the title pages of the Spirit sections alone rewrote the rules of structure and panel. The strip was also clever and a lot of fun.
In 1978, he published what is widely considered the first graphic novel, A Contract With God. Up until this point, comics with spines meant for the bookshelf were exclusively reprints of material that appeared in newsstand comics form. Eisner crafted four serious, grown-up stories, all interconnected, and published them all at once in book form, an unheard-of idea. Now it’s the form most preferred within the industry.
More than that, though, A Contract With God proved that comics were not just for kids. Those of us who have grown up in its wake can’t remember a time when genuine literature and comics were mutually exclusive, but Eisner showed the way. He went on to create a staggering 21 full-length graphic novels since then – staggering because these things take an awful lot of work and time. Eisner was 61 when he released Contract, and his career as a graphic novelist was just beginning.
Among his works are such treasures as To the Heart of the Storm, an autobiographical account of Eisner’s life before World War II; A Life Force, set during the depression; Invisible People, a haunting look at the anonymous and the forgotten; and Last Day in Vietnam, a series of true accounts from the front lines. Throughout his career, he has shone a spotlight on the Jewish experience, and never more so than in his most recent books, Fagin the Jew and the forthcoming The Plot, which revolves around Russian anti-Semites. Always – even in his darkest material – Eisner conveyed a sense of wonder and hope for humanity, and drew with a clean, effective, confident line.
In 1985, Eisner wrote Comics and Sequential Art, one of the first books to take a serious look at the art of creating comics. He followed it up in 1996 with Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative, and together these books draw back the curtain and give new artists everything they need. Eisner was all about the new stuff – there are countless tales of him praising new artists, touting new books and showing his genuine love for the medium and for the creators pushing it forward.
Coming from a guy so responsible for the great state of comic art these days, that’s pretty amazing. You want to know just how important and influential Will Eisner was to the comic book field? Every year at the San Diego Comic Con, the industry holds its version of the Oscars, where they award the best stuff in numerous categories. You know what that awards ceremony is called?
And guess what? When you won an Eisner, it was handed to you by Eisner himself.
I got the chance to meet Will Eisner once. It was at the 1995 San Diego con, and I attended as a pro – I wrote a book called Tapestry for Superior Junk Comics. The con was pretty quiet that year, and Tapestry artist Gabe Crate took several opportunities to pull out the pages for issue six that he was working on and plug away at them.
So Gabe and I are sitting there, him drawing and me watching, when out of the corner of my eye I see this elderly gentleman standing behind Gabe, looking at his pages. It took a minute or two for both Gabe and I to realize that this was Will Eisner, right behind us. No sooner had we recognized him than Eisner said, exuberantly, “I could watch you draw all day.”
He was quickly called away, but Gabe put his pencil down, unable to draw any more. I think we both said “holy crap” seven or eight times. It was an unbelievable high, even for me, the spectator in the story. But that was just Will Eisner, by all accounts. He never made anyone feel less than welcome in the comics field, and he had such amazing energy and enthusiasm for the medium.
Eisner died of complications after quadruple bypass heart surgery. His legacy cannot be overstated for comics fans. Almost single-handedly, he gave comics brains, heart and confidence. His belief in the medium as a true art form translated to the industry’s belief. Without him, we might still be stuck in a four-panel grid, making only tepid adventure tales instead of works like Blankets and Palomar and Berlin and Age of Bronze. He was the grand-daddy of it all, and the world of comics (and the world in general) is greatly diminished by his passing.
Rest in peace, Will.
* * * * *
One year dies, another is born. In one of those bizarre New Year’s synchronicities that tug at my emotions, while Eisner was passing away, my friend Chris L’Etoile and his girlfriend Jamie had their first child. They’ve named him Jeremiah Naos, and apparently mother and son are doing well. Congrats to all. I feel really old…
Next week, a bit about my Christmas presents. Year five is go.
See you in line Tuesday morning.