Will Eisner

Creator of the comic strip 'The Spirit' and pioneer of the graphic novel
Click to follow
The Independent Online

William Erwin Eisner, comics writer and artist: born New York 6 March 1917; married (one son, and one daughter deceased); died Fort Lauderdale, Florida 3 January 2005.

Will Eisner was recently dubbed by Wizard magazine the most influential man in American comics history. Yet he did not invent any of the world- famous icons of comics, nor did he make a fortune or build a publishing empire. What he achieved in his 70-plus years in thrall to the four-colour printed page was far more subtle: an innovator par excellence, he changed the language of comics, invented the graphic novel and forced the western reading public to treat comics as an art and literary form in their own right.

Not that Eisner didn't achieve a modest degree of fame early on with his idiosyncratic creation the Spirit, a supposedly deceased detective in a snappy blue suit-and-hat ensemble, whose sole concession to the publishing boom in costumed crimefighters was to wear a mask. Beyond the facial disguise, Denny Colt had little in common with his superpowered counterparts: he lacked powers and wasn't especially bright, he roamed the backstreets rather than flew the skies, and was as much anti-hero as hero, yet this Philip Marlowe of the superhero set attracted five million readers from June 1940 onwards, through the pages of his syndicated newspaper strip.

Eisner, unusually for the time, was both writer and illustrator, constantly experimenting with the lettering, layout and format: every week - for 12 years - he would change the strip's masthead. The stories employed elements of German Expressionism, interspliced with Marx Brothers-like surreal comedy, and appealed to adults and kids alike.

From June 1940 until his military call-up in 1942, and then from late 1945 until he wound up the strip in 1952, Eisner would write and draw seven or eight page stories every week, which were the main feature in a 16-page colour comic supplement in Sunday newspapers. They were subsequently recognised as classics and every decade since has seen these strips reprinted in various formats, with DC Comics currently reissuing all 645 of them in a hardback library called The Spirit Archives.

Eisner's beginnings were humble: the son of a Viennese stage painter living in New York, he went to DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx with his friend Bob Kane, the future creator of Batman. Eisner saw his first comic strip published in 1936 in Wow, What a Magazine! Ever the entrepreneur, the following year he set up the Eisner & Iger comics studio with another friend, Jerry Iger, to feed the growing demand for comic strips for the pulp magazine publishers.

His timing was perfect: the following year saw the advent of the costumed superheroes, spearheaded by the phenomenal success of a new character called Superman (a strip that Eisner, in a rare miscalculation, had rejected), and the publishing boom became a frenzy. Over the next two years, the enterprise successfully launched such characters as Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, Blackhawk and Dollman, and hired many aspiring artists, including Kane, Jack Kirby (who later co-created the X-Men) and Lou Fine.

Eisner himself was the writer and artist, under assorted pseudonyms, of several strips. The success of the studio attracted the envious eyes of several large publishing houses, and in 1939 Eisner was approached by Quality Comics Group to create a newspaper strip and supplement for them. He sold his half of the partnership to Iger, and set up his own studio to produce what became The Spirit.

Eisner's war years saw his talents employed in the Pentagon. His pioneering approach led to the hitherto-unknown use of instructional cartoons for Army Motors: his blend of factual information and cartoon stories went down sufficiently well with the army that in the post-war years it led to him supplying the US Army, the Job Corps, General Motors and many schools with a huge variety of educational comics. He also created strips and posters for the army, including the misadventures of Joe Dope in the strip of the same name. Meanwhile, in his absence, his assistants Fine and Jules Feiffer carried on cranking out The Spirit.

In the post-war years Eisner gradually moved away from comics: as his American Visuals Corp took off, the demand for comics declined, so in 1952 he retired the Spirit to concentrate on marketing and advertising.

Had his contribution to comics ended there, Eisner would still be remembered as one of the industry's pioneers. However, the rise of the American underground comics produced by the likes of Robert Crumb in the 1970s reawakened his passion for a medium which, once again, was on the rise. Not interested in costumed superheroes, in 1978 Eisner wrote and drew an ambitious collection of stories featuring real people, which he titled A Contract With God and Other Tenement Stories. The principal protagonist, one Frimme Hersh, finds himself abandoned by God, so becomes a slum landlord in the Bronx.

But it wasn't only the subject matter that marked this collection as something groundbreaking: there was also the format. Comics hitherto had largely been short, small magazines - despite being labelled comic books by their optimistic publishers, they were nothing of the kind. Eisner's was, and to differentiate it from the rest he dubbed it "a graphic novel". Thus a new art form was born: today, graphic novels have their own section in bookshops, but the concept of comics in book form was thanks to Eisner.

A Contract with God was the first of 20 graphic novels created by Eisner, all devoted in one form or another to the common man. The author himself explained it:

My stories are all centred around the human being, the business of survival, of struggling against the forces of life itself. My interest is not the superhero, but the little man who struggles to survive in the city.

Eisner also found time to write two highly regarded primers on art, Comic and Sequential Art (1985) and Graphic Storytelling (1996), alongside teaching at the New York School of Visual Art. His efforts did not go without recognition: as well as the countless awards he won, the industry's most prestigious award is known as "the Eisner".

Alan Woollcombe