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Will Eisner is regarded as a pioneer of the comic book art form and is credited with coining the term graphic novel in reference to his hallmark semiautobiographical work A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories (1978), which is cited as one of the primary influences on the graphic novel format. Widely recognized for writing and illustrating the weekly feature The Spirit, a detective adventure comic that ran from 1940 to 1952, Eisner is also known for PS Magazine (1950-1972), an educational comic that he produced for the U.S. Army. in a career spanning six decades, Eisner helped to establish comic books as something more than entertainment for kids.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
An Early Calling to the Funny Pages
Eisner was born in 1917 in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Jewish immigrants. He attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, where his first published comic strip appeared in the school paper. He studied briefly at the New York Art Student’s League, but he left for a position in advertising at the New York American in 1935. From there he got his first comics job, writing and drawing for Wow, What a Magazine!, edited by Jerry Iger. When the magazine went bankrupt after a few issues, Eisner and Iger formed their own syndicate, producing comics to sell to magazines and newspapers. The Eisneriger studio employed such future comic book innovators as Jack Kirby (creator of the X-Men and the Hulk, among other characters) and Bob Kane (creator of Batman) before closing in 1939. Eisner then became art director and editor of several titles issued by Quality Comics. In 1940 he began producing a sixteen-page color insert for Sunday newspapers that included an episode of The Spirit as its lead feature.
Employing cinematic angles, dramatic lighting, and expressionist tones in his drawings, Eisner pushed the boundaries of the comic book genre with The Spirit. In this long-running series, which reflected the noir sensibility of film and literature of the 1940s, Eisner presented a realistic crime fighter, equipped with a secret identity but devoid of superhuman powers. This hero, Denny Colt, is a former private investigator who, after mistakenly being pronounced dead, transforms himself into the mysterious Spirit, wearing a business suit, fedora, and mask as he battles inner-city ills. Through the framework of the adventure comic, Eisner developed an enduring hero—a righteously indignant yet vulnerable crime fighter who eradicates societal evils while uncovering the city’s most captivating stories. in addition to its over whelming popularity and influential style, The Spirit is notable for its inclusion of Ebony, the first African American character to appear on a recurring basis in American comics. Eisner officially retired The Spirit in 1952, and the comic is regarded today as a classic of its form. The title has been reissued in a variety of formats for more than sixty years, in everything from hardbound, full-color volumes to periodical reprints.
Eisner was drafted into the army in 1942 and served until 1945, during which time he worked on comics and illustrations for troop education and instruction. PS Magazine—the instruction manual that Eisner developed for soldiers during World War II—employs direct language and comic book-style illustrations to replace the unwieldy technical manuals formerly used by military trainers. After the war, Eisner continued to produce The Spirit but eventually shifted his focus to his new business, American Visuals Corporation, which became a successful producer of educational and corporate comics for the next twenty-five years. In 1967 the U.S. Department of Labor asked Eisner to create a comic book that would appeal to potential high school dropouts. The result was a series of booklets titled Job Scene, which advised young people to seek higher education.
In the mid-1970s Eisner began working on A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories, which came out in 1978. This book, along with Eisner’s subsequent graphic novels, changed the landscape of the comic book industry, inspiring a generation of young comic artists to view their medium as a legitimate form of literature. Set in the Bronx during the Great Depression, which began after the stock market crash of 1929 and made for a hardscrabble adolescence for most people of Eisner’s age, A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories relies on black-and-white artwork to emphasize the stark realism of the book. The book is made up of four stories: a Jewish father mourning the death of his young daughter, a singer’s dalliance with an aged diva, a building superintendent with an eye for young girls, and a group of vacationers dealing with class differences in the Catskills. All four draw from Eisner’s experiences growing up in New York City. Described by Eisner as ”sequential art,” A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories dramatically changed the comic book medium, influencing fellow artists and becoming the first successful graphic novel.
Pioneering a New Genre
Eisner went on to produce a number of other successful graphic novels, the form he innovated. Will Eisner’s The Dreamer (1986) tells the semiautobiographical story of a young man in the 1930s who dreams of working in comic books, while The Building (1987) chronicles the experiences of people connected by a city building that is being torn down. A Life Force (1988), like A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories, is set during the Great Depression and examines the lives and dreams of Jewish Americans coming of age in a world threatened by the looming shadow of Nazi Germany and World War II. Dropsie Avenue (1995) surveys the history of the South Bronx neighborhood in which A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories and A Life Force take place. These three graphic novels are collected in The Contract with God Trilogy (2006). A Family Matter (1998) reveals dark secrets and resentment among family members as they gather for their patriarch’s ninetieth birthday, and Minor Miracles (2000) continues the saga of Dropsie Avenue with four more tales of tenement life. A study of Charles Dickens’s famous character from Oliver Twist (1838), Eisner’s Fagin the Jew (2003) exposes the prejudices often found in classic literature. The Name of the Game (2001) is an ambitious, multigenerational tale of immigration focused on the business dealings of an affluent Jewish American family. One of Eisner’s last works, The Plot (2005), recounts the history of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (1964), an infamous piece of anti-Semitic propaganda.
His first book on technique, Comics and Sequential Art, appeared in 1985, and his second, Graphic Storytelling, was published in 1996; both books provide an inside look at the technical aspects of Eisner’s meticulous approach to comic book art. Eisner also taught at New York’s School of Visual Arts from 1972 to 1993. The National Cartoonists Society presented Eisner with the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995 and the Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year in 1998. The Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards were established in his honor in 1988. Eisner’s work was featured in an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1996. He died in Florida on January 3, 2005, of complications following open-heart surgery.
Works in Literary Context
The Graphic Novel
Though Will Eisner’s early career was steeped in the superhero-comic tradition, he eventually came to pioneer a new use for the art form: the graphic novel. Other comic book artists younger than he had begun, in the 1960s, to make comics that could be described as anti-superhero, either chronicling the bizarreness to be found in ordinary life, like R. Crumb’s Zap Comix, or parodying the superhero comic, such as Gilbert Shelton’s Wonder Wart-Hog stories. The success of these underground comics inspired Eisner to begin work on his first graphic novel (a term he is credited with coining), A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories (1978), which fused the visual vocabulary of the comic book with long-form narrative. The graphic novel as a genre has since taken off and is used to powerful effect as a vehicle for personal stories of great social significance. Standouts in the genre include Art Spiegel-man’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale (1991), a story of Nazi Germany and Holocaust survival, and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2003), about the author’s childhood in Iran after the 1979 revolution.
Works in Critical Context
A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories and Other Works
Eisner is renowned among critics and fans as a titan of the comic book industry, and his work continues to be a source of inspiration for many contemporary comic artists, including Frank Miller and Neil Gaiman. Critics have lauded the emotional impact of the illustrations in Eisner’s graphic novels and have considered his work in PS Magazine further evidence of his aptitude for concise visual storytelling, albeit in an instructional vein. Commentators have valued his candid depiction of the daily lives of Jewish immigrants for adding much-needed social relevance to the comic book genre. Furthermore, critics have praised the frank representation of sexuality in A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories for its authenticity. According to scholar David A. Berona, ”Eisner’s skillful approach to the sexual themes in [A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories) was another progressive step in further opening the doors of pictorial realism to an adult audience.” Although some reviewers have faulted Eisner for relying too heavily on expository dialogue and have condemned his portrayal of Ebony in The Spirit as racially insensitive, Eisner has remained a beloved figure in the comics industry, prompting critic Mike Benton to label him ”[t]he most influential person in American comics.”
- Benton, Mike. ”Will Eisner.” In Masters of Imagination: The Comic Book Artists Hall of Fame. Dallas: Taylor, 1994.
- Couch, N. C. Christopher, and Stephen Weiner. The Will Eisner Companion: The Pioneering Spirit of the Father of the Graphic Novel. New York: DC Comics, 2004.
- Eisner, Will, and Frank Miller. Eisner/Miller: A One-on-One Interview Conducted by Charles Brownstein. Milwaukie, Oreg.: Dark Horse Books, 2005.
- Wiater, Stanley, and Stephen R. Bissette. Comic Book Rebels: Conversations with the Creators ofthe New Comics. New York: Donald I. Fine, 1993.
- Benson, John. ”Will Eisner: Before the Comics, an Oral Reminiscence Recorded by John Benson.” Comics Journal (April/May 2005).
- Berona, David A. ”Breaking Taboos: Sexuality in the Work of Will Eisner and the Early Wordless Novels.” International Journal of Comic Art (Spring/Summer 1999).
- Grant, Steven. ”The Spirit of Will Eisner.” Comics Journal (April/May 2005).
- Harvey, R. C. ”Will Eisner and the Arts and Industry of Cartooning: Part 1.” Cartoonist Profiles (September 2001).
- Medoff, Rafael. ”Will Eisner: A Cartoonist Who Fought Antisemitism.” Midstream (January/ February 2006).
- Raiteri, Steve. ”Graphic Novels.” Library Journal (March 15, 2005).
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