In Memorium: Will Eisner
Will Eisner’s death on January 3, 2005, is truly the end of an era, and there undoubtedly will be an outpouring of appreciation for this pioneering artist of our field, so I thought I would share my own story about his profound influence on me.
Like many adolescents who was heavily comics, I went through a brief period when I became bored with my hobby. This was the mid-1970s. I had just moved to Northern California and while visiting relatives in Monterey, I discovered my first comic-book store. Given that the direct-sales market really hadn’t taken hold yet on a large scale, this store was a novelty. And it was during my first visit that I saw and purchased one of the Warren Publication Spirit reprints. It was issue 2, and though I first had been introduced to the series through Jules Feiffer's book, The Great Comic Book Heroes, this was the first time I saw the full breadth of the series. (Though I love the new DC reprints of the series, I still have a love for those black-and-white versions. The cheap newsprint served to enhance the pulp, noirish feel of many of the stories.) I eventually began collecting all of the issues religiously.
Discovering Eisner and the Spirit was a revelation. They helped reinvigorate my interest in comics and, as an aspiring cartoonist, changed my approach to the way I wrote and drew my own comics. Eisner demonstrated to me the true potential of comics as a storytelling medium. Though at that young age I didn’t fully grasp the full level of craftmanship, I could clearly see Eisner was in total command: he didn’t just tell a story through text and pictures, he also advanced it through the design of the page, the size of the panels, the lighting, and the atmosphere and environment. The variety of the stories and their seriocomic tone showed me you could tell any story in comic-book form. Even more amazing was the fact that he produced this groundbreaking work in the 1940s and early ‘50s!
The history of comics has always been as interesting to me as the comics themselves, so I know that Eisner was an artistic pioneer. However, he also was an astute and visionary businessman, a rare combination. He built one of the first comic-book “sweatshops,” which took an assembly-line approach to meeting the high demand for comics by dividing the work among writers, pencillers, inkers, letterers, etc. Later, after the Spirit ended, he produced educational comics for the military and other clients, directly as a result of his experiences while serving in the army during World War II. This work was lucrative and, when he sold the business, it undoubtedly gave him the freedom him to focus on other work that was more important and fulfilling to him. This led to A Contract With God, considered by many to be the first modern “graphic novel.” The book essentially launched the third phase of his career by allowing him to tackle projects that were more personal and ambitious. And going back to the early days of his career, when Eisner created the Spirit, he had the foresight to ensure that he owned the character. This was a rare accomplishment for a syndicated cartoonist, even today, but Eisner recognized the value of his work, creator’s rights and artistic independence.
I had the opportunity to meet Eisner briefly a few times--he was a regular fixture at the San Diego Comic-Con, partly because the comic-book industry's equivalent of the Academy Awards, the "Eisners," are named for him. (At left is a personal photo of him from 2001.)
My first-edition paperback copy of A Contract With God was autographed by him many years later at a Comic-Con. His comment before he signed it was, "Boy, this is an old one!"
Early on--and moreso than most of his contemporaries who often considered themselves simple craftsmen (many syndicated artists often considered themselves newspapermen!)--Eisner recognized that comics were an art and he unabashedly took every opportunity to extol that view.
With my own work, Rob Hanes Adventures, I have tried to keep a small part of his legacy alive with a strip that is an adventure series at first glance but simply a gateway to a much richer universe and environment. I have not come close to achieving this goal, but Eisner’s work always urged me to reach higher.
Thank you Mr. Eisner for your contributions and inspiration.