The GLyph is pleased to welcome guest contributor Gary Brown. A staff writer for the Palm Beach Post, Gary recently did an extensive profile on NCS member Bob Bolling for Comic Book Artist magazine.

Above: Will Eisner at the awards ceremony which bears his name. Eisner Awards, San Diego Comic-Con 2004. photo by Craig Boldman

Will Eisner was still in his teens in 1936 when his first professionally published work appeared in the not-so-subtly titled Wow, What A Magazine.

America was struggling with the Depression and this Brooklyn native was determined to use his talents as an artist to not only make a few dollars for his family, but also to reach for his dreams.

The dollars and dreams began to multiply quickly. That same year, he started drawing his syndicated adventure comic strip, Hawks of the Seas. Shortly after, as the comic-book industry began to boom, he teamed with salesman Jerry Iger to form the Eisner & Iger Studio, which packaged much needed comic-book stories and art for publishers desperate for new material.

After three years, he sold his interest in the studio and created the popular and innovative newspaper comic strip, The Spirit, about crime-fighting cop Denny Colt, who rose from the dead to take on the bad guys of Central City.

All this and Eisner was just 23 - off to a wildly successful start of what would be a ground-breaking and legendary career telling visual stories in comic strips, comic books, and later in graphic novels.

When he died Jan. 3 at age 87 in Broward County, his longtime home, Eisner was known throughout the world for his personal and thought-provoking writing and his craftsmanship at the drawing board.

He was a key figure in the beginning of both the American comic book and the graphic novel, and he had a keen ability to successfully mix his artistic talents with the business side of the publishing industry.

"I once went to meet him at a meeting here in Palm Beach County, but he was surrounded by people asking him questions, so I never did get to personally thank him for all the enjoyment I got out of his work," said Dexter Taylor, a West Palm Beach resident and longtime artist and writer for Archie Comics. "He's one of the best cartoonists that I've seen. I marveled at his storytelling and his artwork. The design of his drawings was superb."

Eisner's legacy was not built on a handful of achievements in the 1940s, but by continuing to write and draw compelling stories for eight decades.

"Eisner influenced generation after generation of comic book creators and his abilities did not flag in his later years," said Jeff Gelb, a Los Angeles author and comics fan. "At a time when most elderly comic book creators were just signing autographs at conventions, he was still writing and drawing graphic novels about the human condition."

Even from the start, Eisner sought to break out of the predictable "action and super-hero" grind that comic books of the early 1940s gave their young, wide-eyed readers.

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Left: From Will Eisner's Spirit Casebook of True Haunted Houses and Ghosts, Tempo Books 1973

Comic books as an art form

As Michael Chabon, author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the dawn of the comic-book industry, told The Associated Press: "He was unquestionably the first person who ever took comic books seriously as an art form."

Eisner took his first steps toward this goal in The Spirit syndicated comic strip, which was part of a Sunday newspaper package that looked like a comic book and offered more substance than the routine gag strips of the day. The Spirit was Denny Colt, a police detective who was beaten to death by thugs and left lying in some strange chemical that had spilled out during the fight. Later, Colt "returned" from his demise (hence his specter-like name) to don a mask and fight crime in Central City with his fists and wits. Fittingly, he set up shop in Wildwood Cemetery.

Sounds like typical comic book or hard-boiled detective fodder, but The Spirit benefited from Eisner's unique sense of story and design.

The first page of the weekly Spirit story took on a surreal interpretation of the story's theme. Eisner used cinematic devices like larger-than-life characters holding a much smaller Spirit by the collar, a set of footprints in the snow pocked by splatters of blood or a trombone-playing musician dancing along on the notes he makes with his instrument. They served as a cover to the section, but also helped set the visual mood for the week's story.

"Will Eisner was an early master of the German expressionist approach in comics books - the Fritz Lang school," wrote Jules Feiffer in his ground-breaking book, The Great Comic Book Heroes. "Eisner's world seemed more real than the world of other comic book men because it looked that much more like a movie."

While The Spirit almost always dealt with fighting crime, Eisner frequently used that subject as a framing device to let him write about such forbidden comic-strip topics as suicide, racism, poverty, mental illness and spouse abuse, among others. But the stories were never preachy or written with an in-your-face attitude. Eisner told his tale, often with humor, and let the reader make the connections.

The strange cast of characters in The Spirit were the stars of the strip. They could be tough and mean, sultry and devious, or just plain out of the norm. They had thick glasses, huge noses, extended chins, beautiful curves or sagging pot bellies.

A regular character in the strip was a young black man named Ebony White, Spirit's sidekick and assistant. He was drawn in the somewhat exaggerated cartoon-like manner commonly used to depict blacks in comics and movies during the early 20th century. Still, there were few, if any, reoccurring black characters in daily or Sunday comic strips at the time, and Ebony certainly was different. Serving at first as comic relief in a Rochester-to-Jack-Benny manner in both appearances and dialogue, Ebony evolved into a smart, strong character who solved crimes and held his own as an intricate part of the strip's success. In 1946, Ebony was sent to college and 18 years later, when Eisner did a special Spirit story, he had Ebony return as an adult, working for Central City's government.

In 1942, Eisner left The Spirit and went into the U.S. Army, where he used his talents to do instructional booklets and comics. After his stint in the Army, the strip continued until 1952 when the growth of television began to affect newspaper comics. He then turned his attention to his Army contracts, writing and drawing instructional manuals like P.S. The Preventive Maintenance Monthly for almost 20 years.

He managed to do what a lot of his fellow writers and cartoonists in the business could not - he made many of his own career decisions.

By owning properties like The Spirit, Eisner was able to move from under the thumb of the corporate publishing giants.

"Will was among the most envied craftsman in his field - admired for both his skill as a writer and artist, but also for having a certain business acumen," comics and animation writer Mark Evanier wrote after Eisner's death. "The latter skill escaped most of comics' great creators, but Eisner had enough to retain ownership and control of most of his creations."

Living up to his name, The Spirit reemerged in the mid-1960s in comic book form with two issues from Harvey Comics. It triggered a long run of reprints, including a beautiful recent set of hardback Archives Editions from DC Comics (of which 15 of a projected 24 have been published).

But Eisner didn't merely ride The Spirit's coattails. Aside from his gig with the U.S. Army, he dabbled in advertising work and album covers. He also kept a watchful eye on the comic-book industry, trying to understand why certain trends would fade and then reappear.

"Forget the fact that Will Eisner invented graphic techniques still used in comic books today and inspired many of the field's greatest cartoonists. To me, the only thing worth remembering is that Will Eisner was one of the warmest, most generous men I ever met," said writer and cartoonist Michael T. Gilbert. "In a word, Will Eisner was a 'mensch.' "

DC Comics President and Publisher Paul Levitz believes Eisner's "aspirations" were his most important contribution, he said in an e-mail interview:

"Whether creatively (think of the challenge he set for himself in the splash logos), as a businessman (The Spirit sections were a form of creator ownership and self-publishing at a time when both were unknown in comic books and newspaper strips), or as an advocate for the medium (from his belief in the graphic novel as literature before there were any that qualified, to his involvement in an award for best comic shops to encourage improvement in that end of the field), he believed we could be better and was determined to do whatever he could to lead us to that higher standard."

Above: Detail from The Spirit #1, Kitchen Sink Enterprises

First modern graphic novel

In 1978, Eisner took matters into his own hands by writing and drawing what many consider the first modern graphic novel, A Contract With God. The novel is four related stories about life in tenements in the Bronx during the 1930s - the background and attitude taken right out of his experiences as a youngster.

"Will was sort of a cartoonist laureate for the Jewish immigrant experience in New York," Levitz said. "The streets he drew, and the people he depicted, were representative of the life my family lived... those are very deep nerves to touch."

It was the human condition that drove Eisner's graphic novels. He wrote about the struggles of poor immigrants and how they pushed forward to embrace their dreams, much like the teenage Eisner did when he visited publishers with his art portfolio in the mid-1930s. He also used his novels to explore his own questions about life and people.

Eisner added two sequels to A Contract With God - Dropsie Avenue and A Life Force.

In Chapter 1 of A Life Force, Jacob Shtarkah experiences chest pains after a difficult day and slumps over in an alley near his apartment. A cockroach is tossed into the alley from an above window and the man begins a conversation about the existence of God with the insect.

"If man created God, then the reason for life is only in the mind of man," Jacob tells the cockroach. "If, on the other hand, God created man, then the reason for living is still only a guess."

In the end, Jacob concludes that both man and cockroach are in trouble "because staying alive seems to be the only thing on which everybody agrees."

In all, Eisner created 14 graphic novels over 26 years, including his most recently completed work, THE PLOT: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which will be published by W.W. Norton & Co. in May.

Also this May, the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in New York City will open The Will Eisner Retrospective, a look at Eisner's career in comics. And on tap later this year is a biography, Will Eisner: A Spirited Life, by Bob Andelman.

It wasn't just the passing of a legend that put the comics world at half-staff two weeks ago, but the sense that Eisner's life work of writing and drawing comics has come to an end.

"It isn't just the man himself who will be missed," said Don Markstein, a comics historian and creator of Toonopedia.com. "Even at 87, he had a great deal to say. We'll miss his future work, as well."

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LINKS:

WILL EISNER'S WEBSITE

WILL EISNER DISCUSSES THE GRAPHIC NOVEL: A RealPlayer Cybercast


RECENT BOOKS BY AND ABOUT WILL EISNER

 The Will Eisner Companion

 Eisner/Miller

The Plot: The Sectet Story of The Protocols of The Elders of Zion

The Spirit Archives
Volume 15