On Will Eisner

| No Comments | No TrackBacks

Will Eisner

March 6, 1917 - January 3, 2005

"When somebody asks me what got me into comics,

I can only think of one word: malnutrition."

Every spring term at Portland Community College I teach a course entitled Understanding Comics Art. One of my lectures is a presentation on Will Eisner, and these are the notes and visuals for that presentation. The information was originally culled from R.C. Harvey's The Art of the Comic Book: An Aesthetic History, but was supplemented by my own personal friendship with Will and by my professional relationship with him as his Dark Horse editor during the last five years of his life.

--Diana Schutz

Executive Editor, Dark Horse Comics

2. Will.jpg

  • Will Eisner was born on March 6, 1917; up until his death on January 3, 2005, he was still at the drawing board every day.
  • The godfather of American comics, Eisner was probably the first to recognize comics as an art form.
  • He was first published in 1936 when he sold some comic strips to Wow! magazine.

3. WDreamer.jpg

  • The Eisner/Iger shop: In 1937, Eisner and Wow! editor Jerry Iger formed a studio, hiring writers and artists to produce new material for the then-burgeoning comics industry: including Bob Kane, Jack Kirby, and Joe Kubert.
  • In 1940, Eisner joined with "Busy" Arnold and Henry Martin to produce material for Smash Comics, Hit Comics, and National Comics, as well as for a weekly 16-page newspaper supplement.
4. WSpirit.jpg

  • Thus was The Spirit born. The newspaper supplement, soon named "The Spirit Section" due to the success of its lead story, featured weekly seven- or eight-page Spirit stories (along with Nick Viscardi's Lady Luck and Bob Powell's Mr. Mystic).
  • Eisner insisted on owning the copyright to his character, which was unprecedented at the time; it wasn't money so much that he was after, but creative control.

5. WaSpiritCast.jpgThe Spirit Cast of Characters:
  • Denny Colt: criminologist and private detective, is found apparently dead, but literally rises from the grave and decides to "remain dead and take up the job of being the 'Spirit'" in order to work more effectively for justice. Because the costumed hero was at the early height of popularity following the first appearance of Superman in 1938, Eisner reluctantly gave his character a mask and gloves by the second installment.
  • Ebony: racial caricature, but created in order to provide the Spirit with someone to talk to, to exercise his skills of detection without having countless thought balloons in each panel.
  • Dolan: ruff cop, provided the Spirit's connection to the police (law & order).
  • Ellen: Dolan's daughter, the love interest.
6. WSpiritInks1.jpg
7. WSpiritInks2.jpg

  • The Spirit stories visually noted for:
  • Heavy use of ink/blacks for shadowing & atmosphere.

8. WSpiritHouse.jpg


  • Inventive layout: Eisner's reaction to the constraints of only seven or eight pages in which to tell his story.

9. WSpiritTitle1.jpg

11. WSpiritTitle3.jpg

  • Splash page incorporating logo in visually inventive ways, used to set scene/mood.
  • Unusual perspectives: bird's eye and worm's eye views.

The Spirit stories thematically noted for:

  • Humor in the face of film noir crime stories.
  • The notion of the little man overcoming all odds: often the spotlight was shifted almost entirely off the hero himself.

13. WP'gell.jpg
  • Eisner's femmes fatales: P'Gell, Silk Satin, and Sand Saref, among others, heavily influenced by...

14. WDragonLady.jpg

...The Dragon Lady, from Milton Caniff's Terry and the Pirates.

  • Eisner discontinued The Spirit in 1952 when he became dissatisfied with others' work on his character and at a time when the market for comics was dying.
15. WP*S.jpg

  • Eisner Founded American Visuals Corporation, a commercial art company, and spent numerous years illustrating educational-type manuals: most notably P.S. Magazine for the army.
16. WSnarf.jpg

  • In 1971, Phil Seuling contacted Eisner to be a guest at his NYC "Comic Book Marketplace" convention. Eisner met the "underground" cartoonists, most notably Denis Kitchen, and this sparked his creative fire again; their autobiographical comics stories led Eisner to see that the art form could move beyond its origins as entertainment and into the realm of literature.
17. WContract.jpg

  • In 1978, Eisner wrote and drew A Contract With God, though not the first actual graphic novel, certainly the first significant "graphic novel," though it is actually a collection of four stories.
  • In 1985, Eisner published Comics & Sequential Art, the first textbook about the medium of comics.
  • The comics industry's Academy Awards, so to speak, are named after Will Eisner.


  • Once he'd returned to the field of comics, Eisner wrote and drew one graphic novel every year or two, the last of which, The Plot: The Secret Story of the Elders of Zion, was published posthumously by W.W. Norton.

24. WPlot2.jpg

  • The book marked yet another departure for Eisner in that it is a nonfiction, historical narrative.

25. WEscSpirit.jpg

  • Eisner's very last comics work, done at my request, was a six-page team-up featuring the Escapist and the Spirit, completed just two weeks before he died.

In the past, when Will was still alive, I'd call him before giving this lecture and ask him to add some "words of wisdom" for my students.

Will has had this to say specifically to our class:

In 2002, Will suggested thinking about the concept of the "graphic novel": not as a printed artifact so much as a literary artifact. Not merely a collection of comic books, but a story told in comics format with subject matter that is socially significant. Eisner felt that if comics are ever to be taken as serious literature, then the medium must begin to tackle more sophisticated subjects. Cf. A Family Matter.

In 2003, Will said that if you're interested in becoming a part of this industry, you've got to stick with it, have faith in yourself, and learn to handle rejection. He said he would never forget, as a young artist presenting his portfolio to an art director, being told: "Now, don't take this personally, but this is the worst crap I've ever seen!" (A story Will told in comics form in AutobioGraphix, published by Dark Horse in 2003.)

In 2004, Will talked about the comics medium as an example of the new literacy, one which employs images as the primary tool of communication. Just as oral culture was supplanted by print culture, he believed that we are moving into an image-based culture of communication and that comics are a part of this new paradigm. The comics medium is a part of a great socio-cultural movement that began in the 20th century. Ever since the advent of the printing press, text has been the primary form of communication and we have been living in what is known as a print culture. But this came under siege in the 1900s, as both the amount of information increased and its rate of communication sped up dramatically. Printed text can no longer keep up, and in order to accommodate the wealth and speed of information, images -- which are read more quickly -- are moving in as a communication tool to complement if not supercede words. Cf. McCloud, Uncerstanding Comics, pg. 58: "As the twenty-first century approaches, visual iconography may finally help us realize a form of universal communication."

In my last conversation with Will, two weeks before he died, he said he had been blessed to spend his life working in a medium he loved.

For more information:

  • www.willeisner.com
  • Will Eisner: A Spirited Life by Bob Andelman
  • Eisner/Miller, a book-length interview between Will Eisner and Frank Miller


Diana Schutz is Executive Editor for Dark Horse Comics, an award-winning editor she has worked with such notables as WILL EISNER, STAN SAKAI, MATT WAGNER, MICHAEL CHABON, FRANK MILLER, and NEIL GAIMAN. As an educator she has taught comics history and criticism at Portland Community College.

No TrackBacks

TrackBack URL: http://www.willeisner.com/cgi-sys/cgiwrap/montauk/managed-mt-2/mt-tb.cgi/233

Leave a comment

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by GaryC published on February 21, 2009 12:09 AM.

Worst. Page. Ever. was the previous entry in this blog.

Will Eisner Week Educational Materials is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.