Born William Erwin Eisner, March 6, 1917, in New York, NY; died on January 3, 2005, in Lauderdale Lakes, FL. Graphic novelist. Illustrator and writer Will Eisner was an important influence on the development of the graphic novel, the more literary successor to the comic book. A talented artist who worked with some of the top names in the American comics scene in the 1930s and '40s, Eisner was revered by a later generation of illustrators and authors. One of the industry's top awards is named in his honor.
Born in 1917, Eisner grew up in the New York City borough of the Bronx. His father, who had once been a stage-set painter in imperial Vienna, encouraged his son's artistic ambitions. At DeWitt Clinton High School, one of Eisner's friends was Bob Kane, who later created the Batman comic series. Eisner's first published comic appeared in a magazine in 1936, the year he turned 19, and soon he and another pal, Jerry Iger, had formed Eisner & Iger, a comics studio they opened in a rented space on East 41st Street. The studio was soon flourishing thanks to such series as Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, and artists in their roster included both Eisner's friend, Kane, and Jack Kirby, who was a co-creator of the popular X-Men series years later. Their only notable misstep was rejecting the original Superman strip when it was first submitted to them.
Eisner was eventually offered his own strip, and so sold his half of the partnership to Iger and created The Spirit, a.k.a. Denny Colt. The series featured a detective returned from the afterlife who fights crime and injustice in the Manhattan-like Central City. Colt gets by without the standard superpowers, and preferred to help out the average working person beleaguered by petty crime or institutional injustice. The series launched as a syndicated newspaper cartoon in June of 1940, and ran for 12 years. "The stories employed elements of German Expressionism, interspliced with Marx Brothers-like surreal comedy, and appealed to adults and kids alike," wrote Alan Woollcombe in London's Independent newspaper. Eisner's strip was also one of the first to use the silent panel, with no dialogue or thought bubbles, just a close-up to show facial expression. He also wrote and drew it himself, at a time when it was rather unusual for a strip to be the work of one person. At the peak of its popularity, The Spirit was carried in 20 newspapers and reached five million readers every Sunday.
There was perhaps an equally large audience for Eisner's other creation, "Joe Dope." Eisner had been drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II, and while his assistants carried on The Spirit, he created educational cartoons for the army that showed newly enlisted service personnel how to fix vehicles and maintain weapons. Each illustrative tale, often written in comical verse form, concluded with the warning, "Don't Be a Dope! Handle Equipment Right." Back in civilian life after the war's end, Eisner returned to writing and illustrating The Spirit, but he ended it in 1952, when comics seemed to be waning in popularity. He parleyed his wartime work into a new company, the American Visual Corporation, which made educational cartoons for the government and for companies like General Motors.
Eisner carried on that work for many years, until in the late 1960s a new form of comics emerged out of the counterculture. Originally called "underground," the comics coming from the likes of R. Crumb and others re-inspired Eisner to return to the form, and he began working more creatively once again. The result was A Contract With God and Other Tenement Stories published in 1978. Its anti-hero is a man, Frimme Hersh, who feels abandoned by God, and becomes a slumlord in the Bronx. The work was significant because it was a comic, but in a much longer format and with heavy philosophical themes; Eisner is believed to have coined the term "graphic novel" to describe it, which within a quarter-century would become its own bookstore section.
Eisner wrote several other graphic novels, and his earlier Spirit series was frequently reissued in book format. He taught at the New York School of Visual Art, and authored the 1996 textbook Graphic Storytelling. Since 1987 the top annual honors in the comics industry have been known as the Will Eisner Awards. The various awards are handed out annually at the Comic-Con International Convention in San Diego, California, and Eisner was one of the presenters each year. He was a legendary figure in the industry, and novelist Michael Chabon based one of his characters in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (the winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for fiction), on him. Eisner's graphic novel The Plot, completed before his death, was published in the spring of 2005.
Eisner died on January 3, 2005, at the age of 87 near Fort Lauderdale, Florida, after undergoing quadruple bypass surgery. He is survived by his wife, Ann, and son, John. "My stories are all centered around the human being, the business of survival, of struggling against the forces of life itself," Eisner said, according to the Independent 's Woollcombe, "My interest is not the superhero, but the little man who struggles to survive in the city." Sources: Chicago Tribune, January 5, 2005, sec. 3, p. 11; CNN. com, http://www.cnn.com/2005/SHOWBIZ/ books/01/04/obit.eisner.ap/index.html (January 5, 2005). Independent (London), January 6, 2005, p. 43; Los Angeles Times, January 5, 2005, p. B8; New York Times, January 5, 2005, p. C14.
— Carol Brennan