If ever there are two things that should be said in the same breath, it’s “comics” and “Will Eisner.”
If you don’t work in the comics field (or are not a diehard comics fan), you may not have even heard of this man. Or, if you have, you know of him as a legend.
Aside from being a prolific comics artist himself, Eisner was one of the first to advance the study of comics as (a uniquely American, but also fully recognizable) art form. He coined the terms “graphic novel” and “sequential art,” which are now part of both the practice and scholarship of this odd new-old medium.
I first encountered Eisner when, much to my sputtering amazement, one of my books was nominated for the award that bears his name. As I was called up on the stage, Eisner stood off to the side, grinning broadly through the entire ceremony. I remember shaking his hand, frail and gaunt, and his muttered words of encouragement. He was there as a father to the whole shebang, comics as they are known today, including aspiring indie types like me.
I was too overwhelmed to fully absorb what he said to me, but I do recall it was something to the effect of “very interesting!” (Could it be that he’d actually read my book, I wondered? It might be that he was pleased to see diversity of subject matter and creators being recognized-or was just being polite-or both.) Neil Gaiman introduced him that year in a brief speech recognizing his massive contribution to comics, saying, “There was a time when people thought of Will Eisner as a weirdo and an oddity.” Eisner’s persistence, his vision, and his sheer cheerfulness brought not only validity to an entire medium: they established him permanently as its grandfather figure.
The subsequent year was the last time Eisner went up on stage to present the eponymous awards-he passed away in 2005.
Eisner was born in 1917 in Brooklyn to Jewish immigrants. His early years growing up in modest conditions profoundly shaped his world view-as seen in his groundbreaking A Contract With God, and Other Tenement Stories, remarkable both because it’s a graphic novel in its own right, and also pioneered a new form of graphic short story that was not in the form of an episodic comic. Contract is a meditation on the role of religion and god in the lives of ordinary people. A religious man who loses his faith after a tragic loss; two musicians in a pact of mutually using each other for different forms of gratification and advancement; karmic retribution finds a racist bully; and a variety of characters vacationing in the Catskills amidst further explorations of the collection’s core themes. This encapsulation doesn’t do it justice. For all its celebration of the comics form, Contract has as much visual and textual nuance as a Kurosawa film.
Early 20th-century Brooklyn also factored prominently in a number of Eisner’s other works, including The Building and Dropsie Avenue.
Eisner’s other work was, inevitably, shaped by the major event of his lifetime: World War II. The Spirit, which started as a syndicated newspaper strip in 1939 and continued through wartime, has interesting reverberations with Superman, also created by the children of Jewish immigrants. Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, Superman’s creators, were famously the inspiration behind Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.
For those interested in learning about visual storytelling and sequential art from the creator’s perspective, Eisner’s Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative remains a classic and still fully relevant today. But whether you go to learn at his feet or look at him as a parent of the medium (and a gifted comics creator in his own right), remember Will Eisner. I don’t think anyone who works in (or just loves) comics will argue that there is a single person who’s done more for the form.