If you’ve never heard of Will Eisner, then you are not prepared for the inevitable Will Eisner Week cocktail party. Now that Will Eisner Week is in fact upon us, you’ll need to learn up about this American hero.
In fact, you may already have heard his name in passing. The Eisner Awards are named after this illustrious illustrator and presented to excelsior comics every year. Past inductees have included Usagi Yojimbo, Hellboy, Cerebus, and Mouse Guard. Generally, Eisner winners combine brilliant illustration with incredible storytelling to create a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. This is what Will Eisner famously brought to American comics.
While popular comics existed before Eisner, he was one of the first on the scene in 1936. Eisner started working on a short-lived comic book called Wow! What a Magazine! when he was 19, a job that his buddy Bob Kane helped him get. In an age when most comic books were reprints of newspaper funnies, Eisner was tasked with creating something original. He was an immediate hit, and his strips Captain Scott Dalton and The Flame made his name on the nascent comic book scene.
After Wow! folded later in 1936, he went into the comic book business with his friend Jerry Iger and quickly began to succeed. Eisner & Iger raked in a great deal of money before Quality Comics publisher “Busy” Arnold wooed Eisner away to write weekly comics for national syndication. Thus was The Spirit born.
The Spirit was Denny Colt, a fairly ordinary guy who, through dastardly doings, had almost been killed. In fact, his brush with death was so near that his enemies assumed that they’d succeeded. Colt didn’t bother to disabuse them, but instead became a crime-fighter dogging their efforts for twelve years of popular Sunday strips. Until 1952, Eisner’s breakout character was a star of the funnies page. It stood as an example of good writing, good art, and how a comic could be more than the sum of both. He even drew The Spirit while he was in the Army during World War II, although in a limited way.
By today’s standards, The Spirit was far from perfect. For one thing, Denny had a racist stereotype of a sidekick named Ebony White. Though Ebony was popular, Eisner struggled with uneasiness over his disrespectful portrayal of the character. As The Spirit continued, Eisner tried to repair the damage he’d done by giving Ebony an interesting character arc and introducing other, more respectfully portrayed African-American characters, but there was little to be done with such a blatant trope. Eisner phased Ebony out in 1949. Arguably, the personal growth that Eisner had to undergo in the process of dealing with his youthful ignorance may have allowed him to create more respectfully in his later years. Later incarnation of The Spirit, such as Darwyn Cooke’s excellent revival, have learned from his mistakes as well.
After The Spirit ended publication, Eisner spent years continuing to draw for an Army publication he’d worked on while enlisted. The 1954 cultural catastrophe that led to the death of more than 70% of the comic book industry, not to mention the rampant censorship of what survived, curtailed the careers of many great artists. However, Eisner’s talent couldn’t be repressed for long. In the 70s, he started working on his magnum opus, A Contract With God. This sweeping collection of stories about immigrants in New York City cemented Eisner’s place as a genius of American creative arts. It set the stage for comics that weren’t about superheroes, but about ordinary people and their struggles.
Will Eisner was in comics for over seventy years, during which time he defined a medium and guided generations of comic book artists. Now, when someone at the Will Eisner Week cocktail party asks, you’ll be ready to tell them all about what this famous man of lines and letters did for comic books everywhere.