Classic EBI #96: The Spirit of Will Eisner

This week there’s been some interesting news on the comics front — a rumor that Marvel is planning a series of newsstand-aimed anthologies, and the announcement that Image Comics is going to adopt DC’s ratings system. What do I think about all of it?

Everything But Imaginary #404: More Changes to Your Comic Racks

But in this week’s classic EBI, we’re going back to January of 2005, when the comics world lost one of the greats.

Everything But Imaginary #96: The Spirit of Will Eisner

This week, folks, we were supposed to hand out the 2004 EBI awards. It was supposed to be a silly, jolly time just talking about some good comics — something I personally love to do. But man, the world pulls a fast one on you sometimes. Sometimes you just get dealt a severe blow, and sometimes you need to put the frivolities aside to pay tribute to something far bigger than yourself.

I’m talking, of course, about Will Eisner.

Eisner was a giant. A pioneer. A brilliant artist, an unparalleled storyteller. A man who revolutionized comics and helped them take their first steps towards becoming a true art form. It is hard to imagine any comic book creator more legendary than he.

And on Monday, Jan. 3, he passed away at the age of 87.

Eisner, the son of Jewish immigrants, got his start in comics in 1936 doing strips for WOW! What a Magazine and established a studio with his friend, Jerry Iger. In 1940 he debuted the comic book character that would make him a legend. Denny Colt was a police detective thought dead after a battle with a master criminal. Using this to his advantage, he became The Spirit, a masked crimefighter protecting the people of Central City.

That’s a very bland retelling of what was a groundbreaking comic. While his origin may not have been that different from any of a dozen other mystery men characters of the day, the way the Spirit was presented was very different. First of all, he didn’t appear in traditional comic books, but instead in a special 16-page comic that was released as a supplement to the comics section of Sunday newspapers. (Hard to imagine, I know, in this day and age where editors shrink comics down to postage stamp size and rearrange the panels at whim.) The weekly serial ran every Sunday for 12 years, with Eisner doing the writing or the writing and art for most of them (save for a three-year period when his talents were enlisted in World War II).

Then there was the writing. The Spirit, from a storytelling standpoint, was far superior to most of the comics of the day. It could be a hardboiled crime drama one week, a horror story the next, a comedy the week after and a soft sci-fi adventure to round out the month. Eisner freely flowed from genre to genre, but the character never seemed out of place.

And finally — and most importantly — there was the way this comic looked. Until Eisner, most comic book stories looked very much like their comic strip predecessors: a grid of panels, almost like still pictures lined up in a row to tell the story. Serviceable, yes, but hardly exciting. Eisner changed all that. He began to play with layout, experiment with design, with form and function of the comic book panel. He changed the stale grid to something bold and dynamic. Along with other luminaries like Jack Kirby, he turned the comic book from just being the stepchild of comic strips and magazines to being an art form in its own right, one which continues to grow and develop to this day. If you can find a successful American comic book artist who does not admit a debt — directly or indirectly — to Will Eisner, then he’s a liar.

Eisner was always out to try new things, too. He never settled on a logo for The Spirit, never gave it a traditional cover. Instead, he played with the logo of the comic every issue, often incorporating the design into the opening panel of that week’s story. These days you couldn’t do that because the marketing department would want an established brand, but at the time he not only got away with it, he created some of the most stylish, most dynamic opening pages in comics.

Eisner didn’t quit with the end of The Spirit, though. Throughout the 70s and 80s he turned out more and more comics, becoming more and more well-known. A Contract With God became known as the “first graphic novel,” coining the term for longer-form comic books that are often much more adult in tone than their magazine counterparts. While some would debate whether or not Eisner coined this phrase himself or whether Contract actually qualifies as coming “first,” few could possibly argue that his stories and the way he told them would change comic books and make the graphic novel a legitimate format for the artform.

He kept working right up until his death, turning out more graphic novels like Minor Miracles, A Life Force, The Building and Life On Another Planet. He was working even in his final days. His last graphic novel, The Plot, will be released later in 2005.

Eisner became synonymous with excellence in comic books. Even the premiere award in the entire medium bears his name — the Eisner Award is to comics what the Oscar is to film.

His thumbprint — what he did for and what he understands about the medium — remains an inspiration to comic artists to this very day. A few weeks ago, in the bustle of all the Christmas shopping I had to do, I was struggling to find a present for my sister, Heather. In a moment of epiphany, I recalled how she has recently renewed her high school interest in art and even asks me from time to time what it would take to learn to draw comics. (She has even shown a lot of interest in taking classes from the Joe Kubert school.) Then it became perfectly clear. I should give her the book almost universally recognized as the finest work ever written about comic books as an art form, what it takes to draw them, how to craft them, how to make a page exciting, how to tell a story.

That work, of course, is Comics and Sequential Art by Will Eisner. And I got her another of his books, Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative, to further her education. I knew that whatever question Heather might pose to me, Eisner was far more qualified to answer than I was.

I just never dreamed, as I watched her unwrap those books on Christmas Eve, that only two weeks later the icon who wrote them would be gone.

As Shakespeare was to theatre, as Mozart was to music, as DaVinci was to sculpture and painting, so was Will Eisner to the comic book. He was one of the last true legends of the comic book form. We will never see his like again, but as long as new artists sharpen their pencils and crack the spines of his books to study the craft, he will never be forgotten.

FAVORITE OF THE WEEK: December 29, 2004

The last week of the year also brought with it perhaps the most exciting launch, certainly the best comic of the week, the new Legion of Super-Heroes #1. While I was admittedly skeptical about this title’s reason for being (I really didn’t think the Legion needed yet another reboot), I did have faith in the talent of Mark Waid and Barry Kitson to deliver a knockout story, and I wasn’t disappointed. This was a fantastic comic book and a great new beginning for the Legion. If you’ve never read their comic book before, don’t worry, it’s all new from here on out. This is a great place to start.

Blake M. Petit is the author of the superhero comedy novel, Other People’s Heroes, the suspense novel The Beginner and the Christmas-themed eBook A Long November. He’s also the co-host, with whoever the hell is available that week, of the 2 in 1 Showcase Podcast and the weekly audio fiction podcast Blake M. Petit’s Evercast. E-mail him at BlakeMPetit@gmail.com and visit him on the web at Evertime Realms. Read past columns at the Everything But Imaginary Archive Page, and check out his new experiment in serial fiction at Tales of the Curtain.


0 Responses to “Classic EBI #96: The Spirit of Will Eisner”

  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

June 2011

Blog Stats

  • 319,608 hits

Blake's Flickr Photos

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

%d bloggers like this: