The Spirit (The Detroit News, 30/6/1940)
Will Eisner, probably the godfather of American comics, was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1917, to Jewish immigrant parents. He went to school at De Witt Clinton High School in the Bronx, and his first drawings were published in the school's newspaper. He made his debut in comics in 1936, when WOW What a Magazine! published his first work, 'Harry Karry' and 'The Flame', as well as 'Hawks of the Sea' under the pen name Willis Rensie. The magazine folded, but Eisner teamed up with his friend Jerry Iger and founded the Eisner-Iger Studio.
Hawks of the Sea, Canadian edition (Le Petit Journal, 13/10/1946)
They produced a tremendous amount of comics in all genres and styles for the American, British and Australian markets, and recruited young artists such as Bob Kane, Lou Fine, and Jack Kirby. A memorable title Eisner made in this period is 'Hawk of the Seas', which originally started as 'The Flame'. The shop also created 'Sheena, Queen of the Jungle' and 'Muss em Up'. Eisner signed most of his work with Erwin Willis B. Rensie, Willis Nerr or Will Erwin at the time, and he also began his own Universal Phoenix Features syndicate.
In 1939, Will Eisner left the studio to join the Quality Comics Group, where he started out by creating comics like 'Doll Man', 'Uncle Sam', 'Wonder Man', 'Lady Luck' (with Nick Cardy) and 'Black Hawk'. By 1940, he worked on a syndicated 16-page newspaper supplement for which he created his most famous comic, 'The Spirit'.
The Spirit (27/4/1947)
This innovative strip about a masked detective soon became the most popular feature of the comics section and it was renamed The Spirit Section. Eisner's style stood out for the use of so-called "splash-pages" - one picture filling the page like a movie poster with the lettering fully integrated into the image - and his unmatched capacity for rendering atmospheres: mist, nighttime skies, fuming sewers, and the like. 'The Spirit' was featured in a daily strip from 1941 and in comic books from 1942.
In 1942, Will Eisner was drafted into the Army and served his country by producing posters, illustrations and strips like 'Private Dogtag' and 'Joe Dope' for the education and entertainment of the troops, which appeared in publications like The Flaming Bomb, Fire Power and Army Motors. When he returned, he resumed 'The Spirit' (which had been drawn by others in his absence) and started cooperations with young artists like Jules Feiffer and Wally Wood. He also launched new titles like Baseball, Kewpied, Pirate Comics and John Law Comics, but these never reached the popularity of 'The Spirit'.
Manual for M16A1 Rifle (1968)
Will Eisner founded the American Visuals Corporation, which created comics, cartoons and illustrations for educational and commercial purposes. One title Eisner revived was 'Joe Dope', a strip about a soldier he created during the war. The work for his corporation proved so lucrative, that Eisner abandoned 'The Spirit'. Dutch editor Olaf Stoop of The Real Free Press reprinted 'The Spirit' in the early 1970s and revived the interest in Eisner's work. This prompted Eisner to create 'A Contract With God' in 1978, four short stories about life in the Bronx slums in the 1930s, told with such literary agility and graphic accomplishment, that a new comics form was born: the graphic novel.
For the celebration of the 15th anniversary of comics shop Lambiek in 1983, Lambiek published a translettered Yiddish version of the lead story of 'A Contract With God', in the old germanic hebrew or Latin lettering ('An Opmakh mit Got'), which are still available.
An Opmakh mit Got (Yiddish edition, Lambiek, 1983)
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Kitchen Sink Press published Eisner's following graphic novels, like 'The Building', 'The Dreamer' (in which he describes his Spirit days, telling the tales of the time when comic artists were more like conveyor belt workers - obliged to work on pages with pre-printed panels) 'A Family Matter' and the semi-autobiographical 'To the Heart of the Storm'. Eisner continued to made graphic novells in the 2000s, this time published by DC.
The Block (1983)
In addition to his many graphic novels, Eisner adapted literary classics to comics at NBM, such as 'The Last Knight - An Introduction to Don Quixote', 'Moby Dick', 'The Princess and the Frog' and 'Sundiata'. His 'Fagin the Jew', published by Doubleday in 2003, gave a personal look Dickens' secondary character from 'Oliver Twist'. His last graphic novel was 'The Plot', an account of the making of the anti-semitic hoax 'The Protocols of the Elders of Zion'. It was completed shortly before his death and published in 2005.
Besides these, Eisner also started out in the field of comics theory. His 'Comics and Sequential Art' is a classic in its own right, and would later inspire Scott McCloud in the making of his monumental work, 'Understanding Comics'.
Lessons in comic art
Will Eisner can rightly be considered as the godfather of American comics, not only for adding 'The Spirit' to the long list of brilliant American comic strips, but especially for proving that comics can match literature and are not just a dubious means of entertainment for children (as many people thought in the 1950s). Eisner was a teacher at the School of Visual Arts in New York and wrote two standard works on the creative process of making comics, 'Comics and Sequential Art' and 'Graphic Storytelling'. In 1988, the Eisner Awards were established, coveted comics prizes which Eisner presided over at the yearly Comic-Con in San Diego.
Sadly, Will Eisner passed away on 3 January 2005 at the age of 87, following quadruple bypass heart surgery. He is greatly missed, but his wonderful comics and stories will live on forever. His influence can be found in the work of Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller, Darwyn Cooke, Art Spiegelman, Jack Kirby (who actually worked for Eisner), Michael Chabon, Scott McCloud, Paul Levitz, Scott Shaw!, and Mike Allred.