Will Eisner (1917–2005) Biography
Personal, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights
(William Erwin Eisner, Will Erwin, Willis Rensie)
Born 1917, in New York, NY; died January 3, 2005, in Fort Lauderdale, FL; Education: Attended Art Students League (New York, NY), 1935.
Author, cartoonist, and publisher. New York American, New York, NY, staff artist, 1936; Eisner & Iger, New York, NY, founder and partner, 1937–40; Eisner-Arnold Comic Group, New York, NY, founder and publisher, 1940–46; author and cartoonist of syndicated newspaper feature, "The Spirit," 1940–52; American Visuals Corp., founder and president, beginning 1949; Bell McClure North American Newspaper Alliance, president, 1962–64; Koster-Dana Corp., executive vice president, 1962–64; Educational Supplements Corp., president, 1965–72; School of Visual Arts, New York, NY, member of faculty, beginning 1973. President of IPD Publishing Co., Inc.; chair of the board, Croft Educational Services Corp., 1972–73; member of board of directors, Westchester Philharmonic. Military service: U.S. Army, Ordnance, 1942–45.
Princeton Club (New York, NY).
Comic book artist of the year designation, National Cartoonists Society, 1967; best artist award, National Cartoonists Society, 1968–69; award for quality of art in comic books, Society of Comic Art Research, 1968; International Cartoonist Award, 1974; named to Hall of Fame of the Comic Book Academy; Eisner Award for Best Archival Collection, 2001, for The Spirit Archives; Eisner Award for Best New Graphic Novel, 2002, for The Name of the Game.
A Pictorial Arsenal of America's Combat Weapons, Sterling (New York, NY), 1960.
America's Space Vehicles: A Pictorial Review, edited by Charles Kramer, Sterling (New York, NY), 1962.
A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories, Baronet (New York, NY), 1978.
(With P. R. Garriock and others) Masters of Comic Book Art, Images Graphiques (New York, NY), 1978.
Odd Facts, Ace Books (New York, NY), 1978.
Dating and Hanging Out (for young adults), Baronet (New York, NY), 1979.
Funny Jokes and Foxy Riddles, Baronet (New York, NY), 1979.
Ghostly Jokes and Ghastly Riddles, Baronet (New York, NY), 1979.
One Hundred and One Half Wild and Crazy Jokes, Baronet (New York, NY), 1979.
Spaced-out Jokes, Baronet (New York, NY), 1979.
The City (narrative portfolio), Hollygraphic, 1981.
Life on Another Planet (graphic novel), Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1981.
Signal from Space, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1981.
Will Eisner Color Treasury, text by Catherine Yronwode, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1981.
Spirit: Color Album, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1981–83.
(Catherine Yronwode, with Denis Kitchen) The Art of Will Eisner, introduction by Jules Feiffer, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1982.
(Coauthor, with Jules Feiffer and Wallace Wood) Outer Space Spirit, 1952, edited by Denis Kitchen, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1983.
Will Eisner's Quarterly, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1983–86.
Will Eisner's 3-D Classics Featuring …, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1985.
Comics and Sequential Art, Poorhouse (Tamarac, FL), 1985.
Will Eisner's Hawks of the Seas, 1936–1938, edited by Dave Schreiner, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1986.
Will Eisner's New York, the Big City, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1986.
Will Eisner's The Dreamer, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1986.
The Building, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1987.
A Life Force, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1988.
City People Notebook, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1989.
Will Eisner's Spirit Casebook, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1990–98.
Will Eisner Reader: Seven Graphic Stories by a Comics Master, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1991.
To the Heart of the Storm, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1991.
The White Whale: An Introduction to Moby-Dick, Story Shop (Tamarac, FL), 1991.
The Spirit: The Origin Years, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1992.
Invisible People, Kitchen Sink (Northampton, MA), 1993.
The Christmas Spirit, Kitchen Sink (Northampton, MA), 1994.
Sketchbook, Kitchen Sink (Northampton, MA), 1995.
Dropsie Avenue: The Neighborhood, Kitchen Sink (Northampton, MA), 1995.
Graphic Storytelling, Poorhouse (Tamarac, FL), 1996.
(Adapter) Moby Dick by Herman Melville, NBM (New York, NY), 1998.
A Family Matter, Kitchen Sink (Northampton, MA), 1998.
(Reteller) The Princess and the Frog by the Grimm Brothers, NBM (New York, NY), 1999.
Minor Miracles: Long Ago and Once upon a Time, Back When Uncles Were Heroic, Cousins Were Clever, and Miracles Happened on Every Block, DC Comics (New York, NY), 2000.
The Last Knight: An Introduction to Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, NBM (New York, NY), 2000.
Last Day in Vietnam: A Memory, Dark Horse (Milwaukie, OR), 2000.
Will Eisner's The Spirit Archives, multiple volumes, DC Comics (New York, NY), 2000–.
The Name of the Game, DC Comics (New York, NY), 2001.
Will Eisner's Shop Talk, Dark Horse (Milwaukie, OR), 2001.
(With Dick French, Bill Woolfolk, and others) The Blackhawk Archives, DC Comics (New York, NY), 2001.
Fagin the Jew, Doubleday (New York, NY), 2003.
(Adapter) Sundiata: A Legend of Africa, NMB (New York, NY), 2003.
The Plot: The Secret Story of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (nonfiction), Norton (New York, NY), 2005.
For U.S. Department of Defense, creator of comic-strip instructional aid, P.S. magazine, 1950; for U.S. Department of Labor, creator of career guidance series of comic booklets, Job Scene, 1967. Creator of comic strips, sometimes under pseudonyms Will Erwin and Willis Rensie, including "Uncle Sam," "Muss 'em up Donovan," "Sheena," "The Three Brothers," "Blackhawk," "K-51," and "Hawk of the Seas." Author of newspaper feature, "Odd Facts." Contributor to Artwork for "9-11 Emergency Relief," Alternative Comics, 2001.
A giant in his field, cartoonist Will Eisner "virtually invented the comic-book anti-hero (and by extension, the underground comic)," maintained Steven Heller in Print magazine. Introducing his groundbreaking comic "The Spirit" in 1940, Eisner proved himself an innovator, and in his fifty-plus-year career, the comic-book characters he created were influential with Americans, whether guiding teens in choosing a career, instructing military personnel, or for their overarching purpose: simply to entertain. During a career that began in the 1930s with the sale of his first comic feature, "Scott Dalton," to Wow! magazine, Eisner worked for New York publishers as well as the U.S. government, and he also produced a series of comic-book-style training manuals sponsored by the Agency for International Development and the United Nations that help teach modern farming techniques to people living in developing nations.
Eisner's comic strip "The Spirit," a weekly adventure series published as a sixteen-page insert in Sunday papers from 1940 to 1951, features Denny Colt, a private investigator who is seriously injured and presumed dead after an explosion in the laboratory of evil scientist Dr. Cobra. Once Colt recovers, he vows to exploit his new anonymity to enhance his ability to bring hardened criminals to justice. Renowned for its sarcasm, social satire and its status as the first mainstream comic to feature a black character, "The Spirit" gained legions of new fans after being re-issued in multi-volume graphic-novel form beginning in 2001.
Interested in cartooning from a young age, the New York City-born Eisner's work was first published in his Bronx high school newspaper; his first professional success was a strip published in Wow! What a Magazine in 1936, when he was nineteen years old. Although he had attended the Art Students League in New York City in 1935 to study painting and anatomy, Eisner was largely self-taught, and his first regular job was working as a staff artist for the New York American, which he started in 1936. Within a year the ambitious artist had co-founded Eisner & Iger, a comic-book publishing company that, along with Eisner and Jerry Iger, included "Batman" creator Bob Kane. Eisner ran the company until 1940, when he founded the Eisner-Arnold Comic Group.
Nineteen-forty was also the year "The Spirit," made its debut. The title character of the strip was unique at the time because, unlike such characters as Superman, he possessed no superpowers. Instead, Eisner created a complex, hard-edged character who had seemingly been brought back mysteriously from death in order to help victims of crime. His work on "The Spirit" was interrupted by World War II, when he was drafted into the U.S. Army. There he designed safety posters and used cartoon-strip techniques to simplify a military training manual for equipment maintenance. Returning to civilian life in 1946, he continued to write and illustrate "The Spirit," making his characters and stories even more complex. Discontinuing the strip in 1952, he then founded the American Visuals Corporation, to produce comic books for schools and businesses. In 1967 he was hired by the U.S. Department of Labor to create a comic-book series geared for potential school dropouts. The "Job Scene" booklet series introduces career choices to young people ambivalent about their educa-tion, and it proved so successful that several national publishers issued similar series.
In another highly influential move, Eisner was hired by the Department of Defense to develop an instructional manual to replace the dry, prose-heavy technical manuals then used for military training. Regarding his P.S. magazine, he wrote in a Library Journal essay that, along with comic-book-style sequential art, the manual "employed the soldier's argot, rendering militarese into common language. The magazine said 'Clean away the crud from the flywheel' instead of 'All foreign matter should be removed from the surface of the flywheel and the rubber belt which it supports.'" From one hundred words of dense prose to a three-panel sequence which quickly presented the necessary instruction, Eisner's distillation anticipated the needs of the reluctant readers of future generations.
While Eisner believed that the simple language and visual impact of comics made them desirable in a variety of educational settings, critics were quick to complain that a teacher's task is to instill a healthy respect for proper language, and comic books violate every rule of grammar. In Publishers Weekly, Eisner once responded: "This is an understandable criticism, but it is based on the assumption that cartoons are designed primarily to teach language. Comics are a message in themselves!… To readers living in the ghetto and playing in the street and school yard, comic books, with their inventive language, argot, and slang, serve as no other literature does."
Although Eisner had abandoned his storytelling in favor of vocation-based comics in the early 1950s, two decades later he was inspired by the innovative work of artists such as Robert Crumb to renew his interest in narrative comics. In 1975 he began work on what he called a "graphic novel," published three years later as A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories. Unlike his earlier adventure comics, A Contract with God presents a serious treatment of religious faith, sexual betrayal, prejudice and similar themes, through the story of Jewish immigrant slumlord Frimme Hersh. He also used this innovative graphic-novel format to tell the story of Jewish immigrants in America in books such as Life on Another Planet, Big City, A Life Force, Minor Miracles, and the award-winning The Name of the Game. The Name of the Game, a multi-generational saga following the Arnheim family as they expand their businesses from corset manufacturing to stock brokering, was described as melodramatic and predictable by Booklist reviewer Gordon Flagg, although the critic appreciated Eisner's "expressive" artwork and noted that the book reflects "a sensibility somehow appropriate to the period and subject."
Geared for younger readers, the graphic novel, Sundiata: A Legend of Africa is an adaptation of a thirteenth-century African tale about the death of the Mali king and the resulting conquest of the leaderless tribe by a tyrant claiming to control the elements. Booklist contributor Carlos Orellana felt that, although the tale's ending is disappointing, in Eisner's retelling "the plot flows smoothly; the telling never feels rushed; and the sequential art, which is full of movement and expression, gives the familiar good-versus-evil theme extra depth." Noting the book's intended audience, Steve Raiteri predicted in Library Journal that teens and adults would also "appreciate Eisner's concise and clear storytelling and his dramatic artwork, distinctively colored in grays and earth tones."
Eisner combines biography and fiction in Fagin the Jew, which finds the pivotal character from nineteenth-century British writer Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist telling his personal story. Published in 2003 when its author was in his eighties, Fagin the Jew reveals its leading character in a much more flattering light than did Dickens' classic novel. As told by Eisner, Fagin was virtually forced into crime as a youth because of circumstances, not the least of which was the general prejudice against his family, all Ashkenazi Jews. The graphic novel includes a foreword explaining the probable historical antecedents of the tale and how they related to Dickens' portrayal of Jews. While noting that Eisner's depiction of Victorian London is "wholly convincing," a Publishers Weekly reviewer wrote that "the story errs on the side of extreme coincidence and melo-drama." Francisca Goldsmith, writing in School Library Journal, noted that while the book's greatest appeal would be to readers looking for another view of the Dickens classic, it would serve as is a useful resource "for those concerned with media influence on stereotypes and the history of immigration issues."
In other explorations of the literary classics, Eisner created graphic-novel versions of Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote and Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, as well as fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm. Although this approach, taken up by new generations of artists such as P. Craig Russell, has since found favor with critics, these early projects were sometimes viewed with trepidation. Susan Weitz, reviewing Moby Dick for School Library Journal, considered Eisner's version of the American classic "simplistic" and disappointing, although in Booklist Goldsmith found it highly successful in conveying the basic plot, characterizations, and mood of the original. Similarly, in an appraisal of Eisner's The Last Knight: An Introduction to Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. Marian Drabkin commented in School Library Journal that the complex character Don Quixote is distilled into a "clownish madman whose escapades are slapstick and pointless." Booklist critic Roger Leslie, on the other hand, found Eisner's book to be "faithful to the spirit of the original" and an excellent introduction to the great classic.
While his place in the Golden Age of Comics remains secure due to his work on "The Spirit," Eisner was also phenomenally influential within his field. During his later years he devoted much of his time to sharing his insight into the comic-book medium with new generations of artists, and from 1973 to 1995 taught an influential course in sequential art at New York's School of Visual Arts. Honored by Comic-Con International in 1988 when the Eisner Awards were named in his honor, the celebrated artist also became a successful contender for this prestigious honor: in 2001 he won an Eisner for best archival collection for The Spirit Archives and in 2002 he won for best new graphic novel for The Name of the Game. At his death in 2005, Eisner was remembered as a legend in his field, and as a man dedicated to his craft. Reported to have been working until the day of his death, Eisner's final book, the nonfiction graphic novel The Plot: The Secret Story of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, was published posthumously. Recounting the history of a forged document dating from 1898 that purporting to set forth a plan by Jewish leaders to take over the world, Eisner's book "provides a great service to the truth," noted Library Journal contributor Steve Raiteri, while in Publishers Weekly a reviewer praised the books pen-and-ink art as examples of Eisner's "most exquisite work."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Couch, N.C. Christopher, and Stephen Weiner, The Will Eisner Companion, DC Comics (New York, NY), 2004.
Booklist, August, 1998, Gordon Flagg, review of A Family Matter, p. 1948; December 15, 1999, Stephanie Zvirin, review of The Princess and the Frog by the Grimm Brothers, p. 780; June 1, 2000, Roger Leslie, review of The Last Knight: An Introduction to Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, p. 1884; August, 2000, Gordon Flagg, review of The Spirit Archives, p. 2094; September 15, 2000, Gordon Flagg, review of Minor Miracles, p. 200; November 15, 2001, Francisca Goldsmith, review of Moby Dick by Herman Melville, p. 568, and "Sequential Art Meets the White Whale," p. 569; February 1, 2002, Gordon Flagg, review of The Name of the Game, p. 914; February 1, 2003, Carlos Orellana, review of Sundiata: A Legend of Africa, p. 984; September 1, 2003, Gordon Flagg, review of Fagin the Jew, p. 76; August, 2004, Gordon Flagg, review of The Spirit Archives, Volume 13, p. 1916; October 15, 2004, Gordon Flagg, review of The Spirit Archives, Volume 14, p. 396.
College English, February, 1995, George Dardess, review of Comics and Sequential Art, p. 213.
Library Journal, October 15, 1974, Will Eisner, "Comic Books in the Library"; June 1, 1991, Keith R.A. DeCandido, review of To the Heart of the Storm, p. 134; October 15, 1974; September 15, 2000, Stephen Weiner, review of Minor Miracles, p. 66; November 1, 2002, Steve Raiteri, review of The Name of the Game, p. 68; March 1, 2003, Steve Raiteri, review of Sundiata: A Legend of Africa, p. 74; September 1, 2003, Steve Raiteri, review of The Spirit Archives, p. 140; November 1, 2003, Steve Raiteri, review of Fagin the Jew, p. 60; May 15, 2005, Steve Raiteri, review of The Plot: The Secret Story of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, p. 98.
New York Review of Books, June 21, 2001, David Hajdu, "The Spirit of the Spirit," p. 48.
Philadelphia, August, 1984, Jack Curtin, "Signals from Space," p. 70.
Publishers Weekly, October 4, 1985, review of Comics and Sequential Art, p. 75; March 25, 1988, review of A Life Force, p. 61; March 22, 1991, review of To the Heart of the Storm, p. 76; June 21, 1991, review of Will Eisner Reader: Seven Graphic Stories by a Comics Master, p. 58; May 8, 1995, review of Dropsie Avenue: The Neighborhood, p. 293; January 3, 2000, review of The Princess and the Frog, p. 78; November 17, 2003, review of Fagin the Jew, p. 46; April 18, 2005, review of The Plot, p. 45.
School Arts, April, 2002, Ken Marantz, review of Comics and Sequential Art, p. 58.
School Library Journal, July, 2000, Marian Drabkin, review of The Last Knight, p. 115; January, 2002, Susan Weitz, review of Moby Dick by Herman Melville, p. 138; February, 2003, John Peters, review of Sundiata, p. 129; January, 2004, Francisca Goldsmith, review of Fagin the Jew, p. 166.
Variety, September 28, 1988, "Comic Book Confidential," p. 30.
Whole Earth, spring, 1998, review of The Spirit, p. 25.
Will Eisner Web site, http://www.willeisner.tripod.com (October 15, 2005).
Chicago Tribune, January 5, 2005, section 3, p. 11.
Los Angeles Times, January 5, 2005, p. B8.
New York Times, January 5, 2005, p. C14.
Print, March-April, 2005, p. 37.
School Library Journal, February, 2005, p. 22.
Times (London, England), January 13, 2005, p. 68.