DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx boasts more than 200 world-renowned graduates, including playwrights Paddy Chayefsky and Neil Simon, actors Burt Lancaster and Judd Hirsch, Broadway composers Frank Loesser and Richard Rodgers, fashion designer Ralph Lauren, and congressman Charles Rangel. Compared with these figures, Will Eisner scarcely registers in the public mind.
Yet this 1936 graduate is slowly becoming the most influential of them all. Throughout the world, he’s now acknowledged as the father of the graphic novel. Not that he invented the genre; others preceded him. But none had his mastery of sequential art—the ability to tell a human story in convincing, compelling pictures and dialogue.
A child of Jewish immigrants, William Erwin Eisner saw himself as a 50-50 amalgam of maternal and paternal genes. His mother, Fannie, whose parents had fled the pogroms of Romania, was a practical sort. She agreed with President Coolidge: the business of America was business. Her husband, Sam, who hailed from Vienna, dreamed of an artistic career in the New World. As it turned out, he spent his life painting scenery for vaudeville and Yiddish theaters—when he could find work.
Will, the eldest of their three children, was born in 1917. He showed his skills early, doodling in detail when he was barely out of the high chair and later providing brilliant illustrations for the school newspaper. By the time he was a student at DeWitt Clinton, the shadow of the Depression had fallen across America. Sam Eisner saw his few remaining dollars disappear in a bank failure. Will was haunted by the surreal aspect of “people in Chesterfield coats with velvet collars and a nice bowler hat, good shoes, standing in Wall Street with an orange box selling apples at five cents each. These were weird, almost theatrical scenes. People who had a car in the yard, a very good car, which they couldn’t drive because they didn’t have the money for gasoline. They couldn’t sell it. And anyway they didn’t want to give it up. Some kind of times. They helped shape your outlook.”
Yet even in New York City’s darkest moment, there came a flicker of promise. As pulp magazines faded, a new kind of periodical was rising to take their place—the comic book. That name was a misnomer: just as the newspaper “funnies” of the period, such as Dick Tracy and Tarzan, featured rip-roaring adventures, the comic books featured the exploits of humor-free heroes and heroines. Eisner was interested in joining the ranks of comic-book artists, but when he made the rounds of magazine publishers, he met a series of refusals. Only Jerry Iger, the thirtysomething editor of a new tabloid-size comic book, Wow, What a Magazine!, was willing to roll the dice with the brash, talented kid. He hired Eisner to draw and write his own strips. One of them, Captain Scott Dalton, focused on a dashing pursuer of rare artifacts, anticipating Indiana Jones by 50 years.
Alas, the underfinanced Wow lasted for only four issues. Down to his last $30, Eisner was desperate enough to consider all offers. One of them, he recalled, came from a mafioso “complete with pinkie ring, broken nose, black shirt and white tie, who claimed to have exclusive distribution rights for all Brooklyn.” The thug offered Eisner three bucks per page to illustrate “Tijuana Bibles”—X-rated versions of established comic strips, with the protagonists shown in explicit sexual escapades. Eisner considered the offer for several days before declining it. He called the refusal “one of the most difficult moral decisions of my life.”
At this point, Eisner was down, and Iger was out. The difference between them was that Eisner had only begun to dream. In 1937, he persuaded his ex-boss to go into business with him as a packager, selling comic strips to newspaper syndicates and comic books to Fox Comics, Fiction House, and other publishers. Iger would handle the marketing; Eisner would be in charge of the writing and drawing. Financed by Eisner, they rented a little room in Tudor City, in midtown Manhattan, and put EISNER & IGER on the door. A year earlier, and the Depression would have discouraged clients from taking a chance on the new business; a year later, and there would have been too much competition. As it was, the fledgling company’s efforts were reasonable ($5 per page), executed with flair, and promoted with vigor. At first, Eisner was not only the head artist and writer but the only one, churning out five different comics under five different names, among them Erwin Willis and Willis B. Rensie (“Eisner” spelled backward).
As sales increased, fees rose and employees were taken on. Bob Kane (né Kahn), another son of Jewish immigrants, was hired to illustrate a Disney knockoff called Peter Pupp. He soon departed to draw an adventure comic named for a different mammal, becoming the creator of Batman. Among Eisner’s other hires was the 17-year-old Jacob Kurtzberg, who became Jack Curtis and later, when he left the company, Jack Kirby. Under that moniker, he helped create a series of superheroes, including Captain America, the Incredible Hulk, and the X-Men. Eisner wasn’t a flawless talent scout, however. When Joe Schuster and Jerry Siegel mailed in some ideas for a new strip, he turned them down cold—telling them, he later remembered, that they “weren’t ready to come to New York” and that “their style wasn’t professional yet.” And so, writes Eisner’s biographer, Michael Schumacher, “in one of the few giant missteps in a career characterized by strong instincts and judgment, Bill Eisner shot down Superman.”
By 1938, Eisner had created or supervised scores of strips. One of them—Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, featuring a zaftig blonde in a tight-fitting leopard skin—had future lives on film and TV. Another, Hawks of the Seas, featured an Errol Flynn–like buccaneer two years before Flynn starred in The Sea Hawk, a film unrelated (officially, at any rate) to Eisner’s strip. To assure highbrows that Eisner & Iger could take the elevated road when it wanted to, the company also produced literate comic-strip versions of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
By 1939, Will Eisner was well-off and, in the small world of comic books, famous. So famous, in fact, that he was approached by one of his clients, the Register and Tribune Syndicate, which saw the rising popularity of comic books on newsstands and came up with a revolutionary idea. What if Eisner drew and wrote his own four-color, 16-page comic book—not sold individually, as the other comic books were, but folded into the Sunday edition of four major newspapers? He would reach a potential audience of 1.5 million readers. The offer was generous and flattering. The trouble was that creating and managing such a project would be a full-time job; Eisner would have to leave the company that he had cofounded.
Iger warned his partner: “You’re stupid to do this. You’re 21 years old, and the war’s coming on and you’re going to be drafted. . . . You’re going to be back to running around with a black portfolio when the war is over. If you survive.” But Eisner, beguiled by the notion of creating a new kind of comic book, wasn’t listening. Looking back, he recalled, “I sold the company for buttons, really. Peanuts.” Iger offered $20,000; Eisner took the peanuts and ran.
He rented a larger apartment in Tudor City and set up shop with several assistants to help write and draw his new comic book, which he called The Spirit. Eisner disliked the idea of a steroidal hero on the order of Superman, Batman, or Captain Marvel. He wanted his protagonist, Denny Colt, to be credibly human, yet endowed with Sherlockian vigor and intellect. Over the course of two weeks, he came up with a backstory. Colt had been a devil-may-care policeman until he did battle with the maniacal Doctor Cobra, who was about to poison New York City’s reservoirs. Colt, confronting him, received a lethal dose of the formula—or so everyone thought. Actually, he was only in a state of suspended animation. Post-funeral, he awoke in his grave and realized that fate had granted him a new career: he would be a freelance crime fighter, beholden to no one but himself. Acting alone, he constructed a secret lair beneath his burial vault. . . .
All very well, harrumphed Eisner’s new employers. But what’s so special about this Denny Colt?
Fluently ad-libbing, Eisner replied, “He’s got a mask.”
“That’s good.” But what else, they insisted?
“He’s got gloves and a blue suit.”
In an age of caped crusaders and men of steel, these were meager assets for a crime fighter. But Eisner’s artistic and narrative skills were already legendary, and the syndicate took a chance on them—a gamble that paid off in spades. The Spirit was rendered with unusual realism. Unlike most strips, it had weather. Rain (known in the trade as Eisnerspritz) would pelt down, staining the sides of buildings drawn with scrupulous precision. Wind would whip through city streets, carrying scraps of paper and palpable grit. The protagonist echoed the jaunty attitude of Cary Grant rather than the humorless manner of the men from Krypton and Gotham. At his side was his trusted aide Ebony White, an African-American cabdriver. In addition, The Spirit boasted an intelligent love interest, rather than the customary wide-eyed bimbo: Ellen Dolan, the police commissioner’s daughter. Dolan was ambitious enough to run for mayor but vulnerable enough, naturally, to need rescuing now and then.
The Spirit’s greatest asset was its creator’s technical prowess. “I grew up on the movies,” Eisner noted. “That was my thing, that’s what I lived on. It gradually dawned on me that films were nothing but frames on a piece of celluloid, which is really no different than frames on a piece of paper.” As Eisner saw it, he was the director, costume designer, lighting man, and cinematographer of a weekly film noir. Wide angles, close-ups, lap dissolves, and fadeouts were all part of his repertoire. No contemporary pop artist was as ambitious, and none was as visually literate.
By 1941, The Spirit could be read in 19 major newspapers with an audience of some 3 million. That year, when a daily version began, the Philadelphia Record reported a typically ebullient prophecy of Eisner’s: “The comic strip, [Eisner] explains, is no longer a comic strip but, in reality, an illustrated novel. It is new and raw in form just now, but material for limitless intelligent development. And eventually and inevitably it will be a legitimate medium for the best of writers and artists.”
Just as the aspiring novelist was about to hit his stride, another prediction came true—Iger’s. In 1942, Will became Private William Eisner. His reputation had preceded him, however, and his orders were to create a new kind of comic book. Until then, army manuals had been marred by incomprehensible instructions and ungainly diagrams. Eisner came up with Joe Dope, a soldier who could talk to GIs in their own language, showing them the value of preventive maintenance in lucid and amusing pictures. After a couple of readings, the conscripts understood how their equipment functioned and how to keep it in peak condition.
It was impossible to work for two masters, so while he was in uniform, Eisner handed The Spirit to his staff, who kept it going until his return to civilian life in 1946. The writers and illustrators were a capable bunch: Wallace Wood became a superstar at Mad magazine, and Jules Feiffer later received a Pulitzer Prize for his Village Voice cartoons. But they didn’t have the master’s panache and visual style. In his classic history The Great Comic Book Heroes, Feiffer acknowledged that his former boss was sui generis. Eisner’s work, wrote Feiffer, was reminiscent of German Expressionist films, with their stark backgrounds and striking angles. His line “had weight. Clothing sat on his characters heavily; when they bent an arm, deep folds sprang into action everywhere. When one Eisner character slugged another, a real fist hit real flesh. Violence was no externalized plot exercise, it was the gut of his style. Massive and indigestible, it curdled, lava-like, from the page. Alone among comic book men, Eisner was a cartoonist other cartoonists swiped from.”
For all its excellence, though, the spirit began to drain out of The Spirit when Eisner returned. All through his twenties, he had been an all-work, no-play kind of guy. Now he dated frequently and fell in love several times—though the only commitment he made was to his new company, American Visuals. Initially, Eisner intended to produce and distribute a fresh series of comic books. Kewpies would aim at the Mickey Mouse crowd (a former Disney artist designed the characters). John Law was to be a detective with an eyepatch and 20-20 insight. Baseball Comics would center on players of the Summer Game. None of these projects came to fruition.
Nonetheless, American Visuals turned out to be highly profitable. For along with the abortive comics, the company produced instruction and safety manuals for Eisner’s old client, the army. At one point, Eisner traveled to Korea to get a firsthand knowledge of GI requirements. During the trip, he wrote, “A big guy with a dead cigar in his mouth came up to me, poked his finger in my chest and asked, ‘Are you Will Eisner?’ I said I was, and he said, ‘You saved my ass.’ His tank had broken down in a combat situation, and he used material from one of my stories for a field fix, and it worked and he was able to drive to safety.” The company also turned out booklets and advertising material for a long line of blue-chip clients, including RCA Records, General Motors, New York Telephone, the Baltimore Colts, and the American Red Cross.
In the late 1940s, Eisner finally got serious about one of his dates. Ann Weingarten was the daughter of a prosperous and wary stockbroker who feared that the 34-year-old swain was a fortune hunter. “We found out later that my father had Will investigated,” Ann remembered. “Was he a reputable person? Did he steal? I was furious when I found out, but Will said, ‘Why not? Let him look me up. I haven’t done anything bad.’ ” Just so, and Mr. Weingarten, impressed by Eisner’s profits if not his profession, agreed to give the bride away. The couple married in June 1950 at Temple Emanu-El, the largest synagogue in the world, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The reception took place at the Harmony Club. William Erwin Eisner had come a long way from the Tijuana Bible Belt.
The increasing prosperity of American Visuals left no time for The Spirit, and Eisner let it expire. The last episode appeared in October 1952, not long after the birth of the Eisners’ first child, John. A daughter, Alice, was born a year and a half later. Relocated to a big house in White Plains, the family lived a quiet suburban life. The artist who had set the standard for comic books had become a businessman, forgotten by all but a few collectors and cognoscenti.
His timing wasn’t bad. A psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham had been traveling around the country and denouncing comic books as a font of juvenile delinquency. Seduction of the Innocent, his 1954 treatise, laid out the argument in detail. In Wertham’s view, comic books encouraged racism and violence, Superman was a fascistic creature, Batman and Robin amounted to a “wish dream of two homosexuals living together,” and Wonder Woman was into bondage. Senator Estes Kefauver, fresh from his televised investigation of organized crime, conducted a new hearing. This one concerned comic books, with the doctor as a key witness. The public reacted with shock and revulsion; while their backs were turned, this lurid trash had been corrupting their children. Thus was born the Comics Code Authority, the publishers’ self-censoring organization, modeled on the 1930 Hollywood Production Code. Gone were instances of gross violence as well as any hint of steamy sex. But the damage had already been done; comic books were now looked upon as a disreputable, back-alley enterprise, and sales hit a new low.
The road to redemption took 15 years to build, and, even then, it was a narrow thoroughfare, consisting mostly of underground work such as R. Crumb’s Head Comix and the nose-thumbing parodies of Mad. But in 1965, The Great Comic Book Heroes took the high road, and, noted Feiffer, “the form gained a new lease on life and new respect, none of which interests me particularly, except in what I did to redeem Will Eisner’s career. . . . This was a guy who was no longer heard of, was completely forgotten, had forgotten himself and was no longer doing comics. I was happy that, in a sense, I was able to bring him back from the dead or, at the very least, from exile.”
Yet Eisner never really returned from comic-book exile. There would be occasional reprints or resurrections of his early material, and he would teach classes in comic illustration at the School of Visual Arts. His last great works, however, were prompted not by the regard of his peers but by a personal calamity. In the late 1960s, his teenage daughter was diagnosed with leukemia. When she died, he was inconsolable. For years, Eisner refused to speak about Alice’s death to anyone outside his immediate circle.
It wasn’t until 1978 that he could confront that part of his past. He called his graphic novel A Contract with God. The plot concerns a pious immigrant, Frimme Hirsch, who writes an agreement with God on a stone. He will live a moral life; the Lord will watch over him. All goes according to plan—until he loses his adopted daughter to disease. How can this sorrow be reconciled with the notion of a good and omnipotent Jehovah? Didn’t they have a Covenant? Looking back at Contract, Eisner confessed, “My grief was still raw. My heart still bled.” Frimme’s “anguish was mine. His argument with God was also mine. I exorcised my rage at a Deity that I believed violated my faith and deprived my lovely 16-year-old child of her life at the very flowering of it.”
Hirsch throws the stone out of his apartment window and turns his back on divinity and morality. He steals money from a synagogue, buys a tenement, and becomes a tight-fisted landlord; he grows rich and powerful, but his existence loses all meaning. He determines to seek a fresh contract, restore what was stolen, and renew his faith. Just as Hirsch is about to adopt a new daughter, however, he suffers a fatal heart attack. At that instant, the tenement catches fire. But lives are saved because of the action of a brave boy, Shloime Khreks. As Shloime heads home, he stumbles on that long-discarded stone. He signs his name below Frimme’s and begins a new contract with God.
This metaphor for the Jewish experience was hardly the stuff of comic books, and, in time, it changed the history of publishing. Eisner went on to write and draw graphic short stories and novels about Depression New York, the Vietnam War, love, and the Mafia. He even ventured into literary criticism. Outraged by Dickens’s anti-Semitic passages in Oliver Twist (which were further exaggerated by George Cruikshank’s illustrations), Eisner retold the story from the villain’s point of view. In Fagin the Jew, a combination of misfortune and prejudice turns an appealing youth into a career criminal. Eisner doesn’t excuse Fagin, but he elevates him from caricature to human being and makes him a credible casualty of the Victorian era.
At last, in 1988, the comics industry got around to recognizing Eisner’s unique contributions, inaugurating the Eisner Awards to honor outstanding artists and writers. Perhaps the best-known recipient is Art Spiegelman, whose graphic Holocaust novel, Maus, became an international bestseller. And still Eisner had too many ideas and too much energy to consider retirement. While contemporaries were collecting Social Security, he wrote and drew two how-to books for professionals, Comics and Sequential Art and Graphic Storytelling. He died in 2005 at the age of 89 while recuperating from a quadruple bypass operation. On his desk were page proofs of The Plot, an extraordinary piece of graphic nonfiction anatomizing the notorious forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Not every critic was happy with these creations. The New Yorker, for example, found fault with Eisner’s “over-the-topness.” And the Los Angeles Times judged Eisner’s narratives to be “occasionally gimmicky and contrived.” Nevertheless, it saw “something momentous” in A Contract with God, “a magisterial quality, as if we’re witnessing the birth of a movement, a kind of aesthetic big bang.” John Updike agreed with the second part: Eisner was “not only ahead of his times; the present times are still catching up to him.”
Indeed they are. The New York Times bestseller list currently includes a section for hardcover graphic novels. Both Barnes & Noble and Amazon sell more than 1,000 titles in that genre. Under its Graphix imprint, Scholastic offers a spirited defense of its product: “The notion that graphic novels are too simplistic to be regarded as serious reading is outdated. The excellent graphic novels available today are linguistically appropriate reading material demanding many of the same skills that are needed to understand traditional works of prose.”
All this gives credence to Eisner’s remarks at the 2002 Conference on Comics and Graphic Novels at the University of Florida. He informed his audience that he and his coworkers “used to feel very much like a Mama Rabbit and a Daddy Rabbit, who were running around, being chased by a bunch of dogs. They dove into a hole and the Mama Rabbit is quivering. She’s saying, ‘Oh, this is terrible. We’re doomed.’ The Daddy Rabbit says, ‘No, don’t worry about it. We’ll stay here, and in half an hour, we’ll outnumber them.’ I always think of that when people ask me how I felt about all those years of so-called struggle—sooner or later, we’ll outnumber them, and I think we’re outnumbering them now.”