An American Pop Culture Icon Leaves The Scene
Pop culture icon Will Eisner, the talented comic-book artist who helped create the concept of a greater-than-comic art form called the "graphic novel" — and who was an unsung hero of military training programs — has passed away.
He was a comic-culture figure who nudged comics from being a Sunday newspaper art form into something bigger — a form that could tell stories more graphically, artistically, and in greater emotional and plot detail.
The photo above is from his in-mourning website. The New York Times has a long piece. A few highlights:
Will Eisner, an innovative comic-book artist who created the Spirit, a hero without superpowers, and the first modern graphic novel, "A Contract With God," died on Monday in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where he lived. He was 87…
Comics fans call the Spirit "The Citizen Kane" of comics for its innovation, its seriousness and its influence. The first installment appeared in June 1940 as part of a syndicated comics section he had begun producing a year earlier as an insert for Sunday papers. It featured a detective, Denny Colt, who was killed off on the third page. Or so it seemed.
It turned out that Colt wasn’t exactly dead. He was reborn as a man in a blue suit, a blue mask and blue gloves: the Spirit. As Bob Andelman, the author of the forthcoming biography "Will Eisner: A Spirited Life," describes the comic hero, he was "the cemetery-dwelling protector of the public and pretty girls in particular." What made him unique was his lack of superpowers. He couldn’t see through clothing, he couldn’t fly, and he wasn’t even brilliant.
The Spirit ended in the early 50s…but many American’s didn’t know about Eisner’s behind-the-scenes role:
With the conclusion of the Spirit, Mr. Eisner spent much of his time for the next 25 years running the American Visual Corporation, a producer of educational, Army and government comic books. This part of his career is often given short shrift, but Mr. Kitchen, whose Kitchen Sink Press reprinted all of the postwar Spirit comics from 1973 to 1998, said that Mr. Eisner’s instructional comics made for the United States Army during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War were some of his greatest innovations.
Military manuals used to be "ugly and dry," Mr. Kitchen said. Mr. Eisner changed all that. "He used words and pictures together to show soldiers how to do everything from putting their lives back together after war to cleaning their tanks."
And, later, he was reborn as a mass-culture artist:
In the 1970’s Mr. Eisner was reborn as a comic artist. In 1978 he wrote and drew "A Contract With God," a comic book story about Frimme Hersh, a Jewish immigrant who becomes a slumlord in the Bronx when he discovers that God has forsaken him. With that book, Mr. Eisner became famous for his moody rain, which came to be called "Eisner spritz." His work over the years was also noted for wordless, emotional close-ups on characters’ faces.
That book also paved the way for other graphic novelists. N. C. Christopher Couch, one of the authors of "The Will Eisner Companion" (DC Comics, 2004), noted that "Eisner independently coined the term graphic novel in 1978." And to underscore that "A Contract With God" was a novel and not a comic, he insisted on a trade publisher for it.
If we all leave a ripple on the earth, Eisner left a lot: on the quality of comic strips, the creation of The Spirit, his influence on military training…and his role in popularizing the graphic novels — which remain highly popular today.
UPDATE: If you love comics, you MUST READ David Adesnik’s take after reading a batch of comics recently.