Will Eisner, Creator of The Spirit and Comics Innovator

June 20, 2008

    "I was running a shop in which we made comic book features pretty much the way Ford made cars", Will Eisner was quoted in Ron Goulart's book, American comics. Before he was out of his teenage years, Eisner was already making his mark on history as a comics entrepreneur. At age 19, he partnered with editor Jerry Iger to open a comic book production firm. It was good business, too."We made $1.50 a page net profit. I got very rich before I was 22." And that was just the beginning.

    While all cartoonists have lived fascinating, creative lives, there are times when compacting a long life filled with ingenuity, artistic freedom and abundant business success is just a little, well... overwhelming. The life of Will Eisner is just that. All I can do is touch on a few highlights of his amazing career. The creation and business of comics and cartooning filled his whole life. Eisner's wasn't a short life, either. Born on March 3, 1917 in New York City, his parents were Jewish immigrants. His father was born in Vienna, Switzerland, and was a man with artistic skills. He worked "as a backdrop painter for Vaudeville and the Jewish theatre," said Will Eisner's biography His mother was of Romanian descent, "born on the boat that brought her to America," and grew up to have a very practical, business-oriented personality. Will Eisner was to use the skills taught by both parents to reach his lofty goals.


    As a young boy, Eisner sold newspapers on Wall Street in New York City. It was a good job for a boy fascinated with cartoons, since the papers contained large sections of pages and pages of comics, something we will probably never see again. Attending DeWitt Clinton High School, Eisner's classes included wonderful teachers that imparted knowledge about art and writing, allowing him to create "comic strips, art directed magazines... stage designs, illustrated various magazines published at his high school and in general, honed the skills that he would rely on so profoundly in a few short years."

    When he was 19 years old, Eisner took a night shift job in the advertising department of the New York American. It was during his lunch breaks in the middle of the dark night, watching others at work, that he learned about the finer aspects of light and shadow. The young man put those observations to good use in his future comics. Taking a job at WOW: What a Magazine, Eisner produced several comic strips, including Harry Karry and The Flame. It was at WOW that Eisner met Jerry Iger, editor of the magazine. Before long, the magazine folded, but it was not bad news for Eisner - he and Iger formed a partnership and opened their own comics production business. Will Eisner was all of 19 years old in 1936.


    The Eisner-Iger Studio produced comic strips with the goal of newspaper publication. The team hired young, talented artists to create the strips - Jack Kirby (co-creator of Spiderman and the Fantastic Four), Bob Kane (creator of Batman) and Lou Fine (known as one of the "finest draftsmen of his time"), among others. From their offices on 40th Avenue in New York City, the Eisner-Iger Studio prospered, producing work for Fiction House, Quality and Fox Publishers. One of many great comics to come out of the time was Eisner's Hawk of the Seas, a buccaneer comic that originated as "The Flame" during his school years. More famous titles were born, too - Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, Dollman and Blackhawk. With business flourishing, Eisner and company became wealthy.

    One of the less fortunate actions of the Eisner-Iger Studio, noted Eisner's biography, was to reject "a crude submission" by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel. What was the title of the comic they turned down? Superman.


    Leaving the Studio behind by 1940, Eisnerdeveloped his most beloved comic, a masked hero in a baggy blue suit called The Spirit, according to The Encyclopedia of American Comics. A weekly 16-page comic book insert, The Spirit appeared in Sunday newspapers. (Whoa - if only comics could be like that today!) The tales of the ghostly private detective were published as a daily strip running from 1941 to 1944, the Sunday insert running until1952. There have been many reprints of the great stories since then.

    Joining the war effort during WWII, Eisner created comics training manuals, posters and comic strips. Private Dogtag and others appeared in military publications such as "Fire Power" and "Army Motors." After his wartime duty ended, Eisner opened a new company, "American Visuals Corporation" to create educational and commercial comics and illustrations. His company was again very successful.

    Eisner's career continued to blossom and change. He took on the position of President of the Bell-McClure Syndicate in 1965, and taught Sequential Art for nearly 20 years at SVU. As strong at business and writing as he was at art, he wrote Comics and Sequential Art, republished by WW Norton 2008, and Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative, published by Poorhouse Press 1996. Eisner then went on to create the first graphic novels, his most renowned being A Contract With God, To the Heart of the Storm, and several others. Published by DC Comics, he also adapted classics into graphic novel form, transforming "The Princess and the Frog", "Moby Dick" and more into art while in his eighties. "Fagin the Jew" was an individual graphic story Eisner created, based on the character from Dickens' Oliver Twist. It was published by Doubleday Press in 2003.

    Among many awards, Eisner stated in National Cartoonists Society's Reuben profile that he was "proudest of NCS' 1995 Milton Caniff Lifetime Award and Reuben Award 1998." In 1987, the Eisner Awards was established, presented annually at the San Diego Comic-Con to celebrate the best of comics creations - comic books, comic strips, illustrations, their creators, writers, publishers and others.

    Only two weeks after quadruple bypass heart surgery, Will Eisner died of complications at age 87 in Florida. A master in his field, Eisner's was a life filled with the joy of inspiration and creation.


    The Encyclopedia of American Comics: From 1897 to the Present, edited by Ron Goulart,
published by Promised Land Productions, 1990.

    Will Eisner Home Page


© Susanna McLeod 2008