The Spirit of the Spirit

The Spirit Archives

Will Eisner
DC Comics,Volume One, 240 pp., $49.95;Volume Two, 218 pp., $49.95;Volume Three, 218 pp., $49.95;Volume Four, 224 pp., $49.95

Outer Space Spirit: 1952

by Will Eisner, Jules Feiffer, and Wally Wood
Kitchen Sink Press(out of print)

Life on Another Planet

Will Eisner
DC Comics, 136 pp., $12.95 (paper)

Dropsie Avenue: The Neighborhood

Will Eisner
DC Comics, 170 pp., $14.95 (paper)

The Building

Will Eisner
Kitchen Sink Press/Bench Press, 88 pp., $25.00; DC Comics, $12.95 (paper)

Invisible People

Will Eisner
DC Comics, 117 pp., $12.95 (paper)

Minor Miracles

Will Eisner
DC Comics, 110 pp., $29.95; $12.95 (paper)

Family Matter

Will Eisner
Kitchen Sink Press/Bench Press, 76 pp., $24.95; DC Comics, $15.95 (paper)

Will Eisner Reader: Seven Graphic Stories by a Comics Master

Kitchen Sink Press/Bench Press,88 pp., $9.95 (paper)
Will Eisner
Will Eisner; drawing by David Levine


The pages of most comic books are battlefields for hypertrophied mutants and space aliens raging gaudy supernatural war. This has been the case for generations now, the norm in a junk-entertainment genre whose elemental function has always been to commodify the testosterone delirium of male adolescence. To scan the racks of a comics shop like, say, Jim Hanley’s Universe in midtown Manhattan is to be assaulted by costumed mercenaries such as Darkchylde and Hellboy in stories like “Seed of Destruction.” Look closely, and you may recognize some of the old heroes—Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Fantastic Four, and their superfriends—still fighting in increasingly pumped- and sexed-up transmutations. Poke around the middle of the store, and you’ll find a mix of subgenres: reprints of vintage comics; the arty (and often raw) “comix” indebted to the underground movement of the 1960s; and Japanese titles based on the hyperactive animé cartoons. If you make it to the back of the last aisle on the far right, alongside the wall where the T-shirts are hanging, you’ll find a display of hard and paperback covers startling for their incongruity, with images of Jewish immigrants in the Bronx of the Depression years, slumped old men, ranting neighbors, a squabbling family…. You’re in the Will Eisner section, where the comics medium becomes something naturalistic, wry, introspective, and literate—that is, in the comics universe, something truly otherworldly.

Eisner, who started writing and drawing comic books straight from high school in 1936, is one of the original inventors of the form, although that fact alone hardly confers much distinction. The fledgling comics business was a sweatshop trade for creative hopefuls too inexperienced, too socially ill-equipped, or, more often, too minimally talented for the established avenues of hackdom, the pulps and commercial art. Mostly shoot-’em-ups maladroitly adapted from crime and adventure magazines, the first comic books were sexless pornography for kids, incompetently scripted and drawn. The medium changed a great deal in the years hence, of course; today’s comics are drawn and written with sleek proficiency. That the form grew more significantly to become, at its best, something intelligent with rewards for grown-ups, testifies to Eisner’s contributions.

Among comics professionals and enthusiasts, Eisner, now eighty-four, is revered as more than a charter elder of the ultimate boy’s club, but as a model of seriousness, ambition, and achievement. “I find it difficult to argue that Eisner is not the single person most responsible for giving comics their brains,” comics writer Alan Moore has said. The author of the first literate comic book, The Spirit (1940–1952), two texts on the theory and practice of his discipline, and more than a dozen “graphic novels” over the past twenty-three years, Eisner is not merely the recipient of innumerable illustration and comics-art awards (including the National Cartoonists Society’s “Best Artist,” four times). The most prestigious honor in comics is named for him: the plaque bestowed each year…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.