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 upon one of his progeny is the Eisner.
Unsatisfied, Eisner still works obsessively, creating reflective and somber autobiographical works while tending the preservation of his legacy through a new series of hardbound reprints of his most popular creation, the Spirit comics. He drives every morning from the home he shares with his wife, Ann, in southeastern Florida to the studio he keeps about a mile away, and he puts in eight to ten hours, six days a week. “I’ve been trying to prove what the medium can do my whole life,” Eisner said recently. “If I thought my point had been made, I don’t know what I’d do.”
The fact that he has spent his whole life working in comics, striving to advance the medium from within, probably undermines Eisner’s prospects for recognition outside the insular society of comics buffs. Raised in the tenements of the Bronx, Eisner has surely learned the rule of every ghetto, literal or aesthetic: Anyone can come in, few can get out. It was one thing for gallery artists such as Lichtenstein and Warhol to draw upon the style of the comics as a resource; it has been quite another for comics specialists to try elevating both their medium and the way it is perceived. (In jazz, a kindred American popular art form, indigenous creators suffered from a parallel imbalance when orchestral composers such as Stravinsky and Milhaud were praised in high-brow circles for employing “jazzy” touches in their concert works while the jazz masterworks that served as their inspiration were going ignored or dismissed as low-class entertainment.) Eisner recalls being invited, along with several other comics artists, including Harvey Kurtzman and Joe Kubert, to attend the opening of a Pop Art show at the Brooklyn Museum in 1974. “At first, I thought, ‘Oh boy! This is great! We’re finally being invited into the arena,'” he recalled. “Then I realized we were brought in for novelty value—the weird guys who do those crazy comic books.” He cringed from the wound more than thirty years later.
As Eisner remembers things today, he already had lofty visions for the comics form when he created the Spirit after several years of generating now-forgotten comic-book features such as “Muss ‘Em Up Donovan” (a series about a vicious law enforcer, a proto–Dirty Harry) for various publishers. The Spirit is an independent detective who has no superpowers and wears no costume (aside from a token mask Eisner treated as a blue skin graft around the eyes). “I had long been convinced that I was involved with a medium that had real ‘literary potential,'” he wrote in the introduction to the first volume of The Spirit Archives, each of which reproduces six months of Spirit stories (on good paper but in slightly reduced scale and with computer-generated colors that lack the texture and accidental vibrancy of the cheaply printed, off-register originals). What gave him such faith in a medium so disreputable and juvenile, he can’t recall. From the earliest episodes of the Spirit, however, Eisner’s aspirations are clear. The characters are memorable and human, including the Spirit (despite his name). The stories are intimate fables about desperation, loss, and human folly, developed from gestural crime situations; the pacing, graceful; and the drawing, naturalistically bravura.
The Spirit had the benefit of special provenance. When the character appeared in 1940 (two years after Superman and a few months after Batman), a hitherto-unchallenged hierarchical divide separated the two forms of comics—the decades-old, enormously popular newspaper strips and the just-sprouting comic books. The one-panel daily and expanded Sunday color strips produced by the major press syndicates were presumed to be read by the whole family and, accordingly, were designed for adults as well as children; comic books, despite having the space to tell more complex stories, were distributed by candy-store wholesalers and generally treated as another unhealthy confection for kids. The Spirit was born in neither domain; Eisner developed him under commission to create a comic book that would be distributed in Sunday newspapers, where it would reach readers of every age. Eisner wrote the feature “up,” for the adults. The childhood fantasy of magically transforming into a grown-up—Shazam!—was a staple of comic books; with the first issue of The Spirit, delivered on June 2, 1940, the medium itself matured instantaneously.
There was never much to the premise of the Spirit character: private detective Denny Colt is taken for dead, although he’s really alive, and he encounters (as often by accident as by intent) miscellaneous troublemakers (typically, exotics such as spies and smugglers or vampy women smitten with him). That’s it—no parents from outer space, no wizards or genies, no incantations, no kit of gadgets and weapons. The Spirit never behaves spookily, and no one in the stories seems to think he’s supernatural; he gets punched and kissed, and he bruises and kisses back. The idea of the Spirit is a positioning statement of objection to comic-book ideas, brazenly cursory, a mark of contempt for the gimmickry passing for characterization in the comics of the era.
There was not much crime in the Spirit stories, either—at least not after the first couple of years, when the series reached its maturity. Much as Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock used trash sources as excuses to explore emotional terrain, Eisner tended to focus on psychological themes such as loneliness, betrayal, and despair against a translucent scrim of cops-and-robbers doings. In “Two Lives,” for instance, Eisner interweaves the stories of unrelated captives, an incarcerated hood and a milquetoast fellow trapped in a bad marriage; they both escape, are mistaken for each other, and are returned to the wrong prison. There was surely little else in that Sunday’s newspaper—and certainly nothing in the comics—so cynical about matrimony. In “The Desert Island,” the Spirit and a femme fatale named Sand find themselves stranded in paradise, although the Spirit is delirious with fever the whole time, sexually frustrating a woman who had tried to do him in countless times before. Before long, Eisner was dispensing with the pretense of crime situations—and with the Spirit himself. In some of the most poetically imaginative stories in Eisner’s work (or, for that matter, in all of comics), the Spirit scarcely appears in his own comic book. Instead, we meet a nobody named Gerhard Schnobble on the day he discovers he has the power to fly, or we find Adolf Hitler on a secret reconnaissance mission, roaming the subways and hobo jungles of New York (in a twist on Death Takes a Holiday).
Both Schnobble and Hitler find enlightenment in Eisner’s hands, but suffer ignobly for it in the last panel. Schnobble, reveling in his uniqueness among men, is accidentally hit by a gunshot meant for the Spirit and falls to his death before anyone saw what he could do. Hitler, converted to egalitarian niceness by his exposure to America, decides to give a speech reversing all his policies, but is assassinated by a warmongering lieutenant. Eisner’s world often seems a bleak, even godless one, not so much part of an irrational or existential universe as a worse one, rigged in the devil’s favor.
Like Welles and Hitchcock, again, Eisner has always been fascinated by form, and he began experimenting with the architecture of his medium in the same period as Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, and Lifeboat. (Comparisons with film, comic books’ moneyed cousin, are irresistible and dominate the serious writing on comics, especially the Spirit.1) One Spirit story was told from the point of view of a murderer, all the images rendered in the ovals of the killer’s eyes. Another one took place in the “real time” of the ten minutes Eisner calculated it would take to read it. The text for another was all rhyming verse. Another had no text at all but unfolded in pantomime. One meta-episode included scenes of Eisner as both author of the tale at hand and a key part of it. Boundlessly imaginative and fearsomely ambitious—yet, still, “a comic-book man”—Eisner seemed to be trying to push out the boundaries of the comics form, as if he were one of his own characters, another misunderstood victim of a cruel system, struggling to escape.
Much of the Spirit series was explicitly autobiographical, foreshadowing the highly personal “graphic novels” Eisner would begin writing in the late 1970s. The setting was Eisner’s native New York, at first cited by name as Manhattan, then left vague (under pressure from a syndicator fearful of alienating readers elsewhere, according to Eisner), and later generically labeled as Central City. There was no centrality in the mise en scène, however; in its architecture, weather, population, and culture, the home of the Spirit was strictly Old World Northeast urban—more specifically, lower- middle-class ethnic. Like Eisner in his youth (before the success of the Spirit enabled him to move with his parents from the Bronx to Riverside Drive), the people he drew lived in tenements near elevated tracks, ate ice-cream cones, and rode the subway to work. They had strong features and wore heavy clothes that could use a pressing.
Jules Feiffer, who was one of Eisner’s assistants early in his career, has written that he grew up presuming the Spirit was Jewish (despite the former Denny Colt’s Irish-sounding first name), and I see his point. The character is “different” and held in suspicion by those outside his circle of compatriots. Yet I grew up presuming the Spirit was Hungarian, like everyone in my neighborhood. He’s resourceful, smart, independent, and strong, as we thought of ourselves. Both views are correct, of course: the Spirit is the fantasy self-image of every outsider, a force of superior cool, strolling immunely through a landscape of malevolent “normalcy.”
With newspaper circulation declining under competition from television and with Sunday papers dropping the Spirit insert to cut costs, Eisner abandoned it in 1952. He would say he had lost interest in the project anyway, and the last Spirit stories—a series of loopy outer-space adventures farmed out to freelancers—are unnerving proof that he had. Eisner, who had employed artists and writers to help him during his World War II military service, relinquished much of the work on these episodes to Jules Feiffer, who wrote the scripts and plotted them in rough sketches, and Wally Wood, a brilliant young draftsman who had distinguished himself doing intricate science-fiction drawings for William M. Gaines’s Entertaining Comics (EC) shop.2 The final story of the Spirit has him zooming around outer space, leading a crew of unsavory ex-convicts on a journey to the moon.
Eisner’s creative attention was already elsewhere. In the years following his wartime service, Eisner had continued taking on work for the army as a civilian contractor, writing and drawing instructional comics for military publications. He found himself attracted to the notion of comics as an educational tool, which he saw as a way to experiment further with the form and to continue making comics with some seriousness of purpose. The work was also lucrative; the Eisners had two children. Wholly disinclined to work in mainstream comic books, a genre that had matured little since his days on “Muss ‘Em Up Donovan,” Eisner shifted his focus to educational work, most of it for the armed services. He stayed at it for twenty-six years.
His publishers today tend to discourage inquiry into this period, the longest stretch of sustained effort in Eisner’s lifetime. Why mention work such as the special issue of PS: The Preventive Maintenance Monthly that Eisner prepared on the subject of “The Army’s Brand New Equipment Record System and Procedures”? What point is there in knowing that the illustrations in A Pictorial Arsenal of American Combat Weapons were rendered by a comics genius? Eisner, who veers to the left politically, professes enormous pride in his work for the military. “I never demonstrated how to kill,” he stresses. “To me, the commercial comics industry was a wasteland. I have always had a conviction that the comics medium is capable of anything. I saw an opportunity to show that comics could be an effective teaching tool as well as an art form.”
A good soldier, he accomplished his mission—and went no further. Because the enthusiasm for Eisner among comics collectors is both great and indiscriminate, his educational/military arcana shows up often on eBay, where I bought a few copies of PS magazine published in 1962 and 1968. They’re disorienting, with page after page of distinctively Eisnerian art—clever spot illustrations, masterfully composed comics panels, luxurious double-page illustrations—put to use in explaining matters such as how to repair a radio antenna or jump-start a tank. A blonde vamp straight out of a Spirit episode appears every now and then to make a pronouncement, and the effect of word-picture association makes everything she utters seem like a double-entendre. On one page, she murmurs, “Weather makes a difference in performance.” (Hubba hubba!) To see all that Will Eisner effort put to such perfunctory and haphazard use is maddening.
Plenty of American lives do indeed have second acts; third acts are unusual. Had Will Eisner died at age sixty in 1977, his reputation as a comic-book pioneer would have been secure. The World Encyclopedia of Comics3 would still have praised the Spirit as “the historical bridge between the comic book and the newspaper strip” and proclaimed that “Eisner’s influence on the art and development of the comic book has been tremendous and lasting.” New readers would have discovered the Spirit through reprints of the original stories, which the comics artist and historian Denis Kitchen began publishing through his Kitchen Sink Press in 1972. Eisner’s name would have taken a duly prominent place in comics history, somewhere between those of George Herriman and Charles Schultz, and his decades of creative exile under government contract would seem a curious footnote, like Windsor McCay’s final years as a vaudeville attraction. But his most serious work, his “graphic novels” and other late-period books of integrated drawings and text, would never have set yet another standard for comic books.
Invited to sign autographs at a collectors’ convention in the mid-1970s, Eisner was startled to see the transformation comics had undergone while he had been drawing instructions for fixing shafted injection pumps. The generation raised on Eisner’s Spirit, Harvey Kurtzman’s anarchic Mad, and the relatively sophisticated EC Comics work of Wally Wood, Al Feldstein, and a few others, had grown up and created underground “comix.” One of the few literally comical offshoots of the Sixties counterculture, the stories by Robert Crumb (Mr. Natural, Fritz the Cat, etc.) and Gilbert Shelton (The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers) that Eisner discovered were ragged, uneven, explicit in their portrayal of sex and drugs, and self-consciously primitive or retro; but they were experimental and not for kids.
Eisner, who had become prosperous enough to start declining commissions for military and educational art, shifted his attention again. He devoted most of a year to creating a book consisting of four related stories told in a free adaptation of the comics style, published in 1978 as A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories (subtitled “A Graphic Novel by Will Eisner”). In sheer seriousness of intent and subtlety of execution, it was to underground comix what the Spirit was to Superman.
Set in the Depression-era Bronx shtetl of Eisner’s youth, the four tales are tragic memory plays about Jewish immigrant life. Frimme Hersh, the protagonist of the first and longest story, makes a pact with God and feels betrayed when his cherished daughter dies. In the second tale, a vainglorious young street singer submits to a love-starved old diva for alcohol money. In the third, a pedophilic superintendent is undone by a little girl who’s scarcely pure herself. And, finally, vacationers tangle with their social aspirations at a Catskills resort.
The characters pepper their talk with Yiddish, and they look like working people—toilworn and thick from too much cheap food—rather than the posed anatomy models on most comics pages. In its concern with the struggle between God and man, its faith in demons, and its echoes of Yiddish folklore, the book clearly suggests the work of Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose short story “Joy” has the same core motif as Eisner’s title story. Yet Eisner never read Singer until the early Nineties, when an admirer pointed out the parallels in their work and gave him a copy of Love in Exile, a collection of Singer’s autobiographical writings.
Visually, A Contract with God marked the beginning of a dramatic change in Eisner’s approach. In the Spirit years, Eisner employed his virtuosity to dazzling effect with kaleidoscopic “splash pages,” German Expressionist–style perspectives, and spectacularly detailed backgrounds (for which he sometimes called upon the help of an architectural draftsman). Now he made no effort to dazzle. Forsaking color for stark black pen and ink, Eisner began to use a spare, allusory visual language to match the poetically ambiguous narrative content of the stories. He learned to evoke a cityscape with a few strokes implying a skyline or suggest a tenement room with the outline of a window frame. In turn, the eye focused on the characters and the speech in the word balloons on the emotional realm.
Like Ingmar Bergman late in his life, Will Eisner gave up film for the theater. He has taken a couple of years to write each of his recent books, working alone in Florida, and they have grown progressively more intimate and subtle. With one exception (Life on Another Planet, which is not a star-trotting adventure but a look at how a mere hint that we might not be alone can unleash earthly paranoia), all of Eisner’s graphic novels and story collections are works of memory, most of them centered around the Bronx of his upbringing (New York: The Big City, Dropsie Avenue: The Neighborhood, The Building, Invisible People, Minor Miracles), others dealing with his later life. We see one or two characters at a time in an abstracted setting, as if on a stage set, and we watch as they betray their brothers, seduce their antagonists, die of heartache, and occasionally find love or solace.
Who are these books for? What would one of the teenager boys roaming the aisles of a comics shop think if he picked up Minor Miracles and flipped through the first story, in which disreputable Amos borrows money from his responsible brother Irving to open a furniture shop and drives him to ruin, or Family Matter, wherein wheelchair-bound Ben sits silently as his children gather on his ninetieth birthday to fight over his estate? The answer, no doubt, is the same one Chuck Jones, the auteur of the Warner Bros. cartoon stable, gave when he was asked whom he made his films for: children or adults? Jones said neither; he made them for himself.
For the cover of the Will Eisner Reader, the author made a watercolor painting of an old man in Bermuda shorts, gazing in awe at a young boy blithely constructing a mammoth building complex out of sand. The man looks very much like Eisner himself, long-faced, wide in the middle, and arch-backed from too many years at the drawing board. But the kid is doing what Eisner has done, using the stuff of child’s play to make something improbably grand.
June 21, 2001
Jules Feiffer, The Great Comic Book Heroes (Dial, 1965): “Eisner’s world seemed more real than the world of other comic book men because it looked that much more like a movie…. The further films dug into the black fantasies of a depression generation the more they were labelled realism. Eisner retooled this mythic realism to his own uses.” ↩
Eisner acknowledged Feiffer and Wood in introductory text and credited the stories as “produced by Will Eisner Productions.” ↩
Edited by Maurice Horn (Avon, 1977). ↩