There a very few creators who stand astride the history of the comic book with the colossal influence of Will Eisner. Perhaps Harvey Kurtzman, especially in those early days at Mad, exhibited the same level of brilliance. But after those four brief madcap years, Kurtzman’s influence, with a few exceptions, was almost entirely a thing of the past.
Stan Lee, of course, transformed the superhero comic with the introduction of the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and the rest. But Lee’s glory days as a creator were relatively brief – from Fantastic Four #1 in 1961 to his last work on that book, and on The Amazing Spider-Man, in 1972. Lee, of course, was a writer and not an illustrator, meaning that his work has always been bound up with the talented artists that worked at his side.
Lee’s most important partner, the great Jack Kirby, may be the one person whose influence, like Eisner’s, was matched by his longevity in a career that reached from the Golden Age of the comic book superhero, through the romance and horror comics that followed, to the rebirth of the costumed crime fighter in what came to be called the Silver Age. Like Kirby, Eisner’s influence was long lasting and, like Kirby’s, it touched on a host of different genres.
Of course, unlike Kirby, Eisner’s work never reached the level of genuine pop culture phenomenon; his characters can’t readily be found on lunch boxes and t-shirts. Eisner has, I suppose, been most celebrated by other talents in the field – by the creators who found inspiration and did their best work with their eyes on what Eisner had done before them.
Paul Levitz, who himself is a pretty important figure in the world of comic books, explores the life and legacy of Eisner in his new book, Will Eisner: Champion of the Graphic Novel. The title indicates the central claim of Levitz’ book, namely that Eisner may not have invented the graphic novel – an innovation in comics publishing whose complex history is one of this book’s many delightful subjects – but he certainly had a hand in the kinds of mature and literary storytelling that comic books have become more and more associated with in recent years.
Levitz illustrates his story of Eisner with plentiful photographs and representative samples of the master’s work. Those samples begin with illustrations Eisner published in his high school newspaper and include images from his early days in comic books, his classic work on The Spirit, his creative and seldom reproduced educational comics, and his latter-day graphic novel masterpieces. The images make this a hard book to put down. It’s to be surveyed, then read, then surveyed again and again.
Eisner’s story is especially remarkable because he was able to accomplish so much in the world of graphic storytelling, or sequential art, from a place decidedly outside the mainstream of comic book publishing. Eisner’s Spirit wore a mask, but was certainly not a superhero, at a time when the superhero was ascendant in comic book publishing. Of course, The Spirit never really had a home in a traditional comic book; Eisner’s greatest character was instead published as part of a syndicated Sunday newspaper supplement. The Spirit was a comic book character who thrived outside the traditional comic book format.
Eisner’s own ability to thrive outside the mainstream comic book was evident throughout his long career. After he was drafted into the Army, he put his talents to work to create comic books that served as training materials for fellow soldiers. In the ‘70s, he became friends with underground comix legend Denis Kitchen and suddenly his work, including The Spirit, was a part of the comic book counterculture. He became a fixture at early comic book conventions. Then, in 1978, Eisner’s A Contract With God established him as the master of the graphic novel, a talented storyteller/artist who could bring words and pictures together to tell serious, powerful, and truly human stories.
The stories that Eisner told during the last years of his career were fully adult and mature. As Levitz notes, unlike so many of the mature comics that followed, the adult elements in Eisner’s work were not added to sell books, but because they were required by the stories that Eisner wanted to tell. “(T)hese ... subjects were not presented for shock value, or titillation, or even incorporated into the selling of the book. They were simply necessary parts of the story, adding textures, humanizing characters, and creating depth in ways that literature and art always had but comic books had not. Eisner knocked down precedent after precedent, in ways that can only feel as powerful if we roll back the thirty-five years of comics that have followed.”
Eisner’s work has not gone unexamined, so Levitz’ book is not the first to attempt to tackle the important life’s work of the talented writer and artist. There have been more detailed biographies and more exhaustive presentations of his art and stories. What Levitz does, however, is put that life and art into the history of comic book storytelling in such a way that allows him to make a convincing case that Eisner was even more than he seems—a writer and an artist for sure, but a businessman as well, a creator and an entrepreneur.
Indeed, Levitz tells the story of a brilliant artist who saw, even from the earliest days, what comic storytelling could be and who spent his life creating both artistic and financial ways to make his vision come true. As Levitz writes, “Many of us came to share Eisner’s belief that comics were an art form; none of us shared his lifelong, dogged pursuit of making that belief a recognized fact.”
Levitz tells Eisner’s compelling story as well as it has ever been told, and weaves the legend’s life into the long history of sequential art in the 20th century. It is a book to be read and studied; it’s full of examples of Eisner’s diverse body of work. Indeed, it’s a testament to the profound and lasting impact of Eisner on the history of words and pictures.
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