Will Eisner’s Dual Identity: The Spirit of an Artist

On Christmas Day, the Spirit was released in American movie theaters nationwide. Directed by living comics legend Frank Miller, the film is his homage to comic book innovator Will Eisner, who created the character in 1939.

Eisner used The Spirit as his vessel for unexplored creativity with story elements not commonly found in comics. Denny Colt’s adventures as the Spirit were often done in song, nonsense language or poetry, and would periodically have plots that teetered into the realm of science fiction.

William Erwin Eisner was born March 6, 1917 in Brooklyn, New York. His parents were Jewish immigrants who provided a modest life for their son. His mother was from Romania and served as the more practical and realistic parent, firmly believing that her son’s artistic tendencies would never amount to any kind of success in life. His father, an artist, was born in Vienna. He painted backdrops for Vaudeville and the Jewish theater but was also a semi-successful entrepreneur and, at one point, a manufacturer in Manhattan’s garment district. Believing his son should value creativity and art, the elder Eisners instilled in him a sense of duality, a balance between business and art.

Growing up, Eisner read the newspaper comic strips constantly. The strips had been a popular medium for some time thanks to the giant success of the newspaper industry. He would also read pulp magazines. The pulps were another popular medium at the time, and were very popular with young boys. Often displaying vivid illustrations of scantily-clad women who were either being tortured or murdered or both, they featured crime stories about mobsters, supposedly true police investigations, and detective mysteries with titles such as Crime Doesn’t Pay, True Crime or Dime Detective. Eisner grew obsessed with these magazines, spurring a hunger that would lead to an art form he would eventually help create and single-handedly transform.

DeWitt Clinton High School help set the foundation for Eisner’s artistic and literary skills. By drawing comic strips for the school newspaper, creating stage designs and contributing to the school literary magazine, he honed his skills in the art of storytelling and illustration. “It would be hard for me to understate the depth of the effect my high school experience had on me,” he said in an interview. “It meant everything to me, and in large part, was responsible for the person I became and continue to be.”

After he left school, he worked in the advertising department of the New York American. He worked the graveyard shift, which helped foster his keen sense of observation. During his breaks, he often sat at the docks and watched people work. Because his shift was at night, he learned a lot about shadows and lighting and saw plenty of weird strangers in which to base his future characters on. By 1935, he was working as a freelancer and a printer’s assistant. His first professional comics work was an insert for a hand cleanser called Gre-olvent.

Eisner tried to crack the magazine cartoon market by submitting work to the esteemed Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s but was rejected because his work looked too much like comic book illustrations, which was considered a sub-par industry. He eventually found work at Eve, a magazine for affluent Jewish women. He soon was fired for inserting violent drawings, probably in an effort to emulate the pulp magazines he grew up reading. Eisner was smart in that he never perceived any of his setbacks as mistakes. He viewed them as learning experiences, a trait he most likely inherited from his mother.

Eisner met Jerry Iger when he tried to submit some of his pieces to Wow! What a Magazine, which was run out of the offices of a shirt manufacturer. Iger was editor of the small, fledgling periodical and hired him after Eisner solved an engraving problem. He sold a few pieces to Wow!, including works such as Harry Karry and The Flame. After four issues, the magazine folded. Eisner approached Iger about starting their own comic book business. Both believed the new industry was about to explode and they wanted to be at the forefront of it.

The Eisner-Iger Studio employed hungry, young artists, some of whom would become legends in the field, including Bob Kane, co-creator of Batman, Lou Fine and Jack Kurtzberg, who would eventually shorten his name to Kirby and go on to help create Spider-Man, Captain America and the Fantastic Four for Marvel Comics.

During this time, Eisner produced comic strips such as Hawks of the Sea, an embellishment of his earlier creation the Flame. He also created Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, Yarko the Great, Dollman and Blackhawk.

Will Eisner and Jerry Iger, by this time, had made a name for themselves in the comic book industry. They were approached by a couple of boys a couple of years younger than Eiser. They hailed from Cleveland, Ohio and had created a caped superhero called Superman. Eisner and Iger turned down their submission and the two teenagers took their idea to National Periodicals, the precursor to DC Comics.

Shortly after the success of Superman, Victor Fox, a former employee for National Periodicals, wanted Eisner and Iger to create a character with superpowers, a chest insignia and a red costume. Eisner knew that what Fox wanted was clearly a knock-off of the now hugely-famous Superman character that he had rejected a short while earlier. Though Eisner protested, he did eventually draw and write the first issue of Wonder Comics, featuring Wonder Man.

National Periodicals, the owner of the Superman copyright, took them to court. Eisner testified against Fox, who had threatened both he and Iger that if they did not lie on his behalf, he would not pay them for their work. Of course, Fox made good on his promise.

It was around this time that Quality Comics publisher Everett M. “Busy” Arnold, asked Eisner to create a new superhero to compete with rival comic books and newspaper comic-strips. Convinced that Eisner-Iger Studios would not survive the large loss of revenue from the Wonder Man affair, the offer was a welcome sigh of relief.

What Arnold got was not necessarily what he had envisioned. Instead of a brightly costumed, super-powered, hero with a cape, Eisner created a fedora-wearing detective by the name of Denny Colt. Presumed dead, Colt hid out in Wildwood Cemetery, directly below his alleged grave. There, below ground, the Spirit lurked in his secret headquarters as he waged his war on crime in Central City.

With The Spirit, Eisner struck a deal with Arnold and his partner, Henry Martin. They all agreed, after heavy bargaining, that Eisner would own the copyright of his character; something that was virtually unheard of at the time. This meant that if Eisner decided to leave Quality Comics, the company that published The Spirit, he would be able to take his character with him rather than leave it with the company for someone else to draw. It also meant he would retain a much bigger chunk of the money it brought in from comic and merchandise sales.

Will Eisner did something else that had never been done before. He made it so that his newest creation, The Spirit, appeared both in the newspaper comic strips as well as comic books. The artist, no older than 20 or 21, wanted to create a comic book hero geared more for adult audiences. Arnold compromised and The Spirit made his debut as a lead feature in a revolutionary new format: a 16-page, full-color comic book inserted into the Sunday newspapers.

In 1942, Eisner was drafted for World War II. Aware of his immense artistic talent and popular comic book work, the military tapped him to create posters, strips and illustrations for the education and entertainment of the troops.

After the war, Eisner continued to do work for the American government, where he introduced the idea of comics as an education tool. Eisner trained military personnel with characters like Joe Dope in the publication who demonstrated various methods of preventative maintenance for equipment and weapons in PS: The Preventative Maintenance Monthly.

Motivated by his work in the military, Eisner founded the American Visuals Company, a commercial art company that created comics, cartoons and illustrations for commercial and educational purposes. Companies such as RCA, New York Telephone and the Baltimore Colts football team employed Eisner, which occupied most of his time, forcing him to retire his beloved Spirit comic in 1952.

Years would pass. Eventually seeking a more mature expression of the comic book form, Eisner spent two years on a semi-autobiographical group of four short stories. First published by Baronet Books in 1978, A Contract with God was a book of “sequential art” set in 1930s New York. This is considered the first graphic novel –- a term Eisner coined -– and set the course for a series of more books following along the same themes of morality and light philosophy. He helped comics break out of its superhero status and into a more adult-driven genre full of introspection and observations on life, eventually releasing many other similarly-themed graphic novels over the years.

After serving his country again in the Korean War and the Vietnam War, Eisner began teaching cartooning at the School of Visual Arts in New York. He also wrote two books about the art and craft of creating comic books, Comic and Sequential Art and Graphic Storytelling.

Throughout the 1980s, Will Eisner traveled and gave lectures on the value and potential of the comic book industry.

In 1988, the Eisner Award was created. Established to honor the best graphic novel work each year, it is presented annually at Comic-Con International in San Diego. The Will Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailing Award was also created to commend the best comic book retail outlets throughout the United States.

Will Eisner died in 2005 due to complications from triple bypass surgery. He was 87.

The Spirit ran in national newspapers for 12 years. Even after Eisner retired the character in 1952, the stories of Denny Colt continued to be printed in some form or another over the years. Though The Spirit comic, in its simplest form, had humor, violence, beautiful women and great action, it was Eisner’s ability to capture the gritty, big city loneliness of Central City and bring it to life that separated him from other comic book artists at the time.

Only in recent years have his contributions to American comics been fully appreciated. On December 25th, the spirit of Will Eisner lives on…

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