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American Literary Studies

American Comics and Graphic Novels

Will Eisner

New York Times

June 11, 1998

Comics Grand Master is Unrecognized

Filed at 12:02 p.m. EDT

By The Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) -- He revolutionized the comics, but you've likely never heard of Will Eisner.

Most in the medium agree: ``The Spirit,'' a superhero strip appearing in no more than 20 newspapers 50 years ago, turned the comics from a pidgin of pulp fiction and cheesecake drawings into a language with its own vocabulary and syntax.

Though feted in Europe, Eisner is neglected in the United States, reflecting the orphan his medium in its homeland.

Hoping to redress that imbalance, Kitchen Sink, a comics publishing house that specializes in grown-up and historical material, has launched "The Spirit: The New Adventures.'' The third issue of tributes by an array of industry stars hit the stands May 27.

"Will Eisner is the single person most responsible for giving comics its brains,'' said Alan Moore, a British writer celebrated for his work on "Watchmen'' and "Swamp Thing.''

Decades before Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning ``Maus'' cast Nazis as cats and Jews as mice, Eisner was exploring how comics more than any other medium had the potential to expose truths about the culture by subverting familiar icons.

"He was an early master of the German Expressionist approach in comic books,'' Jules Feiffer once wrote of Eisner.

Eisner, 81 and still working, hopes the paean will help establish a legitimacy for comic books, an art form he had made his life's work in his native land.

``I see the beginnings of the medium becoming `adult' here,'' he said on a recent visit to New York, the model for ``The Spirit'''s mood-infested Central City.

He cites as examples the work of Frank Miller, whose successful ``Dark Knight'' Batman series 15 years ago inspired film director Tim Burton, and the Hernandez brothers' acclaimed magic-realist ``Love and Rockets'' series.

It's a realization of what Eisner set out to do in 1940 when he left the still-infant comic book industry to pitch a new type of Sunday comic supplement to newspapers: a whole comic book with three lengthy, self-contained stories. He hoped to reach adults through the newspapers. At the time, comic books were seen as strictly for kids.

``I had been producing comic books for 15-year-old cretins from Kansas,'' he said. Now, he wanted to aim for ``a 55-year-old who had his wallet stolen on the subway. You can't talk about heartbreak to a kid.''

He wanted to combine the pace and length of comic book stories with the seriousness and technique that had been confined to a few newspaper comics. ``I had come to believe that this would be my life's work, and I believed fanatically that it had all I aspired to,'' he said.

Soon he acquired enough subscribers to sustain his studio, and entertain ambitions of revolutionizing the form.

"I told the Philadelphia Record in an interview in 1941, `I believe this medium is a valid literary form and fine art form,'' he recalled. "When I got back to New York, I was castigated by my colleagues for being uppity. I never said anything about it again.''

They may have resented his attitude, but they watched him closely. Soon, the impact of "The Spirit'' was being felt throughout the industry.

Before Eisner, a page of comics -- in a comic book or in a Sunday comics section -- was a bland affair, nine or 12 square panels of equal size, occasionally broken up by a circular panel. Compositions were standard, as if shot by a primitive fixed camera.

Eisner began thinking of the "rhythm'' of a page, how panels could be manipulated to suggest speed (small panels running into each other) climax (two or three small panels, then a large one), even nausea (panels cast at odd angles).

``Eisner wouldn't worry about varying the design of the page,'' said Dave Gibbons, Moore's ``Watchmen'' partner and a ``Spirit'' contributor. ``One page had 20 pictures, followed by a page with three tall pictures on it.''

Comics artists are famous for ``swiping'' material from others, and Eisner was no exception: He admits borrowing from contemporary masters, like Milton Caniff's ``Terry and the Pirates.''

But with the luxury of a seven-page story, Eisner could take a typical Caniff scene-setter like footprints in snow, and use it as leitmotif, re-establishing a mood throughout a story. Eisner also borrowed unsettling shooting angles from the movies. From the static panels of a few years earlier, now scenes could be perceived through skylights, or from below a sewer grate.

He was the first to use ``silent'' -- balloonless -- panels to emphasize emotions, by focusing the reader's attentions on finely wrought facial expressions. No less important for him was the story. He abandoned the blood and guts approach he helped invent in the 1930s for a gentler, more quixotic style.

The Spirit -- a coroner named Denny Colt believed murdered by a mad scientist's potion, but actually buried alive -- became less important than the other characters in each story.

With a sensitive ear for dialogue, Eisner addressed topics considered unthinkable in comic books and rarely seen, at the time, in newspaper comics: wife beating, tax audits, urban blight, graft.

Each story was different, and Eisner angered marketing executives by refusing to design a permanent logo. Instead, the letters of ``The Spirit'' were subtly incorporated into each splash page, as a wall, as scraps of paper slipping into a sewer, as reflected light.

Moore recalled encountering ``Ten Minutes,'' a story often appearing in reprint anthologies, when he was a teen-ager.

``Every element in the story was geared to this perfect effect,'' he said.

In the story, Sammy, an otherwise decent young man desperate to get out of an inner-city slum, plans to rob his soda shop boss.

Eisner ruptures convention in the first panel, telegraphing the outcome: He asks the reader to consider the last 10 minutes in Sammy's life. He uses a girl reciting an alphabetical skip-rope song as a recurring theme; each time she reappears, approaching ``Z,'' you know Sammy's death is closer.

Memorable characters are established in just three or four panels. When Sammy shoots and kills his boss, the boss slumps behind the counter smiling, not believing that a ``good boy'' has killed him.

``The smile on his face was so stark and horrifying,'' Moore said.

The Spirit only appears in the final few panels, when Sammy spots him in a subway station. Mistakenly believing he has been found -- the superhero is actually chasing another crook --Sammy grabs the closing door of a departing train and is crushed between a pillar and the train. Upstairs, on the street, the little girl is restarting the alphabet.

By 1952, Eisner grew tired of the strip, and newsprint prices made it less profitable. He disappeared into educational publishing.

But like his hero, his legacy would not die. His techniques, considered revolutionary a few years earlier, had become standard, first in the hugely popular E.C. horror comics of the 1950s, then in the Marvel comics that revitalized the industry in the 1960s.

His influence eventually seeped into the more conservative newspaper comics; without Eisner, Bill Waterson's imaginative panel breakdowns for ``Calvin and Hobbes'' would be unimaginable.

Still, a modicum of recognition had to wait until 1965, when Feiffer, gaining attention as a political cartoonist, a playwright and a screenwriter, celebrated the comics as his primary influence in ``The Great Comic Book Heroes.''

Most of the figures in the illustrated essay -- Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Captain America -- were still familiar.

But Feiffer reserved his greatest praise for the virtually unknown ``Spirit.''

``(Eisner's) world seemed more real than the world of other comic book men. He was a cartoonist other cartoonists swiped from,'' Feiffer said.

Trademarks associated with Feiffer's famed satirical strip -- the silent panel for emphasis, the repetition of a phrase to examine it from different angles -- had been innovated by Eisner. This is not surprising, considering that Eisner had given Feiffer his first job. The young Feiffer even makes an appearance in a 1950 issue, as a psychotic cartoonist's assistant who kills his boss.

Feiffer's praise prompted comic book fans to start searching, and soon reprints of ``The Spirit,'' bootleg and legitimate, appeared, to influence a whole new generation of emerging comics artists.

``Spirit'' contributor Gibbons bought his first bootleg ``Spirit'' as a teen-ager in the 1960s, during a family vacation in a British seaside resort.

``It didn't look like any comics I'd seen,'' he said. ``The depth, the completeness, his human touch, the nuances of human behavior, the awareness of fallibility.''

Others as diverse as Miller and Robert Crumb acknowledge Eisner as a primary influence.

Yet, while Crumb was the subject of a successful documentary, and Feiffer has earned a retrospective at the Smithsonian Institution, Eisner remains uncelebrated beyond the faithful who gather at comics conventions -- at least in the United States.

Eisner recently addressed the Academy of Fine Arts in Bologna, discussing his published treatises on what he prefers to call ``sequential art.'' In Amsterdam, a popular cafe is named for "The Spirit.'' French comics critic Maurice Horn calls Eisner's influence tremendous.

But in the United States, Eisner says the medium itself is to blame for his lack of recognition. ``Superheroes are mostly aimed at young teen-age males concerned with their manhood,'' he said. ``The medium will have to address itself more to content.''

Many in the industry are pessimistic about that happening.

J.R. Cochran, a comics critic with the New York Daily News, blames the industry for not matching the challenge Eisner has set.

``It's one-note -- all geared to adolescent boys,'' Cochran said. ``It is an American form, but the United States is not a particularly grown-up country. This country isn't ready for sophisticated comics.''

``I see 22 year olds draw massive Schwarzenegger types, outfitted with metal studs, pressing a mostly naked woman to their breastplates,'' Eisner sighs. ``And I think `Poor girl, that's got to be cold.'''

Kitchen Sink hopes early sales returns for the new ``Spirit'' will dispel such pessimism; each of the first two sold in the top 100, highly unusual for a nonmainstream house.

Eisner likes the product, although it violates one of his basic rules -- that the artist and writer should be the same person.

The most successful collaboration is between writer Neil Gaiman (``The Sandman'') and artist Eddie Campbell (``From Hell''), in Issue 2. A screenwriter suspiciously resembling Quentin Tarantino is dedicated to stripping his scripts of sentiment and romance, until he gets caught between the Spirit and a gorgeous villain.

Eisner won't touch ``The Spirit'' again, but the interest in ``The Spirit'' 20 years ago helped rekindle his career. His most recent graphic novel, due to appear this summer, ``A Family Matter,'' deals with assisted suicide. He works five days a week at his studio in Tamrac, Fla., and keeps trim playing tennis.

He may be the last of the pioneers of the American medium that was born in the last, raucous decade of the 19th century. Caniff and Roy Crane (Buz Sawyer) gave the comics light and shadow; Alex Raymond (Flash Gordon) gave it movement; E.C. Segar (Popeye) and George Herriman (Krazy Kat) perfected self-contained, imagined universes.

Eisner, perhaps along with Mad Magazine founder Harvey Kurtzman, gave comics syncopation and improvisation.



Last modified: July 3, 2006

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