Friday, 11 November 2005

Will Eisner

Will Eisner, who died earlier this year, will always be remembered as being one of the three mega giants of world comic book creativity.
He stood shoulder to shoulder with Herge and Osamu Tezuka and will always stand tall as the father of modern American comics.

Will Eisner was born on the 3rd March 1917 in the Brooklyn district of New York City. He was the son of a former painter and a small time entrepreneur who had a clothes business that opperated in the garment region of the city.

Eisner attended the De Witt Clinton High School whereupon after graduating he got a job as an advertising writer-cartoonist for the New York American newspaper.

In 1936 Bob Kane, a fellow cartoonist and the creator of Batman recommended that the 19 year old Eisner should try selling his cartoons to the fledgling new comic book Wow! At the time virtually all comic books were reprints of old news paper comic strips that were reproduced into larger format comic books. The editor of the publication was one Jerry Iger who bought from Eisner a strip called Scott Dalton.
Wow! only lasted for four issues but a friendship had been forged between Eisner&Iger that would rival, and certainly came before, the legendary Stan Lee and Jack Kirby team.
As I said Wow! lasted for only four years. From July to September 1936. Then Eisner, now out of work and in a moment of pure genius, suggested that he and Iger form a partnership to produce and create new comics.

"I was out of work, so I had some time to sit at home and think about things. I don't think it took a genius to see the way things were shaping up in the comic book field. At Wow, Iger was looking for original material, and other publishers were entering the field, and they were going to be using original material. The idea I had was to supply complete, finished stories to the publishers, because that's what I had been working toward in my own work. What I was doing was emulating the pulps, which had complete short stories in every issue...."

The partnership would go onto become one of the all time pre-war greats. Together they created for the British comic Wag Sheena. She was a leopard skinned, big busted, jungle beauty that went down a storm over here. They were also responsible for creating Doll Man and Blackhawk.

They had a lot of success and young Will eisner would have been a very rich man by the age of 22 and then, in 1939, the Register & Tribune syndicate asked Eisner to create a 16-page comic-book insert for Sunday newspapers. Selling his share of their firm to Iger, who would continue to package comics as the S. M. Iger Studio through 1955, Eisner left to create what is largely thought to be his greatest creation, The Spirit.

The Spirit started out life as a sunday supplement alongside such other fictional notables as Ms. Mystic and Lady Luck. It became so popular that it was franchised to 20 other newspapers from 1940 until 1952.
Comic's hit the big time in the late 1930's with the arrival of Superman and The Spirit, although a million miles removed from DC's famous creation, or any other superhero come to that, cashed in big time on that particular fad.
To this day The Spirit is greatly revered not only for its gritty storytelling and its incredible artwork but also for the way it echoed real life, especially Eisner's Jewish upbringing in New York so damn well. You could almost smell the fumes of the Big Apple wafting off of the page.
Incredible stuff.
The only thing that I still feel uncomfortable with, and maybe I am being too PC for my own good, is the way Ebony White, the token black man, is portrayed in such a stereotypical, almost racist way. Something that, as he grew as a writer and artist, he managed to eliminate entirely from his work. Eisner was a Jew so therefore I don't for minute think or accuse him of racism, but still that obnoxious trait somehow stains what for me would otherwise have been THE golden strip from THE golden age of comics.

The Spirit story arc continued from 1940 through 'till 1952 when it concleded its long run. But it didn't finish there. To this day you can find modern reprints of The Spirit in one form or another. Highly recomended are the recent DC reprints.

During the 80's Kitchen Sink Press published firstly Will's Spirit Magazine and then the excellent Will Eisner Quarterly that not only featured new stories and the ever present Spirit reprints but also an interview section where legends of the comic book industry would sit and chat to Will about their individual careers.

Also during the 80's Will wrote and drew some of the very best graphic novels that the industry had seen. A great many of them, such as Contract with God, The Dreamer and Lifeforce were either semi autobiographical or based on or around historical events from the 30's & 40's. They were infused with genuine warmth and humour and such powerful graphic images that for the duration of the read you became a part of the world that Will was depicting. He had the natural ability to not only create three dimensional characters that you could believe in but also was able to infuse them with a range of human traits and foibles that depicted their ethnic backgrounds without becoming stereotypicaly typecast.

The idea that Will invented or created the Graphic Novel (a pretentious term if I ever heard one) is ridiculous. Herge and Tezuka both could claim that. But that all to one side. Will Eisner was the Godfather of American comic books and a true giant on the worlds stage.

A truly great man.

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