Will Eisner, a Pioneer of Comic Books, Dies at 87
January 5, 2005
By SARAH BOXER
Will Eisner, an innovative comic-book artist who created
the Spirit, a hero without superpowers, and the first
modern graphic novel, "A Contract With God," died on Monday
in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where he lived. He was 87.
His death came after quadruple bypass surgery, said Denis
Kitchen, his friend and publisher.
Comics fans call the Spirit "The Citizen Kane" of comics
for its innovation, its seriousness and its influence. The
first installment appeared in June 1940 as part of a
syndicated comics section he had begun producing a year
earlier as an insert for Sunday papers. It featured a
detective, Denny Colt, who was killed off on the third
page. Or so it seemed.
It turned out that Colt wasn't exactly dead. He was reborn
as a man in a blue suit, a blue mask and blue gloves: the
Spirit. As Bob Andelman, the author of the forthcoming
biography "Will Eisner: A Spirited Life," describes the
comic hero, he was "the cemetery-dwelling protector of the
public and pretty girls in particular." What made him
unique was his lack of superpowers. He couldn't see through
clothing, he couldn't fly, and he wasn't even brilliant.
Wildwood, a Web site devoted to the Spirit, describes the
hero as a man "with no gimmicks or powers," other than "his
freedom from society," and notes that Mr. Eisner himself
called the Spirit a "middle-class crimefighter."
Even in a world obsessed with the likes of Superman, the
Spirit's dearth of powers was no obstacle to success.
According to DC Comics, at its height the Spirit appeared
in 20 newspapers, reaching 5 million readers every Sunday.
In 1942, when Mr. Eisner was drafted into the Army and
started drawing comics for the military, other artists and
writers sustained the comic until he returned. In late 1945
Eisner went back to the Spirit and, with the help of a
number of artists, including Klaus Nordling and Jules
Feiffer, not only revived it but deepened it too. The
Spirit finally came to a close in 1952.
Mr. Eisner, who was born in New York on March 6, 1917,
published his first comic in 1936 in a publication called
"Wow, What a Magazine!" There he met Jerry Iger, and
together they created a comic book outfit, Eisner & Iger,
that employed, among other artists, Bob Kane, the creator
of Batman, and Jack Kirby, one of the creators of the
Fantastic Four. Mr. Eisner also had the bad fortune of
turning down a comic called Superman by Jerry Siegel and
With the conclusion of the Spirit, Mr. Eisner spent much of
his time for the next 25 years running the American Visual
Corporation, a producer of educational, Army and government
comic books. This part of his career is often given short
shrift, but Mr. Kitchen, whose Kitchen Sink Press reprinted
all of the postwar Spirit comics from 1973 to 1998, said
that Mr. Eisner's instructional comics made for the United
States Army during World War II, the Korean War and the
Vietnam War were some of his greatest innovations.
Military manuals used to be "ugly and dry," Mr. Kitchen
said. Mr. Eisner changed all that. "He used words and
pictures together to show soldiers how to do everything
from putting their lives back together after war to
cleaning their tanks."
In the 1970's Mr. Eisner was reborn as a comic artist. In
1978 he wrote and drew "A Contract With God," a comic book
story about Frimme Hersh, a Jewish immigrant who becomes a
slumlord in the Bronx when he discovers that God has
forsaken him. With that book, Mr. Eisner became famous for
his moody rain, which came to be called "Eisner spritz."
His work over the years was also noted for wordless,
emotional close-ups on characters' faces.
That book also paved the way for other graphic novelists.
N. C. Christopher Couch, one of the authors of "The Will
Eisner Companion" (DC Comics, 2004), noted that "Eisner
independently coined the term graphic novel in 1978." And
to underscore that "A Contract With God" was a novel and
not a comic, he insisted on a trade publisher for it.
His seriousness helped bring mainstream attention to works
like Art Spiegelman's "Maus" and Marjane Satrapi's
"Persepolis." As Mr. Couch put it: "He drew on everything
from Theodore Dreiser to the Talmud. He brought American
literary naturalism to the comics. And he kept publishing
these books until everybody woke up and said, 'Wow, these
are books! This is an art form! We should take this
Art Spiegelman called Mr. Eisner, "a giant, a pioneer, a
In an interview on www.powellsbooks.com, Michael Chabon
noted that Joe, one of the heroes of his novel "The Amazing
Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," shares some features with
Mr. Eisner. "Right from the beginning, he saw comics as
art. He didn't have any compunction about it. He wasn't
apologetic. He didn't have that 'yeah, sorry, I draw
comics' kind of attitude that almost every other artist at
the time did."
Mr. Eisner wrote two books on comic art, "Comic and
Sequential Art" (1985) and "Graphic Storytelling" (1996).
Recently, Dark Horse Press published Mr. Eisner's "Last Day
in Vietnam," a collection of the military battle stories he
wrote in Korea and Vietnam. In 2000, DC Comics started
publishing "The Spirit Archives," a multivolume edition of
the full run of the comic. And this spring W.W. Norton will
release Mr. Eisner's last work, a graphic history titled
"The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders
Mr. Eisner is survived by his wife, Ann, and his son, John.
He will be buried next to his daughter, Alice, who died in
A mark of Mr. Eisner's influence is that one of the most
prestigious awards in the comics business, the Eisner, was
named for him and was presented by him. Mr. Eisner's
biographer, Mr. Andelman, noted that when Mr. Eisner handed
out the award for best serialized story of 2002, one of the
recipients, the writer J. Michael Straczynski, "thrust the
award in the air and remarked: 'You know, you get the Emmy,
you don't get it from Emmy. You win the Oscar, you don't
get it from Oscar. How freakin' cool is this?' "