Jun 10, 2010

Top Ten Most Influential Comics Artists #2: Will Eisner

Welcome to the penultimate installment of the top 10 most influential artists of all time! Click here for the archive!

Today's influential artist is Will Eisner!

Why Is He Influential?

How could Will Eisner not be influential? Moreso, how could he not be this high up on the list? If things had been a little different, if cultures had been a little more accepting, Will Eisner would undoubtedly have been number one.

When Will Eisner started working on The Spirit in 1940, he was already breaking new ground. His work, rough-hewn though it was, as rooted in a realistic style, already showed the inventiveness and innovation that he would come to be known for. In an industry - and at the time, in a world - where the only thing in high demand was the superhero, Eisner was tasked to come up with one. Not wanting one, he drew a mask and gloves on the detective he was working on, named Denny Colt, and the Spirit was born! Although ostensibly a superhero, Denny Colt was really a detective, a crimebuster, and, as was atypical of superheroes then, all too human.

After Eisner had his studio artists (a list which included Jack Kirby, Joe Kubert, Jules Feiffer, and most importantly for this article, Lou Fine and Jack Cole) ghost the strip for a few years while he was off serving his country during World War II, he came back and truly cut loose. Gone was the realistic style in which the art was rooted; instead Eisner used a cartoony style, more emotive and more suggestive of gestures and emotions. (It wasn't until Neal Adams came along, I think, that artists really knew how to merge a realistic style with the advantages of the cartoony style.)

But beyond the cartoony style, Eisner removed the constraints that the comic book medium, so young at the time, had foisted upon its artists. Comic books then were made from an assembly line - "You draw the stuff, we'll put the words on it, and we'll have it out before lunch." - and you could tell, with words and pictures always seeming to be more competitive with one another than working in unison. Eisner proved it didn't have to be that way, even incorporating the words into the art:

In fact, one of his lasting legacies is what became known as "logotechture" or "architexture", wherein he somehow worked his main character's name into the backdrop of any given story (Jim Craig has actually related an experience demonstrating how easy it was for Eisner to come up with these):

The only constraint Eisner had was a seven-page limit for each strip, so he had to come up with various solutions to expedite the narrative without sacrificing mood, hence the cartoony style - expressing gesture as quickly as possible - and the logotechture, setting the scene while at the same time making the necessary introductions. And it forced him to be very, very creative with layouts. Here are just a few examples. Note how in the final example, the details of the "cold" case are written on index cards, with notepaper in the background, and when we cut back to the present day, Eisner takes us back to the conventional panels:

And of course, Eisner was a master of setting the mood, building up the tension until the big money shot (note again how essential the lettering is here):

And taking us into the minds of his characters. Note how we see things through the killer's eyes here:

After retiring The Spirit in 1952, Eisner released what is known as the first-ever "graphic novel" (a term he coined) in 1978, A Contract With God, wherein he tried out even more techniques and discarded even more constraints! A Contract With God, meant to evoke memory, was printed on sepia-colored paper, and used very little panel borders, thus enabling the images to blend together, just like in dreams. Or in memories.

Will Eisner would continue to create an average of one graphic novel a year. Fittingly, however, the last piece of published work he would see in his lifetime is a crossover between his Spirit and Michael Chabon's The Escapist. It's nice when things come full circle.

What Works of His Should I Read?

There is absolutely no substitute for The Spirit. It is a veritable textbook for how to make comics. Practically every technique that has been prevalent in Western comics that has ever been invented in terms of telling a story with sequential art was created in The Spirit, and any other technique that came afterward built off of The Spirit. DC has just finished releasing all of The Spirit Archives, which collects every Spirit story done by Eisner, including the oddities after 1952 (though not, I think, the one with the Escapist).

I recommend getting anything and everything done after 1946. That having been said, it's incredibly pricey, so there's the Best of The Spirit, which is pretty good.

For his non-Spirit work, there's, of course, A Contract With God, but I'm actually very partial to The Dreamer, just because it's a biographical piece at heart.

And for anyone who wants to make comics, there are no substitutes for Eisner's books, Comics and Sequential Art:

Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative:

and Will Eisner's Expressive Anatomy: 

Where Can I See His Influence?

George Perez once remarked that he was using Eisner-influenced effects before he even found out who Eisner was. Alan Moore once remarked that Eisner is the person solely responsible for giving comics its brains. There is practically no one working in American comics today that hasn't somehow been influenced by the greatness of Will Eisner. Now that's influence.

The influence of Will Eisner can really be felt in the Will Eisner tribute issue that Comic Book Artist put out a few years ago. At 252 pages, it includes testimonials from people who have been influenced by Eisner, or on whom Eisner has made an impact. The list includes people such as Art Spiegelman, Harvey Kurtzman, Robert Crumb, Jules Feiffer, Michael Chabon, Mike Wieringo, Michael Allred, Darwyn Cooke, Neil Gaiman, Jim Steranko, Bill Sienkewicz, Jack Kirby, Ron Lim, Dave Gibbons, David Lloyd, Fred Hembeck, Murphy Anderson, Gilbert Hernandez, Scott McCloud, Lynn Johnston, Paul Levitz, Stan Lee, David Mazzucchelli, Shawn McManus, Al Milgrom, Frank Miller, Denny O'Neil, Jerry Ordway, Dave Sim, Jeff Smith, Mike Mignola, Craig Thompson, Rick Veitch, Ty Templeton, and Alan Moore.

I encourage finding the Alan Moore/Rick Veitch Greyshirt episodes, which can be found in the Tomorrow Stories paperbacks. One story (though I'm not sure if it's in the paperback) is a tribute to Will Eisner. Greyshirt himself is Moore and Veitch's analogue for the Spirit, and in this particular adventure, called A Greyshirt Primer, Greyshirt takes us on a tour of Eisner from A to Z.

There is almost literally no one who has ever worked in American comics that hasn't felt the influence of Will Eisner. And if things had been just a little different, he would have been number one.

Where Can I Officially Find Him Online?

Will Eisner's official Web site is right here.


Anonymous said...

Actually the escapist is indeed included in one of the Spirit Archive volumes, number 26.

Anonymous said...

Wasn't there also a reference to The Spirit in the Batman Animated Series called "The Grey Ghost"?

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