“I have problems with villains,” the comic-book virtuoso Will Eisner once said in an interview. “I’ve never been able to see a villain as absolute! Always in the back of my mind I say, ‘I bet he’s good to his mother.’ ”
Humanity leavened with contradiction, pathos, and humor describes the cast of characters Eisner (1917–2005) created in his trailblazing career, most notably in the adventures of a heavy-fisted, lighthearted crime-buster, the Spirit.
The Spirit has been called the Citizen Kane of comics, and it would be accurate to say that Eisner and Orson Welles — the actor/writer/director who brought Charles Foster Kane to life in that 1941 masterpiece — sprouted from the same loam of pulp magazines and cliff-hanging radio serials. Welles then apprenticed in classical theater, while Eisner studied narratives almost as psychologically complex (and more innately American): reams of newspaper strips and Sunday funnies. Both auteurs expanded their mediums in ways we still reckon with today.
The Society of Illustrators’ two-floor retrospective of Eisner’s work reveals that as early as the March 1940 issue of Smash Comics, he was employing noir shadows and dramatically angled viewpoints in tales of global intrigue. Even before the United States entered World War II, Eisner was drawing skulking figures with swastika armbands. The long shadow cast by a dissenter on the street echoes the foreboding of Edward Hopper’s famous Night Shadows etching (which the Brooklyn-born, Bronx-raised Eisner might have seen at the Metropolitan Museum as a teenager, when he sketched the old masters there). In the next panel, this figure has been gunned down; a frightened reporter witnesses the crime, her torso gridded by windowpanes.
The eldest child of immigrant parents (his mother was born on a boat sailing to New York from Romania), Eisner had a true appreciation for the downtrodden. Few artists have had as deep a love affair with New York City’s vast stage-set of elevated trains, sewer grates, streetlights, fire escapes, and clotheslines strung between tenement buildings. Eisner was a poor athlete, but he impressed neighborhood toughs by drawing national hero Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis airplane in chalk on the sidewalk. Eisner was not the first artist to focus his love of physical action in his wrist and fingers, and decades later, in a discussion with the consummate draftsman Milton Caniff (the virtuoso behind the Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon newspaper strips), Eisner described contests with other budding cartoonists as they developed inking skills: “[L]ike two local bullies hand wrestling, one of us would draw a long line and the idea was for the other to go over it without appreciably thickening it, until one or the other would waver his line. I usually lost and bought the beers but it was a great learning process.”
Like many aspiring illustrators, Eisner initially tried to break into the world of high-end advertising, but he bumped up against anti-Semitism in that WASP-dominated business. In those Depression-straitened circumstances, he was willing to do almost any kind of illustration, but he balked at an offer to crank out pornographic comics for a Mobbed-up printer. Eventually he partnered with Jerry Iger, a flamboyant businessman who was trying to get traction in the nascent comic-book field, which had begun by reprinting newspaper strips before branching out into new material modeled on the adventure tales, set in urban alleyways or steaming jungles, found in the pulp magazines of the 1920s. In 1938, Eisner made one of the few bad business decisions of his career when he and Iger turned down a new character mailed to them by two twentysomethings from Cleveland. Later that year Superman took America by storm, heralding the stratospherically popular superhero genre that continues to this day on multiplex screens across the country. But as biographer Michael Schumacher put it, Superman seemed like “kid stuff” to the serious-minded Eisner, requiring “a suspension of belief that dipped into the realm of bad science fiction or fantasy, as well as a format that demanded more action, less story.”
Instead, Eisner wanted street-level drama. In 1940, the 23-year-old sold his half of their comics packaging business to Iger and struck out on his own. He soon hit gold with the Spirit, whose underground hideout in a cemetery contained comfy living quarters and a crime laboratory. Influenced by such pulp magazine heroes as the brawny Doc Savage and the mysterious Shadow, along with Caniff’s adventure strips and the surreal landscapes found in George Herriman’s Krazy Kat panels, the Spirit was a righteous outlaw reliant only on his wits and his fists to defeat corrupt politicians, oily crime bosses, small-change ward heelers, foreign spies — anyone betraying the public trust. Often, the backgrounds of manholes, fire hydrants, and barred windows were drenched in rain, but the characters rose above cliché. Yes, Police Commissioner Dolan could be a bumbler, but he had a professional pride that could get bruised when the Spirit bagged crooks through extrajudicial methods. The boss’s daughter, lovely blonde Ellen Dolan, was predictably in love with the Spirit — but was also independent enough to get elected mayor of Central City, the Gotham stand-in where the stories took place. And Eisner gave his star an African-American sidekick, Ebony White, who, despite the blubber lips and Amos ‘n’ Andy–esque inflections common to many fictional black characters of the time, was presented as a smart and brave assistant who got his boss out of more than one near-fatal scrape.
Packaged in a Sunday newspaper supplement, the self-contained seven-to-eight-page Spirit stories proved a hit with readers, and by 1941 the young artist/writer/entrepreneur had a busy studio employing a staff of ten. As with Rubens before him and Warhol later, Eisner’s name was signed to artwork he never touched; many soon-to-be giants of the medium, including Batman creator Bob Kane and future Village Voice cartoonist Jules Feiffer, did apprenticeships in the Eisner studio. In a mark of his business savvy, Eisner insisted on owning the rights to his characters, and he even had the prescience, as war with Japan threatened, to buy a wholesale quantity of finely crafted Japanese ink brushes — which he preferred over domestic brands — fearing that imports might soon come to an end. Decades later he would joke that he was still using brushes from that stockpile.
An early Spirit board from 1941, displayed in the show, features flailing crooks and bent floor diagonals, hinting at the graphic dynamism to come. Eisner was divining a potential in the medium well beyond what most of his peers could fathom, and a newspaper article at the time noted Eisner’s belief that comic strips had the potential to become “an illustrated novel” offering “material for limitless intelligent development.”
But first came World War II. Eisner enlisted, turning most of the Spirit duties over to his studio. He convinced his superiors in the Army that comics could be an entertaining way to instruct soldiers in the proper care of equipment, and his instinct that the medium would mature with its audience was borne out — at the height of the war, 30 percent of all mail sent to servicemen overseas was comics. To educate the troops, Eisner created Joe Dope, a bumbling private who constantly mishandled equipment. In one watercolor in the show, an angry aviator manhandles Joe for overheating a .50 caliber machine gun and warping the barrel. The brass deemed the pamphlets effective, and Eisner’s company cranked out preventive-maintenance comics into the early 1970s.
But it was after Eisner returned to civilian life, in 1945, that he did his best Spirit work, represented in the show by a story about attempted murder among syndicated cartoonists, a parody of the wildly popular Li’l Abner, Dick Tracy, and Little Orphan Annie sagas. The four panels of the opening “splash” page (an industry term denoting a dynamic graphic treatment) progress like a boom shot from Citizen Kane, rising from the overflowing street gutter up to and through a skylight where a victim is sprawled across his drawing board. The word SPIRIT blows along the curb like an abandoned newspaper. Eisner was a master of physical typography, crafting the Spirit logo out of everything from apartment buildings to a chair for one of his bombshell anti-heroines to lounge upon. The newspaper syndicates complained, believing the design changes would confuse readers, but Eisner argued that having a bold splash page would grab those readers as they flipped through the four-color cacophony of a Sunday edition. Eisner’s “logotecture,” as it came to be known, influenced the design of many later comic-book covers, and one wonders how many of those plunging 3-D titles for Fifties sci-fi films took cues from this postwar master. Academy Award–winning director William Friedkin acknowledged that an Eisner cover featuring the Spirit racing along elevated train tracks was a major influence on the hair-raising chase sequence in The French Connection. Eisner’s graphic pyrotechnics — along with vertiginous perspectives, evocative body language, and dead-on details of furniture and moldings — smoothed over the occasional plot hole that sometimes arose through the series’ relentless weekly production schedule.
Comics fell into a bad odor in the 1950s, accused in U.S. Senate hearings of contributing to juvenile delinquency. The Spirit ended its run in 1952 and Eisner spent the following two decades concentrating on his educational comics for the Army and industry. In 1966, however, he revived the Spirit for a five-page story in the New York Herald Tribune about the previous year’s mayoral race. The catalog notes that the word balloons had been attached to acetate overlays that have since been lost, perhaps appropriate for a contest where the always tart conservative Bill Buckley, when asked what he would do if he won, famously replied, “Demand a recount.”
In the early Seventies, Eisner was pleasantly surprised when comics aficionados who remembered The Spirit from their youth approached him about publishing reprint editions. Fans who had only heard of the legendary character were thrilled, and while there were a few angry exchanges in letters columns over whether Ebony was a racist caricature or a fully realized character whom Eisner had endowed with true dignity, the times were definitely a-changin’. It was in this period that Eisner began realizing the “illustrated novel” concept he’d first envisioned over three decades earlier. The result was A Contract With God (1978), represented in the exhibition through boards depicting the grumpy super of a tenement building who sums up his attitude toward tenants with one phlegmy gesture: “Ptooy!!” The story’s opening page features a graphic spaghetti of basement pipes and steps, setting the mood for interwoven tales of poverty and perseverance. Boards from the serialized story Life on Another Planet include imaginative panel layouts that segue between vast reaches of space and a man in an office chair; scattered stars on one page are echoed on the next by torn shreds of paper containing a message from aliens. Eisner had long mastered the inspired leaps across time and space that can be implied between comic panels on the same page (one of the medium’s big advantages over the linear flow of movie scenes), and the existential narratives of his graphic novels explore wide-ranging subjects, from the death of a child to the anti-Semitic calumnies of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In the early 1980s Eisner described his struggle to convey these melancholy themes: “I had to feel it. I sat there at the board and acted it out in my head,” he told the brilliant caricaturist Jack Davis during a shoptalk discussion, adding, “We are actors who haven’t got the courage to get up on the stage and do it.”
But Eisner had been brave enough to drive a young art form toward its full potential, even after he’d been dismayed to discover at the start of his career that, as he later put it, “Everybody who edited comics decided that comic-book readers were ten-year-old cretins in Kansas City.” Starting with The Spirit and through a half-century of innovation, Eisner never wrote down to his audience but instead embodied his 1941 prophecy of “limitless intelligent development.” And while he did not create the first “graphic novel” — there were many antecedents, including Lynd Ward’s wordless woodcut narratives from the 1930s — Eisner set a standard for such later masterpieces as Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen. The reigning genius of the field, Moore once summed up the biggest achievement of the kid from Brooklyn: “Eisner is the single person most responsible for giving comics its brains.”
Will Eisner: The Centennial Celebration 1917–2017
The Society of Illustrators
128 East 63rd Street, 212-838-2560
March 1–June 3 (opening reception March 10)