Will Eisner died on Monday. He was 87 years old.
I first got an appreciation for Eisner’s work when I interned at Kitchen Sink Press. They were putting together a collection of The Spirit, the comic Eisner started drawing in 1939, and it was my job to handle the fragile, acid-crumbled, eight-page newspaper inserts for xeroxing as references. The comics were hard-boiled detective stories with a sense of the ridiculous, a mixture of fluid slapstick with some of the most emotive art I’d seen in comics. I felt like he was challenging himself more than most of the comic book artists of the day, showing a fluidity of motion unseen in early Superman or Batman and no fear about embarrassing his hero by showing all that can go wrong in a caper.
Eisner went off to war and returned to The Spirit for a few years, but his interests led him to delve into what made a comic and what it could do. He wrote two great books on the mechanics of comic book storytelling, exploring such ideas as why a camera angle or the shape of a panel changes a viewer’s emotional reaction to a scene and the problems of dramatic pacing and backstory in comics of different lengths. Then he revolutionized the field by writing and illustrating A Contract With God, the first graphic novel (a word he also pioneered). What was revolutionary about this collection was that rather than being a superhero or horror or ‘funny animal’ comic, it was a collection of tales about the petty ups and downs of life in tenement housing, told through images and words. It stepped outside the conventions, made comic books a medium rather than a genre, and paved the way for such groundbreaking works as Maus and Watchmen. His influence is recognized on almost every page of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, the most highly regarded deconstruction of the medium.
May his memory be a blessing.