The Spirit of Will Eisner: Celebrating a Graphic Novel Pioneer
Today, March 6th, 2017, marks what would have been Will Eisner's 100th birthday. Will Eisner is commonly recognized as the father of the graphic novel and is considered one of the most innovative and influential comic book artists of the 20th century. In 1940, Eisner created what would become his most well-known character, "the Spirit". The "Spirit," a masked detective hero, appeared every Sunday as a comic book insert and was distributed in 20 newspapers until the early 1950s. Unlike other super-heros of the time, "the Spirit" was entirely human with no superpowers, and did not even carry a weapon.
In May of 1942, Eisner was drafted to serve in World War II, there he was assigned to work on his camp's newspaper. Shortly after that, he began to produce a humorous weekly comic strip entitled Private Dogtag, which told the mis-adventures of Otis Dogtag, a private who was incapable of doing anything right. Eisner soon began to see the effects that these strips had on his fellow soldiers. He realized how he was able to communicate / connect with them and use comics as an informal educational tool. Later, he would go on to create the most inept soldier ever to serve in the United States Army, Joe Dope, a new version of Otis Dogtag. A Joe Dope comic strip ran in Army Motors (a mimeographed publication that aimed to educate servicemen about equipment maintenance) and the character appeared in numerous posters and other educational materials dealing with preventive maintenance that were distributed at Army bases throughout the US.
In 1978, Eisner took the comic book industry by surprise when he published his groundbreaking graphic novel A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories. Commonly considered to be one of the first American graphic novels, A Contract with God showed the true potential of comic books when it deviated from the light-hearted or humorous themes that usually appeared in comics. It introduced subjects that had rarely been explored before, such as poverty, religion, and morality concerns. Eisner demonstrated that he was ahead of his time, but the graphic novel wasn't as prevalent when first published as it would later become. Among comic book artists, it was praised from the start for its experimentation with visual display and format. It took the leap that inspired generations of comic book artists and creators.
Will Eisner would continue his career experimenting with and pushing the limits of the comic book medium through the use of border-less panels, unrestricted text, and display of dramatic subject matters. Some of his most recognized graphic novels include: A Family Matter, Will Eisner's New York : life in the big city, To the Heart of the Storm, The Name of the Game, Dropsie Avenue: the neighborhood, among many others.
In 1988, the Eisner Awards was created. It is recognized as one of the most prestigious awards of the comic industry.
To celebrate the legacy of Will Eisner on his centennial anniversary, the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building currently has on exhibit on the third floor: The Spirit of Will Eisner: Celebrating a Graphic Novel Pioneer. Open until March 26th.
For additional resources on comics and graphic novels, click on the following links to research guides and blog posts:
- Comic Books
- Comics at NYPL: A Research Guide
- Blog Posts by Subject: Comics and Graphic Novels
- Rare Book Division comic book collection
- Guide to the Will Eisner Collection at The Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum