What more can be said?
More than forty years have passed since Harvey Kurtzman wrote his remarkably prescient homage to a comic strip creator who had retired his strip a decade earlier and had long since moved on to other endeavors. Since this first retrospective by Kurtzman, Will Eisner has been repeatedly discussed, interviewed, scrutinized and celebrated. Indeed, his legendary accomplishments and resulting stature invite Olympian comparisons: He is a Titan, who both preceded and out-lived most of the first-generation comic book creators; the modern Prometheus who refined, defined and gifted humanity with the concepts of sequential art; a Zeus-like presence from whose mighty brow the groundbreaking strip, The Spirit, sprang fully realized like Athena.
…or did it? Before The Spirit was born (or perhaps more accurately, before Denny Colt "died"), there was Wild 'Tex' Martin, 'Hammer' Donovan and Yarko.
My first encounter with Eisner's work came with Christmas 1965 when I was given The Great Comic Book Heroes by Jules Feiffer. At the time, comic books at best bore a childish reputation and at worse still reeked of 50s disrepute. In either case, they were best read out of sight of one's peers lest you be subject to snickers and quizzical stares. This book gave comic books some measure of literary validity. My parents, bless them, bought it for the image of Superman on the dustjacket.
Familiar faces, Superman, Batman and The Flash invited me in, but it was Feiffer's account of Eisner that stayed with me.
"Eisner's line had weight. Clothing sat on his characters heavily; when they bent an arm, deep folds sprang into action everywhere. When one Eisner character slugged another, a real fist hit real flesh. Violence was no externalized plot exercise, it was the gut of his style. Massive and indigestible, it curdled, lava-like, from the page."
The Spirit logically received Feiffer's highest praise and was visually represented in the book, but his mention of another strip, an earlier one, really piqued my interest.
"Will Eisner was an early master of the German expressionist approach in comic books -- the Fritz Lang school. 'Muss 'Em Up' was full of dark shadows, creepy angle shots, graphic close-ups of violence and terror."
Feiffer remembered this story as 'Muss 'Em Up' Donovan and had read it, he said, in an early comic entitled Centaur Funny Pages. Never heard of it; little chance that I'd find a copy. In those nascent days of comic book fandom, my only contact with other fans was in the letter columns of Justice League of America and my first convention was more than a year away.
Four decades, hundreds of conventions, thousands of comic books and one obsession later...
The following effort is not only the result of years of research and collecting on my part, but the invaluable help of numerous people. I will attempt to fully acknowledge all in a section following this text, but let it be known that like Blanche DuBois, "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers." This article is a glimpse at some defining aspects of Will Eisner's work that I believe are often overlooked and is not meant to be a comprehensive text. I have used quotations extensively as I was obviously not a witness to all conversations and comments as well as to lend credibility. Nothing is perfect and I expect errors to occur. Thanks to the updatability of the Internet, this is a living text, and as such, I welcome any corrections and additions to it. Please contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
father was an immigrant," Eisner once said, "He was born in a little village
just outside Vienna, so I am Austrian, I guess…"
"My mother was conceived in Roumania, born on the boat on the way over here, so she was, I suppose, technically American." 1
"I was born in the Williamsbridge neighborhood..." 2
The big news in Williamsbridge was the new extension of the Interborough Rapid Transit train when William Erwin Eisner was born on March 6, 1917. The opening of this subway line accelerated the influx of Eastern European Jews from the Lower East Side of Manhattan into the burgeoning populations of Brooklyn and The Bronx.
the midst of this community, Will's father, just a few years removed from his
native Austria and his work as a church muralist, was struggling. He drifted from
job-to-job, painting houses and scenery for the Yiddish theaters on Second Avenue.
Eventually he landed a job painting metal beds to look like wood. When an illness
curtailed that occupation, he opened a fur-cutting factory, but the elder Eisner
remained an artist at heart.
At some point, the Eisners moved to Brooklyn. Like most budding urban-dwelling artists, many of Will's earliest drawings were in chalk on the streets and sidewalks of his Bensonhurst neighborhood. A small epiphany was realized when 8-year old Will went to the studio of his friend's brother. The brother was working as an animator for Max Fleischer (note: another time Eisner remembered it as Disney 3) and it was then that the very impressed Will decided to make art his career.
As young Will began to develop his own artistic talent, it was his father who was his main source of encouragement.
"I recall my father finding some sort of art school in an effort to help me along, which had a system of teaching art by strapping your arm to a kind of machine which would guide your hand," 4 Eisner said. A visit to the school proved to be a disappointment and Will never attended.
The stock market crash in 1929 and the advent of the Great Depression took its toll on the lower-middle class Eisner family as it had everyone else. His father's fur business failed and the Eisners endured the crushing weight of poverty. For his part Will, in about 1932, began selling newspapers in front of the building at 37 Wall Street ( formerly known as the Morgan Guaranty Building). Ironically, some years later, Eisner's studio was in that same building. Through all the financial hardship, Will maintained his desire to be an artist. A child of his times, whenever possible he attended free, federally funded WPA art classes.
The Eisners eventually settled in The Bronx where Will had the good fortune to attend an all-boys high school noted for its commitment to the arts. De Witt Clinton High School had moved to The Bronx from its previous Manhattan home in 1929 and at the time it was the largest high school in the United States with an enrollment of 12,000 students.
Clinton was a fertile breeding ground for future artists, writers, poets and actors. Among its illustrious alumni are writer James Baldwin, designer Ralph Lauren, actor Burt Lancaster and Eisner's classmate, playwright Adolph Green. The comic world is well represented too, with Bob (Kahn) Kane (class of '34), Bill Finger (class of '32), Stan (Lieber) Lee and Irwin Hasen (both class of '39). Kane was Eisner's close friend in high school and after. (Ironically, Kane did not know Batman co-creator Finger while at Clinton; the two didn't meet until some time later.)
Eisner flourished at Clinton, not only in art, but also in journalism and as a set designer in the theater department . Eisner's earliest published artwork appeared in the school newspaper, The Clintonian, the yearbook and the literary magazine entitled The Magpie. His first attempts at a comic strip, Spunky, ran in weekly installments in the school paper.
Recentlly, inquiries I have made to De Witt Clinton have uncovered several of Eisner's illustrations that may be his first published artwork. In The Art of Will Eisner, editor cat yronwode credits a December 8, 1933 drawing for The Clintonian as the first 5, but it appears that a series of spot illustrations for the June 1933 school yearbook predate it by more than six months.
These art deco drawings, though obviously the work of a young artist (Eisner would have been barely 16 years old at the time), reveal a surprisingly mature sense of design. It is fascinating to see the various styles the young Eisner would try his hand at before he developed his own. This chameleon-like ability would serve him well in the coming years.
Eisner's two page exercise in caricature from the January 1934 yearbook begs the question, "who are these people?" It can be assumed that they were students at Clinton at the time (could either of the Bobs be Bob Kane?), but some of the faces seem a bit mature for high schoolers.
The woodcut above from the November 9,1934 issue of The Clintonian is an early example of Eisner's awareness of one of his professed artistic influences, Lynd Ward. Meanwhile, the illustration from a copy of The Magpie (circa 1935) appears to be a simple rendering of a stark, wintry urban landscape.
OF WOODCUTTERS AND PRACTICAL DREAMERS
This seems to be a good point to make a digression.
Eisner frequently cites his artistic influences and while his many interviewers and biographers dutifully list them, they usually do so with little or no elaboration. His comic strip idols are well known: Milton Caniff, Elzie Segar and George Herriman. But what of the others, the 'fine' artists? As an aid to the curious, here is a little background.
of the artists that influenced me most, I would say, was Lynd Ward, his woodcuts
and wood engravings; they were fantastic."
Lynd Ward (1905-1985) was the leading 20th century American woodcut artist, known for his powerful, stylized imagery. While Eisner was obviously taken with Ward's art, it seems that another aspect of his work left a more lasting impression. Ward developed a format known as the wordless novel, a story told entirely with his striking woodcuts. His first, published in November 1929, was entitled, Gods' Man. Ward went on to create five more wordless novels. Although different in execution, it is easy to see the wordless novel as a direct antecedent to the graphic novel, the comic format Eisner helped pioneer in the 1970s.
from Gods' Man (1929)
from Madman's Drum (1930) from Vertigo (1937)
"The early Man Ray films interested me tremendously. I used to go down to the New School and spend hours looking at these old Man Ray experimental films; and it gradually dawned on me that these films were nothing but frames on a piece of celluloid, which is really no different than frames on a piece of paper. And pretty soon, it became to me film on paper, and so obviously the influence was there." 6
Ray (born Emmanuel Rudnitsky, 1890-1976) is virtually impossible to
sum up in just a few lines. American born (like Eisner, raised in Brooklyn), Ray
found fame and artistic freedom in France. Suffice
it to say he was a protean talent: a leading Dadaist, poet, innovative photographer
(inventor of the cameraless technique known as the Rayograph) , painter, sculptor
and filmmaker. Interestingly, it was this last skill that influenced Eisner. Ray's
films, self-described "inventions of light forms and movements," are
best seen rather than written about. The Getty Museum collection maintains several
Man Ray films on its website which can be accessed by clicking
In some ways, young Eisner may have patterned himself after the versatile genius.
Indeed, Man Ray could have been talking about Eisner when he said, "The
streets are full of admirable craftsmen, but so few practical dreamers."
Man Ray with Pipe (1921)
Perhaps the most significant development of this time was Eisner's offer of a
scholarship to the prestigious Art Students League.
"… I attended the Art Students League and came under the influence of George Bridgman who was a great master of drawing anatomy and as a result influenced me tremendously. In fact, I owe whatever real drawing ability I have, formal drawing ability, to him," 7
George Brandt Bridgman (1864-1943), a Canadian painter, was more significantly,
the legendary instructor of anatomy drawing at the League and author of the revered
anatomy for artists books.
Bridgman taught an amazing number of noted artists in his time, having among his students Norman Rockwell, Mark Rothko, Andrew Loomis, Roy G. Krenkel, Everett Raymond Kinstler and John Cullen Murphy. A Coach in Winter (1894)
two illustrations from Bridgman's Life Drawing (1924)
What of Eisner's literary influences? The master story-teller himself was a voracious reader with eclectic tastes.
"As a youngster, my main source of literary nutrition was Robert Louis Stevenson and Rafael Sabatini. These, mixed with James Fenimore Cooper and later, the gritty pulp magazines, along with the short story genre extant at the time, formed the base of my sense of what adventure was all about." 8
The works of Cooper and Stevenson are still widely known today to even the non-reader. Sabatini is a bit more obscure.
Rafael Sabatini (1875-1950) was a prolific Italian born writer, best known for his swashbuckling tales of adventure. Having eventually settled in England and, writing in English, Sabatini churned out such classic novels as The Sea Hawk, Scaramouche and Captain Blood. The effect these books had on Eisner and his subsequent work is most readily apparent in the various incarnations of The Hawks of the Seas. First conceived as The Flame, Eisner's strip most likely owed some debt to the film versions of Sabatini's works as well.
"I grew up on short stories...I was a fan of Ambrose Bierce's stories, I loved O. Henry..." 9
At one time the writings of Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914?) and O. Henry (pen-name of William Henry Porter, 1862-1910) were required reading for every American school age student. Bierce was the acerbic, misanthropic author of The Devil's Dictionary and the much-read and often filmed , An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge . It was Bierce's ability to create a sense of terror, however, that inspired Eisner to write such stories as The Fortune and to even adapt Bierce's classic short story, The Damned Thing, into a 1948 Spirit story.
The author of such enduring short stories as The Gift of the Magi and The Ransom of Red Chief, O. Henry's name is synonymous with his technique of ending stories with a surprise twist. His influence extended not only to Eisner, but to generations of fiction writers that followed. Readers of any E.C. comic book or viewers of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone felt the impact of
O. Henry's work.
A YOUNG PRO
Eisner blossomed as an artist. During his school
years, the enterprising Eisner illustrated a Gre-Solvent brochure for his first
paid artwork in 1934. (The product was a powdered hand soap and the booklet was
designed to fit within the package.)
He also found time to be art director on a small literary magazine entitled The Medallion and the short-lived women's magazine, Eve. By 1935, he was developing Harry Carey, a humorous detective strip, for presentation to the syndicates. But if not for the determined intervention of his mother, Eisner's career choice may have been quite different.
"There was a fellow named Dunkel (note: George Dunkel, a 1936 Clinton grad) I was at De Witt Clinton with (sic) and his father had a firm that made all the scenery for the Metropolitan Opera," Eisner once said, "I was very excited about that because what I really wanted to do was stage sets…"
"Then he came and said we could get a job; his father had worked it so we could go with a roadshow and do stage sets…"
"I was all excited and went home and my mother was dead against it…she had an aunt or a sister who was a show girl…and this would lead to all kinds of terrible things for her boy. And not only that, but I had to stay around and make some money…"
"So that fell apart." 10
To that end, Eisner's first job out of high school (according to some accounts) was at Hearst's New York American as a copywriter in the advertising department. His short stint there was followed by a job in a print shop and a period as a free-lance artist. A very unsuccessful one. Then a chance conversation with a high school friend in 1936 changed Eisner's life.
"…I asked Bob Kane one day what was around…and Bob told me he had just sold some drawings to a thing called Wow Magazine..." 11
IN THE BEGINNING
Henle a was clothing manufacturer who, if the account in Eisner's roman-à-clef
graphic novel The Dreamer
can be taken as fact, was "…only in fabrics because my father left
it to me! It's my dream to be a publisher!" 12
To edit his fledgling comic magazine, Henle hired an experienced cartoonist who worked previously on Famous Funnies, S. M. 'Jerry' Iger. Iger assembled a staff of artists that included Bob Kane, Dick Briefer, Bernard Bailey and Vernon Henkel in addition to the young Eisner. Eisner's contributions to this effort were the adventure strip Captain Scott Dalton, the pirate tales of The Flame and the revival of his humorous De Witt Clinton creation, Harry Karry.
Wow, What a Magazine! #2 (August 1936)
[this painting of Capt. Scott Dalton is
Eisner's first comic book cover]
Despite this assemblage of talent, Wow- What a Magazine! lasted only four issues. The exact sequence of events following the collapse of Wow! is not entirely clear. Eisner's work continued to appear in various comic books published by Comics Magazine Corporation and its successors, Ultem and Centaur, throughout 1937 and possilby into 1938. In some cases, the stories were reprinted several times, leading to a confusing printing history.
EARLY COMIC WORK
These three stories appeared virtually simultaneiously, in early 1937 and were apparently drawn about the time that Wow! folded. Each features strong central characters and serve as introductions to features that Eisner conceived as continuing series.
(Funny Picture Stories #4, February 1937) Eisner tried
his hand at every popular genre and this obviously was his attempt at a rousing
adventure story. Taking its inspiration from the classic P. C. Wren novel, Beau
Geste (and possibly the 1926 Ronald Colman silent film version), this too
tells the tale of three 'brothers' (actually, three friends) who take on tasks
that the French Foreign Legion can't touch.
Click logo to read complete story
The story is brisk, the art enthusiastic and elements of Eisner's future multinational Blackhawk team can be seen. The continual misspelling of the country Morocco as 'Morrocco' throughout the story is evidence of Eisner's youth and the obvious lack of any editorial oversight.
In this same issue of Funny Picture Stories, the two-page centerspread
is an Eisner illustration of a hockey game. These stand alone 'serious' drawings
were a staple of Eisner's repertoire and varied in subject: sports, Western, movie
Law of Caribou County: (Western Picture Stories #2, March 1937)
Although Eisner already had some experience drawing a feature for a Western pulp,
he art seems a bit unsure in this story. His backgrounds are spare, befitting
a young artist more familiar with an urban landscape, and the characters look
like they'd feel more comfortable in suits than in cowboy duds. Nonetheless, the
story does culminate with a nice 'Eisneresque' panel featuring a large 'The End'
dramtically silhouetting the heroes. 'Wild Tex' Martin made at least one other
appearance in Centaur's Keen Detective Funnies Vol. 1 #9 (August
1938) in a story entitled Top-Hand.
Click logo to read complete story
Muss 'em Up: This legendary, early effort by Eisner has attained a cult-like
status due mostly to Jules Feiffer's vivid description of it in his seminal
book, The Great Comic Book Heroes. As noted by cat yronwode (in The
Art of Will Eisner), it is, "One of the most talked-about but least-seen
of Eisner's early comic book features." However, she makes the same minor
error that Feiffer did in placing it's first appearance in a 1938 issue of Funny
Pages published by Centaur. The the earliest publication was in
Detective Picture Stories #4 (Comics Magazine Co.) in March 1937.
The story was cut up and reprinted several times.
Click logo to read complete story
While relatively crude, the art is inventive and perhaps Eisner's first tentative attempt at skewing panels and distorting angles. Feiffer calls Eisner, "an early master of the German expressionist approach in comic books-the Fritz Lang school." 13 In the broadest sense he was correct, but a more immediate source would seem to be the Warner Brothers films of the era. It's tempting to compare "Hammer" Donovan, the protagonist of Muss 'em Up to Humphrey Bogart's portrayal of Sam Spade, trench coat and all, except for the fact that he predated the movie The Maltese Falcon by four years. Eisner was a great fan of the pulps and likely drew his inspiration from Dashiell Hammett's Black Mask stories such as The Dain Curse and The Glass Key as well as The Maltese Falcon.