Will Eisner (Iam Erwin)
Will Eisner (Iam Erwin) was born March 6, 1917, in New York, NY; died January 3, 2005, in Fort Lauderdale, FL.
Author, cartoonist, publisher. New York American, New York, NY, staff artist, 1936; Eisner & Iger, New York, NY, founder, partner, 1937-40; Eisner-Arnold Comic Group, New York, NY, founder, publisher, 1940-46; author and cartoonist of syndicated newspaper feature, “The Spirit,” 1940-52; founder and president of American Visuals Corp., beginning in 1949; president of Bell McClure North American Newspaper Alliance, 1962-64; executive vice-president of Koster-Dana Corp., 1962-64; president of Educational Supplements Corp., 1965-72; chair of the board of Croft Educational Services Corp., 1972-73; member of faculty of School of Visual Arts, New York, NY, beginning 1973. President of IPD Publishing Co., Inc. Member of the board of directors of Westchester Philharmonic. Military service: U.S. Army, Ordnance, 1942-45.
Princeton Club (New York, NY).
Comic book artist of the year, National Cartoonists Society, 1967; best artist, National Cartoonists Society, 1968-69; award for the quality of art in comic books, Society of Comic Art Research, 1968; International Cartoonist Award, 1974; named to Hall of Fame of the Comic Book Academy; Eisner Award for Best Archival Collection, 2001, for The Spirit Archives.
A Pictorial Arsenal of America’s Combat Weapons, Sterling (New York, NY), 1960.
America’s Space Vehicles: A Pictorial Review, edited by Charles Kramer, Sterling (New York, NY), 1962.
A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories, Baronet (New York, NY), 1978.
(With P. R. Garriock and others) Masters of Comic Book Art, Images Graphiques (New York, NY), 1978.
Odd Facts, Ace Books (New York, NY), 1978.
Dating and Hanging Out (for young adults), Baronet (New York, NY), 1979.
Funny Jokes and Foxy Riddles, Baronet (New York, NY), 1979.
Ghostly Jokes and Ghastly Riddles, Baronet (New York, NY), 1979.
One Hundred and One-Half Wild and Crazy Jokes, Baronet (New York, NY), 1979.
Spaced-Out Jokes, Baronet (New York, NY), 1979.
The City (narrative portfolio), Hollygraphic, 1981.
Life on Another Planet (graphic novel), Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1981.
Will Eisner Color Treasury, text by Catherine Yronwode, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1981.
Illustrated Roberts Rules of Order, Bantam (New York, NY), 1983.
Spirit: Color Album, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1981–1983.
(Catherine Yronwode, with Denis Kitchen) The Art of Will Eisner, introduction by Jules Feiffer, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1982.
(Coauthor, with Jules Feiffer and Wallace Wood) Outer Space Spirit, 1952, edited by Denis Kitchen, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1983.
The signal from Space, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1983.
Will Eisner’s Quarterly, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1983–86.
Will Eisner’s 3-D Classics Featuring. ., Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1985.
Comics and Sequential Art, Poorhouse (Tamarac, FL), 1985.
Will Eisner’s Hawks of the Seas, 1936-1938, edited by Dave Schreiner, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1986.
Will Eisner’s New York, the Big City, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1986.
Will Eisner’s The Dreamer, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1986.
The Building, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1987.
A Life Force, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1988.
City People Notebook, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1989.
Will Eisner’s Spirit Casebook, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1990–98.
Will Eisner Reader: Seven Graphic Stories by a Comics Master, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1991.
To the Heart of the Storm, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1991.
The White Whale: An Introduction to “Moby Dick,” Story Shop (Tamarac, FL), 1991.
The Spirit: The Origin Years, Kitchen Sink (Princeton, WI), 1992.
Invisible People, Kitchen Sink (Northampton, MA), 1993.
The Christmas Spirit, Kitchen Sink (Northampton, MA), 1994.
Sketchbook, Kitchen Sink (Northampton, MA), 1995.
Dropsie Avenue: The Neighborhood, Kitchen Sink (Northampton, MA), 1995.
Graphic Storytelling, Poorhouse (Tamarac, FL), 1996.
(Adapter) Moby Dick by Herman Melville, NBM (New York, NY), 1998.
A Family Matter, Kitchen Sink (Northampton, MA), 1998.
(Reteller) The Princess and the Frog by the Grimm Brothers, NBM (New York, NY), 1999.
Minor Miracles: Long Ago and Once Upon a Time, Back when Uncles Were Heroic, Cousins Were Clever, and Miracles Happened on Every Block, DC Comics (New York, NY), 2000.
The Last Knight: An Introduction to “Don Quixote” by Miguel de Cervantes, NBM (New York, NY), 2000.
Last Day in Vietnam: A Memory, Dark Horse (Milwaukie, OR), 2000.
Will Eisner’s The Spirit Archives, DC Comics (New York, NY), 2000.
The Name of the Game, DC Comics (New York, NY), 2001.
Will Eisner’s Shop Talk, Dark Horse (Milwaukie, OR), 2001.
(With Dick French, Bill Woolfolk, and others) The Blackhawk Archives, DC Comics (New York, NY), 2001.
Fagin the Jew, Doubleday (New York, NY), 2003.
(Adapter) Sundiata: A Legend of Africa, NMB (New York, NY), 2003.
For U.S. Department of Defense, creator of comic strip instructional aid, P. S. Magazine,1950, and for U.S. Department of Labor, creator of career guidance series of comic booklets, Job Scene, 1967. Also creator of comic strips, sometimes under pseudonyms Will Erwin and Willis Rensie, including “Uncle Sam,” “Muss ’em Up Donovan,” “Sheena,” “The Three Brothers,” “Blackhawk,” “K-51,” and “Hawk of the Seas.” Author of newspaper feature, “Odd Facts.” Also a contributor to Artwork for “9-11 Emergency Relief,” issued by Alternative Comics, 2001.
Cartoonist Will Eisner, the creator of many popular comic strips, was also well known as a pioneer in the educational applications of this medium. Throughout his fifty-plus-year career, he created a host of comic-book characters to guide young people in their choice of a career, to instruct military personnel, and simply to entertain children of all ages.
Will Eisner has also produced a series of comic-book training manuals for developing nations, which teach modern farming techniques and the maintenance of military equipment. These booklets are used by the Agency for International Development, the United Nations, and the U.S. Department of Defense.
Will Eisner’s career began in the mid-1930s when he sold his first comic feature, “Scott Dalton,” to Wow! magazine. He went on to create more comic strips, including “Sheena, Queen of the Jungle” and his best-known work, “The Spirit,” a weekly adventure series published as an insert in Sunday papers from 1940 to 1951.
This strip featured protagonist Denny Colt, a private investigator who is seriously injured, and presumed dead, after an explosion in the laboratory of evil scientist Dr. Cobra. Once Colt recovers, he vows to exploit his new anonymity to enhance his ability to bring hardened criminals to justice. The strip, renowned for its social satire, also featured the first African-American character to make ongoing appearances in an American comic feature.
In 1942, Eisner was drafted into the U.S. Army, where he was put to work designing safety posters. He also used cartoon-strip techniques to simplify the military’s training manual for equipment maintenance, ArmyMotors. After his discharge in 1946, Will Eisner continued to write and illustrate “The Spirit,” but decided to discontinue the strip in 1951.
He then founded the American Visuals Corporation, a company that produced comic books for schools and businesses. In 1967, the U.S. Department of Labor asked Eisner to create a comic book that would appeal to potential school dropouts. The result was Job Scene, a series of booklets designed to introduce career choices to young people in the hope that they would see the need for further education. Job Scene proved so successful that several national publishers have issued similar series.
Eisner also developed P.S. Magazine, an instructional manual for the U.S. Department of Defense designed to replace the verbose, unwieldy technical manuals formerly used by military trainers. Eisner wrote in a 1974 article for Library Journal: “The significance of comics as a training device is perhaps not so much the use of time-honored sequential art as the language accompanying the pictures.
For example, P.S. Magazine . . . employed the soldier’s argot, rendering militarise into common language. The magazine said ‘Clean away the crud from the flywheel’ instead of ‘All foreign matter should be removed from the surface of the flywheel and the rubber belt which it supports.'” Eisner’s version reduced the original one-hundred-word section describing that procedure to a sequence of three panels which quickly and simply presented the necessary instruction.
The immediate visual impact and simple language used in P.S. Magazine are assets which Eisner believes make comics desirable in more traditional classroom situations.
Critics, however, complain that while teachers are trying to instill a healthy respect for proper language, comic books and strips violate every rule of grammar. In his Publishers Weekly article, Eisner responded: “This is an understandable criticism, but it is based on the assumption that cartoons are designed primarily to teach language. Comics are a message in themselves... To readers living in the ghetto and playing in the street and schoolyard, comic books, with their inventive language, argot, and slang, serve as no other literature does.”
Eisner believes it is remarkable that many reading teachers are still reluctant to adopt this “inviting material.” He praises those educators who have recognized the merit in his art form.
Eisner concluded his Publishers Weekly article with a commentary on the improving status of comics in the schools: “In schools, comic strip reprints are reaching reluctant readers who are either unresponsive or hostile to traditional books… Certain qualities distinctive to comic books support their educational importance. Perhaps their most singular characteristic is timeliness. Comics appeal to readers when they deal with ‘now’ situations, or treat them in a ‘now’ manner. Working in a high-speed transmission, the author faces instant acceptance or rejection.
He or she is writing for a transient audience who are in a hurry to savor vicarious experiences. Loyalties are to the characters themselves, so the need for imaginative storytelling is great. Equally vital is the choice of terms. The reader’s instant recognition of symbols and concepts challenges the ingenuity and empathy of comic-book creators.”
Satisfying as his educational-and vocational-based work had been, Eisner was drawn back to narrative forms again in the mid-1970s, after he attended a comic-book convention and was inspired by the innovative work he saw there, in particular, that of underground cartoonist R. Crumb. In 1975 he began work on what he called a “graphic novel,” published three years later as A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories. Unlike his earlier adventure comics, this work is a serious treatment of such serious themes as religious faith, sexual betrayal, and prejudice.
Other graphic novels, which depicted the lives of Jewish immigrants in America, followed, including Life on Another Planet, Big City, A Life Force, and Minor Miracles. Eisner’s 2001 graphic novel, The Name of the Game, is a multigenerational family saga about the Arnheim family, who expand their businesses from corset manufacturing to stockbrokers. Though Booklist reviewer Gordon Flagg found the book melodramatic and predictable, the critic appreciated Eisner’s “expressive” artwork and noted that the book reflects “a sensibility somehow appropriate to the period and subject.”
Eisner has also used the comic-strip medium to adapt literary classics, including Don Quixote and Moby Dick as well as fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm. These projects have received mixed reviews. Susan Weitz of School Library Journal found Eisner’s version of Moby Dick“simplistic” and disappointing; Booklistcontributor Francisca Goldsmith, however, considered it highly successful in conveying the original work’s plot, characterizations, and mood. Similar differences marked critical reception to the last Knight: An Introduction to “Don Quixote” by Miguel de Cervantes.
Marian Drabkin commented in School Library Journal that, in Eisner’s hands, Don Quixote becomes merely a “clownish madman whose escapades are slapstick and pointless,” while Cervantes depicted him as a much more complex character. Booklist critic Roger Leslie, on the other hand, felt that Will Eisner’s book is “faithful to the spirit of the original” and an excellent introduction to the great classic.
In Comics and Sequential Art, Will Eisner explains the unique aspects of sequential art: imagery, frames, timing, and the relationship between the written word and visual design. Ken Marantz, reviewing the book’s twenty-first printing for School Arts, praised its clarity, creativity, and detailed descriptions, and concluded that the book is a valuable introduction to an innovative medium for creative expression.
Despite being an octogenarian, Will Eisner has continued to work vigorously. In Fagin the Jew, published in 2003, Eisner takes the famous character from Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist and tells his personal story, one in which Fagin comes out in a much better light. As told by Eisner, Fagin was virtually forced into crime as a youth because of circumstances, not the least of which was the general prejudice against his family as Ashkenazi Jews.
“As written by Will Eisner, Fagin gains depth and humanity, and he could have found success on the right side of the law had not persecution, poverty, and bad luck hindered him,” wrote Steve Raiteri in Library Journal. The graphic novel includes a foreword explaining the probable historical antecedents of the tale and how they related to Dickens’s portrayal of Jews.
While noting that Will Eisner’s depiction of nineteenth-century London is “wholly convincing,” a Publishers Weekly reviewer felt that “the story errs on the side of extreme coincidence and melodrama.” Library Journal contributor Steve Weiner commented that “Will Eisner masterfully weaves a Dickensian story of his focusing on racism and stereotypes.” Francisca Goldsmith, writing in School Library Journal noted that the book would appeal to readers looking for another view of the Dickens classic but was “also for those concerned with media influence on stereotypes and the history of immigration issues.”
In another 2003 publication, Will Eisner adapted an African story set in the thirteenth century for the graphic novel, Sundiata: A Legend of Africa. The story revolves around the death of the Mali peoples’ leader and their subsequent conquest by a tyrant, who can control the elements. Sundiata, son of the former Mali leader, eventually leads his people in the victory against their oppressor.
Booklist contributor Carlos Orellana felt that the ending was unsatisfying but noted that “the plot flows smoothly; the telling never feels rushed; and the sequential art, which is full of movement and expression, gives the familiar good-versus-evil theme extra depth.” Steve Raiteri, writing in Library Journal, commented that the book would interest not only children but that teens and adults as well would “appreciate Eisner’s concise and clear storytelling and his dramatic artwork, distinctively colored in grays and earth tones.”
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, August 1998, Gordon Flagg, review of A Family Matter, p. 1948; December 15, 1999, Stephanie Zvirin, review of The Princess and the Frog by the Grimm Brothers, p. 780; June 1, 2000, Roger Leslie, review of The Last Knight: An Introduction to “Don Quixote” by Miguel de Cervantes, p. 1884; August 2000, Gordon Flagg,
review of The Spirit Archives, p. 2094; September 15, 2000, Gordon Flagg, review of Minor Miracles, p. 200; November 15, 2001, Francisca Goldsmith, review of Moby Dick by Herman Melville, p. 568, and “Sequential Art Meets the White Whale,” p. 569; February 1, 2002, Gordon Flagg, review of The Name of the Game, p. 914; February 1, 2003, Carlos Orellana, review of Sundiata: A Legend of Africa, p. 984; September 1, 2003, Gordon Flagg, review of Fagin the Jew, p. 76.
College English, February 1995, George Dardess, review of Comics and Sequential Art,p. 213.
Library Journal, October 15, 1974, Will Eisner, “Comic Books in the Library”; June 1, 1991, Keith R. A. DeCandido, review of To the Heart of the Storm, p. 134; October 15, 1974; September 15, 2000, Stephen Weiner, review of Minor Miracles, p. 66; March 1, 2003, Steve Raiteri, review of Sundiata: A Legend of Africa,p. 74; November 1, 2003, Steve Raiteri, review of Fagin the Jew, p. 60.
New York Review of Books, June 21, 2001, David Hajdu, “The Spirit of the Spirit,” p. 48.
Philadelphia Magazine, August 1984, Jack Curtin, “Signals from Space,” p. 70.
Publishers Weekly, October 4, 1985, review of Comics and Sequential Art, p. 75; March 25, 1988, review of A Life Force, p. 61; March 22, 1991, review of To the Heart of the Storm, p. 76; June 21, 1991, review of Will Eisner Reader: Seven Graphic Stories by a Comics Master, p. 58; May 8, 1995, review of Dropsie Avenue: The Neighborhood, p. 293; January 3, 2000, review of The Princess and the Frog, p. 78; November 17, 2003, review of Fagin the Jew, p. 46.
School Arts, April 2002, Ken Marantz, review of Comics and Sequential Art, p. 58.
School Library Journal, July 2000, Marian Drabkin, review of The Last Knight, p. 115; January 2002, Susan Weitz, review of Moby Dick by Herman Melville, p. 138; February 2003, John Peters, review of Sundiata, p. 129; January 2004, Francisca Goldsmith, review of Fagin the Jew, p. 166.
Variety, September 28, 1988, “Comic Book Confidential,” p. 30.
Whole Earth, spring, 1998, review of The Spirit,p. 25
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