Issue 005 of Access included an in-depth article about the life and work of the late graphic novel extraordinaire Will Eisner. Dr. Andrew Kunka from the University of South Carolina Sumter contributed to the article, including an interview that we would like to share here. While the Will Eisner gallery exhibit mentioned here has moved on, Richland Library still offers many of Eisner's works in our catalog, linked below.
What impression(s) would you hope people take away from the Will Eisner gallery?
First, that Will Eisner was a comics creator who continued to push artistic boundaries and to find innovative storytelling techniques throughout his nearly 70 years in comics. His innovations weren’t limited to comic art and storytelling. He also helped revolutionize the production of comic books through the studio he created with Jerry Iger in 1936, and his work on PS magazine for the military and other government publications demonstrated the educational potential of the comics medium.
The exhibit shows the development of both his style and his sensibilities. It begins with his prewar work in the Espionage feature and early Spirit sections, where his style is relatively straightforward, but we can still see signs of his later work. It then shifts to his postwar work on the Spirit section, which is where his reputation as one of the most innovative and experimental comics artists begins to take hold. There is a lot worth pointing out here, but one of my favorites is the splash page for “The Story of Gerhard Schobble,” which incorporates a photograph for the background and shows an expressive use of text as well as image. The exhibit skips over his work on PS magazine, which provided instruction on maintenance and accident prevention for the US military. This work occupied Eisner for nearly 25 years, until he began to develop his first graphic novel, A Contract with God. The later examples in the exhibit showcase the evolution of Eisner’s style over the last thirty or so years of his career.
I also hope that people who attend this exhibit seek out Eisner’s work if they are not familiar with it. And if they are familiar with it, they can see examples of how his creative process worked, and gain a new perspective on it.
What was unique about Eisner’s illustration style?
This is a complicated question because we’re talking about a creator who was not only active for almost 70 years, but who continuously tried to evolve in terms of style and storytelling. Looking at his earlier pre-war work, we can see some hints of the style he was best known for, but it was only after he returned to the Spirit following WW II where he really cuts loose. There, he develops innovative page layouts and panel design, dynamic action scenes, expressive figure drawing, impressionistic scene setting, the use of shadows, and so on. He thought through pretty much every aspect of the comics creation process and used the short story format of the Spirit series to try out different approaches. When he moves into the graphic novel form later, with A Contract with God,he is no longer constrained by page limits, and so his work opens up and breathes. He does away with traditional panel borders or uses full-page panels to expand the dramatic impact of a scene. His characters are expressive, and their personalities are immediately recognizable just from their appearance. There is also a fluidity to his linework that is more prevalent in these later works. His settings also create a mood: it may be a cliché to say that a city or a building “becomes a character” in a work, but it’s really true in Eisner’s work, especially the tenement on Dropsie Ave. that’s featured in A Contract with God. Finally, I’d also like to point out the lettering style Eisner uses, which has a visual quality that makes it a key component to the emotional impact that Eisner conveys.
How are Eisner’s storytelling techniques echoed in later generations?
Few comics creators have had as much impact on future generations of cartoonists than Will Eisner, so it’s hard to pin down specifics. We can see traces of Eisner’s work throughout the last 70 years of comics, from choices about panel borders to the way action scenes are depicted to how clothes wrinkle and fold on the human body or rain washes over a window. Though A Contract with God is not the first “graphic novel,” many creators cite it as the work that inspired them to make long-form comics stories—in a sense, it gave them permission to break free of the constraints of the periodical comic book format.
How do Eisner’s works reflect 20th century America?
The Spirit, especially in its postwar years, reflects an urban landscape and life. It also, unfortunately, reflects some common racial stereotypes, especially in Eisner’s caricatured depiction of the Spirit’s African American sidekick, Ebony White. Despite Eisner’s innovations in so many other areas, he still perpetuated these stereotypes, and that’s a problem with his work that shouldn’t be ignored or glossed over.
His later work goes deeper into the themes and struggles of urban life in the 20th century. And because he was publishing his graphic novels outside of the traditional comic book industry, he was not limited by the Comics Code or other editorial restrictions on the content, so his work could explore darker and more sophisticated themes.
What was Eisner’s relationship to the US military following his World War II service?
Eisner was an innovator in the application of the comics form for educational purposes, and much of his work in this area began during his time with the US Army during World War II, where he created safety and maintenance instructional comics in the Army Motors publication. These comics significantly decreased the number of accidents that the military experienced. Following the war, Eisner returned to the Spirit section, but he also started the American Visuals Corporation, which was contracted by the Army during the Korean War to produce comics similar to the ones Eisner had done during WWII. This led to Eisner’s work on PS: Preventative Maintenance Monthly, which he continued producing into the early 1970s.
Who were Eisner’s closest comics partners and influences?
Early in his career as a cartoonist, Will Eisner started a comics production studio in partnership with Jerry Iger. This studio developed an assembly line system for comics production, where the creative process was broken down into plotting, scripting, penciling, inking, and coloring all handled by separate creators. The studio would then produce a complete comic book package to then sell to publishers like Quality and Fox Comics. The creators who worked for Eisner/Iger would generally go uncredited, but some of the major comics artists of the era came through the studio, like Lou Fine, Reed Crandall, Bob Powell, Mort Meskin, Klaus Nordling, and, for a short time, Jack Kirby. The partnership with Iger ended around early 1940, when Eisner started producing the Spirit section that was distributed in newspapers. Some of the artists like Fine and Crandall assisted on the Spirit sections, especially when Eisner was drafted during WWII. Later, work on the Spirit was handled almost entirely by assistants like Jerry Grandinetti, Andre LeBlanc, Wally Wood, and Jules Feiffer. Other artists who worked for Eisner include Murphy Anderson, Joe Kubert, and Mike Ploog. Eisner employed many assistants in his career, and these assistants would go on to become some of the major creators and influences in 20th century comics.
As far as influences on Eisner, many come from outside of comics. He was heavily influenced by movies and tried to apply cinematographic techniques to comics, especially the visual style of film noir. He was also profoundly influenced by Yiddish theater, as can be seen in A Contract with God.
What do we know about Eisner’s time as an illustration professor?
We know a lot about Eisner’s teaching experience at the School of Visual Arts, where he taught from 1974-1993. This is mainly because he documented his lectures and lessons in three books: Comics and Sequential Art, Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative, and Expressive Anatomy. Comics and Sequential Art remains an important work in showing comics as an artform. His instruction at SVA wasn’t limited to teaching style and storytelling, however. He also brought his extensive understanding of the business side of the comic book industry, thus giving students practical, professional instruction.
What is the significance of Eisner’s Jewish heritage, and how did it express itself in his art?
The answer to this question could be an entire book on its own. His Jewish heritage informs all of his work, from Yiddish puns that appeared in character names from the Spirit to his final works that directly addressed anti-Semitism in Fagin the Jew and The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. A Contract with God, for example, is steeped in Jewish religion and culture and draws its influences from the Yiddish theater and Jewish literature of the mid-twentieth century, like Isaac Bashevis Singer, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow.
What other art or artists should people seek out if they enjoyed this exhibit?
Eisner’s influence in comics history is so pervasive that my first answer to this question is “all of them.” That is, by looking at these examples of Eisner’s creativity and process, we can have a better understanding of how comics work, and we can read comics in different ways, with an awareness of the choices that comics creators make and how they might be traced back to Eisner.
What can today’s artists learn from Eisner?
There are very practical visual and storytelling lessons that contemporary artists can take from Eisner, either by studying his comics or reading his educational works like Comics and Sequential Art. There are also lessons creators can take from Eisner about the business of comics. For example, Eisner retained ownership of the Spirit from the character’s creation in 1940, at a time when such moves were rare and creators were regularly exploited by comics publishers. But in looking at Eisner’s career in total, there are lessons about maintaining creative energy over the span of decades, of restlessly looking for new ways to tell stories and expand and evolve the comics medium.