THE SPIRIT DYNAMITE
In a career which spanned nearly six decades, Eisner has been instrumental in shaping the medium’s form and structure, elevating its quality and potential, popularising this medium as a serious form of the literary genre, thereby influencing and inspiring millions of artists who carried on his legacy to this date. To honor his extensive accomplishments in the field, the industry’s most prestigious and coveted honor has been named after him, the Eisner Award. Though the art of comics and graphic novels had already existed before Eisner started on his varied body of work, the modern graphic novel was introduced by him, where he told stories with an equal emphasis on art and text.
Published in 1978, his first attempt in a graphic novel, “A Contract with God and Other Tenement stories”, took the comic book industry by surprise, and this ground-breaking book has hardly been matched up to till this date. It was a collection of four stories, of the struggling inhabitants of a Bronx neighbourhood in the period of depression. Deviating from the usual light-hearted tone of comic books, A Contract with God explored subjects like poverty, unemployment, religion and morality. For Eisner himself, it was like an experiment on the boundaries that comic books can reach, “I was working around one core concept — that the medium, the arrangement of words and pictures in a sequence, was an art form in itself. Unique, with a structure and gestalt of its own, this medium could deal with meaningful themes.”
A Contract with God is believed to be a landmark in the evolution of the form and structure of graphic novels and has been constantly reprinted since its first publication. For its experimentation with the visual display and free-flowing narratives and graphic style, Eisner’s storytelling extended and elevated the medium into a complex art form, which inspired thousands of artists and storytellers after him. As Neil Gaiman, the bestselling fantasy author writes, “Eisner’s stories were influenced by film, by theatre, by radio, but were ultimately their own medium, created by a man who thought that the comic book was an art form, and who was proved right.”
At the time, when he finally made an attempt to cut out from the rest of the crowd with his first graphic novel, Eisner was already busy in creating a masked crimefighter called “The Spirit”. Though there were already too many crime fighters and superheroes in the arena of comics, at that time, The Spirit stood out with its real-life texture, smart sense of humour, and a philosophical take on life and beyond, which was a rarity in this field at that time. The Spirit became the first major milestone in the career of the esteemed and innovative storyteller, and the first step in his endeavours to elevate comics to a mature literary and artistic form.
Eisner kept evolving his art with all the tools and visual devices he had learnt over the years, while not veering away from the roots of the comics’ format. This style was lapped up by the readers. According to a DC Comics, at the zenith of its popularity, The Spirit reached out to 5million readers every Sunday, through 20 newspapers. Eisner’s flamboyant experimentations with layouts, forms and lettering, cinematic styling and theatrical manifestations of characters and sequences, led to the initiation of what he himself termed as, “sequential art”.
This chosen euphemism was what he had adhered to throughout his entire career. Whether it was the trilogy of novels, which started with A Contract with God, and was later followed by Life at Force and Dropsie Avenue; or his trilogy of artistic journals based on the people of New York, consisting of City People Notebook, New York, The Big City and The Dreamer, Eisner has consistently pushed the limits of this art form and inspired others to do the same. In his instructional books, “Comic and Sequential Art” and “Graphic Storytelling”, he has taught his readers and fans about how to go on in this path of comics, which has guided future comics artists like Neil Gaiman, Marjane Satrapi, Alison Bechdel, Art Spiegelman, and many others. According to Spiegelman, Will Eisner was “a giant, a pioneer, a dynamo.”
Apart from contemporary artists commemorating his legacy through their work, Will Eisner has been given homage through various works like the book Will Eisner: Champion of the Graphic Novel, written by comics writer, editor, and former president of DC Comics, Paul Levitz. On the birth centennial year of the artist and writer, important exhibitions were organised to showcase his extensive body of work, including one in Angoulême, France at the Musée de la Bande Dessinée and another in New York at the Museum of Illustration. More than 40years after the publication of the first graphic novel, Will Eisner is still thanked by millions of readers worldwide for an entirely new generation of graphic novels and their creators, who do not shy away from pushing boundaries in order to tell their significant tales of realistic and mature human conditions, with new and experimental forms of artwork.