Will Eisner would have turned 100 years old this month.
For creators and many comics readers, Eisner has long been considered one of the great masters. But people who only know him as the namesake of the Eisner Awards – or worse, only think about The Spirit movie – may wonder who he is and what they should read to understand why he's spoken of with such respect.
What follows is a list of some of Eisner's best work, a sampling of what he did over the course of his career which included a number of important graphic novels. Yes, he’s the man behind The Spirit, but he also wrote one of the early textbooks about comics and pioneered using the art form as a teaching tool. In short, he believed that comics could – and should – do anything.
"The Best of The Spirit"
“The Spirit” was a newspaper feature that ran from 1940-1952, but it wasn’t a comic strip. Rather, it was part of a standalone insert that was included with the weekend paper. The Spirit was the lead feature, releasing in weekly eight-page installments (later reduced to seven), with a host of other features included over the years.
This sadly out of print volume from DC Comics contains a good slice of the comics. There are many elements that are old-fashioned and out dated, but they ably demonstrate Eisner’s dynamism and artistic skill. The book has 22 Spirit stories, most of them from the postwar period, including the one that many of us still talk about, "The Story of Gerhard Schnobble," which I will not spoil for those who have not yet had the opportunity to read it.
"PS Magazine: The Best of The Preventative Monthly Maintenance"
During World War II, when Eisner was working for the US government, he hit upon an idea that today seems obvious, though it was revolutionary at the time. He wanted to use comics to teach. Noticing that no one actually read the manuals for the equipment proved to soldiers, Eisner believed that if the information could be distilled and combined with art, people would actually read and be able to absorb the material.
It’s an insight that research and decades of scholarship has proven, but before all of that, Eisner began producing "P.S. Magazine" for the U.S. Army in 1051. He would work on the magazine until 1971, producing 227 issues of a publication that continues to be produced to this day. This collection, published by Abrams Books, features a number of Eisner's stories.
"A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories"
In some ways, it seems like such a small book to launch a revolution, but the 1978 graphic novel retains its power years later. These are stories about disappointment and heartbreak, stories that treat New York City, and a tenement building in the Bronx, like the greatest stage in the world. It was a portrait of a time and place that was long gone when Eisner made it, but it remains a beautiful sad work that will stay with you.
The book looked different from the work people were used to from Eisner's Spirit. Where his earlier work borrowed a lot of language and design from cinema, here Eisner wanted the art to look rougher, forgoing color and focusing on inked pages. He seemed to treat the page, or the panels on it, like the proscenium arch of a theater. As a result, his characters were more theatrical, which fit with the more emotional and raw look and feel that he sought to imbue in the pages.
"A Contract with God" consists of four stories, the title tale telling the story of Frimme Hersh, whose adopted daughter Rachele has died. When she passes, he is not simply angry at the world, he is angry at God, who he accuses of breaking their contract. Since God has broken their agreement, Hersh decides he doesn’t need to keep his end either. He shaves off his beard and abandons his life and his principles and scholarship, devoting the rest of his life to making money.
It sounds a bit like an old melodrama, and all of the stories in the collection have that feel as well, but this story in particular is raw and emotional. It’s possible to feel the agony, the rage that would lead a man to abandon the morals and principles held his entire life. It’s heartbreaking. The story, we would learn years later, was autobiographical, as Eisner and his wife lost their daughter Alice to leukemia when she was only sixteen. Fortunately, Eisner didn’t abandon everything when his daughter died, instead finding a way to give voice to his own pain, to transform it into fiction the way the best artists are able to do.
"Comics and Sequential Art"
One of the first textbooks about comics, this is based on Eisner’s many years teaching at School of Visual Arts in New York. For comics fans and casual readers, the book has likely aged poorly, particularly for a generation familiar with the work of Scott McCloud and others. That said, as a textbook deconstructing the form, it’s hard to beat it.
"Will Eisner’s New York: Life in the Big City"
This volume collects four of Eisner’s books: "New York," "The Building," "City People Notebook" and "Invisible People." They were originally published between 1986 and 1992, making it clear to a new generation that Eisner could switch up his style and approach in a myriad of ways. These works also establish him as one of the great artists of New York City, as the city was his subject just as much as the people who lived there.
In "The Spirit," Denny Colt and his adventures were often a way for Eisner and his collaborators to tell the stories of other people, to tell the stories of the city. By this time, Eisner abandoned that conceit and left genre behind him entirely. In his best work, Eisner managed to capture some of what makes urban life so strange, sometimes even magical. Those coincidences and overlapping stories are the hallmark of clunky fiction, but when used well, as they are under Eisner guidance, they manage to be special.
"Fagin the Jew"
This graphic novel is a revisionist take on Charles Dickens classic novel “Oliver Twist.” In Dickens' book, the character of Fagin is often identified as simply “the Jew.” He teaches children to pick pockets, is cruel and miserly, and since the book’s publication has been considered and discussed as viciously anti-Semitic. In fact, Dickens later in life did alter subsequent editions of his book.
Eisner took that idea, that Fagin was a Jew, and rewrote the story of “Oliver Twist” from Fagin’s perspective. In doing this, he used the graphic novel as a way to examine the history of anti-Semitism in the UK, and the treatment of the Jewish people over time.
"The Contract with God Trilogy: Life on Dropsie Avenue"
This may be cheating, but this volume from W.W. Norton collects three books – “A Contract with God,” “A Life Force,” and “Dropsie Avenue” – which are united by a sense of place. There was a part of Eisner that never left the Bronx, and he treated 55 Dropsie Avenue as a stage on which the human story played out. Just as Eisner believed comics could be great literature, he also believed the lives of these people he grew up around were worthy of great drama and comedy. In short, ordinary people can be the subject of great literature.
By abandoning the slick realism he used in "The Spirit," Eisner was instead focusing more on characters and on feeling. These are stories set in the past, stories that being remembered, and so they require a different approach. A major aspect of "The Spirit" is the way Eisner would craft his splash pages, using typography to spell out “The Spirit” in different ways. Starting with "A Contract with God," Eisner chose to focus more on how the city could be shaped by impressions and memory. This is why the panels are often confined, why backgrounds tended to be spare.
In these pages Eisner is recreating something from memory, a depiction of a lost world. As Eisner wrote in the beginning of “A Contract with God,” “the following stories are based on life in these tenements during the 1930’s...the dirty thirties! They are true stories. Only the telling and the portrayals have converted them to fiction.”