“The smart kids from the neighborhood went to Bronx Science,” said Dr. Herb Geller, a neurobiologist at the National Institutes of Health. But those who didn’t get into Bronx Science, the specialized magnetic school, often went to DeWitt Clinton, another public high school in the Bronx. And some of the kids at DeWitt Clinton, including an alum named Will Eisner, created a new, very American industry.
Eisner graduated from DeWitt Clinton in 1936. In America in the 1930s there was still discrimination against Jews. Young Jewish artists often found that the more respectable, supposedly genteel professions were reserved for gentiles. So if you were a Jewish kid from New York City, the doors to the city’s graphic design and illustration industries appeared as closed and inaccessible to you as a Westchester country club.
So young Jewish men—for they were primarily men—interested in designing or drawing for a living had to create their own jobs. In so doing, they didn’t just use their own industry to work as creatives; they created their own industry. “Because it was beneath contempt, it was open to Jews,” Art Spiegelman, creator of the Holocaust-themed graphic novel “Maus,” told j, the Jewish news weekly of Northern California. “[The comic book industry] was essentially part of the rag trade. Given the chance, Jews would have become painters or written novels, but here was a way for kids with an intellectual bent to express themselves.” Thus the American comic book was born. And Will Eisner became one of its most notable figures.
In the course of his career, Eisner pretty much spanned the history of comics while remaining an innovator throughout all that time. Never satisfied, he employed innovative techniques and addressed ambitious themes. As he got older he increasingly addressed issues that were of importance and personal to him. This included anti-Semitism, which had of course led to his career in comics in the first place.
One of Eisner’s first creations was the Spirit, a hero without superpowers. This was a pretty subversive idea, and it was a great success. The comic strip appeared in newspapers’ Sunday supplements throughout the 1940s and into the 50s. Each week, a new seven-page story would appear in which Eisner would often experiment with new techniques to tell stories. The Spirit was hugely influential; many other, later comic artists would use Eisner’s innovations in their own work. Due to this tremendous innovation and its legacy and influence, the Spirit has come to be known as “the Citizen Kane” of comic books. And on March 6, 2011, Google honored what would have been Eisner’s 94th birthday with an image of the Spirit in its logo.
Eisner’s influence was not limited to other comic artists, or even comic books fans. He also used his skills to teach generations of soldiers how to maintain their equipment via his series of instructional comics made for the United States army known as “Joe Dope.” The American army used Eisner’s work during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, while his innovative techniques evolved almost as quickly as weaponry.
In 1978, Eisner created a new genre: the graphic novel. He coined the term himself to describe his book “A Contract With God,” published in 1978, which is set in the Bronx tenement buildings in which he grew up. Eisner was so adamant that this novel form was indeed a graphic comic rather than a comic that he insisted that a trade publisher publish “A Contract With God.” The book is a collection of four stories set in the Bronx, one of which sees the protagonist, a religious Jew, renounce his faith after the death of his daughter.
As he got older, Eisner continued to return to his roots and to address Jewish subjects. In 2003 he published “Fagin the Jew,” which was an attempt to provide a backstory to the Oliver Twist character and explain his position as a marginalized Jew in London, and how he turned to crime. In this way the book was a riposte to the anti-Semitic pastiche of the criminal Jew and, in a noble tradition of comics, an attempt to humanize the other. A year later, while in his 80s, Eisner addressed the subject of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a century-old forgery that purports to be a transcript of a meeting of the leaders of global Jewry—“the “Elders of Zion”—while they plan to control the world through international finance and the media.
“I was surfing the web one day when I came across this site promoting ‘The Protocols’ to readers in the Mideast,” he told the New York Times in 2004. “I was amazed that there were people who still believed ‘The Protocols’ were real,” Eisner, then 86, continued, “and I was disturbed to learn later that this site was just one of many that promoted these lies in the Muslim world. I decided something had to be done.”
Perhaps Eisner felt compelled to act by his own experience, perhaps by that of his parents who had escaped anti-Semitism in Romania and Austria by coming to the United States as much as the resurgent anti-Jewish feeling in Europe and the Middle East in the early 2000s. “The Plot” is Eisner’s response in which he details how “the Protocols” were made up by use of three different techniques that he employed at various stages in his long and illustrious career. “The Plot,” which is around 100 pages long, is another instance in which Eisner, who died in 2005 at age 87, used his skills to address serious issues.
Seriousness and comic books do not prima facie seem to go together, but it is thanks to the pioneering work of Will Eisner that comic books and, to use his phrase, graphic novels were accepted by the mainstream as a medium that could address serious topics. Will Eisner’s seriousness helped subsequent comic artists like Art Spiegelman (“Maus”) and Marjane Satrapi (“Persepolis”) attract popular attention.
This is Will Eisner’s legacy and this is why, although he never became a household name, almost everyone who loves or creates comics appreciates Eisner as one of the most important, pioneering, innovative and formative artists in the history of comics. He was truly an illustrious illustrator. Eisner was ahead of his time—he believed that comic books were an art form way before the public did, and he realized they could address subjects as weighty as another medium.
“[Will Eisner] drew on everything from Theodore Dreiser to the Talmud,” N.C. Christopher Couch told the New York Times. “He brought American literary naturalism to the comics. And he kept publishing these books until everybody woke up and said, ‘Wow, these are books! This is an art form! We should take this seriously!’”