William Erwin “Will” Eisner (March 6, 1917 – January 3, 2005) was an American comics writer, artist and entrepreneur. He is considered one of the most important contributors to the development of the medium and is known for the cartooning studio he founded; for his highly influential series The Spirit; for his use of comics as an instructional medium; for his leading role in establishing the graphic novel as a form of literature with his book A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories; and for his educational work about the medium as exemplified by his book Comics and Sequential Art.
The comics community paid tribute to Eisner by creating the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, more commonly known as “the Eisners”, to recognize achievements each year in the comics medium. Eisner enthusiastically participated in the awards ceremony, congratulating each recipient. In 1987, with Carl Barks and Jack Kirby, he was one of the three inaugural inductees of the Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame.
Early life and career
Eisner was born in Brooklyn, New York City, the son of Jewish immigrants from Romania and Austria. His parents provided a modest life for their son. His mother was from Romania and served as the more practical and realistic parent, firmly believing that her son’s artistic tendencies would never amount to any kind of success in life. His father, an artist, was born in Vienna. He painted backdrops for vaudeville and the Jewish theater but was also a semi-successful entrepreneur and, at one point, a manufacturer in Manhattan’s Seventh Avenue garment district. Believing his son should value creativity and art, the elder Eisners instilled in him a sense of duality, a balance between business and art. Eisner attended DeWitt Clinton High School. With influences that included the early 20th-century commercial artist J. C. Leyendecker, he drew for the school newspaper (The Clintonian), the literary magazine (The Magpie) and the yearbook, and did stage design, leading him to consider doing that kind of work for theater. Upon graduation, he studied under Canadian artist George Brandt Bridgman (1864–1943) for a year at the Art Students League of New York. Contacts made there led to a position as an advertising writer-cartoonist for the New York American newspaper. Eisner also drew $10-a-page illustrations for pulp magazines, including Western Sheriffs and Outlaws.
Wow, What a Magazine! #3 (Sept. 1936): Cover art by a teenaged Eisner.
In 1936, high-school friend and fellow cartoonist Bob Kane, of future Batman fame, suggested that the 19-year-old Eisner try selling cartoons to the new comic book Wow, What A Magazine!. “Comic books” at the time were tabloid-sized collections of comic strip reprints in color. In 1935, they had begun to include occasional new comic strip-like material. Wow editor Jerry Iger bought an Eisner adventure strip called Captain Scott Dalton, an H. Rider Haggard-styled hero who traveled the world after rare artifacts. Eisner subsequently wrote and drew the pirate strip “The Flame” and the secret agent strip “Harry Karry” for Wow as well.
Eisner said that on one occasion a man who Eisner described as “a Mob type straight out of Damon Runyon, complete with pinkie ring, broken nose, black shirt, and white tie, who claimed to have ‘exclusive distribution rights for all Brooklyn” asked Eisner to draw Tijuana bibles for a payment of $3.00 United States dollars per page. Eisner said that he declined the offer; he described the decision as “one of the most difficult moral decisions of my life.”
Eisner & Iger
Main article: Eisner & Iger
Wow lasted four issues (cover-dated July–September and November 1936). After it ended, Eisner and Iger worked together producing and selling original comics material, anticipating that the well of available reprints would soon run dry, though their accounts of how their partnership was founded differ. One of the first such comic-book “packagers”, their partnership was an immediate success, and the two soon had a stable of comics creators supplying work to Fox Comics, Fiction House, Quality Comics (for whom Eisner co-created such characters as Doll Man and Blackhawk), and others. Turning a profit of $1.50 a page, Eisner claimed that he “got very rich before I was 22,” later detailing that in Depression-era 1939 alone, he and Iger “had split $25,000 between us”, a considerable amount for the time. Eisner’s original work even crossed the Atlantic, with Eisner drawing the new cover of the October 16, 1937 issue of Boardman Books’ comic-strip reprint tabloid Okay Comics Weekly.
In 1939, Eisner was commissioned to create Wonder Man for Victor Fox, an accountant who had previously worked at DC Comics and was becoming a comic book publisher himself. Following Fox’s instructions to create a Superman-type character, and using the pen name Willis, Eisner wrote and drew the first issue of Wonder Comics. Eisner said in interviews throughout his later life that he had protested the derivative nature of the character and story. Eisner claimed that when DC Comics sued Fox, alleging Wonder Man was an illegal copy of Superman, Eisner testified in court that this was so, undermining Fox’s case; Eisner even depicts himself doing so in his semi-autobiographical graphic novel, The Dreamer. However, a transcript of the proceeding, uncovered by comics historian Ken Quattro in 2010, indicates Eisner in fact supported Fox and claimed Wonder Man as an original Eisner creation.