Will Eisner: Williamsburg’s Father of The Graphic Novel and Legendary Comic Artist

Will Eisner at the 2004 San Diego Comic Con. (Photograph by Patty Mooney)

North Brooklyn has produced a slew of creative geniuses in many fields, but Will Eisner created a new genre of art. A gifted and innovative comic artist, Eisner was the first to realize that comics were literature, and the first to coin the term ‘graphic novel.’ Wizard magazine named Eisner “the most influential comic artist of all time” and one of the comic industry’s most prestigious awards, The Eisner Award, is named after him.

Recognized as the ‘Oscars’ of the American comic book business, the Eisners are presented annually before a packed ballroom at Comic-Con International in San Diego, America’s largest comics convention. In a career that spanned nearly 70 years and eight decades — from the dawn of the comic book to the advent of digital comics, Eisner truly dominated his field and by the end of his life had become a living legend. He broke new ground in the development of visual narrative and the language of comics and was the creator of such famous comics as “The Spirit,” “John Law,” “Lady Luck,” “Mr. Mystic,” “Uncle Sam,” “Blackhawk,” “Sheena” and countless others.

His innovative storytelling, layouts, and drawings in his newspaper series “The Spirit” inspired a generation of cartoonists, and his creation of a heralded series of graphic novels, beginning in 1978 with “A Contract with God,” helped create the form. Like many other Williamsburg creative geniuses, Eisner was born into a poor Eastern European Jewish family. His boyhood was full of struggles on many fronts. Eisner was born on the Southside in 1917. His family, like many other local families, had crossed the Williamsburg Bridge in hopes of finding a better life in Brooklyn than in the crowded Manhattan tenements.

Young Eisner was subject both to bullying and to anti-semitic taunting as a boy. Eisner became addicted to pulp fiction magazines and film, even avant-garde films. To his mother’s disappointment, Eisner inherited his father’s love of art, and his father encouraged him by buying him art supplies. Eisner’s mother was angry about their impoverished circumstances and frequently berated his father for not providing the family a more comfortable life, as he went from one job to another. The family experienced particularly hard times during the Great Depression and In 1930, the family situation was so desperate that Eisner’s mother insisted that the 13-year-old Eisner work. Eisner began selling newspapers on street corners, but again became the victim of bullies who wanted to take the best corners for themselves.

High school helped him find his talent. Eisner attended DeWitt Clinton High School where he drew for the school newspaper (The Clintonian), the literary magazine and the yearbook, and did stage design, leading him to a career as an artist. After graduation, he studied under Canadian artist George Brandt Bridgman for a year at the Art Students League of New York, which led him 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.”

In 1936, high-school friend and fellow cartoonist Bob Kane, the creator of Batman, suggested that the 19-year-old Eisner try selling cartoons to the new comic book “Wow, What A Magazine!” Wow Editor Jerry Iger published an Eisner comic strip called “Captain Scott Dalton,” a 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.

Wow folded and Iger and Eisner formed a partnership, producing and selling original comics material, which were in short supply because the depression killed so many magazines. Their partnership prospered and by age 22 Eisner had made a considerable fortune.

In 1939, Eisner wrote and drew the first issue of Wonder comics with a hero who was similar to Superman. The following year a newspaper syndicate approached him about creating comics for newspapers that would appear across the country. Eisner accepted the offer and reluctantly broke up his partnership with Iger. His syndicated creation, “The Spirit,” became a major success that lasted until the 1950s. In 1971, Eisner was inducted into the Comics Hall of Fame, but he still had other achievements to realize. In the late 70s, Eisner brought out the first of many graphic novels. Although he was a rich man and had no need to earn money teaching, Eisner began teaching at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, where he published Will Eisner’s Gallery, a collection of work by his students and wrote two books based on these lectures, “Comics and Sequential Art” and “Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative,” which are still widely used by students of cartooning.

In 2005, Eisner passed away. One of his fellow comic artists, Scott McCloud, the author of “Understanding Comics” summarized what many other comic artists and fans felt about the boy from Williamsburg stating, “Will Eisner is the heart and mind of American comics.”

About Geoff Cobb

Geoffrey Cobb is a Brooklyn high school history teacher and writer of the blog historicgreenpoint.wordpress.com. He has lived in Greenpoint for over 20years and is the author of a book on the history of the area, "Greenpoint Brooklyn's Forgotten Past."

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  1. Pingback: Weekend Bites: King Midas Sound’s Latest, Esmé Weijun Wang, Pitchaya Sudbanthad Interviewed, Will Eisner, and More – Vol. 1 Brooklyn

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