Will Eisner is a name people working in the comics industry, and many (if not most) comics readers have heard over and over again.
A pioneer of the medium, Eisner revolutionized the art form more than once before he died in 2005 at age 87. First with the creation of The Spirit, an original character that starred in his own weekly newspaper strip that ran from 1940 to 1952, then later with the creation of the graphic novel when he wrote and published A Contract with God in 1978.
“You could see Eisner as the big bang. His way of approaching whole page compositions and panel-to-panel storytelling influenced decades of comics, stylistically and in terms of storytelling, that came after it,” explains Scott McCloud who wrote Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art and the introduction to the centennial edition of A Contract with God. “He was the tuning fork for several generations that followed him. That’s why it was all the more astonishing when he began making graphic novels that, in many ways, turned away from that particular storytelling approach and embraced a different aesthetic model.”
Eisner’s impact on comic storytelling was honored with the creation of the Eisner Awards, a yearly ceremony that is considered the “Oscars” of the comics industry. “That’s the sort of thing you usually do after somebody dies, but he had such a long and productive life that there he was,” says McCloud. “He was a bit allergic to things like Lifetime Achievement and Hall of Fame awards because that wasn’t really who he was. He didn’t want to rest on his laurels. He would often joke that all he really wanted was to win Most Promising Newcomer. I think that pretty much sums up his approach to art in life.”
With March 7 celebrating what would have been Eisner’s 100th birthday, EW spoke to McCloud about Eisner’s career and legacy.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: For readers who might not be familiar with Will Eisner’s work, what would you suggest they read?
SCOTT MCCLOUD: Contract With God is a great place to start because that kicked off his career-after-career of graphic novels way back in 1979. It contains in miniature a lot of the stuff that would follow. There are also some great collections of the work he did back in the ’40s, especially The Spirit, which is one of his most well-known creations from those early days. But we’re looking at several decade-span there. The stuff in between, he had to wander in the wilderness for a while and the evidence of that is a little more scattered.
How would you describe his artistic approach in Contract With God compared to what he’s done before?
It’s funny because early on, his work had a cinematic feel to it. He talked about being inspired by seeing Citizen Kane in a movie theater. When he returned to comics in a big way in the late ’70s and began his graphic novel career, it was almost more of a theatrical feel to the work. He often had characters together without even panel borders, just as if they were standing on a stage. It was more about people, and less about genre trappings or film noir. It has a more modest construction to it, but it’s quite vivid as human theater. It’s a fascinating approach that he took.
One of the things that struck me was just how emotional and expressive a lot of it is.
Exactly. Almost operatic at times. There’s even an opera singer in Contract with God, but all of the characters feel as if they’re in an opera of sorts. It’s a kind of amplified, emotional expressiveness, which can be off-putting sometimes to modern audiences, but I find it invigorating to see somebody trying to capture these emotional arias in somebody’s face and in someone’s body language. He’s really terrific at capturing the quality of emotion that shows through. Even in something as simple as they way somebody bites their lower lip, or squints into the sun.
Was anyone at the time working in this kind of way and showing this level of emotion?
Eisner’s approach to drawing people wasn’t quite like anything that I can think of. He may have been inspired by illustrators like Heinrich Clay, and there are some cartoonists, I suppose, who are somewhat in that realm. He loved to celebrate the particularity of individual characters. Even incidental characters, characters that might only show up for a page or two were unique. Many cartoonists of his era and younger tended towards a cookie cutter approach to character design. They would have a few stock characters that they would decorate and redecorate as necessary, but each one of Eisner’s characters was their own creation. He spoke of basing characters on animals, and he found a lot of animals in the animal kingdom to draw from, because there was a tremendous variety in those characters.
Did his work have an immediate impact on artists at the time?
No, actually. There was an immediate impact on a few of us who were watching these things carefully, who were aware of his earlier work and were thinking about what was possible in the medium of comics, but actually, Eisner’s influence was a slow one. It gathered momentum over time. In fact, the term “graphic novel” was something that began only with a relatively few, and then gradually spread and became a standard. He envisioned a way of making comics which seemed very much off to the side, very marginalized when it began, and then as the years and decades passed, the persuasiveness of that model meant that it became incrementally more accepted. It became more and more the norm to look at comics in that way. It took a couple of decades, but gradually, the great ship of comics inch by inch turned towards his vision, but it definitely wasn’t instantaneous… If you’re really going to change an art form, you’re probably going to begin by doing something that nobody was necessarily looking for. That didn’t fit into any market niche. That feels almost beside the point as the market churns on. But then those are the works that gradually change an art form.
What do you think the legacy of A Contract With God is?
It is part and parcel of everything that came after because it was the first of his many graphic novels. We have to remember that he did A Contract with God as he was retiring from the Army. All of this happened after many people just would retire and start drawing their pensions and sitting on the porch whittling. That’s when he began this second career that then lasted until he was 87 years old. But Contract is especially remarkable in retrospect simply because it was such a coherent, matter of fact manifestation of a kind of comic that felt like it always had been there and always should be there, but was actually extremely unusual. It’s its ordinariness in retrospect that is so remarkable, just that it felt like, “Well, of course. Shouldn’t there be hundreds of comics that look just like this? Why is that not true?” Perhaps, for me, it most startlingly renders everything else that had been popular at the time as freakish and dysfunctional by comparison. The superhero comics that were being published at the time, they seemed like the outlier. Contract with God seems like a vision of a new mainstream fiction. The meat and potatoes. The main dish of an art form, and it’s almost as if we had been eating nothing but Twinkies and Slim Jims for 30 years.
What are some of your favorite memories of him?
As a person, Will was very gracious and he was very welcoming of younger artists and was very eager to talk about comics. We had a running debate about webcomics and the internet. Half the time, I would be trying to convince him to [look at] artists who were working in unconventional styles, and he was very happy to debate those and to look at them. One evening in particular over dinner, I remember actually talking him out of creating an online comic school because I didn’t feel the technology was up to the task that he had in mind. In that case, I was the one trying to talk him down off of some futuristic ambitions of his. He was very forward-looking, generally, and he was very patient, too. He put younger artists like me on a longer clock. That is, we tended to be more patient because we knew Will and because we understood that sooner or later the truth would come out about this art form, and even though it might be frustrating sometimes that people misunderstood it, that we were playing a long game.
You can see it now, with John Lewis’ graphic novel March winning all those awards.
Yes, March definitely exists within that world that Will helped assemble. He had allies, basically. There were people in publishing and in libraries, museums, universities, all around, one by one, these people began to stand up and ally themselves with this particular movement. I got to see that happen in real time, of course, because I began reading comics in the late ’70s and making them in the early ’80s, so a lot of this took place in real time from my point of view.
The centennial anniversary version of Will Eisner’s A Contract with God is currently available for purchase. Order it here.