Comics pioneer Will Eisner dies -- The inventor of the graphic novel and creator of influential superhero strip ''The Spirit'' was 87

By Gary Susman
Updated January 05, 2005 at 05:00 AM EST

Will Eisner, one of the most influential writers and artists in the history of comics, died Monday in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He was 87 and succumbed to complications from quadruple bypass surgery, publisher Denis Kitchen told the New York Times.

Eisner was a pioneer who helped the comics medium evolve toward its artistic maturity. He was best known for creating the crimefighter the Spirit in a weekly newspaper strip that ran from 1940 to 1952, but he is also credited with the invention of the graphic novel with the publication of his book A Contract With God in 1978.

Eisner’s work was notable for its gritty, expressionist storytelling. The Spirit was a masked detective who, like Batman, lacked superpowers. (Batman creator Bob Kane was a protégé of Eisner’s, as was Jack Kirby, the artist behind the Fantastic Four and other classic Marvel superheroes.) What made the Spirit strip stand out was its verbal austerity and the film noir-like composition of its images, full of rain and urban shadows. In fact, Eisner was the first to break out of the grid format, expanding or contracting the panel according to the mood of a scene, or breaking free of panels altogether to allow the image to spill across an entire page.

After the Spirit solved his final case, Eisner wrote and illustrated training manuals for the U.S. Army for a quarter century. In 1978, he returned to commercial comics with the publication of A Contract With God, the story of an immigrant Jew in 1930s New York. He coined the term ”graphic novel” to describe the book-length tale told in sequential pictures. It was a book that made possible the work of literary-minded comics creators from Frank Miller (Sin City) to Art Spiegelman (Maus), who, speaking to the Times, described Eisner as ”a giant, a pioneer, a dynamo.” The comics industry recognized him by naming its annual awards after him, the Eisners. He never stopped working; a new graphic novel, The Plot, is due out in May.