Thursday, October 1, 2009

A Look Back: The Post-Spirit Eisner

I've written a few times about the influence of Will Eisner and, particularly, his seminal serio-comic series, the Spirit, on my own work. Earlier this year, DC Comics completed its quarterly 26-volume hardcover compilation of the series' full run from 1940–1952. (The last volume collected the odds and ends of Eisner's intermittent work on the character from its cancellation in 1952 through 2005 shortly before Eisner's death.) In addition to the first volume, I ended up picking nearly the entire collection from about volume 13, when Eisner returned to the series after an intermittent absence from the series due to his Army service during World War II.

After the series ended in 1952, however, Eisner went on to pursue other opportunities. Although he remained a working cartoonist, he left mainstream comics to focus his energies on the American Visuals Corporation, a commercial art company he founded in the 1940s that specialized in educational comics. Operating as an independent contractor, Eisner from 1951 to 1972 produced PS Magazine, a publication for the U.S. Army that promoted preventive maintenance in the field that used a more visually-oriented approach to its subject matter, including comics and cartoons. Created as an outgrowth of the work Eisner did during the war while he was in the service, one of the running characters Eisner created for the magazine was "Joe Dope," who served as an example of what not to do. (The Army supposedly partly ended the magazine after deciding that Dope was no longer the image it wanted to project of its personnel.) During his tenure, Eisner employed the talents of some of the best cartoonists in the business to work on the magazine.

(The entire run of the series has been scanned and may be viewed online here.)

After selling American Visuals, Eisner began focusing on comics. While interest in the Spirit began to revive in the 1960s and '70s through various reprints by Harvey Comics, Kitchen Sink, and Warren Publications—which gave Eisner an opportunity to revisit the character through occasional new stories and cover art and pinups he provided—for the most part Eisner left the Spirit behind and began making good on his belief that comics were capable of serious artistic expression.

The first product of that effort is his collection of short stories, A Contract with God, and other Tenement Stories (1978), considered one of the first modern-day graphic novels. Made up of a series of independent short stories—"A Contract With God", "The Super", "The Street Singer", and "Cookalein"—the book shared the common thread of taking place in the Bronx Jewish tenements of the 1930s. Though not an autobiography, the stories obviously drew on Eisner's background as the child of Jewish immigrants. (In later years, it become clear that the title story, "A Contract with God," reflected Eisner's personal trauma in dealing with the death of his daughter that many people were not aware of until the release of his biography, Will Eisner: A Spirited Life, by Bob Andelman). The stories reflect the kind of social realism that was occasionally apparent in Eisner's 1940s work in the Spirit.

Having just discovered Eisner through the pages of Jules Feiffer's Great Comic Book Heroes, I recall being intrigued by an ad for A Contract with God (1978) and having my parents mail order it for me. It was unlike any "comic-book" I had ever seen, and made quite an impression on me—the book (a first edition by the original small publisher who released it, Baronet Publishing) became quite dog-eared from repeat readings. Adding to the book's period look was the fact that my edition was printed on sepia-toned paper and sepia inks. I recently re-read the stories and was delighted to find they still hold up and powerful today—they are still among his most effective work.

(Many years later, a friend of mine was scheduled to interview Eisner for a magazine piece, so I asked him to bring it along with him for Eisner to sign. When he handed it to Eisner, the artist reportedly said, "Wow, that's an old one!")

Eisner's next project was "Signal from Space," which began being serialized in the Spirit Magazine around 1980, completing its run in its companion magazine Will Eisner Quarterly, both published by Kitchen Sink Press. (It was later colored and collected as a graphic novel under the title, Life on Another Planet.) "Signal from Space" also made quite an impression on me because it was the first time I saw a straight thriller, with strong political overtones, done in comic-book format—in fact, I felt it was very similar to what I was trying to do with my own series. The format inspired me to create my own full-length 128-page Rob Hanes graphic novel thriller, Come Armageddon, done entirely in pencil in a sketchbook!

These projects were soon followed by an incredible amount of activity, which was made possible by the attention Eisner's ambitious work was receiving. This new work, along with the legacy of the Spirit (Eisner was also involved in the very beginnings of the comic-book industry as one of the first "sweat shop" operators), had made Eisner one of the most respected "deans" of cartoonists, partly culminating with the prestigious Reuben Award from the National Cartoonists Society in 1988, and having the Will Eisner Comic Book Industry Awards at the San Diego Comic-Con named for him—an award that, as an active cartoonist, he received several times himself with some embarrassment and modesty.

Eisner remained incredibly productive to his passing in 2005 at the age of 87. While the Spirit remains his most famous legacy, he clearly did not sit on his laurels, and remained interested in mining his personal experiences and interests in his comics. Among my favorite of his post-Spirit works are The Dreamer, a thinly-fictionalized story about his contributions to the beginnings of the comic-book industry leading up to his creation of the Spirit, and To the Heart of the Storm. Always committed to helping comics gain acceptance as an artform, Eisner also produced the groundbreaking and influential Comics and Sequential Art (1985), a treatise about the language of comics storytelling.

The Spirit remains an important touchstone and inspiration for me, but I also wanted to give credit to Eisner's other body of work that also had a great impact on me.

Note: Some of the factual information for this article was drawn from the Wikipedia entry on Will Eisner.


taralee said...

Hey Randy - I enjoy your blog posts a lot (even though I am not a huge comic book fan)! :-) I have a good friend who teaches Jewish studies at Hebrew school and uses the art and art history of Jewish comic book artists to make it more interesting and relevant to today's students. I forwarded yesterday's blogpost to him as well as it was very interesting. Thx! Give my love to Sadina!

Randy Reynaldo said...

Hi, Tara--

Thanks for your note! It's good to know that someone reads this occasionally!

I recall we traded a couple of messages in FB on this subject, and I meant to mention that I had reviewed an interesting book that covered similar ground called Men of Tomorrow, which I reviewed here. Also, did you see my blog about my visit to the Skirball Center in L.A. that had a comic-book exhibit? That review is here.

Glad you're enjoying these posts.