Will Eisner, a Pioneer of Comic Books, Dies at 87


Published: January 5, 2005

Will Eisner, an innovative comic-book artist who created the Spirit, a hero without superpowers, and the first modern graphic novel, "A Contract With God," died on Monday in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where he lived. He was 87.

His death came after quadruple bypass surgery, said Denis Kitchen, his friend and publisher.

Comics fans call the Spirit "The Citizen Kane" of comics for its innovation, its seriousness and its influence. The first installment appeared in June 1940 as part of a syndicated comics section he had begun producing a year earlier as an insert for Sunday papers. It featured a detective, Denny Colt, who was killed off on the third page. Or so it seemed.

It turned out that Colt wasn't exactly dead. He was reborn as a man in a blue suit, a blue mask and blue gloves: the Spirit. As Bob Andelman, the author of the forthcoming biography "Will Eisner: A Spirited Life," describes the comic hero, he was "the cemetery-dwelling protector of the public and pretty girls in particular." What made him unique was his lack of superpowers. He couldn't see through clothing, he couldn't fly, and he wasn't even brilliant.

Wildwood, a Web site devoted to the Spirit, describes the hero as a man "with no gimmicks or powers," other than "his freedom from society," and notes that Mr. Eisner himself called the Spirit a "middle-class crimefighter."

Even in a world obsessed with the likes of Superman, the Spirit's dearth of powers was no obstacle to success. According to DC Comics, at its height the Spirit appeared in 20 newspapers, reaching 5 million readers every Sunday.

In 1942, when Mr. Eisner was drafted into the Army and started drawing comics for the military, other artists and writers sustained the comic until he returned. In late 1945 Eisner went back to the Spirit and, with the help of a number of artists, including Klaus Nordling and Jules Feiffer, not only revived it but deepened it too. The Spirit finally came to a close in 1952.

Mr. Eisner, who was born in New York on March 6, 1917, published his first comic in 1936 in a publication called "Wow, What a Magazine!" There he met Jerry Iger, and together they created a comic book outfit, Eisner & Iger, that employed, among other artists, Bob Kane, the creator of Batman, and Jack Kirby, one of the creators of the Fantastic Four. Mr. Eisner also had the bad fortune of turning down a comic called Superman by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

With the conclusion of the Spirit, Mr. Eisner spent much of his time for the next 25 years running the American Visual Corporation, a producer of educational, Army and government comic books. This part of his career is often given short shrift, but Mr. Kitchen, whose Kitchen Sink Press reprinted all of the postwar Spirit comics from 1973 to 1998, said that Mr. Eisner's instructional comics made for the United States Army during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War were some of his greatest innovations.

Military manuals used to be "ugly and dry," Mr. Kitchen said. Mr. Eisner changed all that. "He used words and pictures together to show soldiers how to do everything from putting their lives back together after war to cleaning their tanks."

In the 1970's Mr. Eisner was reborn as a comic artist. In 1978 he wrote and drew "A Contract With God," a comic book story about Frimme Hersh, a Jewish immigrant who becomes a slumlord in the Bronx when he discovers that God has forsaken him. With that book, Mr. Eisner became famous for his moody rain, which came to be called "Eisner spritz." His work over the years was also noted for wordless, emotional close-ups on characters' faces.

That book also paved the way for other graphic novelists. N. C. Christopher Couch, one of the authors of "The Will Eisner Companion" (DC Comics, 2004), noted that "Eisner independently coined the term graphic novel in 1978." And to underscore that "A Contract With God" was a novel and not a comic, he insisted on a trade publisher for it.