By Will Eisner, written by Catherine Yronwoode (Kitchen Sink Press)
It is pretty much accepted today that Will Eisner was one of the key creative forces who shaped the American comic book industry, with most of his graphic works more or less permanently in print – as they should be. But as far as I know at least one of his milestones has generally escaped public attention.
From 1936 to 1938 Eisner worked as a jobbing cartoonist in the comics production firm known as the Eisner-Eiger Shop, creating strips to be published in both domestic US and foreign markets. Using the pen-name Willis B. Rensie he created and drew the opening instalments of a huge variety of characters ranging from funny animal to historical sagas,
Westerns, Detectives, aviation action thrillers… and superheroes – lots of superheroes …
In 1940 Everett “Busy” Arnold, head honcho of the superbly impressive Quality Comics outfit, invited Eisner to take on a new challenge. The Register-Tribune newspaper syndicate wanted a 16-page weekly comicbook insert to be given away with the Sunday editions. Eisner jumped at the opportunity, creating three strips which would initially be handled by him before two of them were handed off to his talented assistants. Bob Powell inherited Mr. Mystic and distaff detective Lady Luck fell into the capable hands of Nick Cardy (then still Nicholas Viscardi) and later the inimitable Klaus Nordling.
Eisner kept the lead strip for himself, and over the next twelve years The Spirit became the most impressive, innovative, imitated and talked-about strip in the business. In 1952 the venture folded and Eisner moved into commercial, instructional and educational strips, working extensively for the US military in manuals and magazines like P*S, the Preventative Maintenance Monthly, generally leaving comics books behind.
In the wake of “Batmania” and the 1960s superhero craze, Harvey Comics released two giant-sized reprints with a little material from the artist, which lead to underground editions and a slow revival of the Spirit’s fame and fortune via black and white newsstand reprint magazines. Initially Warren Publishing collected old stories, even adding colour sections with painted illumination from such contemporary luminaries as Rich Corben, but with #17 the title reverted to Kitchen Sink, who had produced the first two underground collections.
Eisner found himself re-enamored with graphic narrative and saw a willing audience eager for new works. From producing new Spirit covers for the magazine (something the original newspaper insert had never needed) he became increasingly inspired. American comics were evolving into an art-form and the restless creator finally saw a place for the kind of stories he had always wanted to tell.
He began crafting some of the most telling and impressive work the industry had ever seen: first in limited collector portfolios and eventually, in 1978, with the groundbreaking graphic novel A Contract With God.
If Jack Kirby is the American comicbook’s most influential artist, Will Eisner is undoubtedly its most venerated and exceptional storyteller. Contemporaries originating from strikingly similar Jewish backgrounds, each used comic arts to escape from their own tenements, achieving varying degrees of acclaim and success, and eventually settling upon a theme to colour all their later works. For Kirby it was the Cosmos, what Man would find there, and how humanity would transcend its origins in The Ultimate Outward Escape. Will Eisner went Home, went Back and went Inward.
This fictionalised series of tales about the Jewish immigrant experience led to a wonderful succession of challenging, controversial and breathtakingly human stories for adults which changed how comics were perceived in America… and all because the inquisitive perfectionist was asked to produce some new covers for old stories.
This glorious oversized hardback (still available through internet retailers) features two full Spirit adventures, fully re-coloured by the master (who was never particularly pleased with how his strips were originally limned), pencil sketches and a magnificent confection of those aforementioned covers – plus some really rare extras.
The eerie 1948 chiller ‘Lorelei of Odyssey Road’ leads off this tome followed by a barely seen science fiction Spirit story. ‘The Invader’ – produced in the 1970s as the result of a teaching gig Eisner had at Sheridan College in Canada.
Eisner created the first page in class to show students the fundamentals of comics creation, and after months of coaxing was convinced to complete the tale, which was published in an extremely limited edition as the Tabloid Press Spirit in 1973. The action and sly, counter-culture comedy is impressively compact and well coordinated: ‘The Invader’ comfortably fits 57 panels into its five pages whereas the old eight-page yarns used to average a mere 50 frames…
Following two gloriously lush wraparound Kitchen Sink covers (complete with a pencil rough) and the hilarious cover to underground anthology Snarf #3, the single page Warren pieces commence. Originally seen on issues #2 through 10 they have all been re-mastered by Eisner and are simply stunning.
After these come the fully-painted wraparounds (all magnificently presented as double-page spreads) that graced the Kitchen Sink Spirit issues #18,-24, #27-29 and #31 and then the rare 1977 Spirit Portfolio is reproduced in the same generous proportions: eleven stunning paintings encapsulating key moments in the masked detective’s astonishing career.
‘The Hideaway’, ‘The Scene of the Crime’, ‘The Women’, ‘The Duel’, ‘Dead End’, ‘The Convention’, ‘The Rescue’, ‘The Chase’, ‘The Capture’ and ‘The City’ plus the portfolio cover are followed by the contents of 1980’s ‘City: a Narrative Portfolio’ a series of evocative black line and sepia ghetto images with obverse blank verse and cameo images dealing with the eternal themes that shape man as a metropolitan dweller. Once more including the cover image, ‘The Spark’, ‘The City’, ‘Predators’, ‘Mugger’, ‘Family’ and ‘Life’ are powerfully moving and magically rendered one-frame stories that presage his growing use of the urban landscape as an integral character in his later works.
With a fascinating biography and commentary from historian and publisher Cat Yronwoode this book is a lavish treat for Eisner aficionados, but the treats still aren’t exhausted: there are also rare colour works and illustrations from Cosmos magazine and Esquire, plus poster art, unpublished Spirit paintings and a preview of his then forthcoming book Big City…
Will Eisner is rightly regarded as one of the greatest writers in American comics but it is too seldom that his incredible draughtsmanship and design sense get to grab the spotlight. This book is a joy no fan or art-lover can afford to be without.
© 1981 Will Eisner. All rights reserved.