Consider this a make-up post. Will Eisner’s birthday is March 6, 1917, but the date came and went earlier this year without my realizing it. Then at some point in the middle of the spring, I learned/realized that both Jack Kirby and Will Eisner would have turned 100 years old in 2017 had they lived. It was too late to mark the Eisner centennial at that stage, so I figured I’d celebrate both in a blogpost when Kirby’s birthday arrived in August. Then I changed my mind, deciding to just celebrate Kirby on his day and give Eisner his due separately and immediately afterward.
Thus, here we are. A belated Happy Birthday to Will Eisner, who was born 100 years ago this year. Eisner did not have the commercial impact of Kirby, but his artistic impact and influence may have been just as great. He created one of the all-time strips with The Spirit; his shop did a whole lot of work for Busy Arnold’s Quality Comics, probably the most beautifully-illustrated line of comics in the Golden Age; and he coined the phrases “graphic novel” and “sequential art.” His Comics and Sequential Art is, in fact, still a widely-read and widely-used resource for teaching young comic artists today.
I learned of Eisner through the classic comics of Frank Miller, who clearly learned a great deal from Eisner—particularly his cinematic approach as an artist. The back of Eisner’s Spirit Archives has this USA Today quote about his Spirit strip being “The Citizen Kane of comics,” which is a very apt summation. Eisner constructed his strips (particular The Spirit) like a film director. He truly was the Orson Welles of comics.
Most critics would say that his post-World War II work on The Spirit was his best and I would agree. Take a look at anything from this period and it’s pretty much a masterpiece. One of my personal faves is “Showdown” (a.k.a. “Showdown with the Octopus”), published on August 24, 1947. The scans below were taken from the B&W reprint magazine put out by Warren back in the day—specifically, The Spirit #6 (Feb. 1975). I think the B&W format really suits Eisner, especially with this story as it takes place largely in darkness.
The ongoing conceit with the Octopus in the Spirit strip was that you never saw his face, only his gloved hands. And it’s not like the character made just one or two appearances, he showed up quite often. Keeping his face out of frame in every story was quite the challenge, clearly, and Eisner may have been the only artist capable of answering such a challenge.
Here, putting the story in darkness for a good portion of the action helps a lot (and keeping the face of the Octopus hidden played a big role in making this choice in the first place, obviously). But Eisner does not use this as an excuse to take the day off at his drawing board. Which he could have done—he could have given us several pages in a row of nothing but black panels with just word balloons and sound effects, but he didn’t. Only 2 of the 28 panels in the sequence have no artwork in them. The rest give us art to follow like breadcrumbs as the action moves along.
Going from panel to panel is very much like a film director going from shot to shot, and it’s very dramatic. We’re only getting bits and pieces, but we know what’s going on and we’re just aching to see it all. It incites the reader’s imagination, which is one the more powerful tools an artist can use. And again, the B&W format does add a lot, lending a more noir feel to the proceedings, particularly here in this tale.
Another fave is the two-parter “Sand Saref”/“Bring In Sand Saref” (Jan. 8-15, 1950). Now as mentioned at the beginning, I originally came to Eisner largely through Frank Miller, and Miller’s run on Daredevil is one of my favorite runs of all time. Daredevil #168 (Jan. 1981), which introduced Elektra, is in many ways an adaptation of this Sand Saref story, all the way down to the waterfront locale for the dénouement. So is this parallel coloring my judgment? Possibly.
But there’s one panel here that is one of my all-time favorites and it stands on its own. It’s the very last panel of the first part of the storyline, and it shows the Spirit, that paragon of virtue, bastion of law & order and all that is just and good… has just destroyed evidence.
Soak in that wide-eyed expression of disbelief and fear and wonder. The Spirit knows he just crossed a line that he can’t uncross, yet you get the feeling he’d do it again if he had to. He did it to protect Sand Saref, a woman he once deeply loved and may yet love still.
Making a Splash
Of course, I would be remiss if I failed to make special note of Eisner’s opening splashes. It’s quite the juxtaposition with the recent Kirby post, actually. Yesterday I noted how brilliant that Kirby splash from “This Man… This Monster!” was in its simplicity. Eisner’s splashes, on the other hand, were often breathtaking in their complexity. Take a look:
Let each one of those sink in. It’s the equivalent of taking a master class in design. At this particular skill of comic art, Eisner had no equal. What an extraordinary artist and craftsman he was.
So once again, a belated Happy 100th birthday to Will Eisner, one of the greatest comic artists ever.