Will Eisner, R.I.P.
Just learned, to my dismay and sorrow, that comic book great Will Eisner died Monday night at age 87, after heart surgery.
Eisner was around in the comics periodical field since the beginning. He first established his mastery of the form in the '40s in his newspaper comic supplement The Spirit, telling charming and wonderful tales of a superpowerless masked crimefighter (the thought-to-be-dead criminologist Denny Colt) and his comic-noir adventures in "Central City" with pal and sparring partner Commissioner Dolan (and his daughter Ellen, whose matrimonial grasp he fled) and a plethora of other grotesques and archetypes and gunsels and kid sidekicks. His stories were tense, funny, deeply urban and deeply human, some of the finest popular entertainments of the American Century.
He stopped the Spirit in 1952. Eisner is famed as a pioneer in the graphic novel form, and for the past 25 years has mostly used the comic form to tell non-genre tales (most set in the South Bronx environment in which he spent much of his childhood) which, I have to admit, I have not kept up with (but will). He didn't give in to fan desires to see him revisit old glories. I don't have the critical language–I don't know who could–to explain to you how fun, funky, innovative, and, well, cool, a Will Eisner page at the top of his game looked. But take a look here, and here, and here, and here. The wonder of it is, there are hundreds and hundreds more where that come from. But no more new ones.
The Warren and Kitchen Sink reprints of the old Spirit supplements in the '70s and '80s were totems of great power and joy in my childhood, and I grin every time I see one of his twisty, shadowy, unprecedented pages. He walked by me once at a San Diego Comic Con and I ended up standing on the escalator behind him for a long ride. I didn't bother him; doubtless he heard more than enough anonymous "you're the greatest!" comments from fans at such events. But I was quietly humming with joy that, two steps above me, was Will Eisner.
Update: Wanted to share this quote I found from someone who did not shy away, as I did, from trying to describe what made Eisner such a great cartoonist, from his protege, and a man who knows from lines on a page, Jules Feiffer:
"Eisner's line had weight. Clothing sat on his characters heavily; when they bent an arm, deep folds sprang into action everywhere. When one Eisner character slugged another, a real fist hit real flesh. Violence was no externalized plot exercise, it was the gut of his style. Massive and indigestible, it curdled, lava-like, from the page."
While not attempting a full biography here, I might also note that in addition to being one of the form's greatest practitioners, Eisner was also one of the comics world's greatest entrepreneurs and theoreticians.