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Artifact: The Spirit of Popular Art

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Credit: Will Eisner
Credit: Will Eisner

Will Eisner, who died in January, was a founder of the graphic novel–a medium in which serious, extended narratives appear in comic-book form. With his 1978 work A Contract With God, he began a series of semi-autobiographical tales about big-city ethnics, earning acclaim both inside and outside the comics community.

But that was phase two of Eisner's career. His first claim to fame lay in his weekly newspaper supplement, The Spirit (1940?1952). Those comics told tales of a masked crime fighter who battled grotesques and gangsters in a comic-noir New York called Central City. They dealt more with archetypes than with characters, and they often offered more violence than insight. But they were tense, funny, deeply urban, and deeply human; they have been reprinted repeatedly, continuing to capture readers even as the original pulp they were printed on flakes away to nothing.

As with the film noir of the '40s that The Spirit resembles, unique craftsmanship–even in so "low" a field as comics or B movies–will not only attract new audiences; it will often be embraced, eventually, by cultural gatekeepers. On the front page of the Los Angeles Times, the image teasing Eisner's obituary was not an anguished old man yearning to God but a lithe young Spirit punching out a crook.