Comics Legend Will Eisner Dies

Tue, January 4th, 2005 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Jonah Weiland, Executive Producer/Publisher

CBR News has learned that comics legend Will Eisner died Monday evening due to complications following quadruple-bypass heart surgery performed December 22nd, 2004. He was 87.

Eisner was often referred to within the industry as a living legend, his body of work having influence over generations of creators and revered for his spirit and ingenuity. The Eisner Awards, considered by many to be the most prestigious award distributed in comics, are named in his honor and have been given out annually since 1987. Eisner was always in attendance at the awards, happily shaking the hand of every winner in attendance. In 2001, CBR News recorded the Eisner Awards and an audio welcome from Eisner is available for listening on this page. For more with Eisner, read our May, 2000 interview with the creator about his graphic novel "Last Day In Vietnam."

Bob Andelman, who maintains the "Will Eisner: A Spirited Life" E-Newsletter and author of the upcoming book of the same name, distributed the following text to media today.

Legendary comics and graphic novel artist and writer Will Eisner died last night, Monday, January 3, 2005, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, at the age of 87, following complications from quadruple heart bypass surgery.

Will Eisner didn't create Superman, Batman, Spider-Man or even Archie and Jughead. Some comic book fans may scratch their heads when asked to describe his work. But every artist and writer in comic books, as well as graphic artists across the entire spectrum of modern illustration, television and film, owes a debt to him.

In 1941, Eisner created a goofball detective named Denny Colt who died (not really) and was reborn as "The Spirit," the cemetery-dwelling protector of the public - and pretty girls in particular. The Spirit possessed no superpowers. He couldn't see through his girlfriend's clothing the way a curious alien like the Man of Steel might scientifically investigate Lois Lane. And he wasn't a brilliant technologist like Batman, imagineering hokey gadgets and psychedelic compounds for all-night parties with the Joker.

The Spirit broke so many molds:

  • Eisner was the strip's artist and writer, a feat that is still rare today.

  • The Spirit was published and distributed as an insert in Sunday newspapers, ala Parade magazine. It was seen weekly by as many as 5-million people from 1941 to 1952.

  • No two Spirit sections looked alike. Although most commercial operations - from Superman to Pepsi-Cola - spend millions of dollars testing, proving and marketing their logos, Eisner thought it was more challenging to change The Spirit's masthead every week - for 12 years.

  • The Spirit was a fun, mature read, aimed at adults but accessible to kids.

For all of these reasons, The Spirit was published and reissued in various forms almost uninterrupted for 60 years. Its look, feel and smartass humor is timeless, which accounts for the countless revivals.

Eisner, who went to high school with "Batman" creator Bob Kane, provided first jobs in the comics business to everyone from Jack Kirby (co-creator of "Captain America" and the "Fantastic Four") to Pulitzer-winning writer and artist Jules Feiffer.

If not for Eisner's influence, Pulitzer Prize winner Art Spiegelman might never have published his graphic novel Maus: A Survivor's Tale (Eisner is credited with popularizing - if not inventing - the medium of the graphic novel with the 1978 publication of his graphic story collection, A Contract With God) and fellow Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay would have been missing quite a few Eisner-inspired tales.

For comic book professionals, the highest honor in the industry is either an Eisner Award, named for Eisner and given out every summer at Comic-Con International in San Diego, or a Harvey Award, named for Eisner's late friend Harvey Kurtzman, the creator of Mad magazine and Playboy's "Little Annie Fanny," given every April in Pittsburgh. Kurtzman, who discovered talents as diverse as R. Crumb and Gloria Steinem, passed away in 1993, making Eisner the last man standing.

Literally.

At every Eisner Awards ceremony, each recipient was handed his or her award by the man himself.

Several years ago, a big red velvet chair was put on stage for Eisner. The Eisner Awards promoters said, "Come on, Will, you shouldn't have to stand up all this time; here, have a seat." Eisner sat on it briefly, got a laugh out of it, but then he stood up again, and stayed on his feet the rest of the night. Eisner demonstrated his strength of character and enduring physical wherewithal by standing on stage throughout the entire presentation, shaking hands and personally congratulating the winners. Because there is a different presenter for each award, no one else stood for as long as Eisner.

That's why, when Eisner handed the 2002 Eisner Award for Best Serialized Story (Amazing Spider-Man #30-35: "Coming Home") to writer J. Michael Straczynski and artists John Romita Jr. and Scott Hanna, Straczynski thrust the award in the air and remarked, "You know, you get the Emmy, you don't get it from 'Emmy.' You win the Oscar, you don't get it from 'Oscar.' How freakin' cool is this?"

Published in November 2004, DC Comics' The Will Eisner Companion is the first comprehensive, critical overview of the work of this legendary writer/artist. Divided into two sections - his Spirit work and his graphic novels - this authorized companion features all-new critical and historical essays by noted comics historians N.C. Christopher Couch and Stephen Weiner, as well as alphabetical indexes relating to all aspects and characters in his oeuvre. Also includes a chronology, a bibliography and suggested reading lists, as well as an introduction by Dennis O'Neil.

A new generation of comics fans learned about the man in the 1970s when underground comix publisher Denis Kitchen began reprinting "The Spirit" stories and eventually produced new stories of the character by top comic book talent including Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and Neil Gaiman. Kitchen became one of Eisner's closest friends and confidants, as well as his personal representative and literary agent (with Judith Hansen). (Kitchen can be reached via email at denis@deniskitchen.com.)

More recently, "John Law," a 56-year- old Will Eisner character, was given fresh life and adventures in 2002 by Australian artist and writer Gary Chaloner as an online comic book hero at ModernTales.com. In December 2004, Law returned to print in IDW Publishing's "Will Eisner's John Law" hardcover trade paperback. These stories were the first original John Law adventures published since Eisner worked on the character in 1948. This edition includes both new material and classic John Law tales by Eisner himself.

And Eisner's final - and likely most controversial - graphic novel, The Plot, finished last summer, will be published this spring by W.W. Norton.

Will Eisner was the wizard behind the curtain, except in his case, the magic was real.

There will be no funeral service, per Will's wishes. "Will and I hated funerals," his wife, Ann, said the morning after his death. "We made plans long ago to avoid having them ourselves." He will be buried next to his late daughter, Alice, who died in 1969. Surviving Will are his wife, Ann, and his son, John.

Cards may be sent to:


Will Eisner Studios


8333 W. McNab Road


Tamarac, FL 33321

Unofficially, in lieu of flowers, you might consider a donation in Will's name to the American Cancer Society - his daughter died of cancer - or the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, which Will was known to have supported.

On a personal note, I am crushed. Will and I started working on what began as an autobiography and morphed into an authorized biography three years ago this month. His friendship and camaraderie was like none other. (Will Eisner: A Spirited Life will be published in July for Dark Horse Comics' new M Press imprint.)

In the days to come, if you'd like to share a story or a thought about Will and need an outlet, I'll make this newsletter available to anyone who'd care to contribute. Just reply to ASpiritedLife@tampabay.rr.com and I'll share your words with an international audience of Eisner fans and media.

Today is a very sad day for the the world of arts and letters.

For more information about the life of Will Eisner, visit http://www.willeisner.com/

UPDATE 5:00 PM PST - DC Comics has released the following eulogy of Eisner.

Official Press Release

WILL EISNER, "THE FATHER OF GRAPHIC NOVELS" (The New York Times) AND NAMESAKE OF THE EISNER AWARDS, IS DEAD AT 87

Will Eisner, the great American master of comic art for whom the comic industry's Eisner Awards are named, died late Monday night, January 3, 2005, in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. He was 87. The cause of death was complications from quadruple heart bypass surgery.

In a career that spanned nearly seventy years, Eisner was recognized internationally as a giant in the field of sequential art, a term he coined. "The world has lost a true original, a constant innovator, and a prolific and powerful storyteller who created till the end," said Denis Kitchen, Eisner's literary and art agent. "On a personal level, I have lost a mentor, and a surrogate father. There will never be another anything like him."

Eisner's contributions to Wow, What a Magazine were published when he was still a teenager in 1936 and he was at the forefront of the birth of the comic book industry in the 1930s. From 1936 to 1939 Eisner partnered with Samuel "Jerry" Iger to run the Eisner & Iger Studio, providing a steady supply of content to publishers at the onset of the comic book industry. The Eisner & Iger staff included such future luminaries as Jack Kurtzberg (later Jack Kirby), Lou Fine, Bob Kane, Mort Meskin and many others. While partnered with Jerry Iger, Eisner created Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, followed by Dollman, Blackhawk and other characters.

In 1940, Eisner sold his interest in the packaging house to Iger and went on to create his most famous character, The Spirit, a masked crimefighter. The Spirit was the lead feature in an unprecedented new format: a 16-page color comic book that was inserted in Sunday newspapers, the first of numerous Eisner innovations. At the height of its popularity, The Spirit insert appeared in twenty newspapers with a combined circulation of 5 million readers each Sunday, quintupling the circulation of America's best-selling monthly comic book. The Spirit has been called "The Citizen Kane of comics" by USA TODAY and Eisner's achievement remains a benchmark in the industry. Art Spiegelman said of the series, "The Spirit still crackles with the energy of an artist consumed with the excitement of cascading new ideas. Inspired by the Hollywood noir movies of the period, Eisner brought something brand new into the world-not 'movies on paper' but picture-writing that keeps moving in your head."

The Spirit continued without Eisner's direct involvement while he served three years in World War II, producing educational cartoons and comic strips for the Army. After his discharge from the Army in 1945, Eisner returned to The Spirit producing it till 1952 and reaching heights of artistic accomplishment that have drawn comparisons between The Spirit and the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Although Eisner "retired" the Spirit in 1952, the series has rarely been out of print since. The first comic book reprints were issued by Quality (from 1944-50), followed by Fiction House (1952-54), Harvey Comics (1966-67), Kitchen Sink Press (1973), Warren Publications (1974-76) and Kitchen Sink Press again (from 1977 to 1998). Since 2000, DC Comics has published 15 volumes in the hardcover series THE SPIRIT ARCHIVES, which is projected to run 24 volumes.

"Will was a multi-faceted treasure," said Paul Levitz, the President & Publisher of DC Comics. "He was a pioneer as a cartoonist as well as a young entrepreneur at the dawn of comic books. He taught generations of creators in the studio, the classroom and by example. Best of all, to our delight as students and readers, he returned to the board to develop the nascent form of the graphic novel and establish himself as the cartoonist laureate of the immigrant Jewish experience in America. Any one of his accomplishments would be enough to honor a lesser lifetime; the sum of them, done by one man is astonishing. He was a friend, an advisor and an inspiration."

As a Pentagon-based Warrant Officer during World War II, Eisner pioneered the instructional use of comics. His combination of information with cartoon elements proved so effective that he continued to supply information in that form to audiences as diverse as the U.S. government and schools across America.

Perhaps Eisner's most lasting legacy is the creation of the graphic novel with his 1978 publication of A Contract with God. This book launched what is now the fastest-growing genre in American publishing. Eisner subsequently created nearly twenty graphic novels, roughly a book per year, inspiring countless fellow professionals to follow his lead. His most recent graphic novel, Fagin the Jew, a reinterpretation of the character in Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, was published in 2003 by Doubleday.

In May, 2005, W. W. Norton & Company will publish Will Eisner's new book, THE PLOT: The Secret Story of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Eisner turned his attention to nonfiction with this project, producing his first book of history, a work more disturbing than fiction. He considered THE PLOT to be his most important project ever. Umberto Eco just completed an introduction to the book last week.

In addition, Norton has recently acquired world rights to the Will Eisner Library graphic novel backlist, comprising 14 graphic novels, including the seminal A Contract with God along with Dropsie Avenue, A Life Force, Name of the Game, The Heart of the Storm, and others. Norton will begin publishing these graphic novels in a new format, with new material, in November of 2005.

THE PLOT: The Secret Story of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion unravels one of the most pernicious hoaxes of the twentieth century. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a notorious piece of anti-Semitic propaganda created and disseminated by Russia's secret police 100 years ago, purported to be a blueprint written by Jewish leaders for taking over the world. Although the Times of London revealed in 1921 that The Protocols was a hoax, millions continue to believe its fictitious plot is true. Now, a new generation, fueled by anti-Semitism and the many Internet sites that spread hateful messages, has adapted the text to suit its purposes.

THE PLOT: The Secret Story of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion explains how and why the Protocols were crafted and presents a pageant of historical figures, from Tsar Nicholas II to Henry Ford to Adolf Hitler. THE PLOT exposes the twisted history of the Protocols document, from 19th- century Russians to modern-day Klan members to Islamic fundamentalists. By setting the record straight, Eisner hoped he could raise public consciousness of anti-Semitism throughout the world and draw attention to the nefarious ways in which governments use propaganda to influence public opinion. Arrangements have already been made for THE PLOT to be published in eight countries, and Eisner himself was making arrangements for an Arabic translation.

Norton executive editor Robert Weil, Eisner's editor at Norton, comments, "Will Eisner possessed a tremendous intuitive gift for storytelling, conveyed through the combination of art and words. Like a superb novelist, he could engage the reader and reveal the deepest life forces, both comic and tragic. Through his depiction of place, especially through his evocation of Depression-era life on one block in the Bronx, he was able to create an entire universe of experience. These unique gifts have lifted Eisner's work from the domain of low culture, where comics and comic novels were long relegated, to the realm of literary genius."

Eisner, who taught comics classes for years at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, has authored two definitive instructional books on the medium, Comics and Sequential Art and Graphic Storytelling. Both are perennial sellers.

One of the comics industry's two most prestigious awards, The Eisner, is named after him and presented annually before a packed ballroom at Comic-Con International: San Diego. Nominees are selected each year by a blue-ribbon committee, with winners selected by a vote of comics professionals. Will Eisner has modestly accepted several Eisner Awards over the years, as well as several Harvey's, named after his close friend, the late Harvey Kurtzman. In 2001 he made history again by winning separate awards for works created sixty years apart, with THE SPIRIT ARCHIVES Volume 1 winning "Best Reprint" with material originally published in 1940, while his Last Day in Vietnam, published in 2000, won "Best Graphic Novel." Eisner has also won numerous international awards.

In May 2002 Wizard magazine named Will Eisner "the most influential comics artist of all time." On June 3, 2002, Eisner received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Federation for Jewish Culture, only the second such honor in the organization's history, presented by Pulitzer-prize winning cartoonist Art Spiegelman. Two separate film documentaries about Eisner's career are underway.

Eisner died on January 3 in Fort Lauderdale, FL.

For a full bio of Will Eisner, please see the website of Eisner's longtime literary agency, Kitchen & Hansen, at www.kitchenandhansen.com.

 
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