Will Eisner (1917-2005), American Master of Graphic Narrative

The following is a guest post by Martha Kennedy, Curator of Popular and Applied Graphic Arts, Prints and Photographs Division.

One of the great innovators in the world of comic art, Will Eisner forged a legendary, multi-faceted career that spanned the birth of the comic book through the rise of the graphic novel. The Library of Congress joins art schools, libraries, universities, and museums across the nation in celebrating his legacy during Will Eisner Week, March 1-7, 2015, which also marks the 75th anniversary of The Spirit, one of his signature creations. The following images give glimpses of this artist’s remarkable versatility and pioneering achievements in his chosen medium.

Born in Brooklyn, Eisner grew up in the Bronx, and began drawing comics in an era that brought forth classic comic book heroes with super powers, Superman in 1938, and Batman in 1939. In 1940, Eisner unveiled a new kind of hero in The Spirit (below, left). Denny Colt had no super powers, but in marshalling his wits and human strength to fight crime, he appealed to both adult and young readers.

In 1940, Eisner unveiled a new kind of hero in The Spirit. Denny Colt had no super powers, but in martialing his wits and human strength to fight crime, he appealed to both adult and young readers.

The Spirit, Winter issue, no. 7, 1945. Comic book cover from a drawing by Will Eisner. [Comic book held by Serial & Government Publications Division] Artwork © Will Eisner Studios, Inc. WILL EISNER and THE SPIRIT are Registered Trademarks of Will Eisner Studios, Inc. Used with permission. http://lccn.loc.gov/sf96093418

Poster shows a man in keffiyeh and robe riding on a camel in the desert as Joe Dope studies a vehicle repair handbook next to his broken-down armored vehicle.

“Don’t be a dope! Handle equipment right! The sheik thinks it terribly strange these American Rangers don’t range . . .” Poster by Will Eisner, 1942. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014645418/

During World War II, Eisner designed posters (above, right) for the U.S. Army that stressed safe handling of equipment through the comic bumbling of G.I. Joe Dope. An example from the Prints & Photographs collections shows the cartoonist’s flair for creating humorous visual/verbal instruction, a skill that he also applied in postwar educational comics.

In A Contract With God (1978), Eisner introduced his then newly evolved kind of visual storytelling, grounded in his experience of city life. A title page drawing from a later story collection, Collisions, (below, left) contains elements often seen in his mature approach: a strong sense of time and place, a single incident that sets off several story lines, well-defined characters, and figures who observe and narrate.

Drawings showing the title page for a story called "Collisions" in Will Eisner's graphic novel, City People Notebook. Drawings depict the events following a traffic accident and the effect the accident has on the characters involved.

[Original drawings for a story called “Collisions” published in City People Notebook] Drawing by Will Eisner, [1989]. Artwork © Will Eisner Studios, Inc. WILL EISNER and THE SPIRIT are Registered Trademarks of Will Eisner Studios, Inc. Used with permission. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2006683284/

Comic book illustration showing a TV set exploding while broadcasting a view of Ground Zero, at the World Trade Center terrorist attack in New York City, September 11, 2001. A man sitting in front of the TV is covered in debris. The red image overlay shows blood spilling from the TV monitor onto the floor.

Reality 9/11. Drawing by Will Eisner, September 11, 2001. Artwork © Will Eisner Studios, Inc. WILL EISNER and THE SPIRIT are Registered Trademarks of Will Eisner Studios, Inc. Used with permission. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2002717263/

Eisner’s remarkable ability to craft compressed narrative can be seen in a work of his late maturity, one of his creative responses to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 (above, right). His haunting depiction of a dejected Everyman viewing a broadcast image of Ground Zero demonstrates the narrative and expressive capacity of the single-panel genre, which, he said, “enables people to talk with images.”*

Learn more:

* Cartoon America: Comic Art in the Library of Congress, edited by Harry Katz. New York: Abrams, 2006, page 300. [Library of Congress Catalog record][Cartoon America: table of contents]

Caught Our Eyes: Frozen Falls

Recently, frigid temperatures lingering in parts of the United States have caused a somewhat rare occurrence: the (partial) freezing of Niagara Falls. While water still flows, either visibly or under a frozen shell, sections of the massive falls are covered in ice, to the delight of tourists making the trip to the U.S./Canadian border to […]

Day of Remembrance: Photographs of Japanese American Internment During World War II

The following is a guest post by Karen Chittenden, Cataloger, Prints and Photographs Division. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which led to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The Executive Order applied to all people of Japanese ancestry, two-thirds of whom were American citizens, forcing nearly […]

Pictures to Go: Sleeping Car Quarters and Sleeping Car Porters

One of the wonders of modern transportation that advertisers at the turn of the twentieth century communicated through pictures was the compact luxury of railroad sleeping cars, stressing how they offered the comforts of home and more.​ Often shown as a side feature are the porters who tended to passengers’ needs. African-American sleeping car porters, […]

Picturing Legislators of the Past: A New Guide

With the many new faces on Capitol Hill this month as the 114th Congress gets underway, it’s an apt time to revisit the faces and activities of members of Congress of yesteryear. A new guide, “Pictures of Congress: An Overview,” helps researchers do just that. Although the Prints & Photographs Division generally does not receive […]

Come to Our Party: The 7th Birthday of the Flickr Commons

The following is a guest post by Helena Zinkham, Chief, Prints & Photographs Division. You’re invited to play a virtual game that offers a fun way to explore the remarkable Flickr Commons.  A new year of this special collaboration among close to 100 archives, libraries, and museums begins on January 16th. So brace yourself for […]

Pictures to Go: Express It!

When Barbara Natanson, fellow blogger and head of the reference section here in Prints & Photographs, shared with me the 1910 Lewis Hine photograph [below, left] of the boy assisting with deliveries in St. Louis, it brought home once again how enormously the world has changed in just over a century. In a similar fashion, […]

Ringing in the New Year

This New Year’s cartoon published in Life in January 1917 offers a commentary on what a difference fifty years can make. Whether you plan to celebrate quietly, as though it’s 1867 (left), or in a slightly more boisterous fashion, as though it’s 1917 (right), we hope you enjoy ringing in the New Year in your […]