Cartoonists Comment on the Lasting Impact of Will Eisner (1917-2005)

The following is a guest post by Martha H. Kennedy, Curator of Popular & Applied Graphic Art, Prints & Photographs Division.

During Will Eisner Week, March 1-7, 2020, the Library of Congress joins art schools, libraries, universities, and museums in a global celebration of this legendary creator’s contributions to the world of comic art and particularly spotlights the rise of the graphic novel.

Year after year, I rediscover the many comic artists who share with me their admiration for the work of this groundbreaking master of graphic narrative. Whether inspired by his poetic evocations of specific times and places or moved by his own personal stories or those of people he knew or invented, cartoonists of different generations, backgrounds, and interests find that the lifework of Will Eisner helps to spark their own creative processes.

Collage of cover details of author’s favorite graphic novels and short story collection by Will Eisner, A Contract With God (1978), To the Heart of the Storm (1991), and New York: The Big City (1981). Photo by Martha H. Kennedy, 2020.

Collage of cover details of graphic novels and short story collection by Will Eisner: A Contract With God (1978), To the Heart of the Storm (1991), and New York: The Big City (1981). Photo by Martha H. Kennedy, 2020.

In addition to reading his series The Spirit [view catalog record], countless cartoonists have studied and admired Eisner’s graphic novels including such autobiographical and semi-autobiographical works as A Contract With God (1978) [view catalog record] and To the Heart of the Storm (1991) [view catalog record], two of my personal favorites. I asked several contemporary comic artists to share their thoughts about how Eisner’s graphic novels have influenced the development of their own work and/or the art form. A sampling of their remarks follows, along with a few images from their graphic narratives.

Everyman wanders in the rain, without an umbrella . . .. Drawing by Eric Drooker, between 1985 and 1992. Published in Flood: A Novel in Pictures, 1992. //www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2008676214/

Everyman wanders in the rain, without an umbrella . . .. Drawing by Eric Drooker, between 1985 and 1992. Published in Flood: A Novel in Pictures, 1992. //www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2008676214/

Stating that he always loved Eisner’s work, Eric Drooker, who created the award-winning Flood: A Novel in Pictures [view catalog record], shares this poetic recollection: “I immediately recognized Will Eisner’s primordial urban visions when I first encountered his work . . .  I, too, was born and raised in New York City, so Eisner’s haunted cityscapes were instantly familiar to me, and highly detailed depictions of ethnic inner city neighborhoods . . . continue to influence my own graphic novels.” (An original drawing for Flood appears at the right.)

Peter Kuper, who created the Eisner Award-winning graphic album Ruins, remembers that he encountered Eisner at a New York Comic Con in the late 1970s, “just as he had published A Contract With God and [I] bought a copy directly from him. Though I . . . loved The Spirit, I was just beginning my cartooning career and Contract hit like an inspiration bomb with exciting new ways of storytelling. His wordless short comics in books like New York: The Big City launched me into experimenting with that form as well and eventually led me to create several wordless graphic novels of my own. I’m forever grateful. . .”

Henni. Drawing by Miss Lasko-Gross, 2015. Design for American Library Association poster. //www.loc.gov/pictures

Henni. Drawing by Miss Lasko-Gross, 2015. Design for American Library Association poster.
//www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2015652330/

Miss Lasko-Gross voices similar appreciation for Eisner’s work, emphasizing that it “created a path for autobiographical artists like myself. Even without always being a direct point of reference. It was an audacious leap away from the idea that comics were exclusively a realm of larger-than-life creations. Making room for the ‘little’ and the personal.” Lasko-Gross explores the truth of a personal life in her graphic novel Henni [view catalog record]. (A design for a poster advertising the novel is seen at the left.)

“Maybe I should thank Dad because I don't know if my rebellious side would be as strong without him.” Drawing by Marguerite Dabaie, 2010. Published in The Hookah Girl and Other True Stories, volume 2, 2010. //www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2016651759/

“Maybe I should thank Dad because I don’t know if my rebellious side would be as strong without him.” Drawing by Marguerite Dabaie, 2010. Published in The Hookah Girl and Other True Stories, volume 2, 2010.
//www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2016651759/

Another comic artist and illustrator, Marguerite Dabaie, writes that she thinks Eisner was “masterful,” and adds that “He’s been more of an indirect influence for me but it has been a powerful one. I don’t think there are many cartoonists his work hasn’t influenced in some way.” A rising voice in the field, Dabaie has drawn upon the challenges she has faced as a young Arab-American woman seeking to pursue her own path as an artist in the face of traditional expectations for girls in her family’s culture. (A drawing from Dabaie’s The Hookah Girl and Other True Stories appears at the right.)

As one of the progenitors and masters of the graphic novel as we know it, Will Eisner holds a key place as a gifted, prolific practitioner of the art form. In his work as a teacher and promoter of visual storytelling, he also contributed vitally to worldwide recognition of graphic narrative as a respected, powerful genre of artistic expression.

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