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Will Eisner

Graphic Novel Godfather
Will Eisner (1917–2005) is considered one of the founding fathers of modern comics. Born to poor European immigrants, this artist, writer, ‘inventor’ of the graphic novel, theorist and producer grew up in New York. In 1939, he created The Spirit, his famous series about a gangster hunter, followed later by highly ambitious graphic novels and non-fiction books on ‘sequential art’. Cartoonmuseum Basel presents this major artist in a large-scale retrospective with original drawings.
Will Eisner (1917–2005) is considered one of the founding fathers of modern comics. It is not without reason that the ‘Oscars of the comics industry’, honouring this medium’s best creations every year since 1988 in the USA, bear his name: the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards. Eisner was not only an artist and writer, but also a theorist and producer. And the ‘inventor’ of the graphic novel. Eisner gave comics’ narratives the form and scope they needed. It is thanks to him that today, comics can be books. In 2002, he received a lifetime achievement award from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, adding to his numerous other honours and prizes. Alexander Braun, who curated this retrospective for Cartoonmuseum Basel, is also the author of its accompanying catalogue of the artist’s oeuvre.
When Eisner arrived on the comics scene in the mid-1930s, before he had even turned 20, the comic was still in its infancy. Eisner drew on a piecework basis: in any desired style or genre. In 1939, when he was presented with a (financially risky) offer to produce a kind of comic book for newspapers instead of the traditional Sunday pages, he accepted, thus creating his gangster hunter The Spirit. As superheroes had been the big sellers in the comics market since 1938, Eisner quickly gave him a domino mask. This comic series about an anonymous crime fighter, whose true identity was presumed-dead police officer Denny Colt, ran until 1952. However, Eisner was not actually interested in peddling tales of heroic deeds at all, but in exploring storytelling techniques with words and images, and in probing the causes of criminality and social dysfunctionality. Having grown up in poor circumstances himself in Brooklyn and the Bronx, as the child of Jewish immigrants from Austria and Romania, Eisner wanted to tell of life on the fringes of American society – of the losers, the little people in the darkness of the narrow alleys between tenements. Eisner coaxed sophisticated dramaturgy, spectacular perspectives, subjective points of view, unusual cuts and formal experiments from the comic.
In 1969, Will Eisner had to bury his 16-year-old daughter, who had been suffering from leukaemia: a harsh caesura. He then became more and more reluctant to take on jobs for the Pentagon or big companies. At the same time, the comics scene had emancipated itself: Underground, independent and self-distribution were the buzzwords of the era. This appealed to Eisner. He had always wanted something along these lines for his mode of expression. At almost 60 years of age, he set to work once again, with a new-found appetite. In 1978, he released a 196-page comic book, entitled A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories. Next to the title, there also appeared the definitive announcement of a new comic genre, with which Eisner put the comic on a par with literature: ‘A Graphic Novel by Will Eisner’. In his 27 remaining years of life, Eisner not only published various non-fiction books on the subject of ‘sequential art’, but also created another 16 extremely ambitious graphic novels. The late work of the godfather of the graphic novel was indeed impressive.


«The Spirit», Sonntagsbeilage, 31.12.1950 © Will Eisner Studio, Inc.
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