by Dr. Rafael Medoff
Will Eisner, a giant in the world of comic book art who used his craft in later years to fight anti-Semitism and teach Jewish history, died Jan. 3 in Lauderhill Lakes, Fla., at age 87.
The cause of death was complications from heart bypass surgery.
Eisner invented the “graphic novel,” which used comic book-style art to tell a book-length story and influenced an entire generation of cartoonists. Art Spiegelman subsequently used the technique for his Pulitzer Prize-winning Holocaust book “Maus,” as did Joe Kubert in his recent book about the Warsaw Ghetto revolt, “Yossel.”
Kubert, a lifelong friend and colleague of Eisner’s, called the graphic novel “an incredible innovation, which inspired me and many others to explore new artistic possibilities.”
Kubert, who is president of the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art in Dover, N.J., said Eisner was “a consummate storyteller who showed us that we are not doing our job as cartoonists if we do not find interesting and effective ways to make our stories understandable to readers.”
Born on the New York City’s Lower East Side in 1917, William Eisner was the son of European Jewish immigrants, and his experiences growing up in interwar Brooklyn and the Bronx later would figure prominently in his work.
He turned down an early job offer to design sets for a traveling theater because his mother considered it “a terrible life.” Instead, Eisner sold newspapers on a streetcorner “to make it easier to set a respectable table on Friday nights,” and honed his cartooning skills at the New York Art Students League.
Entering the field of comic-strip art in 1936, Eisner soon established one of the first comic-art production studios, assembling a team of artists to provide comic strips and illustrations for newspapers around the world.
Cartoonist Jules Feiffer and legendary comic book artist Jack Kirby were among the many future stars who got their start in Eisner’s “shop.”
Eisner’s most famous character creation was the Spirit, an unconventional crime-fighter whose adventures appeared in the Sunday color comics pages from 1940 to 1952. His stories featured innovative graphics and storylines that alternately were humorous, clever and moralistic.
At its peak, The Spirit was appearing in newspapers with a combined circulation of five million.
In the 1950s Eisner began using cartoon art for educational purposes, helping to create the U.S. Army magazine PS, which he produced for two decades. It used cartoon illustrations as a means of teaching soldiers how to maintain equipment and vehicles.
Then, at an age when most people would be planning their retirement, Eisner launched a major new phase of his career, one that drew heavily on his Jewish roots. In 1978 he authored “A Contract With God,” the first graphic novel, which featured comic book-style slice-of-life stories set in a heavily Jewish Bronx tenement in what he called “the dirty ‘30s.”
Eisner understood that comic art could teach about the Jewish immigrant experience in a way far more appealing than conventional history texts.
“As you get older, you write and care about things near and dear to you, the values that are closest to your heart, and you care less about trying to do something just because it might be a commercial success,” said Adam Kubert, Joe Kubert’s son and one of the top artists today at Marvel Comics.
He called Eisner “a living legend whose impact was felt in every corner of the field of comic art.”
Eisner produced 10 more graphic novels in the 1980s and 1990s, many utilizing themes from the lives of Jewish immigrants.
“A Life Force,” for example, chronicled the life of Jacob Shtarkah, an aging carpenter, as he struggled through the Depression years, rising anti-Semitism and the intermarriage of his daughter.
Eisner also authored two books about comic-art techniques, and for 17 years taught Sequential Art —as he characterized his field— at the School of Visual Arts in New York.
He came to be regarded by colleagues not only as an elder statesman of their craft but as the most brilliant innovator in the field.
The most prestigious prize awarded in the comics industry is the Eisner Award, which Eisner himself presented each year at the San Diego comics convention, the largest national gathering of comic book fans and creators.
Two years ago, at age 85, Eisner undertook a major new venture: combating anti-Semitism through cartoon art. His graphic novel “Fagin the Jew,” published by Doubleday, featured the Oliver Twist character in a book-length rebuke of Charles Dickens’ anti-Semitic portrayal of him.
Eisner next turned his attention to the most infamous anti-Semitic text of all, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” which purports to reveal a secret Jewish plot to rule the world.
Shocked by the book’s continuing popularity in Arab and Muslim countries, Eisner set to work on a full-length, line-by-line rebuttal of “The Protocols,” told through the medium of cartoon illustration.
Titled “The Plot,” Eisner’s innovative attack on anti-Semitism was the subject of advance feature stories in both the New York Times and the Washington Post more than a year before its scheduled release, by W.W. Norton, this spring.
“I wanted to create a work that would be understood by the widest possible audience,” unlike conventional books about “The Protocols,” which have attracted relatively little public interest, Eisner explained to the Times.
In another indication of his growing interest in the fight against anti-Semitism, Eisner last year took a rare foray into the realm of political controversy. He joined a group of artists, writers and political figures who signed a letter criticizing the U.S. State Department’s opposition to U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos’ (D-Calif.) legislation that would require the State Department to form an office to monitor anti-Semitism around the world.
One of Eisner’s final projects involved serving as a judge in a contest sponsored by the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, in which teens create editorial cartoons, set in the 1940s, urging U.S. intervention to rescue Jewish refugees.
Joe Kubert, also a judge in the contest, said that teaching teenagers about the Holocaust through editorial cartoons “carries on Will Eisner’s legacy of communicating with young people through cartoon art.”
Eli Schaap, assistant director of the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education, in New York, said “non-traditional educational techniques, such as Eisner’s work, are tremendously important, because people learn and absorb information in many different ways, so you need many different modes of education.”
Schaap noted that CAJE frequently uses cartoon illustrations in the educational materials it distributes.
“Today we know how effective art can be in Jewish and Holocaust education,” Schaap said. “Pioneers like Will Eisner pointed the way.