The Spirit may be his defining work, and The Contract With God Trilogy may be his crowning achievement, but the work of Will Eisner that may have the most lasting impact is that as an educator. Through the 1970s and the 1980s, Eisner taught at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. There, alongside a couple other legends (Harvey Kurtzman and Art Spiegelman) Eisner would educate hundreds of students on the craft of storytelling through sequential art, and about the industry at large.
While they taught, Eisner and Kurtzman would publish works of their students. Kurtzman’s magazine was known as “Kartoons,” while Eisner’s was “Gallery.” According to Batton Lash, speaking at Comic Con International 2017, Eisner impressed upon his students the idea of creator ownership. It was an arrangement of creator-ownership which allowed The Spirit to flourish for years, and it was under even more creator-friendly terms that Eisner’s graphic novels were published. Because Eisner spent most of his career seeing his work-for-hire peers exploited by publishers, he became one of the early champions of creator-ownership, well before the Image Revolution of the early 1990s.
Though he would retire as an educator during the 1980s, he would continue to guest-lecture at the school up to his death. His time at the School of Visual Arts resulted in the creation of 3 textbooks on the medium, which are still in print and widely available today. Comics and Sequential Art, Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative, and Expressive Anatomy for Sequential Art each break down and examine the key fundamentals of the comics medium. It is an accessible look behind the curtain to how a legend understood the medium which he mastered.
Though he stopped teaching in the 1980s, his legacy as an educator lives on through the Will Eisner Scholarship. Per the Society of Illustrators website:
This scholarship honors Will Eisner who was one of the most influential comic artists of all time. Will Eisner was a pioneer in the creation of comics during the “Golden Age” of comics during the 1930s and ‘40s, achieving fame with his iconic crime-fighting hero The Spirit. Many comic greats worked with Eisner, including Jules Feiffer, Jack Kirby, and Al Jaffee. After the Spirit ceased publication, Eisner devoted himself to creating educational and instructional sequential art, a term he coined. In 1978, Eisner once again reinvented himself- and the comic art medium-with his graphic novel, A CONTRACT WITH GOD. Will Eisner’s 19 graphic novels and 3 textbooks are still in print in 15 worldwide languages. The prestigious Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards are presented annually at San Diego Comic-Con.
Recipients of the scholarship receive $5,000 for their education. In addition, the American Library Association annually issues the Eisner Graphic Novel Grant to support the expansion of a given library’s existing graphic novel services and programs. Both of these causes are championed and administered by the Will and Ann Eisner Family Foundation.
Will Eisner’s contributions to the comics medium are startling. Even if you were to take away The Spirit, A Contract With God, and his many other graphic novels, the impact he would have made is still startling in comparison with his peers.