I took a deep breath when I heard the news. With the passing of Will Eisner, our industry suffered the loss of one of its last elders. And by all accounts a good man. You’ll be reading feature obits and tributes to Will for weeks to come. This one’s mine.
I met the man once. That’s it. I was chatting with Bud Plant at San Diego’s ComiCon when the grand old master of comics walked in looking for a very specific book. He’d come to the right place. Bud introduced us and we spoke a little, then posed for a quick picture, and then it was over?he was off to another part of the con and I’d never have that face time again. We’d spoken on the phone a few times but seeing him up close was different. Huge. Will was a giant. And 87? Geez, he didn’t look 87. He had more going on than most three people and he wasn’t going gentle into that good night.
“I’ve been getting calls on this all day,” Stan Lee told me this morning. “I wish I knew him better, Cliff. I’ll tell you what I’m telling everybody: I’ve shared many a podium with Will Eisner and always knew him to be a great artist, a wonderful raconteur and, most important, a truly fine human being. As an artist and storyteller, he was superb, in a class by himself. Many times I urged him to join the Marvel bullpen, in whatever capacity, whatever position he might desire. With a talent such as his, I felt Marvel could reach greater heights than ever before. But, although the offers intrigued him, he always preferred doing his own strips in his own way?and I respected him for that.
“My greatest regret about Will is that we never were able to spend more time together. Except for our brief meetings at conventions, on some panel somewhere, or at some magazine industry function, we just lived too far away from each other?ad that was my loss. Others will describe his artistic talents far better than I can, but the one thing that is uppermost in my memory regarding the truly legendary Will Eisner is?he was one of the finest gentlemen I’ve ever known. We are all poorer for his loss.”
Gene Colan revered Will. He told me the following: “Will Eisner will be greatly missed by everyone in or out of the comic strip industry. Although I never knew him personally, I was deeply influenced by his cinematic approach, even before my own career began. The Philadelphia Record featured The Spirit and I would study his art like a wide-eyed kid with his nose against a toy store window. The atmospheric effects he used so well to give a burst of sudden light to a scene, like a lightening flash, was captured so effectively. I believe I heard somewhere that his father was a stage set designer. What a fabulous background for Will Eisner as a youngster.”
Paul Levitz was quoted in DC’s official obit, but I asked him to go into more detail. “I never worked with Will on creative matters,” he said, “but I knew him for over 30 years and we became friends in the last years when DC has been his publisher. In trying to put words to his many accomplishments over the past few days, I’ve come to the conclusion that his greatest accomplishment was his aspirations. Whether creatively (think of the challenge he set for himself in the splash logos), as a businessman (the Spirit sections were a form of creator ownership and self-publishing at a time when both were unknown in comic books and newspaper strips), or as an advocate for the medium (from his belief in the graphic novel as literature before there were any that qualified, to his involvement in an award for best comic shops to encourage improvement in that end of the field), he believed we could be better and was determined to do whatever he could to lead us to that higher standard.
“The list of Will’s innovations is significant: he struck an unusual balance of creator ownership and yet studio packaging with The Spirit, allowing the feature to live on even in his absence(s); his work in custom comics with the Army’s PS magazine is rife with innovation in mixing cartoon and text to deliver messages; and his various later forms of The Spirit were highly experimental crosses between worlds: underground and mainstream (in the Kitchen projects), traditional art and forms of coloring that wouldn’t become available to comics for years thereafter (in the Warren projects), and journalism and comics (with the Herald Trib Spirit on the Lindsay election here in NYC), and many that innovated but went nowhere (The Spirit Coloring Book)… and all of that before his role in being the advocate for how the graphic novel could be an opportunity to raise comics to a new literary plane.
“His name carries weight certainly for his years?and especially in that regard for how long a stretch he had been producing work at the highest standards of our field?but more from how much we learned from him. Decades ago, we talk of doing a Spirit-splash and playing with the logo, or doing a slice of life story as an interlude in his fashion…even if we had never met Will, or heard him teach, or heard him argue with Scott McCloud about the formalisms of what comics were and could be. If influence, direct and indirect, is the test, he may be the most influential talent our field ever had.”
© 2004, Clifford Meth