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Will Eisner Made Fighting Bigotry An Art Form

By Paul E. Fitzgerald
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 5, 2005; Page C01

In addition to having the hand and eye of a gifted artist, Will Eisner, who died Monday at 87, had an amazing insight into the human condition and the heart of a true club boxer. He was tough, game and always moving, packed a powerful punch and never quit.

For a street-smart New York kid, Will was amazingly soft-spoken. It was a trait that often misled people who didn't really know him. They were likely to miss his cold-steel glare when he clenched his teeth and lowered his voice even further in a sure sign that he had every intention of sticking to his position. In the give-and-take negotiations of the world of publishing and production, he was inclined to hang in there until the last round.

Will Eisner used graphic novels to fight anti-Semitic prejudice. His "Fagin the Jew" portrayed the Charles Dickens villain in a different light. (Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

And there was a touch of the Irish about him in his ability to remember a slight or a grudge.

In a mid-1950s exchange with his brother and business manager, Julian, who was always known as "Pete," they discussed a competitor in the industrial art market:

"They've never hurt us," Pete said.

"That's not the question," Will responded. "Have they ever tried?"

When Will graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in the late Depression years, comic strips were produced and sold in a grab-the-marbles-and-run environment that frequently gave the impression of everybody trying to do the same thing. Eisner carved a niche in 1940 and expanded it into a worldwide circle of fame when he introduced "The Spirit," with its new art techniques, new story lines and total absence of superheroes.

He stepped back from the surging crowd again in the late 1970s when he switched his attention and efforts to graphic novels, becoming not only the acclaimed "grandfather" of the graphic novel but a respected theorist and teacher of the techniques and concepts involved in, to use his phrase, "sequential art."

As far as the sheer weight of numbers is concerned, Eisner probably acquired his largest bloc of admirers through his work in the 1950s through the early 1970s as contract artist for the U.S. Army's preventive maintenance monthly, PS Magazine, which had a circulation of 187,000. Will loved to be in the field, in direct contact with the troops who were his primary audience. He carried two concealed weapons -- a wry, deadpan sense of humor and a lightning wit -- both of which held no respect for pomposity or rank.

On Okinawa, in 1960, a group of soldiers arranged a private, after-hours party for him in the Teahouse of the August Moon. After the performers had presented a Japanese folk song and explained that it was "The Coal Miner's Song," the translator asked Will if we had a "Coal Miner's Song" in the United States. With an impish twinkle in his eye, Eisner told her that she would have to ask me, since I once was a coal miner.

My first lugubrious rendition of "The Dream of the Miner's Child" was abandoned in mid-try because of translation difficulties. Then Will whipped out his sketch pad and pen, and suggested that we try again.

With a speed that matched the pace of the tune, he drew a multi-panel storyboard that was completed when the last note was sung. If the charming singer to whom he presented the sketches possesses them today, they could represent a rather valuable holding.

Will once said that his idea of success was being able to make somebody laugh, or think, or both.

When it comes to laughter, I remember listening to him in a bunkered, makeshift Officers' Club bar in the Korean DMZ, north of the Imjin River. He was explaining to a rapt group of listeners that he had spent a lot of time over the years in a running argument with Al Capp (of Li'l Abner fame) regarding the real basis of humor. Capp believed, Will said, that the basis of all humor is man's inhumanity to man. Will, on the other hand, held that it was the juxtaposition of the incongruous. Will's thesis carried the audience of the moment.

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