AS MARCH marks the centennial of Will Eisner’s birth — and with next Friday looming as the deadline for the Eisner Award nominations — this is a fitting moment to mark just how central the great creator was to most everything comics has become.
Eisner’s career as writer and artist, editor and executive spanned from the dawn of comic books through to digital transitions of the 21st century. And with his enviable tool kit of talents, he pushed the creative boundaries on so much of what he rendered.
“Will Eisner was a rarity, a man who wrote as well as he drew — and he was a master at both,” Stan Lee told The Post’s Comic Riffs in 2011.
Before the Brooklyn-born Eisner launched the noir detective-superhero comic “The Spirit” in 1940, in a newspaper supplement section, he was already a teenage business wiz, launching the Eisner/Iger studio that would hire such rising talents as Jack Kirby, Lou Fine, Bob Powell and Chuck Mazoujian.
Eisner would also later hire future legends Jules Feiffer and Wally Wood to work on “The Spirit,” which had a 12-year run. Feiffer, who recently began creating his own noir graphic novels, told Comic Riffs in 2015 that he is likely among the last working cartoonists who read “The Spirit” during its original run. The feature — which was inventive in its experimental design and types of storytelling — holds up beautifully today except for the gross caricature of a side character, Ebony White.
“Not only was he a great creator of graphic novels, but his talent as a designer was awesome,” Lee said of Eisner in 2011, “as evinced by the magnificent opening pages of his famed ‘The Spirit’ strip.”
Eisner’s stint in the Army during World War II also would help lead to his decades of work creating military illustrations and comics — including for PS Magazine, the “preventive maintenance” monthly for which Eisner would serve as artistic director from 1951 to 1972. There, he created such characters as Joe Dope, the walking cautionary tale of a careless private.
The ’70s saw Eisner’s full devotion to graphic novels, a long-existing sequential-art form that he helped popularize with such works as the landmark “A Contract With God (and Other Tenement Stories),” which included semi-autobiographical tales from his Jewish upbringing in a hardscrabble neighborhood.
Appreciation of what Eisner meant to graphic novels was gradual, as more cartoonists and then readers grew to fully understand what he had accomplished. His storytelling design had a looseness that broke free of strict grids; his expressive characters seemed to pop off the page; and he worked in sophisticated, mature themes that would help such literary descendants as “Persepolis” be taken seriously.
The Eisner Awards — sometimes called “the Oscars of comics” — were begun in his name in 1988, as he worked as a full-time ambassador of comics. He continued to appear at the San Diego Comic-Con event till shortly before his death in 2005.
“Will’s lasting legacy was, and always will be,” Lee said, “an inspiration to creative people everywhere.”
The “Will Eisner’s War” exhibit runs through Sunday at Geppi’s Museum in Baltimore. And on April 4, the School of Visual Arts will host a Will Eisner “100 Years of Genius” event with Frank Miller and Klaus Janson.