The idea to write about Will Eisner and The Spirit came to this writer soon after he read his CF column on Fell (Warren Ellis) in print. Among the various other points that column made was one on how Fell was an experiment in making smaller (and more affordable) comics through the use of more panels on a page. Well, Eisner, the father of the graphic novel, and one of the most significant influences on comics creators past and present, was doing this a long time ago—in the 1940s, actually.
This columnist has no idea whether Eisner was the first to use the phrase graphic novel—the story goes that this was how he saw his book of short stories A Contract With God—but The Spirit must have definitely revolutionized the comic books business. A series of comics about a masked superhero who fights crime, The Spirit was written in the 1940s, and the stories are usually short (a maximum of 60 panels, although some use fewer) and snappy. There’s nothing much to be said—in this writer’s opinion at least; Eisner is almost universally revered by both writers and readers of comics—for the plots themselves, which are the typical superhero-fights-amazing-odds-to-save-child/woman/city/state/world/planet/universe ones.
Trendsetter: The author of ‘The Spirit’ saw comic books as an art form—even back in the 1940s.
However, Eisner’s ability to use the art form (and he did see comics as an art form) was exceptional. From the use of empty spaces to reflect openness and freedom, to the use of smaller panels to convey a sense of movement in the story, to the complete absence of panels, he tried almost everything comics writers after him used, and to good effect.
Reading his books now, it will be quite easy to ignore these simply because many of these techniques have now become standard. The thing to remember is that Eisner did all this in the 1940s, when comics weren’t really considered the almost-respectable medium it now is and most publishers ran operations that were closer to sweatshops or assembly lines than studios.
Neil Gaiman, in his introduction to a collection of The Spirit comics, says that Eisner’s work provides a good lesson in how to tell stories. That about sums it up.
In an attempt to try and create “meaningful” comics, many contemporary writers and illustrators seem to have lost sight of the fact that their day job is to tell a good story through interesting pictures. That’s just what Eisner did.
PS: One of the books featured inCF, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, has won the 2008 Caldecott Medal for the best illustrated children’s book.
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