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Pioneering comic artist Will Eisner dies

"A Contract with God," published in 1978, is considered to have launched the art form of the graphic novel.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Will Eisner, the artist who revolutionized comic books, helped popularize the graphic novel and taught generations of soldiers how to maintain their equipment with the “Joe Dope” series, has died. He was 87.

Eisner died Monday at Florida Medical Center in Lauderdale Lakes of complications from quadruple bypass heart surgery last month, according to Denis Kitchen, Eisner’s agent and publisher for three decades.

“He was absolutely the greatest innovator the industry ever saw,” Kitchen said.

Eisner started making comics in the 1930s and was the first to use “silent” balloonless panels to emphasize characters’ emotions by focusing attention on finely wrought facial expressions.

He addressed subjects considered unthinkable in comic books and rarely seen at the time in newspaper comics: spousal abuse, tax audits, urban blight and graft.

“He set not only a high standard of work, he has opened the door that very few people have gone through, which is to recognize comics as a legitimate storytelling medium,” said Max Allan Collins, whose graphic novel “Road to Perdition” was turned into a movie starring Tom Hanks.

The graphic novel is a genre that combines elements of comic books and literary novels. His first, “A Contract with God,” was published in 1978 and had stories of his childhood and the immigrant Jewish experience in a poor Brooklyn tenement.

“He had a real capacity to bring hope to the most dire circumstances ... the toils of immigrant life,” said Robert Weil, an executive editor at W.W. Norton, which is publishing two Eisner books this year.

In 1940, he created a gritty weekly newspaper supplement titled “The Spirit,” which at its height had a circulation of 5 million in 20 Sunday newspapers. The supplement consisted of a comic book with three self-contained stories, and “The Spirit” became the most popular.

Its title character was a coroner named Denny Colt, believed murdered by a mad scientist’s potion but actually buried alive. He protected the fictional Central City, which was based on New York.

But the series’ lead character usually took a back seat to others. “The stories would focus not necessarily on ’The Spirit,’ but on some poor average Joe who was having a bad day,” Collins said.

Eisner “had been producing comic books for 15-year-old cretins from Kansas,” he told The Associated Press in a 1998 interview. With “The Spirit,” he was aiming for “a 55-year-old who had his wallet stolen on the subway. You can’t talk about heartbreak to a kid.”

Eisner used moody shadows and drew panels mimicking camera angles from movies to give the book an edge.

“He was a master of combining words and pictures, creating a totally believable film-noirish world,” said cartoonist and playwright Jules Feiffer, who worked as an assistant on “The Spirit” series.

Eisner was drafted during World War II, and the Army had him create “Joe Dope” to teach Jeep maintenance to soldiers with a bumbling comic-strip character.

After the war, he went back to “The Spirit” and continued the series until 1952. The Army also hired him for more instruction manuals, which he produced until the 1970s, Kitchen said.

“Will was a multi-faceted treasure,” said Paul Levitz, president and publisher of DC Comics, which has released reprints of “The Spirit.” Eisner was “a pioneer as a cartoonist as well as a young entrepreneur at the dawn of comic books.”