Will Eisner was one of maybe 5 people whose talents truly moved the medium of storytelling through sequential art forward. His layouts and design were beyond the cliche of “ahead of their time.” Most modern creators have yet to quite catch up to his execution and communicable abilities. He is often imitated, and by people who probably don’t know who they’re aping, because the guy they’re cribbing from cribbed from someone else who cribbed from Eisner. His work was that pervasive, which makes it that much sadder that probably 6 of 10 people I’ve met who would identify themselves as comic book fans have never heard of him. Of the remaining 4, probably 3 of those have ever seen his work, and 1 of those 3 could identify it on sight.
Eisner is best known for the 1940 creation of The Spirit, the continuing episodes of the second life of Denny Colt told in standalone (which is to say everything you needed to know about each story was there in the issue in your hands) 8-10 page stories, which came with the Sunday funnies of major newspapers around the country. Eisner was hired to create a “costumed crimefighter,” but his only nod to the standard cliche was a domino mask Denny wore with a blue suit and hat. He started out with flying cars, secret potions, cops and robbers, but as the years went by and Will’s talents grew, the stories became more and more complex.
As the book had the exposure to adult eyes most other comics at that time weren’t afforded, themes could be explored that weren’t often in American comics at that time. Will Eisner became something quite singular in his storytelling. Spirit stories frequently didn’t have The Spirit character in them hardly at all, he became more and more of a storytelling device which hovered around stories of love, alienation, poverty, all manner of human struggle. A real heart was beating at the center of these simple pamphlets, at a time when the creation of comic books on a strict deadline was often quite cynical, by creators and readers alike.
When The Spirit ended after more than a decade, Eisner left even the illusion of standard superhero comics behind. It was him who coined the phrase “graphic novel,” in order to sell his very adult work to the public. Please note that “adult work” here doesn’t refer to gratuitous sex, violence, and profanity, I’m referring to the subject matter as being beyond juvenile interests. As such, work like Contract With God never quite caught on, despite it’s brilliance. There was something about the consistency and the format of the weekly Spirit that will always make it the most resonant of all his work.
I hate to even bring up Frank Miller and his movie beyond to tell you that he missed the point of the character entirely and created something I am quite ashamed of, and that it breaks my heart a little that anyone would see that and believe that was in any way representative of Eisner’s work, and for how many that is all they know or will ever know of The Spirit. Before you spend time or money on that drivel to “see how bad it is,” I recommend that you do yourself and the world a favor and get this instead.