WILL EISNER was recently dubbed by Wizard magazine the most influential man in American comics history. Yet he did not invent any of the world- famous icons of comics, nor did he make a fortune or build a publishing empire. What he achieved in his 70-plus years in thrall to the four-colour printed page was far more subtle: an innovator par excellence, he changed the language of comics, invented the graphic novel and forced the western reading public to treat comics as an art and literary form in their own right.
Not that Eisner didn't achieve a modest degree of fame early on with his idiosyncratic creation the Spirit, a supposedly deceased detective in a snappy blue suit-and-hat ensemble, whose sole concession to the publishing boom in costumed crimefighters was to wear a mask. Beyond the facial disguise, Denny Colt had little in common with his superpowered counterparts: he lacked powers and wasn't especially bright, he roamed the backstreets rather than flew the skies, and was as much anti-hero as hero, yet this Philip Marlowe of the superhero set attracted five million readers from June 1940 onwards, through the pages of his syndicated newspaper strip.
Eisner, unusually for the time, was both writer and illustrator, constantly experimenting with the lettering, layout and format: every week - for 12 years - he would change the strip's masthead. The stories employed elements of German Expressionism, interspliced with Marx Brothers-like surreal comedy, and appealed to adults and kids alike.
From June 1940 until his military call-up in 1942, and then from late 1945 until he wound up the strip in 1952, Eisner would write and draw seven or eight page stories every week, which were the main feature in a 16-page colour comic supplement in Sunday newspapers. They were subsequently recognised as classics and every decade since has seen these strips reprinted in various formats, with DC Comics currently reissuing all 645 of them in a hardback library called The Spirit Archives.
Eisner's beginnings were humble: the son of a Viennese stage painter living in New York, he went to DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx with his friend Bob Kane, the future creator of Batman. Eisner saw his first comic strip published in 1936 in Wow, What a Magazine! Ever the entrepreneur, the following year he set up the Eisner & Iger comics studio with another friend, Jerry Iger, to feed the growing demand for comic strips for the pulp magazine publishers.
His timing was perfect: the following year saw the advent of the costumed superheroes, spearheaded by the phenomenal success of a new character called Superman (a strip that Eisner, in a rare miscalculation, had rejected), and the publishing boom became a frenzy. Over the next two years, the enterprise successfully launched such characters as Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, Blackhawk and Dollman, and hired many aspiring artists, including Kane, Jack Kirby (who later co-created the X-Men) and Lou Fine.
Eisner himself was the writer and artist, under assorted pseudonyms, of several strips. The success of the studio attracted the envious …