Writing a Will Eisner biography is no easy task. For one thing, there’s no lack of information out there chronicling the life of the cartoonist. As author Paul Levitz, former president of DC Comics, now a professor, comics writer and Boom! Studios board member, notes in the introduction to his new biography, “Eisner is the subject of many articles, two biographies, two documentaries, and innumerable scholarly papers.” And then, of course, there’s the issue of scope.
The pioneering artist’s history is really a history of the graphic novel itself, the story of a creator whose work arguably did more than any other to elevate the comics medium from newspaper fish wrapping to high literary art. It’s a balancing act reflected in the book’s full title, Will Eisner: Champion of the Graphic Novel (Abrams ComicArts, Nov.). Ostensibly a coffee table art book, the volume serves to place Eisner, who died in 2005, creator of the innovative comics strip, The Spirit, and his work, in the broader context of the comics medium’s evolution over the course of the 20th century, from dime store rack to Pulitzer Prize.
“The graphic novel is being looked at right now as a serious artistic form in America,” explains Levitz. “It is, in many ways, the most vibrant and artistic creative form. You’re seeing comics and graphic novels become the seed for so much of our popular culture. But there’s no context to the evolution of the graphic novel and for Eisner’s vital role in it. I wanted to do a book that shows why he’s important. That shows what role he had in the graphic novel becoming what it is now. He doesn’t just matter because the material is great. He matters because of the effect that it had on people.”
Eisner role in Levitz’s life begin in the early 70s, when, as a teenager, the writer began publishing a comics fanzine — a sort of TV Guide-style handbook for the comics industry, according to his own description, detailing the release date for books and highlighting the names of the writers and artists working on them. It was information that wasn’t particularly easy to come by in those days.
The acquaintanceship grew closer as Levitz worked his way up through the industry, with an early comic book letters column blossoming into work as a full-fledge assistant editor position at the tender age of 16. “I learned from legendary editor/artist Joe Orlando, as my first boss and mentor, and with his coaching, also began to write freelance,” Levitz says. “I hadn't seen myself as a fiction writer, but the comics form was learnable, and I got to collaborate at an early age with an astoundingly talented group of artists, including legendary Spider-man co-creator, artist Steve Ditko and E.C. Comics star, artist Wally Wood.”
After writing and editing hundreds of titles, Levitz rose to the top of DC’s ranks, eventually becoming one of the company’s top executives. “The writing sideline pretty much stopped after my kids were born,” says Levitz, “and I concentrated on the executive track which led me to two decades as publisher and seven years as the company's president and publisher.”
Levitz used his position at the company to help elevate some of the legendary artists he’d grown to admire in his early days, eventually bringing Eisner back into the fold. “We got friendly over the years as I got into more senior positions in comics,” says Levitz. We’d be invited into the same room to have presentations about museums for comic art or other industry institutions. And we formed a significant friendship when his publisher, Kitchen Sink Press—the legendary, now defunct, comics publishing house founded by Denis Kitchen—closed ,and he was looking for a new publisher for The Spirit material and for his graphic novels. I was able to bring him over to DC.”
After 35 years, Levitz’s time with the company came to an end in 2009. He left DC to focus on yet another comics-centric career path. “Life as a writer and teacher is very different from the executive days, but I feel like in some ways it's an extension of the very beginnings of my career,” he says. His first book tackled a subject that had been near and dear to him for some some time. 75 Years Of DC Comics: The Art Of Modern Mythmaking (Taschen) was released in 2010, a massive hardcover tome highlighting the rise of one of comics’ premier powerhouses.
Diving deep into the subject matter reignited Levitz’s passion for Eisner’s legendary output, helping feed the flame of his next project. Champion of the Graphic Novel tells Eisner’s story through a wide range of his artwork, from his early comic strips and drafts to little-seen commercial drawings, along with interviews with some of the artist’s best known acolytes, including Jules Feiffer, Art Spiegelman, Scott McCloud, Jeff Smith, and Neil Gaiman, all of whom highlight Will Eisner’s role as one of the most important artists in the history of the medium.
Published in 1978, Eisner’s short story collection, A Contract with God is commonly regarded as the book that put the term “graphic novel” on the map, sporting the phrase on the cover of its early editions. The book marked a turning point for both the medium and for Eisner himself, whose work had, to that point, been relegated to newspapers,and most notably The Spirit, a masked vigilante who battled crime on the streets of Central City.
“I think he had reached a point in his life when he wanted to do something that mattered that he hadn’t been able to do before,” says Levitz. “The Spirit was wonderful, but it was ephemera. It was literally in the newspaper, and the next day it was fish wrapping. It had been put back in print in little dribs and drabs several times, but there was no solid, permanent form of it. You could never get The Spirit out of a library in the mid-70s when he began thinking about Contract With God (Baronet Books, 1978). If he published it in hardcover with a real publishing house, maybe it could get reviewed. Maybe it could go in libraries. Maybe it could be taken seriously. I think he was creating a book that was dealing with some deeply personal subject matter.”
As Levitz explains, however, Eisner’s championing of the form didn’t end with his own work. The cartoonist would spend the next two and half decades working to elevate comics to the position they occupy today, as one of the primary forces driving cultural and artistic expression around the world. “In many ways he was a cheerleader for the industry,” Levitz says. “He would show up at a small press expo and go from table to table, looking at what the young kids were doing and all of their experimental stuff, talking to them, cheering them on.”
It was during those final decades that Eisner’s legacy truly began taking shape, with the artist serving as the namesake for the comics industry’s most prestigious award, the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards—aka The Eisners—as well as the The Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame, in which he was an inaugural nominee, alongside fellow legendary comics artists such as Carl Barks and Jack Kirby. Since his death, Eisner’s extensive backlist has been split between DC Comics and W.W. Norton, which publishes most of his literary-oriented graphic fiction.
“I think his legacy was very important to him,” says Levitz. “He knew he would be remembered. He knew his work would be remembered. But I think he enjoyed being remembered in very particular ways. He loved being a father figure to the industry. He loved relating to the younger cartoonists. It’s legacy in the sense of paying it forward, of being connected to the future. He was always very interested in the future. And he wanted to be a part of that future.”
Brian Heater is a freelancer who writes regularly about comics for PW.