Will Eisner died this month, at 87 years old. His old protege Jules Feiffer ("Now he’s as bald as me!" Eisner once chortled) writes that "alone among comic book men, Eisner was a cartoonist other cartoonists swiped from." And even a cursory look at his bibliography suggests that even disregarding the first forty years of his career, Eisner was still a giant of the form. A Contract with God was, if not actually the first graphic novel to use the name, certainly the most influential of the early graphic novels, and Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art is something like a Data Structures and Algorithms for the comic book artist; with Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics it remains one of the definitive works in critical theory for the field. But looking at his career from the Sixties on slights his early work. Eisner did war comics (most notably Blackhawks) and and Army comics (Jeep maintainance guides for the literate and semi-literate during World War II). Like most artists of the day, drew the occasional superhero ("Wonder Man" was sued out of existence as a blatant copy of DC’s Superman; the incident is adapted, as was much of Eisner’s career in the ‘40s, in Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay), but Eisner’s most lasting creation wore nothing more memorable than a blue serge suit. The Spirit ran as a newspaper supplement, not a comic book sold at the newstand; the Spirit himself was one of the legion of descendents of Jimmie Dale, the first of the pulp masked men to adopt a silly pseudonym in order to fight crime. The Spirit’s name and costume (the famous suit, gloves, a hat and domino mask) were perhaps less silly than some, but what really made the comic sing wasn’t the character. Nor was it Eisner’s terrific femme fatales, nor even his terrifically loopy sense of humor. Eisner had just a few pages to work with in every edition of The Spirit, so he became a past master at creating eyecatching splash pages. Years before Marvel started doing it, Eisner had made his comic book a recognizably urban (and Jewish) place, the Spirit a sort of crime-fighting reflection of Dropsie Avenue ("New York", said Eisner, "is the center of the earth"). And Eisner seized upon the work of Orson Welles as an inspiration to discover and transcends the limits of the medium, stretching the page, slicing panels into thinner and thinner slices of time, playing with location and simultaneity, all while staying within the recognizable bounds of a pulp comic.
And it’s this, more than anything else, that defined Eisner: he had the ability to do what he wanted. Siegel and Shuster lost the rights to Superman and spent years in court fighting to get what they thought the deserved; Spiderman creator Steve Ditko’s Mister A — a bizarre experiment in Objectivist comics, but one near and dear to Ditko’s heart — was a commercial failure that bounced around from series to series before grinding to a halt (to his credit, Ditko seems to have accepted the marketplace’s judgment without ever calling his Spiderman- and Dr. Strange-preferring fans parasites). But Eisner, unlike virtually every other artist in the industry at the time, owned a chunk of his character; The Spirit was syndicated by a partnership, and Eisner was a partner. Unlike his hero Welles, Eisner had the financial means to realize his vision. What would Shuster and Siegel have created next if they had owned a piece of Superman? Would Eisner’s one-time assistant Wally Wood‘s life have played out differently if Wood’s work for Jack Kirby had meant more money in his pocket? Would the comic book have flourished the way the Hollywood movie did if things had been only slightly different? We don’t know; we can’t know. All we can know is what Eisner did. The answer is suggestive.
In "The Story of Gerhard Schnobble", Eisner told the story of the final moments of a little man whose great triumph — demonstrating to the world that he can fly — is immediately obliterated by the guns of a gangster trying to kill the Spirit. Neither the gangster nor the Spirit even notices. Schnobble is a minor character in someone else’s story; the earth-shaking revelation is entirely unwitnessed, and Schnobble ascends to Heaven in a more traditional fashion.
"And so… Lifeless… Gerhard Shnobble fluttered earthward..but do not weep for Shnobble… Rather shed a tear for all mankind…for not one person in the entire crowd that watched his body being carted away…not one of them knew or even suspected that on this day Gerhard Shnobble had flown."
Eisner represents a touchstone not just for his art, not just for his writing, not just for his sense of what the medium could be, but because he is a visitor from a path not taken, a vision of what the most degraded of the seven lively arts could have been.