Tuesday, January 04, 2005

A sad day in Wildwood Cemetery

Will Eisner has died.

If you're not a comics fan, that name may not mean much to you. In fact, you could be a devoted fan of today's comics and not be familiar with the name. But trust me on this — if you've ever seen a comic book, or even newspaper comic strips, you've seen work that owed a debt to Will Eisner. It may very well be fair to call him the most influential artist in the history of the comics medium. And that's saying a mouthful.

Eisner was best known for The Spirit, a superhero (though he possessed no superhuman powers) who appeared originally not in comic books per se, but in a color supplement for newspapers. The Spirit was really a police detective named Denny Colt, who, when believed by the world to have been murdered by criminals, donned a domino mask and assumed a new identity as the crimefighting Spirit, setting up his base of operations in the suitably creepy Wildwood Cemetery. Assisted at times by his cab-driving sidekick Ebony White, the Spirit spent a good deal of his time watching out after his girlfriend Ellen Dolan, daughter of the local police commissioner, and fending off the advances of the slinky villainess P'Gell.

I don't know whether Eisner was the first comic artist to view sequential art cinematically, but he certainly brought to the paneled page a film director's eye and sensibilities. Reading The Spirit was like watching a seriocomic film noir unfold in still frames before your eyes. There had never been anything like it before — though Eisner borrowed from such characters as the Shadow, most of the Spirit's antecedents came from pulp fiction, not from the comics — and nothing entirely like it since, though the echoes of Eisner's innovative visual and storytelling techniques ring in the work of every sequential artist who followed him, most especially talents like Wally Wood, Neal Adams, Frank Miller, and Jim Steranko.

Of course, I was born nearly a decade after the Spirit supplements ceased in 1952. I discovered Eisner in the early 1970s when Warren Publications (the Famous Monsters of Filmland and Vampirella people) published a regular series of magazine-format reprints of the old Spirit strips. I was dazzled both by Eisner's art and by his powerful narrative ability. But it wasn't until I read Jules Feiffer's classic book of superhero lore, The Great Comic Book Heroes, that I understood fully what a giant Eisner was.

During the time when the Warren Spirit reprints were being published, Eisner came in for some criticism for the character Ebony White, who spoke in the stereotypical minstrel dialect emploed by most black characters in the mass media in the 1940s and '50s. But viewed in context, Eisner's depiction of Ebony was remarkably forward-thinking. Ebony was courageous and tough, not simpering and cowardly like the characters Mantan Moreland, Willie Best, and other African American actors portrayed in the films of the day. He was also street-smart, resourceful, and fiercely loyal to the Spirit, who in turn treated him with friendship and genuine respect. Did Ebony represent the best or most accurate portrayal of people of color? Certainly not, but there were plenty of characters in those days that were far worse, and if Eisner's presentation was perhaps unenlightened, I never found it hurtful or mean-spirited (no pun intended), unlike the radio version of Amos and Andy, to cite one example. In fact, Ebony got about as decent a shake as a black character got until the Marvel Comics of the '60s and '70s introduced such icons as the Black Panther, Luke Cage, and Gabriel Jones of the Howling Commandos and later of SHIELD.

Will Eisner worked actively right up until his death, and was still producing amazing art well into his 80s. It's no accident that the highest honor in the comics industry is called the Eisner Award. No one deserved it more. For his talent, his influence, and his nonpareil body of work, Eisner will be dearly missed.

1 insisted on sticking two cents in:

Blogger Kingfish offered these pearls of wisdom...

Great article! I do think you need to go back and listen to Amos and Andy again though. The radio and TV versions used the same writers and much of the same cast. The black cast from radio appeared on the TV series. Characters who were played by the white creators of Amos and Andy (Correll and Gosden) were recast with black actors chosen by Correll and Gosden after several years of searching. There's little difference between the radio series of the 1940's and TV version of the 1950's. There are fans of all races who do not see either series as "mean spirited". The TV series was the first sitcom on American TV with an all African American cast. The radio program broke new ground by featuring a mixed race cast. Also the early Amos and Andy radio shows were not completely comedic and broke new ground by featuring black characters in moving dramatic situations. Take a look at Elizabeth McLeod's book about the original Amos and Andy. It may give you a new appreciation for the radio series.

10:32 AM  

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