The Early Years

Will Eisner was the son of Jewish immigrants, his early life and experiences growing up in New York tenements would become the inspiration for much of his graphic novel work. At DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, Eisner's budding interest in art was fostered, and it was in the school newspaper that his first work was published. Eisner's first comic work appeared in 1936, kicking off a unique and groundbreaking career spanning almost seven decades.

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The years in which Will Eisner grew up were formative ones for comics. Born March 6, 1917 in New York City, Eisner read newspaper comic strips as a boy, which had by that time been a popular form of entertainment for some years. When Eisner began following the "funnies", many of what are now considered the classics of the golden age had not yet debuted. And the term "comic book", which would ultimately play such a momentous role in his life, had not yet been coined.

When Eisner discussed his parents, it becomes apparent where his own duality originated. His father, born in Vienna, was a man who valued creativity and art, and who himself plied his trade as a backdrop painter for vaudeville and the Jewish theatre. His mother, conceived in Romania and born on the boat that brought her to America, was a pragmatic, down-to-earth woman who fretted that her eldest son would fritter himself away; he was simply being quixotic and had to be brought back to his senses. Her question was, how to dissuade young Willie from art? Eisner is truly his parents' child: one part hard-nosed businessman and one part inveterate dreamer.

To add to his lower-middle-class family's modest coffers, Eisner got a job selling newspapers on Wall Street, and this also stoked a fire that was burning within him. He got to see all the comics every day, from all the newspapers that were then being published in New York. He would take home at least five or six papers at the end of every day, and it was during that time that some of the field' s alltime greats were doing some of their best work.

The young Eisner avidly followed the work of artists like Popeye's E.C. Segar — although then his strip was called Thimble Theatre, George Herriman, and Lyman Young, who did an adventure strip called Tim Tyler's Luck.

Eisner also savored the work of the cartoonists who ran in the upper-crust periodicals such as The Saturday Evening Post and Collier's. Later, he would unsuccessfully try to break into those rarefied markets.

Eisner began reading comic strips during a time when they had tremendous popularity and a powerful grip on the public's imagination — much more so than today. A popular skip such as The Gumps by Sidney Smith or Little Orphan Annie by Harold Gray could bring immense wealth and fame to its creator, and newspaper publishers openly indulged in all manner of chicanery to attract top artists.

As a boy, Eisner's appetite for reading was voracious, and some of it helped form the basis for the philosophy that would shape much of the work he would produce over his career. "My first true literary influences were the stories by Horatio Alger," he said. "This was the first reading I did where I remember being aware of the story content and what was being said. Alger's message was that you can rise above your circumstances and find success through your own diligence and hard work. And as a kid in the ghetto, that spoke directly to me. And the stories were about an average person triumphing against obstacles, and that' s a theme that I' ve returned to many times in my work. It was powerful stuff to me then. They still stick with me; they had a tremendous effect on me."

Eisner was also attracted to the pulps. "I remember just devouring the pulps from the time I was 10 or so," he said. "And I was always going to the movies, which back then were a very inexpensive form of entertainment. The movies were my Saturday afternoons. They showed the serials, which were very much like pulps, with characters like the Black Arrow. But it was mainly my fascination with pulp magazines that gave me a sense of storytelling. Really, at that time, the pulps formed the basis of popular storytelling. They were everywhere, and I read as many as I could."

Eisner's first published work.
Will Eisner's first published work, an illustration in the DeWitt Clinton high school newspaper "The Clintonian", to accompany an article on the Bronx's 'Forgotten Ghetto'.

When Eisner entered DeWitt Clinton High School, both his artistic and writing skills flourished under the tutelage of the top-notch staff the school employed. (Bob Kane, who would later gain renown as the creator of Batman, was a fellow student.) Here, Eisner created comic strips, art directed magazines, created stage designs, illustrated various magazines published at his high school, and in general honed the skills that he would rely on so profoundly in a few short years.

"It would be hard for me to overstate the depth of the effect my high school experience had on me," he said. "It meant everything to me, and in large part was responsible for the person I became and continue to be. I had the opportunity to try so many things, to find the things that suited me the best. I tried for a while to be a gallery painter, because I thought that was the pinnacle of what an artist could aspire to. It didn't last, though — I found myself, as I do today, always looking for the next big thing. Looking back, I can see that that' s always been my stock in trade — moving on to the next project that I can immerse myself in."

Among his early publishing ventures was a project he entered into with a classmate, Ken Ginniger. "We wanted to publish a very snooty literary magazine — I guess to be properly snooty it would have to be called a 'literary journal' — because it was a very intellectually trendy thing to do back then. We called it The Lion and Unicorn because it was something very literary sounding. And it was full of arty drawings and verse, and we put in some Marcel Proust and Albert Camus. It also had some erotic writing and poetry, or at least what then would have been considered erotic. When it came time to prepare the plates for printing, it came to our attention that using metal plates for printing artwork was quite a costly proposition. And it was that sort of problem-solving that made these experiences so valuable to me. What I did was leam to cut wood engravings, which the printer used along with the typeset material.

Early Eisner.
The woodcut above from the November 9, 1934 issue of "The Clintonian" is an early example of Eisner's awareness of one of his professed artistic influences, Lynd Ward.

"That woodcut experience was important to me, because it taught me the value of learning to work in other media," Eisner added. "It' s something I still talk to my students about, not to resist dabbling in other media. They all have value."

Although Eisner sharpened his already formidable skills at DeWitt Clinton, it was in summer school that he was challenged to aspire to new heights. He attended the Art Students League one summer, not because his family could afford the tuition fees, but because of his prodigious talent. He was welcomed because he brought with him fellow students who could afford tuition. While at the ASL, Eisner had the opportunity to study drawing under the direction of the legendary anatomist George Bridgman and painting under the redoubtable Robert Brachman.

At 19, Eisner left school and got a job in the advertising department of the New York American. Eisner worked the graveyard shift, from nine at night until five in the morning.

This job had one important influence on him — the hours. "Since I began work at nine at night, I would have my 'lunch,' as it were, in the wee hours," he said. "My mother would have packed me something like a sandwich or a danish, and I would go outside with my lunch and sit by a dock and watch the people working. I saw all sorts of characters because of the odd hours, and I learned a lot about shadows and lighting at the same time."

Since the job at the American was not entirely to Eisner's liking, to put it mildly, he left to fend for himself as a freelancer. It was during this period, 1935 and 1936, that he was picking up a few accounts as well as putting in time as a printer's assistant. One account represented his first professional comics work, since he got paid for it. He created the art for an insert inside a hand-cleanser called Gre-olvent.

At the same time Eisner had experienced the heady thrill of creating comics and getting paid for it, he tried to crack the lucrative magazine cartoon market. "I never had much luck at it, but I kept trying because that market was perceived as the top. Whenever editors critiqued my work, they would tell me it looked like comic-book work. And they were right."

Eisner thought he had moved up a couple of rungs on the ladder when he was hired as art director on Eve, a magazine whose target audience was affluent Jewish women. He was soon shown the door after inserting his drawings of pugilists and other such inappropriately violent offerings among the otherwise dainty contents of an issue!

Eisner never perceived any of his stumbles as setbacks — they were all learning experiences, and much of what he learned was about to play a crucial role when he had his first meeting with Samuel Maxwell "Jerry" Iger, the man who would later become Eisner's first business partner, and with whom Eisner would begin his career as a creator of formidable versatility, talent and savvy.

Wow! What a Magazine, August 1936
Eisner's first cover painting.

"I remember my first meeting with Iger," Eisner said. "I had heard about a magazine called Wow! Now, Wow! was not really a comic book, it was a magazine that published some comics material. And it was published by a guy named John Henle, whose main business was manufacturing shirts, but his real ambition was to be a publisher, so he had started Wow! I went to the offices of the magazine, portfolio in hand, and I met with Iger, who was the editor. He was having a bad day. I recall he was on the phone with his engraver, who was having problems. So Iger didn't have time to look at the material I'd brought to show him, but he invited me to walk over to the engraver to check out the problem. Fortunately, I was able to solve his problem on the spot, and Iger offered me a job as his assistant. I turned down the offer, explaining to him that I really wanted to do comics, not work as an assistant editor."

But it was the beginning of a working relationship. "I sold Iger a few features. The page rate, which I forget, was nothing I was going to get rich on, but I felt like I was sitting on top of the world; I thought it was a huge conquest. A few months later, Wow! folded. And even though I was getting a small page rate, I ended up being owed money I never collected. Iger was let go, of course. There's no need for an editor at a shirt-manufacturing business."

Wow! What a Magazine, September 1936
Cover illustration featuring Eisner's early creation, the bumbling "Harry Carey".

But Wow! (the full title was Wow! What A Magazine, as distinguished from the Wow comic book published by Fawcett from 1941–1948) served as an important touchstone for Eisner. While working for the magazine, he saw several of his strips hit print, including a recasting of one he had done while at DeWitt Clinton, Harry Carey, as well as a strip called The Flame, which he would later reprise as his remarkable Hawks of the Seas. In the four issues published, Eisner had art in every issue and did the covers for two, one of which was his first fully painted effort.

Eisner, who respected Iger's abilities as a salesman and believed he shared Eisner's own belief that comic books were a medium laden with creative and commercial possibilities, approached Iger with the proposal that the two enter into a partnership to produce material for the burgeoning field.


This article in its unaltered form was originally published in The Spirit: The Origin Years #1-4 (Kitchen Sink Press, 1992). Text © Tom Heintjes. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.