So to recap Part 1: Early comic book companies were badly run. They didn’t care about art, they cared about creating product and a lot of it. To that end they hired any Tom, Dick or Harry who could hold a pencil. The early artists weren’t that good because they didn’t have to be. If they were any good they got hired by the Sunday Comic strips, a far more prestigious gig. Even illustrating for the pulp magazines was a step up from doing comic books. Early comic books were considered the bottom of the totem pole of the publishing industry.
So what changed? Well, the war for one. When America entered the war, every able-bodied signed up to fo their part. If you were a comic book artist and you were any good, you used your skills to further the War Effort. Many who went overseas did not come back and the ones that did were used to getting a certain amount of respect and regular pay.
Beyond the impact of the war, there were two factors that drove comic books from just being funny books designed to entertain low IQ children, to actually being considered an art form in itself. These two factors were Will Eisner and Stan Lee.
Will Eisner was part artist and part businessman. In 1936 at the age of nineteen he and his partner Jerry Iger formed a studio that hired artists to produce comic books for the fledgling industry. Among the artists who worked with them were Bob Kane, Lou Fine and Jack Kirby. Because of the lucrative contracts he was able to procure the studio produced such comic mainstays as Sheena, Queen of the Jungle among others.
Eisner was as much a talented visionary as he was a pragmatic businessman. He produced quality comic book art and managed to make the studio a financial success, even in the middle of the Great Depression. He inspired those he worked with to strive for a certain quality when it came to sequential art and his business success made him the envy of his colleagues.
His talents did not go unnoticed. Everett M. “Busy” Arnold, publisher of Quality Comics, wanted to integrate the comic book format into the more prestigious world of the Sunday Funnies. He lured Eisner away from the studio to create a weekly comic book that would be distributed by a newspaper syndicate. Eisner agreed and came up with his most famous creation, The Spirit, which would continue to break new ground artistically, but also in the comic book business. Eisner insisted on owning the copyright to his new creation, a situation almost without parallel in comics at that time and almost without parallel on any popular basis for several decades to come. “Since I knew I would be in comics for life, I felt I had every right to own what I created. It was my future, my product and my property, and by God, I was going to fight to own it.” Eisner said. That was a watershed moment in terms of the artist being acknowledged as a creator of comics rather than just part of an assembly line.
Eisner’s success with The Spirit and his standing in the industry as a true independent allowed him the freedom to elevate the comic book to a true art form. In 1978 he created the first ever graphic novel, A Contract With God which was published by Baronet Books in 1978. With that book Eisner showed the industry what comics could be – a legitimate art form every bit as relevant as the novel.
A Contract With God paved the way for the graphic novels that would come afterwards. Works like Art Spiegel’s Maus, Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.
It is a testament to Eisner’s regard in the comic books industry that its highest honour, the award that recognizes excellence in comic book creation, was named after him. The Eisner Awards are given out at the San Diego Comic Convention every year.
Will Eisner has been cited as an inspiration by comics’ creators from all corners of the world and from all areas of the art form. As a creator who helped define the very language of comics, his influence will be felt for years to come. He will remain one of the most important and inspirational forces in the comics’ field.
The other factor that shaped the comic book industry, that brought it out from the publishing ghetto and into the mainstream, was the creator of Marvel Comics, Stan “The Man” Lee. Next week I will go into how he did that and also talk a little bit more about the limitations that were placed on comic book art by printing technology. This is an important factor into why early comic book art looked the way that it did and it needs its own post to be fully understood.
See you in seven!