Will Eisner is most famous for creating crime-fighting detective The Spirit, and that hero’s rage and compassion stem from a New York Jewish boy’s childhood growing up in Brooklyn. It also affects his later, less generic masterpieces, which detail the slums of his youth with the same colour, joie de vivre and understanding of human pain as well as John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flats or Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred and One Years of Solitude.
Will was born in 1917, to poor Jewish immigrants, the family moving from one shabby tenement to another as the city grew around them. Although not athletic, he was a strong kid, and punchy enough to survive a tough upbringing in a hard-nosed city. That two-fisted stance informs his most famous creation, while the world of poverty-stricken New York life would spill from his experiences onto the pages he wrote and drew.
The very best Spirit stories have the detective as an almost peripheral character. The criminals are undone by their own foibles and fears, with the crime buster appearing only at the beginning and end of each tale. In Ten Minutes, Freddy is a young dope who robs Max’s Candy Store, shooting the owner in panic, and is killed desperately trying to board a moving subway car. In Perfect Crime, a murderous hood flees to an island but, overcome by paranoia, beats his girlfriend to death, and dies of a fever induced by his smashed pulp of a hand. These are not super villains with master plans, but street thugs or wayward saps only too human in their mistakes.
His masterpiece came in 1978 with A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories. It is one of the first and greatest examples of the graphic novel format, being a series of overlapping short stories that describe the NY blocks and their inhabitants that towered over his life. The title story was straight from the heart, Eisner wrestling with his own grief at the death of his daughter from leukaemia at 16. It tells of a devout Russian emigre’s initial attempts at a good life, but the death of a young girl leads to him abandoning his faith to become a soulless businessman, ultimately becoming owner of the tenement he inhabited when poor.
Many of the stories, and their sequels, are set in the same NY block of Dropsie Avenue, and show the development of the city over the years. Ultimately, it is not the accuracy of the location that makes them great, but the potent brew of gritty social realism with epic generation-spanning melodrama provides an emotional heft never seen in comics before.
Will died in 2005, but he lived to see the Eisner Awards created in his honour. They are the most prestigious in the comic book industry, an annual testament to the depth and range of humanity the art form can convey, that he continues to inspire in other artists and writers.