A kickoff panel at New York Comic Con yesterday was all about the legacy of Will Eisner, bringing some of the most influential graphic novelists working in the industry today together to talk about one of the biggest creators in comics history. The panel showed how Eisner’s work as a creator of comics — and as a teacher — has been foundational for countless other comic creators.
Award-winning American Born Chinese author Gene Luen Yang, New Kid’s Jerry Craft, and Lavender Jack’s Dan Schkade joined moderator Danny Fingeroth, historian and former Marvel Comics writer and editor to discuss Eisner. The illustrator — or cartoonist, or sequential artist, however you want to put it — innovated the comics medium during the “golden age” of the 1940s with newspaper strip The Spirit, before breaking ground on what would later become known as “graphic novels” through works like A Contract With God. His 1985 book Comics and Sequential Art explored his philosophy of comics creation and introduced countless creators to a new way of thinking about comics as a medium.
Eisner was arguably one of the founding fathers of the medium, and the highest award in American comics is named after him. Going page by page, and occasionally panel by panel, through Eisner’s extensive back catalog, Fingeroth kicked things off with an overview of Eisner’s many fabulous titles, reminding viewers of the many reasons why Eisner’s visual storytelling still stands as one of the most pure forms of the medium.
“Eisner was a triple threat,” he argued. “I mean, art, writing, design. He really sets up the atmosphere of a story […] You can see the many levels that the details work on.”
“I have a kind of special connection to The Spirit,” said Schkade, who worked on Dynamite Entertainment’s revival of the titular character of Eisner’s crimefighting series. “I drew it for a year, obviously, but I think that the thing that’s hard for modern audiences to understand is that what makes a comic great isn’t necessarily the character or even the overall plot, but the comics perspective. Some of the best Spirit comics aren’t even about fighting crime — the vibe of them is what makes them so unique and next level.”
“‘Next level’ is a great way to describe Eisner,” agreed Yang. “There’s always a temptation in cartooning to repeat things when you finally figure them out, but I don’t think that Eisner did that. He began at a high level and kept pushing it and never took anything for granted. It was so far ahead of its time.”
The group then moved on to discuss the ways in which Eisner’s cartooning — as well as Eisner’s beloved educational book Comics and Sequential Art — have added to their experience when creating graphic novels. Fingeroth first spoke with Yang, whose books Boxers and Saints and Dragon Hoops have several influences from the late comic creator.
“There’s a section in Comics and Sequential Art where [Eisner] talks about bird’s eye view and worm’s eye view,” Yang said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been skilled enough as a cartoonist to pull it off, but I tried my best in Boxers and Saints. Or the way he did clothing. If I could ask the comic gods for anything it would be for Will Eisner’s ability to draw clothing. He just did such an amazing job with the folds. But really it is about the camera placement. He had such a great knowledge of anatomy so he could put the camera anywhere and it’d look great. I keep trying to emulate that.”
The attention to detail was echoed by New Kid author Jerry Craft said, “I had poured over Comics and Sequential Art. I had learned how to draw comics from [How to Draw Comics] The Marvel Way and went a little bit crazy with it. Comics and Sequential Art reined me in and taught me that the mundane can be something exciting.” He continued, “If every panel is crazy then it’s hard to find the differential when something is actually exciting. The little details make a huge difference. […] Windshield wipers on cars. The neighbor lady sweeping. All the little pieces of the neighborhood. Those things go unnoticed, but they really matter in this kind of storytelling.”
Fingeroth wrapped up the panel by speaking to Lavender Jack webtoon creator and cartoonist Schkade, whose connection with Eisner ran a little bit deeper than just reading his books.
“Matt Wagner agreed to write The Spirit series for Dynamite to include in the 75th anniversary. After looking at his test script that was four short stories, I decided to do my test page. I thought that if we did this smart we could do these stories in four panels. Turns out it was a secret test by Matt to see if I could condense that information,” laughed Schkade. “When I found The Spirit it opened up my eyes to how comics can be different. It combined humanism and caped comics in a way that really changed the game for me.”
“There is a lot of acceptance for literary graphic novels and comics for young people,” said Yang, concluding the discussion. “I don’t think we’re there yet, in America, where we have enough literary comics for adults. I think that Eisner was finally tackling that and that’s still the frontier that I hope we as cartoonists can keep tackling.”