Favorite Cover Artists Countdown # 8: Will Eisner

Will Eisner meant a lot to me, personally. His were the first graphic novels that ever really moved me as a reader. Until then, comics were just escapist fantasy for me, but Will broadened the range of my reading and I began to see superheroes (which I truly love) as a genre in a medium, rather than a medium itself. I think that’s one of the problems comics have with public perception… the thought that comics = superheroes, which is ridiculous as books=westerns. Eisner struggled against that perception from the very beginning of his career, which was at the very beginning of comics. His creation of the Spirit… done as a supplement in newspapers rather than a comic, broke down quite a few fences and inspired generations of readers to become professionals themselves. But it was his graphic novels that I personally most treasure. I can remember meeting Will at a convention, after attending a roast in his honor, and EVERY SINGLE PROFESSIONAL talked about how much the Spirit had meant to them. After the roast, I talked with Will for a bit, and I told him that it was his graphic novels that meant the most to me. He stopped for a moment, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, “Paul… it means a lot for me to hear you say that. Thank you.”

That moment remains one of my greatest comic memories. I’m proud to have met the man, and amazed at his accomplishments, and not only the longevity of his career, but the consistently brilliant work he achieved throughout those decades.

Favorite Cover Artist # 8: Will Eisner

Having said that Eisner's non-Spirit work meant more to me, understand that we're still going to be concentrating mostly on Spirit covers, here. The sheer volume of Spirit material demands it, as does the sheer beauty of so much of the art. Will Eisner and the Spirit are synonymous, and there ain't nothing wrong with that.

The Spirit Newspaper supplements were only a few folded pages, so there was rarely room for a straight up cover, and usually featured a good shot of the Spirit and then two or three panels of the story's beginning. Here's one of the supplements where Eisner did spare the space for a cover design.

It wasn’t until Spirit Magazine started in the 1970’s that Eisner’s classic Spirit stories gained true covers. And beautiful covers to boot. Many of them were wraparound covers, and all of them were brilliantly designed and executed. One of the best cover runs in the history of comics. Below is an example of a cover, and then the actual wraparound art used to produce the magazine.

I love the faces of the evil bastards watching the Spirit suffer. Eisner was a master of portraying human emotion.

Here's a good example of Eisner faces, this time illustrating joy rather than suffering. The original art to this piece is on the wall behind me as I type. It's one of my prized possessions.

Another example of a wraparound cover... this one done in pen and ink. The sense of design here is masterful. As you look at the upcoming Spirit covers, remember that you're often only seeing part of the art.

Much as I love the Will Eisner Spirit Archives, I do find the covers a bit lacking… usually just a single image that doesn’t really stress Eisner evocative sense of design, and often the colors steal a bit away from the softness of Eisner’s line. Still… the great access to the treasure trove of Eisner art is worth it. The Spirit Magazines from Kitchen Sink / Warren Publications are too hard to track down.

Another of Eisner’s paintings, and the resulting cover.

Some of the magazines featured paintings by Richard Corben based off Eisner’s art. I’m frankly not really sure why that was done. I’ve an immense respect for Corben, but it seems to me that if you’re going to have Eisner do a cover anyway, you might as well use the Eisner cover for the Eisner magazine.

Another Spirit cover and its corresponding original art. The art of depicting water was one of Eisner’s many masterful talents.

Getting caught in an Eisner rain sucked. It was always a defeating downpour. The 2nd image is from one of Eisner’s masterworks. For me, the 70’s and 80’s were Will’s best time periods. Amazing to think that he’d had such success in the 1940’s… but I see his prime period as forty years down the road in his career. A true testament to how he could not only sustain a high level of talent, but also reinvent himself over time.

The original art to the cover of Big City... another of Eisner's classic graphic novels. The subtlety and emotion in this piece gets me every time.

A view of handsome Will Eisner from 1941. He looks as if he's patiently waiting for me to talk about the ladies. Okay, Will... let's talk about ladies.

It is all about P'Gell indeed. Eisner's women were generally curvaceous, sultry as all hell, and bad ALMOST to the bone. There wasn't a one of them that didn't have a sense that she could... maybe... be saved. It wasn't ever completely true... but the Spirit had a LOT of fun trying.

Parts of this cover are... strange. But I love how the Spirit is lovestruck by the ladies even when he's being lovebeaten by the ladies.

Eisner's ladies never much dirtied their hands, but they still never made it easy on the Spirit.

Eisner's ladies were sultry, voluptuous and their seductive gaze would, uhh... it would... what the hell?

Okay... uhh, let's move on from those ladies. The above piece isn't actually done by Eisner; it's from one of the innumerable reprint and / or offshoot series that Will Eisner's Spirit has had over the years. It IS a very nice piece of art, though, and it serves to point out what has proven true over the years, and continues to prove true at Dark Horse's current Spirit series... when creators work with the Spirit, they KNOW they have to up their game in tribute to the great Will Eisner.

Two pieces of art from Eisner… one pen and ink and another a painting. I think this piece really shows that Eisner just couldn’t help himself… he NEEDED to devise interesting designs. He was never satisfied to just plop it on the page and call it done.

This is an interior, but I thought I'd include it to show just how inventive Mr. Eisner could be.

Another of Will's graphic novels, again showcasing his talent for depicting real people, going about real lives. One mark of a great illustrator is an ability to depict people, rather than types of people. The vast majority of artists have five or six body types at the most, and all their characters are simply mannequins upon which certain clothes / costumes are hung. Eisner rose far above that.

Two very simple but very effective designs. I’m especially taken by the one on the left, with the blazing sun, and the sense of thirst and exhaustion, the circling buzzards, and Eisner’s decision to cut off the view (this is another of the wraparound covers) of the convict to whom the Spirit is handcuffed. We just see the handcuffs themselves, and the man’s hand. It’s a clear message that despite whatever else might be going on, the crux of the Spirit’s story has come down to thirst, and surviving the desert’s heat.

THIS is how to design a cover. The Spirit's frantic flight. His clothes torn to give testimony to earlier action. Dolan and Ellie down below, seen through the tracks, frightened for the Spirit. The division of the good and bad sides of town, with the city to the left of the tracks being brightly lit, and the city to the left a destitute, dark and forbidding area. There is real drama here.

Whoof! That’s been a lot of Eisner art. I can’t help it. The man is so talented, and the covers so beautiful that it would have been a disservice to flop on a few covers and move blithely on. In fact, even after all that… here’s an ending gallery.

A final look at some very rough Eisner pencils, where you can see how much life he could get into each character even at this early stage.

Parts you’ve probably read in earlier posts:

The Disclaimer:

You might not see your favorite artist during this countdown. That’s okay. Don’t get mad. Some of MY favorite artists aren’t here. Hugo Pratt, Bernie Krigstein, Mike Wieringo… these guys (and others) are fantastic artists, but their covers just don’t strike me. Some people need sequential panels in order to have their art sing… and that’s okay. Furthermore, this list is subjective to my moods of the moment, so if you disagree with me, then rest assured that I probably disagree with me, too. That said, I welcome any and all comments as this list progresses over time.

THE FINE PRINT: (Why I’m doing this)

Recently, on a trip to a comic store, I was DISGUSTED by the overall lack of design on covers. Most covers were nothing more than two or three characters punching each other and snarling, the exact kind of design that I would have worked out when I was eight years old, and spat on by the time I was ten. So, why do such covers proliferate the shelves? One reason is for trade dressing… so that any cover can be put upon almost any trade compilation, which is one of the reasons behind the other Far Too Common cover design… that of the character or team standing at attention, looking tough, staring at the viewer. Fuck that. I’m lucky enough to work largely with editor Nate Cosby, who does very good work at hiring talented cover artists and creating covers that don’t piss me off, but in consideration of my other less lucky friends, and the industry as a whole, I’m going to spend the next few weeks counting down my own personal Top 40 Comic Book Cover Artists… the ones who got it right.

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