‘Father of the Graphic Novel’: Will Eisner Week comes to Edinboro

Category:  The Arts
Wednesday, March 21st, 2018 at 5:05 PM

Millions of graphic novels are sold and read each year throughout the world, but many people may not know how the form of literature got its name, how it started or even the significance of its history. Behind the books, there is a man who started it all: Will Eisner. 

Will Eisner Week is celebrated from March 1-7. Dr. Andrea Wyman, a librarian and associate professor at Edinboro University, organizes the campus-based celebrations, making graphic novels more readily available in the library and hosting events that showcase Eisner’s work. 

In addition, students were invited to come to a special screening of “Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist” in the library’s learning commons on March 7. The documentary showcased Eisner’s life, ranging from working part time writing comic strips, to the rise of the graphic novel that revolutionized the cartoon industry. 

Eisner grew up in New York and spent a lot of his time moving between the five boroughs wherever his father could find work. At the time, the Jewish population in Manhattan was very high — Eisner and his family were among the thousands of Jewish people who lived in New York. Because of his background, it was difficult for him to obtain high paying jobs as a youth, so he started writing comic strips for newspapers because the work was easy and it was the only job he could get. 

According to the film, Eisner worked his way up in the comic book industry until he got drafted to serve in WWII. However, this did not stop him from writing comic strips. The army used Eisner’s skill to draw “easy to read manuals” ranging from how to clean your gun, to even changing the oil in an army truck. The character used in the strips was a soldier named “Joe Dope,” a goofy army man. The army did this, as explained in the film, because most of the guys that were drafted weren’t necessarily well-educated, so reading comics and looking at pictures ensured they would understand everything they were reading. 

When Eisner left the army, he went back to New York City and started up his own comic book company with a fellow business partner Jerry Iger. Together they were known as “Eisner and Iger,” growing into a large comic book publishing company very quickly. The company supported a lot of young, up-and-coming comic strip writers and gave them the ability to work on their craft, according to the film. 

At the time, Eisner was writing his own comic strip called “The Spirit,” a wildly popular story about a masked crime fighter defending the streets of Central City. But eventually, Eisner and Iger would cease to exist and everyone would go their own separate ways. The company still managed to produce some of the best comic strip writers of the time.

The film detailed how Eisner took a leap of faith when he wrote the first graphic novel, “A Contract With God.” When he took it to a major publishing company, they turned him away saying that it was not a novel, but a comic strip. Eisner then took it to Baronet Press where they finally published it. When they asked him what he should call this type of work, Eisner said to call it a “graphic novel,” and hence, the term was born. Little did he know, this would change the course of literature indefinitely. 

  Graphic novels are now read and used in classrooms all over the world. 

In the same way that “Joe Dope” helped army soldiers understand the things they were reading, graphic novels allow students to involve themselves deeper in the story by seeing what is happening. This enhances a student’s ability to comprehend what is being conveyed to them through the book. Gareth Hinds is a graphic novelist who is best known for his illustrations accompanying classics such as “Beowulf” or Homer’s “The Odyssey.” According to Wyman, “As long as the message gets through, it doesn’t matter if it’s a standard print novel.” 

If you are interested in reading these stories and many more, there are two different displays of graphic novels on the first floor of the library. The library has over 150 graphic novels available to read in both the adult fiction section on the fifth floor and the children’s section on the seventh floor. 

Richard Gibson can be reached at ae.spectator@gmail.com.

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