Q&A: Steven Heller on the Legacy of Comics Legend Will Eisner

November 2, 2015

The School of Visual Arts Alumni Society, in collaboration with the Will and Ann Eisner Family Foundation, will host Will Eisner’s “The Spirit” 75th Anniversary Celebration—An Evening with Jules Feiffer and Paul Levitz on November 11 at the SVA Theater.

will200Will Eisner (1917 – 2005), a legend in the field of comics and sequential art, taught at SVA in the 1970s and ‘80s. Noted for his urban crime-fighter series The Spirit (1942-1950) and his graphic novel A Contract with God (1978), Eisner influenced many of today’s giants in the comic book industry. On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of The Spirit, SVA faculty member Steven Heller will introduce the conversation between Jules Feiffer, Pulitzer Prize–winning cartoonist and author, and Paul Levitz, former publisher and president of DC Comics.

Heller, who plays many versatile roles at SVA (co-chair of MFA Design; special assistant to the president of SVA; and co-founder of MFA Design Criticism, MPS Branding, MFA Interaction Design, and MFA Products of Design), shares his thoughts on Eisner’s legacy.

Can you tell us about your relationship with Eisner and his work?
My relationship to Eisner was minimal but memorable; I met and spent some time with him when I commissioned both Stan Lee and Eisner to draw comic strips for The New York Times Op-Ed page. It was probably in 1976, the first Republican convention after Nixon’s resignation. We were doing a week of coverage on the Op-Ed and my idea was to have comics artists cover the event. Will (Eisner) did The Spirit of Nixon. For anyone who knew his work, it was a gift. For the Democratic convention, I used something done by Goya. I liked Will’s work better in this instance.

What were Eisner’s major contributions to the field of comics?
He created the first anti-hero—The Spirit. But also his presence as an orchestra leader of a comics symphony; through his publishing he brought great work and artists to light. Then there were his long-form comics stories. His Contract With God, which I read at the time it was published, about his life as a Jew on the Lower East Side, was for all intents and purposes the first “graphic novel,” although there were wordless ones prior to that.

When he and Harvey Kurtzman were actively teaching at SVA, they were responsible for a lot of inspiration and made the school a wellspring of comics genius.

WillEisner425When you think about Eisner’s work and the work of today’s comic artists, established and upcoming, what do you think is the one big difference?
I must admit to ignorance when it comes to the nuances of his influence on current comics. At least half the artists I know who are under 30 have not been introduced to his body of work. They are just finding out about Kurtzman. Paul Levitz’s new book Will Eisner: Champion of the Graphic Novel may help change that. Today, comics artists experiment with style a lot more than Eisner did. But Eisner pushed the boundaries. He was not the Norman Rockwell of comics, he was somewhere between its Cezanne and Picasso.

And the one big similarity?
I’m thinking of 1960s underground comics as showing the warts and all of characters. That is Eisner’s legacy that continues today.

What are you looking forward to in the upcoming discussion between Jules Feiffer and Paul Levitz?
Paul Levitz comes to the table with a long history of mass comics publishing. Jules is the master of the independent comic. I think it will be a night of brilliant talk. And for the comics nerd, it will be heaven on earth. I’ve known Jules personally for over 35 years. Before that he was my comics hero. When I briefly went to SVA and took comics classes, I wanted to be Feiffer. As you can see, I didn’t make it. This is the next best thing.

For more information about Will Eisner’s “The Spirit” 75th Anniversary Celebration—An Evening with Jules Feiffer and Paul Levitz and to reserve tickets, click here.

Images from top down: The Spirit and Will Eisner are registered trademarks of Will Eisner Studios, Inc.; Will Eisner at drafting table courtesy of Will Eisner Studios.


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