The Long Influence of Will Eisner

In any medium there are great, influential works that no one actually partakes of. In film this mantle falls on the shoulders of directors like Carl Theodor Dreyer, Fritz Lang, and Abel Gance. They made fantastic, perfect works, but your average viewer will never see them. Your casual fans will potentially have heard of them, but it’s only the more obsessive fans and true experts who watch these things. Will Eisner seems to serve as the comics equivalent. Though slightly more known then Gance, he’s still a name that’s generally only of interest to hardcore fans. Of course comics is such a tight-knit community that the divides between casual reader, fan, super-fan, and expert can be perilous at the best of times. But, like Fritz Lang, Eisner’s influence completely outweighs his actual current audience. Someone as brilliant and revolutionary as Eisner will always have a strong effect on a medium. So I rather thought the best way to demonstrate the web of influences expanding outwards from Eisner would be to point out two lesser known fans of Eisner’s work, and then show briefly show their tenuous influence on other creators. Because the spiderweb metaphor was apt, some of these influences are delicate and hard to see, but that doesn’t render them unimportant.

The first of these worshippers at the church of Eisner is Jonny Craig, an old school EC comic book artist perhaps best known for the infamously controversial cover showing a man holding a severed head and a bloody axe. When Fredric Wertham created his anti-comics hysteria, this cover was held up during the Senate investigation into comic books and juvenile delinquency. Jonny Craig wrote exactly the sort of stories you’d expect to read in an EC comic – he’d write short crime and horror stories, one normally looking much like the other, minus the fantastical elements. They were generally all highly condensed stories with the sort of twist endings that deserve excited cover blurbs.

Jonny Craig’s figure drawings are often a little stiff, especially in comparison to Will Eisner’s rubbery-stage-actor figures. Craig’s men have a tendency to be slightly too geometric, regardless of how heroic the jut of their chin was meant to be. Even his heavy, off-putting characters have noses that are a little too square, characters with cheekbones that don’t quite work. At least not on the living characters. His female figures are a different matter altogether. Like many great artists before him, Jonny Craig seems far more interested in depicting the fairer of the two sexes, and he so learned to do so with great panache. His women seem graceful, and elegant, and almost completely ripped-whole from Will Eisner books.

Seriously, compare these two drawings:

The one on the left is Eisner’s, the one on the right is Jonny Craig’s. Jonny Craig, being a fan of Eisner’s, is more than just idle speculation. A little research led me to come across an Ebay auction selling off pieces of Jonny Craig’s personal collection, including a few pieces of Eisner’s art he kept in a binder. (Given the price these went for, I assume they were prints, not originals.)

Jonny Craig’s Eisner-esque touches don’t end with his women-folk either, there are a few interesting things Craig does with the medium that seem to indicate that Eisner-like desire for experimentation. One example is Craig’s frequent use of text that leaks its way out of the captions and dialogue and into the art. There are any number of points in Craig’s stories where a harangued protagonist walks or thrashes his way through an inky-black panel surrounded by taunting words. This is a pretty wonderful technique, as it allows Jonny Craig to distill the necessary information about a character’s mental state into one panel. More often than not, most of the story beforehand has clearly been building up this character development, but in Craig’s tiny stories every panel has to be as concise as possible.

Yet there are some stories where, system be damned, Craig sneaks in all kinds of strange and experimental compositions. The Vault of Horror story “Till Death…”, for instance, includes many wonderful and unusually dense and atmospheric panels. He occasionally uses wonderful grid layouts and shows off a willingness to do away with panel borders all together on “Out of the Frying Pan”. Sometimes his panels show an almost Manga-like contrast between their elements. It’s all very interesting.

Jonny Craig’s more Will Eisner-inspired figures and experimentation ultimately elevate his work in a way little else could. It helps make stories that could have felt rote and occasionally crude artistically interesting. There’s no way Jonny Craig would be as remembered without his Eisner-inspired touches. And who remembers Craig? Because I’m assuming you, dear reader, might not have heard of him. Well, for one, Ed Brubaker, easily one of the better current comic book writers, remembers Craig’s noirish touches fondly: “Johnny Craig is probably my all-time favorite cartoonist. I love everything about his work, from the scripts to the storytelling, to the flawless ink lines. The true under-rated genius of EC Comics.”

I’ll admit, it’s a tenuous thread. But one way or another, EC comics had a huge effect on the industry and on future creators, and Jonny Craig was an important contributor. And Craig’s comics were largely made worthwhile by the fragments of Will Eisner-inspired techniques he employed.

Next up is that wonderful creator Jack Cole. Cole created Plastic Man, for those of you wondering “Where have I heard that name before?” Jack Cole’s Plastic Man was published right alongside Eisner’s The Spirit series, a fantastic and seminal work that allowed Eisner to experiment constantly. Jack Cole learned more than a little working with Eisner, to the point where sometimes their art is hard to distinguish from one another’s. In fact, Jack Cole’s first job was as an assistant to Eisner. He helped draw the daily version of the Spirit, and was one of the chief artists responsible for ghosting for Eisner during World War Two.

Then Jack Cole created Plastic Man.

Granted, Plastic Man was actually a riff on a pre-existing, almost forgotten hero. Regardless, Cole’s Plastic Man was a major hit. It’s pretty clear reading it that most of what Jack Cole brought to this very influential series was learned working with Eisner. The proof is in the art, just look at these examples:

Even Cole’s lettering kind of looks like Eisner’s.

That’s not to say Cole was nothing but a carbon copy of Eisner, even if that was his initial line of work. Cole’s layouts and pages clearly betray a deep understanding of the form. The sense of motion he conveys deserves praise alone. Truly anyone who can make the fractured and staccato medium of comics feel as fluid as Craig can is supremely talented.

(A funny common thread exists between Cole and Craig, other than the names: Craig’s cover was examined in the Senate after a frenzy was whipped up by Frederic Wertham, and Wertham used a comic by Jack Cole as one of his central examples of comics’ evil nature.)

Cole’s work on Plastic Man was incredibly influential. Creators like Grant Morrison, Art Spiegleman, Alex Ross, and Kyle Baker have all extolled the virtues of Cole’s series. Creators like Grant Morrison and Frank Miller have reimagined the character, as have countless others. He’s become a fixture of the DC Universe.

Jonny Craig and Jack Cole both influenced a host of creators. Things they drew, for better or sometimes for worse, affected the entirety of American comics. And that wouldn’t have happened without Will Eisner, the genius artist at the centre of it all.

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Harry Edmundson-Cornell is obsessed with comics and film and writing, and he fancies himself a bit of an artist. He's dabbled in freelance video production, writing, design, 3D modelling, and artistic commissions. He mainly uses Tumblr to keep track of what he's watching and reading and listening to. Occasionally he uses it to post original works. You can find his email and junk there too, if you want to hire him or send him hate-mail.

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