As the comic-book ‘Oscars’ approach, Paul Karasik celebrates the achievements of Will Eisner, a pioneer cartoonist who paved the way for an entire movement

NEXT WEEK AT THE largest comics convention in the world, the San Diego Con, the industry bestows the Eisner Awards for the best comics of the preceding year. Like all arts awards, they wrestle for resolution between the poles of commerce and art. The Eisners, which reach their twentieth anniversary this year, could not possibly be more aptly named.

Will Eisner (1917-2005) was a great cartoonist, but he was also a shrewd businessman with his finger on the throbbing, erratic pulse of popular culture, trying to predict, manoeuvre, and exploit the next trend using his very specific set of skills. He spent his life wrestling with those demanding twins, art and commerce.

In 1936 when he was 19, Eisner had his first professional work published in Wow, What a Magazine!, one of the first comic books to publish new work in the format that we are familiar with today. As he put it in an interview in 1984: “Pulp magazines were dying and pulp publishers were looking for other popular publishing ventures, and so comics represented that opportunity.”

Eisner himself never missed an opportunity. Overnight, dozens of new comic-book titles and publishers erupted to mine the bonanza begun by the 1938 publication of Superman in Action Comics. Simultaneously all these publishers were putting out beefy 52-page comic books. They needed stories and art, and they needed them last week.

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