Celebrating Will Eisner’s Impact on Graphic Novel Storytelling Both Then and Now
Illya Kowalchuk and Dr. Katie Monnin

It’s hard to overstate the contribution Will Eisner has had on the world of comics and sequential art. Two of his most iconic works, A Contract with God and The Building echo through the years and reverberate into today’s most powerful graphic literature. Eisner’s foresight and innovation set the stage for future creators who continued his legacy of shaping the medium. For example, we can see the connective tissue between A Contract With God, a tale of marginalized voices, and books like Katie Green’s Lighter Than My Shadow and Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do. Through his vision and profound innovation of the art form, Eisner set the stage for the current crop of comic creators looking to push the boundaries of graphic storytelling and contemporary culture.

By telling stories with an equal amount of emphasis on both art and text, Eisner believed throughout the mid 20th century, and until his passing in 2005, that a new, more contemporary version of literature could be achieved for future readers and writers.  And his vision was successful both then and now.  Eisner established the graphic novel as a literary-level art form in 1978 with the publication of A Contract with God. This artistic literary endeavor created dynamic understandings and storytelling implications for all of the elements of story (character(s), setting(s), plot(s), theme(s), et cetera). Subsequently, Eisner’s work with graphic novels transitioned beyond just a new literary label. His work has now widely entered classroom settings and informed how 21st century educators can rely on graphic novels to balance the literacy needs of our own time and place in history. Eisner seemed to foresee that 21st century readers and writers would need to be able to understand literary-level storytelling through both words and images. The combination, Eisner thought, could tell more practical stories to future generations that may be more reliant on the combination of reading with both print-text and image-text due to the advent of more image-based, screen-like and visual storytelling venues that were growing in both popularity and significance throughout the 20th century.

We see this in Eisner’s nostalgic graphic novel, The Building, where he suggests to the reader that the constructs around us possess and carry part of our collective memory, our soul, if you will. Will Eisner reveals himself as one of these constructs – willing to help the rest of us understand the world we flit through via his boundary-pushing, prophetic, and risky creations. Due to this avant garde approach, many publishers were unwilling to bring Eisner’s books to print.

Similarly, Katie Green’s Lighter Than My Shadow pushes graphic novels into a new realm. Her story tells an unflinching narrative of a lifelong battle with self-esteem, anorexia, and sexual assault. There is no happy ending here, merely a mild assurance to the reader that while she’s not cured, she’s OK. While this 517-page black and white tale is anything but light, it is absolutely necessary as we begin to shed light onto the dark ramifications of white-male centric culture. Eisner and Green’s books shook up the status quo, and we’re all the better for it. Together, we urge other publishers to emulate Lion Forge’s courage in publishing such a book.

As Green clearly understood, reflective and honest stories about art imitating life and life imitating art was imperative to Eisner’s vision for the graphic novel format both then and now.  Eisner wrote in the Introduction of his 1991 graphic novel To the Heart of the Storm that the injustices that he had an inkling may be reemerging right before the start of a new century (injustices that he and his peers literally fought to end in WWII) may unfortunately need readdressed: “Whether all this [the graphic novel’s ability to reflect the American experience] is proof of a new, prejudice-free world, or simply evidence that the same old hatreds are still within us, is arguable.  I cling to the hope that kids growing up today can no longer easily assume a socil superiority with its license to discriminate” (p. xi). 

While Eisner’s story in To the Heart of the Storm focuses on both biographical and fictionalized elements of such claims between WWI and WWII, dozens of contemporary graphic novel creators (whose stories are now regularly assigned in classrooms around the world as literary-level texts) have held onto and carried forth his intentionally and soulfully lit graphic novel torch about biographical and fictionalized stories regarding equity in the 21st century:

  • Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize winning Maus II
  • Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis I and II
  • Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home
  • Craig Thompson’s Blankets
  • Harvey Pekar’s Our Cancer Year
  • Belle Yang’s Forget Sorrow
  • Josh Neufeld’s A.D. New Orleans After the Deluge
  • Guy Delisle’s Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea
  • John Lewis’ March Series

And that’s just to name a few.  A very few. 

When we read his graphic novels today, it’s easy to see how the story was the main impetus for Eisner’s desire to extend the medium into a complex and expanded novel. This is what I teach my students, that relatable themes in story are central to every piece of content worth consuming. What are the books that stick with us through the years? In The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim posits that our favorite tales provide some window into the greatest challenge of our life. Reading Engagement Theory states that the texts that we stay soulfully connected to as lifelong learners at any age (both teachers and students, no matter our ages in which we read them) are those that grounded in each of our individual interests, motivations, schemas, and choices.

Knowing this, it makes sense that Illya’s favorite text is The Hobbit. In 1994, Illya read this unexpected journey while sitting on a beach in Greece, two weeks before leaving his Long Island home for college in Boulder, Colorado. And Katie’s favorite text, read around the same age as Illya read The Hobbit, was Great Expectations, which she read a few weeks before heading off to college as well.  Both set to take on new journeys and expectations ourselves, both of us soulfully did and still do connect to these pivotal texts. 

During Eisner’s youth, two educators (I.A. Richards and Louise Rosenblatt) also understood that in order to engage readers with soulful thematic connections they must be in an engaged relationship with a text.  Eisner had the foresight to see how words and pictures significantly deepen these very connections between reader and book. And 101 years after his birth, and 40 years after his publication of the first graphic novel, we have Will Eisner to thank for not only the rapidly growing market for graphic novel sales, but also, and much more importantly, the growth of an entirely new generation of graphic novel creators and readers who are expressing and discussing some of the most significant stories to comment on the human condition in the 21st century.