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Artist and writer Will Eisner did not invent the graphic novel, but he was among the first to apply the convention of comics to novel-length stories.
Eisner was born in Brooklyn in 1917, the son of Austrian Jewish immigrants. His father, a renowned church painter in Europe, first painted sets for theatres after moving to New York. Eventually, to better provide for his family, he opened a retail store.
When that business prospered, the Eisners moved to the quieter, more affluent, and relatively more suburban Bronx. They left a neighborhood that was nearly all Jewish, and moved into an area with a more varied ethnic makeup of Irish, Italian, and Eastern European presences.
Eisner’s experiences from his youth created a tableau for many of the recurring themes in his work: new immigrants, crooked landlords and store-owners, salesmen with wandering eyes, and housewives with wandering affections. Eisner watched these seedy characters, absorbed their stories, and used them later in life to paint vivid character portraits.
Even as a child, Eisner was a gifted artist. At a young age, his father took Will to drawing lessons at an inexpensive art school. When the school turned out to be a fraud — the “school” was a machine that was attached to the student’s arm in order to draw shapes — the senior Eisner didn’t give up. He was determined to find a suitable place for Will to develop his skill.
That “suitable place” ended up being their apartment. Self-taught, Will sold his first cartoon in 1936 to Wow What a Magazine. Soon thereafter, he joined one of the many assembly-line comic art studios springing up all over lower Manhattan. There, he met and collaborated with many of the era’s finest talents–among them, Jack Kirby (co-creator of Spider-Man and The Eternals) and Max Gaines (Wonder Woman, Famous Funnies).
Eisner became so successful that he and cartoonist Jerry Iger created their own studio in 1936. They hired a new team and began to produce high quality work, quickly. In 1939, the two had an amicable split. Eisner ended up selling his half of the studio and started work on his own ventures.
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