Will Eisner: The Centennial Celebration 1917-2017 is a retrospective exhibition currently running at the Society of Illustrators in New York City. It opened on March 1st, and runs until June 3rd with a Curator’s Talk at the museum coming up on April 22nd. Co-curated by Denis Kitchen and John Lind, the exhibit also has an accompanying hardback book, published by Kitchen Sink Books and Dark Horse Books, currently out.
The show is the largest exhibit of Will Eisner’s work ever presented to the public, and takes a massive survey of his artistic output from his earliest student days up to his final project. In it, visitors receive an unprecedented opportunity to examine Eisner’s work in great detail in a curated way that walks them through his milestone and achievements and helps us understand just how dramatic an impact he made on the comics medium.
The exhibit makes for an exciting experience, too, since even the most educated fans of Eisner’s work are bound to come across details they may not have been aware of, and see connections between projects they haven’t seen before. The portrait the exhibition presents of a man whose influence is so widely felt is also significantly personal. It humanizes Will Eisner and reminds us of the sheer labor and drive involved in creating comics and reaching readers.
The upper and lower galleries house the Eisner exhibit and are arranged to give a chronological and linear experience of Eisner’s career, beginning on the lower level and working upwards. It skips over his work on The Spirit until you reach the upper level, since the majority of that floor is dedicated to The Spirit.
Some of the material on the lower level includes an oil painting from his teens, work on Smash Comics from Eisner’s first studio in 1940, army posters from 1942, pencil roughs, lithographs, and more all ranging from the 1930’s through the 1980’s. Then we jump into his graphic novels, focusing in on A Contract with God, A Life Force, To The Heart of the Storm, Last Day in Vietnam, and more.
The exhibit also includes a showing of the documentary Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist in their screening room.
One of the most emotive items in the upper level of the exhibit is Eisner’s drawing board, as he left it at the time of his passing in 2005.
Then we are straight into a massive exhibit of artwork relating to The Spirit, from 1941 onwards.
Because the artwork was created at a large size and many of the process pieces are included in the show, you can even read Eisner’s handwritten blue pencil notes to himself and see where he came in to make corrections. You’ll be amazed firstly, by how fluid and perfect his style seems to be, and secondly, by the ordinary need for changes and alterations that he threw in without too much concern.
Some of the small details that stand out as you watch his progress on The Spirit is how more surreal elements crept in and how easily he worked these elements into the comics medium. He was clearly aware that the comics form was elastic enough to handle this experimentation. Here below we “see inside” a criminal’s mind.
We also see the way The Spirit toyed with prose and newspaper formats, sliding back and forth between strict comics layouts in ways that you could see as predictive of Eisner’s later work on graphic novels. And of course, as seen above, his famous use of lettering as embedded in artwork, composing from the elements of the panel. Below, we see the arrival of Jules Feiffer on the scene, where his fictional self took over The Spirit and “killed” Eisner to compose this New Year strip in his own clearly superior (tongue-in-cheek) style. When Eisner returned to The Spirit in 1966 for “John Lindsay’s Mayoral Race”, the first strip since 1952, the comic seemed only to have improved with time and become more boundary-pushing.
The exhibit also includes pin-ups, sketches, and large form limited edition works Eisner produced later in life.
Eisner’s final work, for Michael Chabon Presents: The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist, is presented in full, running to 6 pages.
The main, informative ideas that the exhibit presents to visitors focus on Eisner’s role in generating and pushing the concept of “graphic novel” into the limelight, his wide-ranging work from newspaper strips to military and government instructional work, to a shift in the 70’s through the influence of underground comix toward his graphic novel work. But it also reminds us of his continual work in later years and the way in which his career seems to almost be composed of several careers due to his willingness to embrace changes in the world around him and keep moving forward.
You’ll also see an arrangement of Eisner’s scripts, pens, and brushes, which give you a real sense of the atmosphere behind his work and the physical process of making comics.
The Society of Illustrators have really rolled out a solid collection of his works in their shop, too, alongside the exhibition book. For Eisner fans, there are even t-shirts to celebrate his centennial this year.
As you can see, this exhibition is a unique opportunity to come face to face with many facets of Eisner’s work and take a new look at how they are placed as part of his full career.
You can also find out more about the book published alongside the exhibition right here.