Eisner’s Is the First Graphic Novel

Will Eisner’s A Contract with God, published in 1978, established a new literary genre in America that would skyrocket in popularity during the 1990’s. Eisner’s sequential art, as he called it, revolutionized the comic art form by expanding the use of interwoven pictures and words to create novel-length thematic stories aimed at adult readers.

Summary of Event

Will Eisner’s career in comics and graphic novels, sequential art as he termed it, spanned more than six decades of the twentieth century. In 1936, Eisner and Jerry Iger established Eisner & Iger Studio and attained quick success by producing and packaging comic strips and features for the burgeoning market in newspapers and magazines. In 1940, Eisner sold his interest in the studio to Iger and began an ongoing series of sixteen-page comic books Comic books featuring a masked crime-fighting character called the Spirit. The Spirit stories, considered classics of the form, were published weekly in twenty major newspapers with a combined circulation of five million readers. During World War II, Eisner served in the Pentagon (1942-1945), where he pioneered another use of graphic arts to create instructional books for the military and educational materials for schools. After the war, Eisner resumed production of the Spirit, but his ambition was to expand the use of the graphics art medium to create novel-length stories with meaningful themes. Graphic novels
Sequential art
Graphic novels
Sequential art
Eisner, Will
Iger, Jerry
Schreiner, Dave

Two incidents in Eisner’s life gave him the inspiration for his first graphic novel. The tragic death of Eisner’s teenage daughter from leukemia in 1969 inspired the title and theme of the title story in what became the four-story work A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories. Eisner was convinced that graphic novels could and should reflect the realities of human life and human beings’ relationship with God. The theme of the story “A Contract with God” was set in one panel depicting a large man lifting his arms toward heaven and shouting to God, “No . . . not me. You can’t do this to me. We have a contract.”

Will Eisner working in his studio in Florida in 1998.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The other career-changing incident occurred in the mid-1970’s at a convention where Eisner discussed with fellow authors and readers of comic strips and stories his belief in the potential use of the graphics form for writing novel-length stories based on the complex drama of life. He learned that the teenagers he had written for in the 1940’s were now adults who wanted something more satisfying than the superman-type hero of the Spirit stories. He came away determined to use his sequential art to deal with subjects that had never been tried before in comics.

In 1977-1978, Eisner worked on his revolutionary graphic novel collection, which, in addition to the title story, included the stories “Cookalein,” “The Super,” and “The Street Singer.” The stories were linked by a common setting, a fictitious Bronx, New York, tenement located at 55 Dropsie Avenue during the Great Depression years of the 1930’s, and by a common theme of real-life experiences of the immigrant families who lived in the tenement. Each story’s main character was based on a real person. The work was semiautobiographical in that Eisner, who was born in Brooklyn, New York, and was himself the son of Jewish immigrants, drew his characters and stories from his own childhood experiences. Eisner made this seminal work memorable through his artistic ability to interweave pictures and words to communicate experiences and emotions through facial expressions, body language, and the tenement neighborhood environment. He was able to show his characters’ courage in the face of insurmountable difficulties and the strength of the human will to strive for a better life.

After Eisner completed the work, he called the president of Bantam Books in New York, who was familiar with Eisner’s work on the Spirit, and told him he had finished a work that he thought the publisher would find interesting. When asked what it was, Eisner suddenly realized he should not call it a comic book, so he said he had a “graphic novel.” When the publisher at Bantam saw the work, however, he told Eisner that it was just a comic book and to take it to a smaller publisher, which Eisner did.

In October of 1978, A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories was published by Baronet Books in both hardcover and trade paperback editions. The hardcover edition was limited to a signed and numbered print run of fifteen hundred copies. In the introduction to the first edition, Eisner revealed his ambition to expand the comics form to its full potential. He wrote that he was working around a core concept, his belief “that the medium, the arrangement of words and pictures in sequence, was an art form in itself. Unique, with a structure and gestalt of its own, this medium could deal with meaningful themes.”

Eisner considered A Contract with God successful in that it was recognized by the industry and by literary critics as the seminal work in a new genre of American literature. The acceptance of the graphic novel as a literary form encouraged others in the industry to create comic short stories and graphic novels, which greatly enhanced the availability and popularity of works in the genre.

Following the success of A Contract with God, Eisner produced one graphic novel a year over the next two decades. His professional standards dictated that he create every work twice. He would submit a rough draft of the novel to Dave Schreiner, editor in chief of Kitchen Sink Press. Then, incorporating Schreiner’s suggested changes, Eisner would re-create the work in its final version.

In Eisner’s later graphic novels, he continued to focus on personal narratives of New York’s tenement dwellers during the 1930’s. Examples were A Life Force (1988) Life Force, A (Eisner) and Dropsie Avenue (1995). Dropsie Avenue (Eisner) However, The Dreamer (1986) Dreamer, The (Eisner) was an autobiography covering Eisner’s early career in writing and drawing comics. Eisner came closer to revealing his inner self in To the Heart of the Storm (1991). To the Heart of the Storm (Eisner) This graphic novel featured a young man riding a troop train during World War II, recalling his impoverished childhood and the anti-Semitism his immigrant family had to face. Eisner’s fight against anti-Semitism became a recurring theme in his work. For example, Fagin the Jew
Fagin the Jew (Eisner) (2003) was Eisner’s attempt to counter the stereotype of Jews reflected by the character Fagin in Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1837-1839).


With the publication of A Contract with God, Eisner launched a new literary genre and showed the creators of comic stories the potential of the medium in which they worked. Primarily because of his innovative use of the medium to create graphic novels, Eisner was internationally recognized with numerous awards for his influence on the comics industry as a whole. In 1988, he was honored by the establishment of the annual Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, which became highly coveted honors in all categories of sequential art.

Eisner himself was most proud of his influence on young writers who learned to create short stories and graphic novels that portrayed both the comedy and tragedy of life. For seventeen years, Eisner taught sequential art at the School of Visual Arts in New York City and lectured at numerous conventions and symposia. He wrote two textbooks based on his lectures: Comics and Sequential Arts (1985) Comics and Sequential Arts (Eisner) and Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative
Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative (Eisner) (1996). Both have been widely used by teachers and students of the craft of drawing and writing cartoons, comic strips, comic books, and graphic novels. Scholarly works on the new genre and Eisner’s career have been produced, elevating the stature of the medium and critical acceptance of the graphic novel as a literary form. Graphic novels
Sequential art

Further Reading

  • Andelman, Bob, and Michael Chabon. Will Eisner: A Spirited Life. New York: DC Comics, 2004. Relates Eisner’s early career in comic books, particularly the Spirit stories.
  • Carrier, David. The Aesthetics of Comics. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000. An academic philosopher cites Eisner’s work as an exemplary model for combining speech with drawings to convey what is in a character’s mind.
  • Couch, N. C. Christopher, and Stephen Weiner. The Will Eisner Companion: The Pioneering Spirit of the Father of the Graphic Novel. New York: DC Comics, 2004. A critical overview of Eisner’s works and career by two comic-book historians.
  • Eisner, Will. Comics and Sequential Art. Tamarac, Fla.: Poorhouse Press, 1985. A textbook used for teaching the fundamentals of using comic strip art form for creating novels with serious themes.
  • _______. A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories. New York: Baronet Books, 1978. Eisner’s first graphic novel based on the theme of New York City’s immigrant experiences during the 1930’s. Reissued by DC Comics in 2001.
  • _______. Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative. Tamarac, Fla.: Poorhouse Press, 1996. Illustrates concepts and process of drawing and writing graphic novels, from story ideas to visualization of the narrative.

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