Will Eisner and the Mysterious Origin of the Graphic Novel

This year as part of our Spirit of Giving fundraiser, CBLDF is proud to offer a signed edition of board member Paul Levitz’s newest biography on comics luminary Will Eisner, Will Eisner: Champion of the Graphic Novel (you can still get a copy here). To celebrate Will Eisner and his lasting impact on comics storytelling, Levitz shared an excerpt with Vulture and shed light on the mysterious origin of the “graphic novel.”

Along with pioneering many of the elements of single issue and newspaper strip comics still used by creators today, Eisner is also often credited with being the father of the graphic novel, helping to develop the longer graphic narrative that many creators also still employ today. Although the story of how Will Eisner was the first to use the term “graphic novel” is one of the biggest comics industry legends and whether he coined the term itself is much debated, one cannot deny that even though Eisner was not the first to officially call a graphic novel a graphic novel, his approach to the book-length graphic narrative form has certainly helped define what we consider a graphic novel today.

As the comics medium continued to develop over the years, from its inception as newspaper strips in the early 1900s, to the small pre-Code single issue anthologies that would come under fire by the US Senate and Comics Code Authority (CCA) in the 1950s, to the interlinked and serialized stories that span full issues today, “it was only a matter of time before the stories would be collected into volumes, first in mass-market paperback size, then more commonly in trade paperback or even hardcover,” Levitz notes.

The confusion surrounding the origin of the term “graphic novel” in large part comes from the fact that in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the term was nonchalantly bandied around by many different people, comics creators and fans alike, from Richard Kyle using the term in a fanzine article in “The Future of Comics” in 1964 to DC calling The Sinister House of Secret Love no. 2 “A Graphic Novel of Gothic Terror.” In 1974, underground comix creator Jack Katz, with Eisner’s encouragement, produced The Last Kingdom, a 700+ page work that Katz labeled a graphic novel.

Eisner’s own non-committal used of the term in describing his 1978 seminal book A Contract with God — which is called the first graphic novel by many –was more about finding an “adequate euphemism” for his book, but “Eisner’s use of the term, however, was a turning point,” writes Levitz.

Eisner’s A Contract with God wasn’t typical for comics of the day. This was a book that could and, as Eisner saw it, should be on mainstream bookstore shelves. Levitz writes:

If you picked up one of the 1,500 copies of the first edition of A Contract with God offered through comic book shops, you would be holding a volume that outwardly appeared to be much like every traditional hardcover on your shelf: No illustration marred the type on its cover; there was no dust jacket; and no copy indicated that it was a graphic novel, comic, cartoon, or anything other than the serious literature that Eisner dreamed it could be treated as.

For Eisner, it wasn’t about coining terms or laying claim to a new form. As Levitz writes, Eisner was testing the boundaries of what comics could do, the stories they could tell, and the people they could reach. A Contract with God challenged all of those boundaries, and it is probably for this reason that it is held in such high acclaim and regarded as the first graphic novel, laying the groundwork for a bridge between the comics industry and mainstream mass market.

A Contract with God “was neither a bestseller (by any definition of the term) nor something a publisher could look on as a surprise success,” writes Levitz. “Instead, it had its greatest impact on the creative community, serving as a role model, as Eisner himself so often did in his life.” Eisner’s passion for the comics form and firm belief in its power as an adaptable medium is the same kind of infectious attitude that has made the comics industry resilient in the face of challenge — whether it be circumventing the now defunct Comics Code or facing down the ongoing challenges that graphic novels and comics encounter in schools and libraries today.

Regardless of the exact origins of the term “graphic novel,” the mark that Eisner left on the form has without a doubt opened the door for a longer and more literary form of comics storytelling that has been adopted by creators around the world. From graphic memoirs like Marjane Sartrapi’s Persepolis, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, and Art Spiegelman’s Maus; to comics classics like Watchmen and Batman: The Killing Joke; and even to the newest graphic novels aimed towards younger readers, like Drama and This One Summer, Eisner’s lasting legacy as one of the fathers of the modern graphic novel is another chapter in the resilience of this great industry.

Read the full chapter excerpt on Vulture here, and don’t forget to order your signed copy of Paul Levitz’s book Will Eisner: Champion of the Graphic Novel here!

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Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!