Lessons from the Lives of Writers: Will Eisner

As with many of the great names in comics, Will Eisner began his career in the Golden Age with his action hero the Spirit. He worked on this project from 1940-1945 and then disappeared.

Well, he didn’t really disappear, he just quietly slipped out of the world of comics to work for the United States military illustrating service manuals and the like. Then, after his thirty-three year hiatus, Eisner returned and published A Contract With God.

A series of four vignettes dealing with Jewish life in the 1930s, A Contract With God was an influential work that helped to bring the idea to the public that comics can be about more than superheroes in tights. (This is not to say that there hadn’t been independent comics prior to Contract, but they were not so much in the public eye as Eisner’s work.) The first book length comic to term itself a graphic novel, Contract was, and is, considered groundbreaking as it deals with themes of ethnicity, anger, irony, and the confusion of life (among other things) without any breaks into fantasy or childish themes.

But Contract wasn’t created because Eisner wanted to radically transform the world of comics. It was written and drawn because he lost his daughter. Contract is, above all else, Eisner’s way of coming to terms with the passing of a beloved child. It was his method for reconciling himself with God after a major tragedy affected his life.

After Contract, Eisner went on to teach sequential art and become one of the most respected names in the comics industry. But without his drive to work through his pain in art, to break the prescribed formula for comics and novels, and the need to create meaningful art, Eisner would only be the man who created the Spirit, and we would have lost a great work.

Lessons from the Lives of Writers: Robert Louis Stevenson


For the remainder of the summer, we will be addressing writing topics—such as rewriting, criticism, etc.—through anecdotal evidence. After all, while it’s nice to discuss topics theoretically, it’s much more interesting to learn about how real writers tackled different issues. The first case study is Scottish Victorian author and globetrotter, Robert Louis Stevenson.

During the December of 1885, Stevenson had a nightmare that chilled him to the core. It took him back to his days as university student in Edinborough where he’d been a model student by day and an experiencer of life by night. In the dream, however, Stevenson was not one person living a double life, but physically two people, living two lives—a metamorphosis made possible by ingesting a chemical compound.

The moment Stevenson woke—his dream still burning in his mind—he began to write. Three days of feverish writing later, he completed the first draft of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

This is where things get interesting. Stevenson asked his wife Fanny to read the finished draft, wanting to receive her input. And her judgment was anything but encouraging. Fanny declared the story to be simply horrible and that it meant nothing. Accepting her evaluation, Stevenson promptly threw the draft into the fire.

Since we all know the story of Jekyll and Hyde, we can assume that Stevenson did not give up on his dream story even after incinerating the first draft. Almost immediately, Stevenson set to work again. This new draft was finished four days later. And three days after that, he completed the final revisions as his publisher began preparing for a January debut of the novella.

And the rest, as they say, was history. Jekyll and Hyde became an instant popular and critical success, which continues to define our notions of monstrosity to this day. All because Stevenson listened to some harsh criticism and refused to give up.

But what do you think?