In 1988, the comics community paid tribute to Eisner by creating the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, more commonly known as "the Eisners", to recognize achievements each year in the comics medium. Eisner enthusiastically participated in the awards ceremony, congratulating each recipient.
In 1936, high-school friend and fellow cartoonist Bob Kane, of future Batman fame, suggested that the 19-year-old Eisner try selling cartoons to the new comic book Wow, What A Magazine!. "Comic books" at the time were tabloid-sized collections of comic strip reprints in color. In 1935, they began to include occasional new comic strip-like material. Editor Jerry Iger bought an Eisner adventure strip called "Captain Scott Dalton", an H. Rider Haggard-styled hero who traveled the world after rare artifacts. Eisner subsequently wrote and drew the pirate strip "The Flame" and the secret agent strip "Harry Karry" for Wow as well.
Wow lasted four issues (cover-dated July-Sept. & Nov. 1936). After it ended, Eisner and Iger worked together producing and selling original comics material, anticipating that the well of available reprints would soon run dry, though their accounts of how their partnership was founded differ. One of the first such comic-book "packagers", their partnership was an immediate success, and the two soon had a stable of comics creators supplying work to Fox Comics, Fiction House, Quality Comics (for whom Eisner co-created such characters as Doll Man and Blackhawk), and others. Turning a profit of $1.50 a page, Eisner claimed that he "got very rich before I was 22", later detailing that in Depression-era 1939 alone, he and Iger "had split $25,000 between us", a considerable amount for the time. Eisner's original work even crossed the Atlantic, with Eisner drawing the new cover of the Oct. 16, 1937 issue of Boardman Books' comic-strip reprint tabloid Okay Comics Weekly.
In 1939, Eisner created Wonder Man for Victor Fox, an accountant who previously worked at DC Comics and wanted to get into the comic book business. Following Fox's instructions to create a Superman-type character, and using the pen name Willis, Eisner wrote and drew the first issue of Wonder Comics. Eisner protested the derivative nature of the character and story and eventually testified in the court case, admitting that the character was a thinly veiled version of Superman.
'Busy' invited me up for lunch one day and introduced me to Henry Martin [sales manager of the Des Moines Register and Tribune Syndicate, who] said, 'The newspapers in this country, particularly the Sunday papers, are looking to compete with comics books, and they would like to get a comic-book insert into the newspapers'. ... Martin asked if I could do it. ... It meant that I'd have to leave Eisner & Iger [which] was making money; we were very profitable at that time and things were going very well. A hard decision. Anyway, I agreed to do the Sunday comic book and we started discussing the deal [which] was that we'd be partners in the 'Comic Book Section', as they called it at that time. And also, I would produce two other magazines in partnership with Arnold.
Eisner negotiated an agreement with the syndicate in which Arnold would copyright The Spirit, but, "Written down in the contract I had with 'Busy' Arnold — and this contract exists today as the basis for my copyright ownership — Arnold agreed that it was my property. They agreed that if we had a split-up in any way, the property would revert to me on that day that happened. My attorney went to 'Busy' Arnold and his family, and they all signed a release agreeing that they would not pursue the question of ownership" This would include the eventual backup features, "Mr. Mystic" and "Lady Luck".
Selling his share of their firm to Iger, who would continue to package comics as the S. M. Iger Studio and as Phoenix Features through 1955, Eisner left to create The Spirit. "They gave me an adult audience," Eisner said in 1997, "and I wanted to write better things than superheroes. Comic books were a ghetto. I sold my part of the enterprise to my associate and then began The Spirit. They wanted an heroic character, a costumed character. They asked me if he'd have a costume. And I put a mask on him and said, 'Yes, he has a costume!'
The Spirit, a seven-page, urban-crimefighter series, ran with such backup features as "Mr. Mystic" and "Lady Luck" in a 16-page Sunday supplement (colloquially called "The Spirit Section") eventually distributed in 20 newspapers with a combined circulation of as many as five million copies, premiering June 2, 1940, and continuing through 1952.
Eisner's rumpled, masked hero (with his headquarters under the tombstone of his supposedly deceased true identity, Denny Colt) and his gritty, detailed view of big-city life (based on Eisner's Jewish upbringing in New York City) both reflected and influenced the noir outlook of movies and fiction in the 1940s.
The strip is especially notable in other areas. First, it was the story of people, often the little people overlooked in the city's maelstrom. In some episodes of The Spirit, the nominal hero makes a brief, almost incidental appearance while the story focuses on a real-life drama played out in streets, dilapidated tenements, and smoke-filled back rooms. Second, along with violence and pathos, The Spirit lived on humor, both subtle and overt. He was machine-gunned, knocked silly, bruised, often amazed into near immobility and constantly confused by beautiful women.
Set in the Manhattan manqué of Central City, the strip featured a big-hearted supporting cast that included the gruff Irish police commissioner, Dolan; his gorgeous blonde daughter, Ellen, whose waifish manner belied the occasional vicious uppercut or scathing remark she could throw; and Ebony White, an orphaned African American child who served as the Spirit's sidekick, surrogate son, and kid-appeal comic relief, whom the other characters treated with a casual, inherent respect not always seen in the pop culture of the time, but which also drew criticism for its racial caricature — one which, in the manner of that era's pop culture, extended to many others of the strip's people of color. One exception was Detective Grey, an African American police detective on the Central City force, who was rendered as ordinarily as the Caucasian characters.
While Eisner's later graphic novels were entirely his own work, he had a studio working under his supervision on The Spirit. In particular, letterer Abe Kanegson came up with the distinctive lettering style which Eisner himself would later imitate in his book-length works, and Kanegson would often rewrite Eisner's dialogue.
Eisner's most trusted assistant on The Spirit, however, was Jules Feiffer, later a renowned cartoonist, playwright and screenwriter in his own right. Eisner later said of their working methods "You should hear me and Jules Feiffer going at it in a room. 'No, you designed the splash page for this one, then you wrote the ending — I came up with the idea for the story, and you did it up to this point, then I did the next page and this sequence here and...' And I'll be swearing up and down that he wrote the ending on that one. We never agree".
So trusted were Eisner's assistants that Eisner allowed them to "ghost" The Spirit from the time that he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942 until his return to civilian life in 1945. The primary wartime artists were the uncredited Lou Fine and Jack Cole, with future Kid Colt, Outlaw artist Jack Keller drawing backgrounds. Ghost writers included Manly Wade Wellman and William Woolfolk. The wartime ghosted stories have been reprinted in DC Comics' hardcover collections The Spirit Archives Vols. 5 to 11 (2001–2003), spanning July 1942 - December 1944.
On Eisner's return from service and resumption of his role in the studio, he created the bulk of the Spirit stories on which his reputation was solidified. The post-war years also saw him attempt to launch the comic-strip/comic-book series Baseball, John Law, Kewpies, and Nubbin the Shoeshine Boy; none succeeded, but some material was recycled into The Spirit.
During his World War II military service, Eisner had introduced the use of comics for training personnel, in the publication Army Motors, for which he created the cautionary bumbling soldier Joe Dope, who illustrated various methods of preventive maintenance of various military equipment and weapons. In 1948, while continuing to do The Spirit and seeing television and other post-war trends eat at newspapers' readership base, he formed the American Visuals Corporation in order to produce instructional materials for the government, related agencies, and businesses. One of his longest-running jobs was PS, The Preventive Maintenance Monthly, a digest-sized magazine with comic-book elements that he started for the Army in 1951 and continued to work on until the 1970s with Klaus Nordling, Mike Ploog and other artists.
Some of his last work was the retelling in sequential art of novels and myths, including Moby-Dick. In 2002, at the age of 85, he published Sundiata, based on the part-historical, part-mythical stories of a West African king, "The Lion of Mali". Fagin the Jew is an account of the life of Dickens's character Fagin, in which Eisner tries to get past the stereotyped portrait of Fagin in Oliver Twist. His last graphic novel, The Plot, an account of the making of the anti-semitic hoax The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, was completed shortly before his death and published in 2005.
Eisner was survived by his wife, Ann Weingarten Eisner, and their son, John. In the introduction to the 2001 reissue of A Contract with God, Eisner revealed that the inspiration for the title story grew out of the 1969 death of his leukemia-stricken teenaged daughter, Alice, next to whom he is buried. Until then, only Eisner's closest friends were aware of his daughter's life and death.
He was inducted into the Academy of Comic Book Arts Hall of Fame in 1971, and the Jack Kirby Hall of Fame in 1987. The following year, the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards were established in his honor.
With Jack Kirby, Robert Crumb, Harvey Kurtzman, Gary Panter and Chris Ware, Eisner was among the artists honored in the exhibition "Masters of American Comics" at the Jewish Museum in New York City, New York, from Sept. 16, 2006 to Jan. 28, 2007.