Drawing and Inking Like Will Eisner

Images © Abrams ComicArts and Will Eisner Studios, Inc.

Some time ago I was asked by Charles Kochman of Abrams and Paul Levitz to provide a title and chapter headings for Paul’s upcoming book about Will Eisner. They were looking for work done in Eisner’s own style or styles, and as I’m an Eisner fan, I was happy to agree.

The project was to be a large art book with lots of Will Eisner art, handsomely produced like all Abrams products, and it was only when I started working on my small part of it that the realization hit me: I had to produce work that would stand up to all the brilliant Eisner art around it. In other words, I had to draw and ink like Will Eisner! Or at least close enough that my efforts would not stand out as sub-par. As Charlie Kochman, Abrams Art Director Chad Beckerman, Paul and I began to trade ideas about what was needed, I began to think I’d taken on more than I could handle. Yes, they wanted title lettering in Eisner’s styles, but more than that, in some places they wanted actual artwork to go with it. I’ve done some drawing, but have never been good at figures. I thought if I could avoid that, I might make it work.


The book’s title lettering  was the last thing I did on this project, but the first I’ll discuss here. For inspiration, I looked to the title page of Will’s landmark graphic novel, “A Contract With God,” above. I like the informal quality of the letters, and the way he left small openings or voids in it, not filling everything solid black, a style he developed later in his career. The letter forms are in a traditional serif style that mimics book type in some ways, except for the word GOD, but in others is unique to Will.


Here’s my rough layout for Paul’s title. Once that was approved, I did a much tighter version.


Chad had suggested he might want to use pencilled letters on the book cover and title page rather than inked ones, as he thought it would meld better with the the original art scan from “A Contract With God” that he planned to use there, and I think it does that well.


I also did an inked version in case they needed it, but I haven’t seen it used anywhere.


Moving on to the chapter headings, the first and last ones Paul provided both suggested a stage performance: “Overture” and “Curtain Call,” nice metaphors for the life of an artist at least sometimes in the public eye, I thought. I looked through the Eisner material I had on hand for theater references, and found this SPIRIT title page that I thought would work, or at least the rounded arch and curtain part.


Here are my pencils for the first chapter. In each case, I waited for approval from everyone before moving on to the inking stage. And that had me the most nervous. Will Eisner was a masterful inker, especially with a brush. I’ve never felt comfortable inking with a brush myself, and haven’t done much of it, but for this project I had to give it a go.


Since there would be two chapters using the arch, I inked that separately. I used my lettering pens, Faber-Castell TG-1 technical drawing pens, for the arch itself, along with a compass and straight edge, but the curtains really needed a brush. I cheated a bit here and there with my tech pens, but most of the curtain is inked with a brush in my best imitation of Eisner’s original SPIRIT page.


I then inked the title on a vellum overlay…


…and combined the two pieces digitally. Some fine tuning was needed to get the lettering to match all the curtain folds correctly. I lettered the final chapter and combined it the same way.


In the printed book, all the chapter headings are in a dark blue-gray that suggests fountain pen ink to me, and I’m quite happy with the way that looks.


Will rarely used the same style twice for THE SPIRIT’S own name on his title pages, but over time he did tend to drift toward this serif style. Figuring out a way to make RISING work was tough, I settled on block letters on separate pieces of paper being blown up in a breeze.


For the final I was asked to make it less wide, and I moved RISING below the rest. I don’t think it’s completely successful, but I did what I could with it.


For Chapter Three I thought of a book with the pages coming out of the middle. The tall letters are a bit hard to read in the pencils…


…so I tried to give them a little more air in the inks. The spirit art on the book cover is by Will, and what you see here is just a “position” copy, a better image was dropped in by Abrams on the printed version.


I can’t say what influenced this design, other than the fact that Will liked to use lots of variety in his titles. Is it a bit too much? Maybe.


I added a few shadows in the inks. The brush is rather odd, but I wasn’t about to attempt to draw a hand using it. In retrospect, I probably should have left it out.


While it doesn’t reference a particular Eisner title, I think most Eisner fans will recognize the kind of three dimensional letters and shadows that Will often used. It’s a very long word, so I saved some space by stacking the NN, something Will probably wouldn’t have done, but who knows?


This was an exercise in perspective that was fun to design and letter.


The title of Chapter Six was “Teach the World,” and this had me stumped for a long time. I searched for any reference to schools and teachers and finally found this school slate, giving me half my design, with globe art found online for the other half.


I was really getting into major drawing with this one, and it worried me. I did know I wanted to reverse the first half so it would look like chalk on the slate, but how to handle the shading on the globe?


Here’s the end result. It’s telling that the original for this one is about twice the size of the others, giving me a little more room for errors not to show when it was reduced. I’m not sure how I managed that curved shading on the globe. I think I used tech pens and a french curve.


For the last few chapters I was able to use some of Will’s own art and add lettering to it, much to my relief.


Here’s the original section from Eisner’s graphic novel “To The Heart Of The Storm”…


…and the lettering inked. It doesn’t show much here, but on these last chapters, I left small voids in the blacks to mimic Will’s later lettering style.


One letter to show what I mean.


Chapter Eight once again looked to “A Contract With God” for inspiration, and included a bit of art from it.


The printed version.


Chapter Nine was titled “Center Stage,” another theater reference. I found this image to use, again from “To The Heart Of The Storm.”


The inked version with the lettering reversed on the black background. I thought a circus poster style for the title worked here, a bit old-fashioned, but again going for variety.


And Chapter Ten brings it back to the beginning, now representing a falling curtain rather than a rising one.

This project was a stretch for me, but I enjoyed the challenge. And, fortunately, my work is mostly pretty small in the book, so it has less chance to add any jarring notes to the end result. The book is just out, and I’m looking forward to reading my copy and enjoying Paul’s writing performance.

Other articles on Comics Creation can be found on that page of my blog.

8 thoughts on “Drawing and Inking Like Will Eisner

  1. Dan Guy

    Wow! This job is a tall order, but I love what you’ve done. I look forward to checking out the finished book to see everything in context!

  2. Canek

    Todd, I’ve never seen you so insecure when you discuss your art here in your blog. I think all what you did for this book looks amazing, and in my humble opinion Will Eisner would’ve been incredibly honored by all your hard work.

  3. Jamie Hickson

    Thanks for sharing this, Todd.
    It’s always interesting to see your process, especially when you are emulating another artist’s style.
    I’m looking forward to finding a copy of this book.

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