Her Father’s Daughter
Alice Eisner was born on October 21, 1953, and according to her mother Ann, “Alice was very much her father’s daughter. She had his temperament and compassion. Whenever she heard on TV that someone was starving, [I] had to send something” (Andelman 2005, 130). Despite Ann’s role as the disciplinarian, Will could not resist Alice’s charm. In one instance, Ann recalled an incident where she, “told Alice she didn’t need a new pair of boots, [and] Alice did what any determined teenage girl would do: she asked her father to take her shopping” (130).
When Alice was born, she entered the family as the little sister to big brother John. And even though the two children were only a year and a half apart in age, they’re personalities were as different as day from night. John was “popular, athletic, and brilliant” (130) and Alice was not. But whatever she may have lacked in popularity or athleticism, she certainly made up for it with her charm, compassion, and quick wit. For example, the family remembered one instance where:
“John, Alice, and Will watched a Saturday morning cartoon together.
“Daddy,” John said, “why aren’t you famous like (so-and-so)?”
Before he could answer, Alice spoke up, “Well,” she said, “he’s famous enough.” (130)
A Family Tree is Cut Down
In 1944, Eisner was drafted into the U.S. Army. Armed with his artistic skills and keen business sense, he “creat[ed] and manag[ed] a military-sponsored collection of comics about machinery upkeep and repair: PS Magazine” (Clark 2014, 13). This position meant a lot of travel for Will Eisner all around the world.
While Will might have been physically absent from the family’s home in New York, they were always on his mind. When he wasn’t working, he would write and draw letters individually to each of the family members.(Andelman 2005, 129).
On one of these occasions, Will was “stopping in Hawaii on the way back from Seoul” (129), he wrote the following letter to Alice who was concerned about the family’s willow tree being chopped down in the backyard:
You wrote a very, very fine letter… I’m sure the willow tree will grow back as it did once before when you were very little. I miss you and mommy and Johnny.
Your daddy-o” (Andelman 2005, 129)
Sometime after this letter home about the willow tree was sent, Will returned home to be with his wife and children. But things would begin changing in the last of the 1960’s when Alice began to act differently than she had when she was younger. It was during that period where Will and Ann remembered one night when Alice came to their bedroom asking, “Can I get into bed with you and Mom? My bones hurt” (131).
Something wasn’t right and Alice’s health did not improve. The family grew concerned there was something much more serious going on than just the seasonal cold or flu. That’s when Ann decided to take Alice to the doctor and have her daughter undergo a series of tests to figure out the cause of Alice’s declining health. Unfortunately, when the results came back, “The diagnosis was leukemia” (131).
Childhood Leukemia in 1960
A leukemia diagnosis today in the United States is not the same as it was in the mid-twentieth century. In a study that examined children under the age of 15 with leukemia, from 2006-2012, the five-year survival rate was 92.3%. But in 1960, the five-year survival rate was just 14% (The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, 2015).
Malcolm Gladwell wrote about what a leukemia diagnosis meant to families in the 1950s and 60’s in his book, David and Goliath. He explained:
“Childhood leukemia was then one of the most terrifying of all cancers. It struck without warning. A child as young as one or two would come down with a fever. The fever would persist. Then came a violent headache that would not let up, followed by infections, one after another, as the child’s body lost its ability to defend itself. Then came the bleeding” (98).
When children with leukemia begin bleeding, it signaled the later stages of leukemia. Gladwell provided details on the horrible cycle children would experience in his book as well. He wrote: “The children would bleed internally, into their livers and spleens, putting them in extraordinary pain. They would turn over in their beds and get terrible bruises. Even a nosebleed was a potentially fatal event. You’d squeeze the child’s nose and put ice on it. That wouldn’t work. You’d pack gauze into the child’s nostrils. That wouldn’t work. You’d call in an ear, nose, and throat specialist who would go in through the mouth and pack the nasal passage from behind with gauze—which then had to be pulled forward into the nose. The idea was to apply pressure on the blood vessels from inside the nasal cavity. You can imagine how painful that was for the child. Plus, it rarely worked, so you’d take out the gauze—and the bleeding would start all over again…When they came to the hospital, ninety percent of the kids would be dead in six weeks” (98).
Alice Celebrates Her Last Birthday
After seeing the options that were available for Alice, “Will made the decision that she was not to know; he insisted that the doctor only tell her that she was anemic. The rest of the family abided by his decision” (Andelman 2005, 131). During the last year with her family, and even when she celebrated her last birthday, she “never knew what was wrong with her” (131).
Alice’s parents dealt with Ann’s illness in their own ways. “Ann gave up work and everything else to care for Alice over the next eighteen months” (Andelman 2005, 131). In an interview with her, Ann said, “I lived with her at Mt. Sinai Hospital. I insisted on a cot there. I would go home when friends came in to relieve me briefly, change my clothes, and go back” (131).
“Will, on the other hand, buried himself in his work for the Army” (131). He explained in an interview, “I used to go upstairs where I had a studio, and I would sit there until three in the morning when I couldn’t sleep, sometimes four, sometimes all night, and just draw, draw figures… It was the only way I could just keep going” (289).
On April 28th, Ann’s birthday, Will went to the hospital to visit Alice. He remembers her scolding him that morning and saying, “Daddy, buy Mom a present for her birthday. Don’t forget! You always forget things! Buy Mom a present” (131).
I imagine Will chuckling at his daughter’s instructions, since that would have been my own reaction if one of my daughters had said this to me. But I also think he was moved by how thoughtful his young daughter had become. What no one knew that day was that April 28th, on her mother’s birthday, Alice would succumb to complications from her leukemia and pass away later that day. Even on the last day of her life, she exuded all the empathy, compassion, and kindness within her, and she was just sixteen.
The Next Five Years
I don’t know how I would have dealt with this tragedy if I had experienced it in my own life and I hope I never need to find out. But if tragedy struck my family, my hope would be to overcome my grief with the strength that Will Eisner had to overcome his own.
Initially, Will was in a grieving state of denial about the situation. Ann has said that after Alice passed away, Will “immediately went back to work. No downtime, no time to mourn; he wouldn’t have known what to do with himself” (289).
The family was wrought with grief and Will remembers Ann confessing to him that she just wanted to die. But Will wouldn’t have it and told her sternly, “No, we are not going to die, we are going to live through this” (289). They did live through it and they did so in their own ways.
In August of 1970, “Ann became director of volunteers for New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center, Westchester Division… She enjoyed the work and stayed there until they moved to Florida permanently in 1983. In a lot of ways, the work was her salvation, a place to go each day and find people that needed her skills, humanity, and good humor” (132).
Will dove into his work and his art became his savior. Eventually, he came to a point where he was toying new idea for the comic book art form. He imagined doing, “a lengthy, cohesive work exploring themes and topics that might appeal to older readers—perhaps readers in their thirties, forties, or maybe even older than that” (Schumacher 2011, 196). Ann loved the idea and Will decided, “If I don’t do it now, I ain’t ever going to do it” (196).
A Contract with God and Alice
It was in the latter half of the 1970s when Will came upon a subject matter worthy of the seriousness and length of the new art form he wanted to work on.
He explained in an interview that, “A Contract with God [was] essentially a result of Alice’s death. I was a very angry man when she died. I was enraged. She died in the flower of her youth, sixteen years old. There were heart-wrenching moments to watch this poor little girl die. The material I chose was all emotional it was from my life” (Andelman 2005, 289).
“Alice’s death had embittered [Will], but it had also deepened some of his reflections on the idea of a personal God. If such an all-powerful, all-knowing being existed, where was He when Alice became ill? Why had He let her suffer and die when she was so young? Religious leaders had preached that the virtuous were rewarded, that they had a contract with God that promised good things to those living an honorable life. Yes, human beings violated the contract from time to time—they were human, after all—but an omnipotent God had to be held to a higher standard. Alice’s death had been a violation of a contract, a type of betrayal for which there could be no answer” (Schumacher 2011, 196).
His decision to tackle his daughter’s death was an act of defiance against meaningless suffering and a step towards finding purpose and making peace with his loss. In a way, the publication of A Contract with God was a contract he made with his daughter—that her death would not be meaningless; instead, it would become the catalyst for the creation of the modern day graphic novel.
So when you go to a bookstore and there’s a “graphic novel” section, you can thank Will Eisner for that. He was the one that pushed graphic novels into bookstores and made sure it was marketed as a serious book for adult readers. It was his first long-form work that raised the bar significantly for sequential storytelling and with each of his new works, he would continue to raise the bar higher and higher.
This year, A Contract with God celebrates its 40th anniversary in publication since its first paperback printing back in 1978. The book continues to be successful and continues to resonate with its readers around the world.
Why did I write this?
I’ve been a fan of Will Eisner’s work for a while now and I’ve spent countless hours studying his work as a writer and as an artist. In all my research, I could not find an instance where someone was able to tell the story of Alice Eisner and how she became the inspiration for one of the most pivotal art forms to come out of the twentieth century. March 1-7 is “Will Eisner Week” and this year, I wanted to pay my respects to two people I’ve never known personally, but have inspired and encouraged me in times when I am at my most distraught and hopeless.
Will and Alice lived lives with a conviction to be kind to others and show compassion to all. In closing, I’d like to quote the American Poet Lydia Sigourney who wrote:
“To those who mourn, may this, my little [essay], come with such a friendship, loving them better because they have wept—pointing through the shade of the willow boughs where their harp is hung, to the ‘clear shining of the sunt of righteousness,’ and breathing a prayer that this ‘light affliction, which is but for a moment, may work out a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.'” (Page vi)
So if you are grieving and find yourself living with worry that you will never be whole again after the loss you’ve suffered in your own life—I tell you this in earnest, as Will Eisner told Alice, “I’m sure the willow tree will grow back as it did once before when you were very little.”
Andelman, Bob. Will Eisner: A Spirited Life. Milwaukie: M Press, 2005.
Clark, Graham. 2014. “Eisner’s War: What the U.S. Military’s WWII Informational Comics Reveal about Politics and Audience Engagement.” Order No. 1568201, University of Southern California.
Gladwell, Malcolm. David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. New York: Back Bay Books / Little, Brown and Company, 2015.
Kane, Joseph Nathan, Steven Anzovin, and Janet Podell. Famous First Facts: A Record of First Happenings, Discoveries, and Inventions in American History. New York: H.W. Wilson, 1997.
Roth, Laurence. 2007. “Drawing Contracts: Will Eisner’s Legacy.” The Jewish Quarterly Review 97 (3): 463-485.
Royal, Derek Parker. 2011. “Sequential Sketches of Ethnic Identity: Will Eisner’s A Contract with God as Graphic Cycle.” College Literature 38 (3): 150-VII.
Schumacher, Michael. Will Eisner: A Dreamer’s Life in Comics. New York: Bloomsbury, 2011.
Sigourney, L. H. (Lydia Howard). The Weeping Willow. Hartford: H. S. Parsons, 1847.
Skinner, Charles M. Myths and Legends of Flowers, Trees, Fruits, and Plants. J.B. Lippincott Company, 1911.
The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. 2015. “Facts and Statistics.” The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. March 3. https://www.lls.org/facts-and-statistics/facts-and-statistics-overview.