First of all, Eisner innovated the concept of the first page of the story being an attention-grabbing splash page that draws readers in. This was in part done out of necessity, for the Spirit was being published as a newspaper insert, coverless newsprint, so the first page of the story had to do double duty as the comic section's "cover" of sorts as well. But Eisner took it a step further, by constantly changing the logo on these splash pages, so that it was never the same thing twice. If you look at the first page of stories like "Life Below" from February of '48 or "Fox at Bay" from October of '49, you can see how he played with the logo in each story, modifying it and molding it into the story so that it's part of the image. Jack Cole's Plastic Man stories later followed suit, with some incredibly arresting first page splashes of its own (only natural, really, since Cole worked with Eisner for a time, even scripting and pencilling a few Spirit stories from late '43 to mid-'44 while Eisner was in WW2).
Eisner's layouts as well were innovative with his use of silent panels to punctuate action and his tendency towards portraying moments indirectly, showing us reaction shots rather than actions so as to engage the readers' imaginations more. And of course the Spirit comics had a unique format as well. In a time when comics were frequently reprinting strips out of newspapers, Eisner was taking comic adventures TO the papers, creating his book weekly as an syndicated insert to various papers across the country.
As for art styles, Eisner was drawing from noir and German expressionism to tell "two bottle of ink" stories like "Lorelai Rox," stories so much darker than traditional comic art as to be practically dripping in shadow. Meanwhile, Cole was breaking all the rules by combining a more cartoony or "bigfoot" style of art with the muscular anatomy found in typical superhero art. If you merely look at the contrast between Plastic Man and his sidekick Woozy Winks, you can see the dichotomy between the styles Cole was combining quite clearly.
Finally, Eisner refused to follow the restrictions of the medium of comics by using the Spirit to tell stories in multiple genres, not just superhero. He did several science-fiction stories (such as "Visitor" in Feb of '49), westerns ("The Feud" in March of 1946), and fairy tales. He twice used the Spirit to adapt famous pieces of literature, and he eventually began taking advantage of the opportunity every Halloween and Christmas to tell special tales in the spirit of the season. One of the earliest examples of Eisner bending genres came in October of 1941, when Eisner did a story called "The Oldest Man in the World." It featured a frame story of archaeologists 1000 years in the future finding a Spirit section and reading the story within, about an immortal man doing battle with the Spirit and apparently drowning in the sea in the end. They dismiss the story as rubbish but are then attacked by this same man.
This story actually also illustrates Eisner's innovative approach to art as well, as he colors the frame story differently from the "actual" Spirit section. It also serves as an example of how Eisner was constantly defying the conventions of storytelling, with its story-within-a-story which serves as a bit of metafiction (Spirit comics now suddenly exist within the world of the Spirit, calling into question what is real and what is fiction).
Eisner employed the technique of breaking the fourth wall quite often in his stories, occasionally creating characters which were thinly veiled satirical copies of his contemporaries (like Al Capp and Frederic Wertham) as well as inserting himself into the pages of the Spirit more than once.
He depicted himself in a splash page once... facing his drawing board with his back to the reader as he drew a Spirit splash page. Perhaps the most famous example of his insertion into the Spirit came on December 31st, 1950. In that week's edition of the Spirit, Eisner falls asleep at the drawing board and his assistant Jules Feiffer comes in, kills him, and creates a story featuring a character of his design posing as the Spirit. At the story's end, Eisner wakes up at the drawing board, having realized it was all a dream. However, having slept so long, the actual strip he was supposed to do for New Year's Eve would not be able to run (and in fact did then run as a part of the following week's paper).
Jack Cole had Plastic Man break the fourth wall many a time by literally turning to the reader and directly addressing them. In one adventure, Plastic Man is helping a spy protect his secret device that was aiding in the war effort, and in the end of the story Plastic Man asks what the machine does. Then he catches himself and realized it isn't safe, since there might be saboteurs reading the comic at that very moment. Cole also inserted himself into Plastic Man's adventures as well, in Police Comics 20 in July of 1943. In the story Woozy Winks needs someone to compile a sketch of a criminal, and he calls in Cole, who only agrees to set aside his work drawing Plastic Man in the comics because Woozy offers to pay him a dollar. Cole is self-deprecating to a fault, depicting himself in this story as slackjawed and speaking with a stutter for the purpose of making the incident even more humorous.
Finally, both creators broke from convention in their stories often by shifting the main character into the background. Several of Plastic Man's adventures were really about the misadventures of Woozy as he went about trying to solve crimes while Plas was occupied elsewhere. The Spirit also barely appeared in more than a few adventures bearing his name. The story "Two Lives" which I mentioned previously has him appear in the background of one or two panels only. "10 Minutes" in Sept. of '49 (a story that plays out in real time, by the by, a very innovative storytelling technique for comics to attempt) place the focus, instead of on the Spirit, on a young guy in a neighborhood who makes a bad decision and is forced to pay a terrible price. And of course, there is the story of Gerhard Shnobble, perhaps the most famous story Eisner ever created, which follows a man who can fly in his final hours, as he gets caught up in the fracas between the Spirit and some crooks that he is trying to apprehend.
I then concluded my presentation with the following:
Any one of these examples taken on its own might not be seen as especially inventive or groundbreaking. Eisner and Cole were not necessarily the originators of any of these techniques, but the fact that they used them in such volume and with such aplomb in their stories made them innovators. Their works especially stand out since they were working at a time when comics were still in their infancy as an artform. Both Cole and Eisner then could be seen as the progenitors of postmodernism in comics. These artists paved the way for the experimentation with form prevalent in indie comics of the '60s and '70s, and their creations acted as predecessors and precursors to the eventual acceptance of postmodernism into the mainstream seen in the modern era of comics.
And here, by the by, is my works cited page:
Barrier, Michael and Martin Williams, eds. A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics.
Benton, Mike. The Comic Book in
Brancatelli, Joe. “Jack Cole.” The World Encyclopedia of Comics. Ed. Maurice Horn.
- - - -. “Plastic
Cole, Jack. The Plastic Man Archives, vol. 1.
Cole, Jack. The Plastic Man Archives, vol. 2.
Couch, N. C. Christopher and Stephen Weiner. The Will Eisner Companion.
Daniels, Les. Comix: A History of Comics in
Eisner, Will. The Best of the Spirit.
- - - -. Comics and Sequential Art.
Feiffer, Jules. The Great Comic Book Heroes.
Goulart, Ron. The Comic Book Reader’s Companion.
- - - -. The Great Comic Book Artists.
Harvey, Robert C. The Art of the Comic Book: An Aesthetic History.
Spiegelman, Art and Chip Kidd. Jack Cole and Plastic
Thompson, Don. “The Rehabilitation of Eel O’Brien.” The Comic-Book Book. Eds. DonThompson and Dick Lupoff.
Thompson, Maggie. “Blue Suit, Blue Mask, Blue Gloves—And No Socks.” The Comic-Book Book. Eds. Don Thompson and Dick Lupoff.