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Will Eisner:

The Grand Master Of Comic Book Art

"I hate the term ‘graphic novel’. Eisner should be ashamed of himself." Strong words from Jules Feiffer quoted in a recent Comics Journal. But Feiffer, a post-War assistant on Will Eisner’s The Spirit and acclaimed screenwriter and cartoonist, isn’t alone in loathing this snobbish alias for just a big book of comics. From Pulitzer Prize-winning Art Spiegelman of Maus fame to Chris Ware, awarded The Guardian’s First Novel Prize for Jimmy Corrigan in 2001, it’s hard to find any comics creator who really likes its artsy-fartsy literary pretensions.

To be fair, though, Eisner didn’t invent the term. That honour should go to Richard Kyle, American comics critic and champion, who coined ‘graphic story’ and then ‘graphic novel’ in a fanzine manifesto back in 1964, because he was dissatisfied with the limiting word ‘comics’, loaded with centuries of childish and humorous associations. Kyle also wanted to instil greater ambition in creators and publishers to elevate the medium.

It’s taken time, but now, nearly forty years later, the graphic novel has flourished and seems to be here to stay, shelved in your local comic shop, bookshop and library, taught in universities and entering the dictionaries - ‘a novel in comic-strip format’ (Oxford), ‘a novel in comic-book picture form, aimed mainly at adults’ (Chambers).

So much for definitions. The blunt truth is that plenty of graphic novels are not novels at all, nor novellas, but short stories at best, and wouldn’t engage many post-adolescent readers. Then there’s that unfortunate other meaning of ‘graphic’, as in shocking, explicit and ‘in your face’, which a good many are. Ironically, from starting as a ‘re-branding’ intended to make comics more diverse and respectable, the ‘graphic novel’ has become so narrowed down in everyday understanding to mainly superheroes and science fiction, that reviewers often use it as a slur to pan movies, musicals or books that are flashy and empty.

Still, we’re stuck with it and at least now, as I’ll be showing in this column, a body of substantial works is building up that can truly live up to those definitions. Eisner does deserve the credit for establishing the format in the States with his A Contract With God in 1976 and for dedicating nearly thirty years of his life, more than twice his stint on The Spirit seven-pagers, to expanding the form. While most of us would be relaxing by the pool in sunny Florida, Eisner, was driven to devote the remaining years of his life to the pursuit of "the literary level of which I believe this medium is capable." This is no retirement hobby, this is a lifelong mission.

Eisner had always envisaged the potential of comics, but his breakthrough came with A Contract With God, the book that redefined his approach to comics. Who would have expected that Eisner, in 1974 a successful self-made businessman approaching 50, would take several months off unpaid to take on such a personal challenge, with no assistants and for no publisher, flying solo and purely for himself? Old enough to be their father, he had been galvanised at a convention by meeting the younger generation of underground cartoonists, Robert Crumb and others, and by the example of their radical, rebellious comix with an ‘X’.

Eisner saw in them "writers and artists… defying the establishment with a powerful and accessible literary weapon: comics were employed for political protest, personal statements, social defiance and sexual expression." He wanted to join them, by returning his comics to his New York and Jewish roots and crafting a quartet of dark, moving fables, set in a Bronx tenement in the depths of the Depression, stripping his artwork down to its most emotive essentials.

Memory became a recurring motif and autobiography a focus of two standout works. In the 208-page To The Heart Of The Storm (1991) young Willie rides the troop train to his first army posting in 1942, as the journey sparks off flashbacks to the racial, religious and ethnic tensions of his parents’ lives, his upbringing and young adulthood, in a daring confrontation with prejudice.

The Dreamer (1986) goes back earlier, to Eisner’s breaks into the fledgling comic book business, from setting up his first packaging ‘shop’ to the offer of his own weekly comic section in the newspapers. The 46-page ‘graphic novella’ vividly evokes this heady period, with only the names changed to protect the innocent, and the guilty.

Eisner is currently enjoying a well-deserved renaissance thanks to DC Comics’ commitment to bring all nine of his graphic novels and three short-story collections back into print as The Will Eisner Library, identified by his Walt Disney-style brush signature (his looped ‘W’ and circle-dotted ‘i’s are exactly like Disney’s!). DC are also reprinting every Spirit story in quarterly colour hardbacks and most importantly publishing his brand new projects.

The Name Of The Game, published 2001, is a compelling generational saga spanning most of the twentieth century, about the shifting fortunes of an affluent old Jewish family in New York, who will sacrifice anything and anyone to protect their name and keep up appearances. The newly-arrived immigrants happily play the ‘game’ of advancement through opportunist marriage, often loveless and childless, anything to climb the social ladder. Eisner hooks you with his ironic twists and turns and doesn’t flinch from dissecting the damage such selfish status-seeking can cause. It’s another landmark work, available, at least for now, only as a sepia-printed 168-page hardback.

When I met Eisner in September 2001 at a cartoon festival in Columbus, Ohio, he told me he was already deeply involved in his next big story and anxious to get on with still more in the pipeline. He may have been ‘a grand old master’, but if anything, his passion for the graphic novel was more intense than ever.

Sadly, Will Eisner passed away on January 3rd, 2005 at the age of 87 following quadruple bypass heart surgery.  His last graphic novel, The Plot: The Secret Story Of The Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion was released shortly after his death.

Posted: October 16, 2005

The original version of this article appeared in 2002 in the pages of Comics International, the UK’s leading magazine about comics.


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A Contract With God

The Dreamer

To The Heart Of The Storm

The Name Of The Game