Will Eisner

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By Paul Karasik

Each year in late July at the largest comics convention in the world, the San Diego Con, the industry bestows awards for the best comics of the preceding year, the Eisner Awards. Like all Arts awards, the Eisners wrestle for resolution between the poles of Commerce and Art. The Eisner Awards could not possibly be more aptly named.

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Will Eisner (1917-2005) was a great cartoonist, but he was also a shrewd businessman with his finger on the throbbing erratic pulse of popular culture trying to predict, maneuver, and exploit the next trend given his very specific set of skills. He spent his life wrestling with those demanding twins, Art and Commerce.

In 1936 when he was 19 Eisner had his first professional work published in "WOW What A Magazine!", one of the first comic books to publish new work in the format we are familiar with today. As he put it in an interview in 1984, "Pulp magazines were dying and pulp publishers were looking for other popular publishing ventures, and so comics represented that opportunity."

Eisner himself never missed an opportunity. Overnight dozens of new comic book titles and publishers erupted to mine the bonanza begun by the 1938 publication of Superman in Action Comics. Simultaneously all these publishers were putting out beefy 52 page comic books. They needed stories and art and they needed them last week.

Eisner and his partner, Jerry Iger, formed a company to package the guts of comic books and sell them to various publishers based on a very simple and sound method perfected by Henry Ford: the assembly line. Each page in the bullpen studio was literally handed from writer, to penciler, to letterer, to inker, to colorist with Eisner gripping his non-repro blue pencil at the end of the conveyor belt.

"There again," Eisner continued, "it was a question of seizing the opportunity. There was a need and I attempted to supply it."

Eisner and Iger, made a small fortune in a short time but soon Eisner saw another opportunity in an offer to publish a Sunday newspaper insert comic book. He sold his share of the bullpen to Iger and for the next ten years, Eisner created the weekly stories of the barely-costumed crimefighter, The Spirit.

Each Spirit story is a tidy, crisp 8-page package of satisfying storytelling. Often Eisner was able to pull off the trick of creating tales that were all at once funny, sad, clever, revealing about the human capacity for greed and compassion...and fun to read! Week after week in The Spirit Eisner delivered the goods. He had to. Working under a deadline and with a group of sizzling assistants (including a young Jules Feiffer) fired-up by Eisner's perspicacity, the best Spirit stories crackle.

These Noir-ish picaresque tales have a jazzy sense of New York humor. Eisner drew it as he knew it. A main character in most of Eisner's work is the City itself, providing untold opportunities to run rivers of ink down garbage-strewn alleys creating deep perspective and threatening shadows.

Eisner was influenced by films he had seen in the 30's, He populates his stories with wise-cracking tough-as-nails guys'n'dolls concealing their hearts of gold or sludge within a rat-tat-tat mise en scene. His smart framing and vertigo-inducing point of view was also pure Warner Brothers. And my God, did the man like to draw rain.

One of the primary tasks of the cartoonist is to control the path of the reader's eye as it absorbs the comics page. A master can control the speed of the eyeball, plant hidden subcontexts and symbols through the zigs and zags of a given page until the cornea lands at the magic lower right-hand panel where (if the cartoonist has done his job) the mind is helplessly held under a vexing spell compelled to turn the page, turn the page, turn the page. At this Eisner was, indeed, a master.

In fact, in the first major U.S. comics exhibition (Hammer Museum, 2005) Eisner was chosen as one of the nine Masters of American Comics. Yet almost all of the works displayed were Spirit pages, work done before Eisner was 35.

Nothing else that he was to do in his long career had the lasting impact of The Spirit.

Eisner explained in a 1983 interview (in terms only a cartoonist would cite) that in his youth, "It was not uncommon for those of us who were doing comic books, when we went to a cocktail party, we'd say we did illustrations. ...If you said comic books, some nice lady would stand there and say, Oh, really? This is in very small letters in a large balloon, and then she'd say, How nice. Second pause. And go off somewhere else."

He carried that four-colored newsprint chip on his shoulder into old age. Eisner did not want to be remembered solely as the creator of the jaunty Spirit. For most of the 1950's through the 60's he held a contract with the U.S. Army to produce instructional comics for the digest-sized P.S. Magazine. If anyone could teach a G.I. how to care for his M16 it was this master of eye-ball control...plus, he could draw dames. Much later Eisner (again seizing the precise market moment) would write several "How To Cartoon" books. Opportunity knocks and there was Eisner.

Often touted as the first American "graphic novel", Eisner's book length "A Contract with God" 1978 (actually a group of thematically entwined short stories) led the way for longer non-genre based comics books that we see today. Knock-knock.

In the recently reprinted City Books (Norton, 2008) stories done late in his life, Eisner used all of his considerable storytelling might to create "mature" stories. The irony is that he had become reliant on outdated stock characters from the Warner Brothers lot, melodramatic situations and, well, irony.

Over and over again in the City Books cliched characters get trounced by predators and misfits, but most of all by Fate giving them a drubbing they often do not deserve. Eisner would love to have been dubbed the "Dreiser of Comics" but he should have been quite content to be the "Eisner of Comics".

Still, a cartoonist-in-training would do well to study these late pages. In his exodus from the lowbrow comic book ghetto, Eisner left behind those trademark straight-ruled panel borders that smack of "comics", forcing him to find alternative graphic methods to drag the readers' eyeball across the page. Windowsills, tunnels, doorframes, and smoke are all used to define spaces and frame action. The sheer inventiveness of the work on a page-by-page level is remarkable. Yet sometimes, due to the extreme shifts in layout from one page to the next, the reader may be unsure when turning a page if it is still the same story.

In interviews, Eisner often proselytized about the power of comics-as-literature. Unfortunately in trying to make comics-as-literature he failed (as he had succeeded at so brilliantly with The Spirit) at making comics-as-art.


This article first appeared in the Time of London, July 18th, 2008.

Paul Karasik's work has appeared in The New Yorker and Nickelodeon magazine. A former associate editor of Art Spiegelman's RAW, he is co-creator of the prize-winning graphic adaptation of Paul Auster's City of Glass. He is co-author of "The Ride Together," and edited the Eisner Award winning "I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets." As an educator he has taught Comics Narrative at The School of Visual Arts in New York City and The Rhode Island School of Design as well as the Scuola di Comics Internazionale

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This page contains a single entry by GaryC published on February 19, 2009 10:12 PM.

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