Will Eisner

Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing gateways@theonion.com.

Geek obsession: Will Eisner

Why it’s daunting: The good thing about the past 30 years: Much has been done to advance the idea that comic books can be used to tell adult, literate stories just as much as any other medium, from novels and film on down. The bad thing about the past 30 years: People who defend comics as “not just mind-rotting kid stuff anymore” have a tendency to hyperbolize. Unfortunately, Will Eisner is one of the cartoonists most often cited by those defenders as the man who singlehandedly transformed comics into literature—which can make his work feel about as inviting as a textbook. The fact that Eisner is also famous for writing actual textbooks on cartooning doesn’t help. Once newcomers get past that, though, there’s another hurdle: Eisner’s body of work, which stretches from the 1930s to the 2000s, is massive, and it’s been reprinted numerous times in various formats over the decades. 

Possible gateway: The Contract With God Trilogy: Life On Dropsie Avenue

Why: Eisner worked with rising legends like Jack Kirby, Wally Wood, Bob Kane, and Jules Feiffer throughout the pre- and post-World War II era, but he left the industry in the ’50s to focus on commercial work. Fans of his past work came knocking in the ’70s, though, which eventually led to A Contract With God, Eisner’s first graphic novel, in 1978. His return to the industry was momentous: Not only did it help popularize the term “graphic novel,” it kicked off a loose trilogy of books that revolve around Dropsie Avenue, a fictionalized tenement neighborhood in the Bronx similar to the one in Eisner grew up in. Contract has since been combined with the subsequent Dropsie books, 1988’s A Life Force and 1995’s Dropsie Avenue, in a collection called The Contract With God Trilogy. While usually labeled graphic novels, only A Life Force is a single, sustained narrative; the other two are collections of short stories in comic-book form that detail the grit, joy, and tragedy of everyday city life—all told in Eisner’s fluid and groundbreaking graphic style, one that often turns panels inside-out and makes evocative use of texture and atmosphere. Some even dip into semi-autobiography—particularly Contract’s closer, “Cookalein,” a tale of sexual awakening that Eisner would later admit was based entirely on his own experiences as a teenager. A fourth book of Dropsie Avenue stories, Minor Miracles, was published by DC in 2000, but the collected Trilogy collection is the best way to get a full, concentrated taste of Eisner’s mature work.

Next steps: Fond, lingering memories of The Spirit prompted the comic-book world to call Eisner back into service in the ’70s. Syndicated as an eight-page insert in many newspapers across America between 1940 and 1952, the series shows just how adept Eisner is at tweaking tropes and elasticizing convention. In short, sharp bursts of storytelling prowess, Eisner used The Spirit to tell masked-detective stories—but he also explored many of the street-level themes and sympathies that would pop up in his graphic novels. And in Eisner’s own favorite Spirit tale, the oft-reprinted “The Story Of Gerhard Shnobble,” the artist even tinkers with magic realism, recounting the life of a hapless schlub who suppresses his ability to fly—only to have it return one day just in time to tragically intersect with a case The Spirit is working on. The Spirit has been reprinted in various forms since the ’60s, but always out of order and with omissions; skip everything and go straight for DC’s definitive The Spirit Archives. Eisner and his creative team—including Feiffer, who helped write many Spirit stories as Eisner’s protégé long before winning a Pulitzer—developed greatly throughout The Spirit’s run; with that in mind, the best Spirit Archives volume to start with isn’t #1, but #12, which covers Eisner’s return to the series after serving as a cartoonist for the Army during World War II.

As for Eisner’s mature period, the next place to turn is Contract Trilogy’s sister collection, Life, In Pictures. The book gathers two of Eisner’s greatest graphic novels, 1986’s The Dreamer and 1991’s To The Heart Of The Storm, as well as assorted shorter pieces. Unlike the Contract collection, Life, In Pictures consists entirely of Eisner’s autobiographical stories. Here, his Jewish background and personal travails become starkly, poignantly intensified—from Heart’s recollection of a young man on his way to camp after being drafted to The Dreamer’s account of Eisner’s navigation through the tumultuous comics industry of the early 20th century. Unlike so many of the autobiographical comics that have become popular in recent years, there’s nothing self-indulgent or myopic about Eisner’s. Written and drawn by a man in his 60s and 70s, Life, In Pictures zooms from mute intimacy to earth-shaking spectacle, seeking to place small, human stories in a broader historical context—as Eisner was clearly attempting to do with his memories of his own life. A special treat for comics fans is The Dreamer’s secret history of the industry; Eisner encodes his account by changing the names of the famed artists involved, which winds up leaving a trail of geek-culture Easter eggs that are a blast to hatch.

Where not to start: Before Eisner died in 2005, he’d managed to produce a catalog of graphic novels that covered everything from literary adaptations (Moby-Dick) to exposés of notorious anti-Semitic propaganda (The Plot: The Secret Story Of The Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion). While most are worth reading, there are a few of his books that might not sufficiently hook a newcomer. For instance, his sophomore graphic novel, Life On Another Planet (first published as Signal From Space) was first serialized in Kitchen Sink Press’ Spirit Magazine and Will Eisner Quarterly between 1978 and 1980—a process that Eisner admitted was undertaken without any real plot or plan. It shows. As further proof that Eisner didn’t take to science fiction well, the ill-conceived The Outer Space Spirit—bearing dazzling artwork by Wally Wood—annuls The Spirit’s noir-esque, grindstone appeal by sticking him in orbit in a bubble helmet. 

As for The Spirit: After various interpretations of the character (including a great take by Watchmen’s Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons in 1998’s The Spirit: New Adventures), the masked vigilante of Central City has been revived and injected into the DC Universe starting with Jeph Loeb’s and Darwyn Cooke’s Batman/The Spirit from 2007. Eisner, of course, had no hand in these iterations, although they’ve done a far better job at retaining the, well, spirit of The Spirit than Frank Miller’s atrocious, way-off-the-mark big-screen adaptation from 2008. Funnily enough, 1987’s nearly forgotten TV adaptation of The Spirit isn’t half bad—or maybe Miller’s film just makes it look that much better by comparison.

Filed Under: Books

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