After interviewing comics legend Will Eisner in 1995, Michael Chabon injected one of Eisner’s long-held convictions into Joe Kavalier, a protagonist of Chabon’s novel The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay. Eisner always believed that comic books are an overlooked, undervalued medium that can and should be used to tell stories as deep and rich as any literature. That view is widespread now, years after Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel, Maus, won the Pulitzer Prize (as did the comics-fixated Kavalier & Clay). But Eisner began his career during the Great Depression, when comics first gained a reputation as disposable, mind-rotting junk for the semiliterate. Though he was both a product and a producer of that era, Eisner went on to prove otherwise.
As its title implies, Michael Schumacher’s Will Eisner: A Dreamer’s Life In Comics seeks to illuminate Eisner’s lofty vision and heroic perseverance throughout his long, storied career in comics. The Dreamer, after all, is the name of one of Eisner’s own autobiographical works, a cartoon memoir that details his early days as a struggling artist. But when it comes to unlocking Eisner’s mind and soul, Schumacher has a big handicap: Eisner died in 2005 at age 87, before Schumacher could interview him for his biography. For the most part, Schumacher succeeds anyway: Via reminiscences from Eisner’s wife and various colleagues—including longtime publisher Denis Kitchen and former protégé Jules Feiffer (yet another Pulitzer winner)—he places Eisner’s life and work into a broader context of constant upheaval, within the industry and society at large.
Sadly, Schumacher’s book falls short in the dreamer department. Although his account of Eisner’s artistic triumphs—from his innovative, World War II-era newspaper insert, The Spirit, to his game-changing, breakthrough graphic novel, 1978’s A Contract With God—is vividly told, he winds up depicting Eisner as far more of a hard-nosed pragmatist than a starry-eyed idealist. Schumacher never fully explores Eisner’s biggest paradox: How could someone who openly professed such faith in comics as an art form have turned his back on comics for 20 years in order to produce faceless instructional pamphlets, and later, even as he was making his most mature work, scores of cheap novelty books? That’s exactly the kind of conflict between dreams and reality that Eisner relished tackling in his comics, yet Schumacher mostly glosses over it—that is, when he isn’t preemptively defensive about Eisner’s buck-chasing.
To his credit, Schumacher isn’t afraid to show Eisner as a man who guarded, even sculpted, his public image. For instance, he recounts how recently unearthed court documents prove Eisner perjured himself during a 1939 plagiarism trial to which he was a material witness—a lie that cast Eisner as a pawn and a man of principle rather than a knowing participant. Still, Schumacher hand-waves this incident away, even though it undermines the monument to Eisner he’s trying to build, from the book’s title on up. Still, these flaws don’t detract from Schumacher’s consummately researched, engagingly written account of the wholly sympathetic Eisner—a sensible, down-to-earth artist who did more for the advancement of comics than almost anyone. Unlike so many he inspired, Eisner never won the Pulitzer, which Schumacher rightly laments, and A Dreamer’s Life In Comics is a big step toward the full recognition of Eisner as a cultural fountainhead of the 20th century. But for a true peek at the dreams inside Eisner’s psyche, his work itself remains the best place to look.