Benefits of Reading Comics Part 2: Will Eisner – The father of the graphic novel

I know that the title of these articles is ‘The Benefits for reading Comics’ but on a side note, it is also worth mentioning someone who gave comics another level of relevance. I am talking about Will Eisner of course. In my Part 2 of this general discussion for reading comics I shall be examining the man who gave comics his life. He defined the format and even created a new attitude towards comics and graphic novels. His work influenced many other artists and he was by far one of the best storytellers in comics. Thought by most of the comics’ enthusiast to be the father of the graphic novel he gave comics an aura of literature. Eisner is the master of this medium and is considered by many to be the one man responsible for the excellent quality of comics we have today. He is an inspiration of many artists and writers that are working in the industry who most probably decided to work as comic book writers or artists because of his work.

Will Eisner was born on March 6, 1917 in Brooklyn, New York. He is recognized internationally as one of the giants in the field of sequential art, a term he conceived. Eisner, who as I have already explained is most famously remembered as the “father of the American graphic novel”, is notorious for popularizing the term graphic novel and experimenting with the form.

Eisner dedicated his seventy year career, from the dawn of the comic book to the introduction of the digital comics, experimenting and developing the graphic novel format as a medium for storytelling. He truly was the ‘Jules Verne of comics’ and the ‘Shakespeare of graphic novels’. He broke new ground in the development of visual narratives and the language of comics, creating a new style of storytelling within the medium. He is the creator of The Spirit, Lady Luck, Mr. Mystic, Uncle Sam, Blackhawk, Sheena and countless other characters.

There’s a reason that the most prestigious comics industry award, in the United States at least, is called the Eisner. Recognized as the ‘Oscars’ of the American comic book business, the Eisners are presented annually before a packed ballroom at Comi-Con International in San Diego, America’s largest comics’ convention. If we’re talking about comics as literature, surely Eisner deserves some recognition.

The years in which Will Eisner grew up were the most influential for the comics’ industry in general. Eisner read newspaper comic strips as a boy, which had by that time been a popular form of entertainment for some years. When Eisner began following the “funnies”, there was no such thing as a comic book. In fact many of what are now considered the classics of the golden age of comics, had not yet debuted. The term “comic book”, which would ultimately play such a momentous role in his life, had not yet been conceived.

The young Eisner avidly followed the work of artists like Popeye’s E.C. Segar, George Herriman, and Lyman Young, who did an adventure strip called Tim Tyler’s Luck. Eisner also savoured the work of the cartoonists who ran in the upper-crust periodicals such as The Saturday Evening Post and Collier‘s. Later, he would unsuccessfully try to break into those rarefied markets.

Eisner began reading comic strips during a time when they had tremendous popularity and a powerful grip on the public’s imagination. In those times a popular skit such as The Gumps by Sidney Smith or Little Orphan Annie by Harold Gray could bring immense wealth and fame to its creator, and newspaper publishers openly indulged in all manner of chicanery to attract top artists.

As a boy, Eisner’s appetite for reading was voracious, and some of it helped form the basis for the philosophy that would shape much of the work he would produce over his career. In one instance he is remembered saying,

“My first true literary influences were the stories by Horatio Alger; this was the first reading I did where I remember being aware of the story content and what was being said. Alger’s message was that you can rise above your circumstances and find success through your own diligence and hard work. And as a kid in the ghetto, that spoke directly to me. And the stories were about an average person triumphing against obstacles, and that’s a theme that I’ve returned to many times in my work. It was powerful stuff to me then. They still stick with me; they had a tremendous effect on me.”

One of his most famous creations, The Spirit, stands out mostly as groundbreaking in the way Eisner used the medium. What makes them stand out is that the style of storytelling is ahead of its time, and perhaps the reason it feels familiar is because so many comics artists since have been influenced by Eisner’s work. Nonetheless the dialogue seemed a bit corny and bland.

A Contract with God Trilogy

His genius is truly revealed in Eisner’s more literary works; his graphic novels set on Dropsie Avenue in the Bronx, ‘The Contract With God Trilogy’, which collects three of his books: ‘A Contract With God’, ‘A Life Force’, and ‘Dropsie Avenue: The Neighborhood’. This collection is a masterpiece, worth reading.

Seeking a more mature expression of the comics’ form, Eisner spent two years creating four short stories of “sequential art” that became ‘A Contract With God’, first published by Baronet Books in 1978. In this book, with its 1930s Bronx tenements and slice-of-life moral tales, Eisner returned to his roots and discovered new potential for the comics form; the graphic novel was born.

Jonathan H. Liu, Geekdad on wired.com, explains how Eisner doesn’t shy away from showing the seedier side of life on Dropsie Avenue. There are uplifting moments, but there’s also corruption, organized crime, murder, adultery and rape, and general unpleasantness.

‘A Contract With God’ is a collection of short stories, starting with the title story about Frimme Hersh, an older Jewish man who has just buried his daughter and is angry with God. He has a contract, written out on a little stone, from the time he was young, and he demands that God honours his side of the contract. From there he turns from his religion and becomes a wealthy landlord, eventually working his way around to a new contract.

Eisner reveals in the preface that the story was actually sparked by the death of his own daughter Alice, and this shook his faith and he was unable to discuss the loss. Eventually he wrote ‘A Contract With God’ but even then he didn’t talk about his personal connection to the story.
“The Street Singer” is about the singers who would come and sing in the alleys between tenements, hoping to coax a few coins from the residents of the building. “The Super” is a short story about the superintendent of a tenement, seen as the enemy by all the residents, and his encounter with a devious 10-year-old. The final story in the first book, “Cookalein”, is a bit longer and really showcases Eisner’s skill at juggling a host of different characters and storylines that intertwine with each other. “Cookalein” is the term for a summer resort on a farm where residents brought their own linens, cooked their own meals, did their own laundry. It was a way for farmers to make a little extra money by renting out rooms and vacationers to take a summer trip a little more cheaply. Various characters head out of town, each with their own motives and agendas: Sam sends his wife and kids away so he can rendezvous with his mistress; meanwhile, one of his sons is in turn seduced by an older woman at the Cookalein, before her husband shows up and catches them. Goldie goes off to find herself a rich husband and Benny’s hoping to marry a rich wife, both spending a lot to keep up appearances, setting up a series of mistaken assumptions that ends poorly. It’s a somewhat cynical story, but Eisner says it’s a “combination of invention and recall”, and “an honest account of his coming of age”.

The second book, ‘A Life Force’ is also a series of vignettes, but in this case they all tie with each other. The question that crops up throughout the book is the “why” of life: what is man’s purpose? What makes him any different from the cockroach, merely trying to stay alive? It’s once again centred on the tenement at 55 Dropsie Avenue and is set during the Great Depression, and a host of different stories are told. A lot of the stories involve the Jewish community, drawing from Eisner’s own background, but he also includes Italian immigrants who owe a debt to the Black Hand; students organizing communist demonstrations and union bosses with unsavoury tactics; a young bank employee who hits upon the idea to profit from bankruptcies; and the increasing difficulties Jews were facing in Nazi Germany, from the perspective of those in the U.S. Over the course of the book you really come to care about the characters and their circumstances.

Of the three books in the trilogy, Jonathan also reveals to us that ‘A Life Force’ is the book that the term “graphic novel” really seems to fit. The way everything is interconnected makes up a very strong story.

The last book, Dropsie Avenue: The Neighborhood, turns the environment itself into the main character of the book. In about 175 pages, Eisner takes Dropsie Avenue from its origins as an old Dutch farm to a small village to a block of tenements and on into a residential community of single-family homes. There are no chapter headings here. All of the stories simply follow one another without anything more than a page break. Some of the tales last ten or fifteen pages; some are only a page or two long, just enough to depict a scene or two before moving on. Throughout the story one thing remains constant: prejudices of the current residents against the new arrivals. First the Dutch bemoan the English who are moving in and building new farmhouses; then the English dread the arrival of the Irish, who are suspicious of the Germans. New times bring new troubles: bootleggers during Prohibition, brothels, drug dealers. Italians arrive, and then Jews, and Hispanics, and Blacks … and each time there’s an influx of newcomers there are those that complain about where the neighborhood is going and moving away. Eisner depicts corruption, but there are also those who fight for Dropsie Avenue, who believe that it can be a better place and work to improve the lives of its residents. Sometimes it was hard when a character showed up for just a page or two and then vanished, but there were a few characters who stick around longer and it’s fascinating to see what happens to them later in life, how attitudes change and how the character of the neighborhood develops over time.

‘The Contract With God Trilogy’ is a great place to start treating comics as literature. Eisner uses a mix of panel sizes, full-page illustrations; images that bleed into each other, even when compared to most modern comics, Eisner’s compositions are wonderfully varied and appealing. What’s more, they’re easy to read: you know which panel, which dialogue bubble comes next. It seems like that should be an obvious thing, but sometimes I still come across comics in which speech bubbles are organized poorly, or where a “creative” panel arrangement means that you can’t easily figure out the order in which they’re supposed to be read.

Eisner followed ‘A Contract With God’ with a series of graphic novels published by the alternative comics publisher Kitchen Sink Press. With subject matter ranging from semi-autobiographical (The Dreamer and To the Heart of the Storm), keen observations of modern life (The Building and Invisible People) and science fiction parable (Life on Another Planet) Eisner helped to break comics from the juvenile ghetto of superheroes and “funny books”.

Of course, if you’re creating comics, then another great book to read is ‘Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art, His demonstration of comics’principles and techniques’ . Scott McCloud’s ‘Understanding Comics’ is both inspired by and expands upon Eisner’s ideas, and Eisner’s analysis of comics is a great reference to have. For further reading, you can check out his two follow-up volumes: Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative and Expressive Anatomy for Comics and Narrative.

References

Duncan, R., & Smith, M. J. (2009). The power of comics: History, form and culture. United States of America: The Continuum International Publishing Group.
Fingeroth, D. (2008). The rough guide to graphic novels [ ] Rough Guides Limited.
Klock, G. (2002). How to read superhero comics and why Bloomsbury Academic.
Liu, J., Blum, M. & Denmead, K. (2013). Geek dad, raising geek generation 2.0. Retrieved, 2013, from http://www.wired.com/geekdad/
Maurice, H. (1999). In Maurice H. (Ed.), The world encyclopedia of comics Chelsea House.
McCloud , S. (1993). Understanding comics: The invisible art [ ] William Morrow Paperbacks.
Will Eisner Studios, I. (2013). The official online home of will eisner, the ‘father of the graphic novel’. Retrieved, 2013, from http://www.willeisner.com/
Wolk, D. (2007). Reading comics: How graphic novels work and what they mean Da Capo Press.

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