December 31, 2008

GRAPHIC WITNESS:

Spirited Away: His masked hero has arrived on the big screen, but it’s Will Eisner’s slice-of-life comics that loom large (David L. Ulin, 12/31/08, Nextbook)

Yet if all this speaks to the influence of The Spirit—you can do almost anything in a seven-page comic, Eisner seems to be saying, a radical notion in the 1940s—I’ve long had the feeling that he continued to chafe at the conventions of the medium, that he couldn’t quite align his aspirations with what were, after all, irreconcilable restrictions: the need to resolve everything quickly and neatly; the crimefighter template, with its palette of cops and criminals, heroes and femmes fatales; the throwaway nature of comics in general, which even into the 1970s were regarded as a disposable form. It took a quarter century or so for him to come up with a solution: the long-form comic, or graphic novel, which Eisner helped innovate with his 1978 book A Contract with God.

Three decades later, it’s common to claim A Contract with God as the first graphic novel, but like all creation myths, this is not completely true. In the first place, the book is not really a novel, since it doesn’t tell a single story like the literary works Eisner aimed to emulate; it contains four long stories of Depression-era Jewish life. More to the point, as Eisner himself acknowledged in a preface to the 2005 omnibus The Contract of God Trilogy, he was less a pure innovator than part of a continuum, influenced by experimental graphic artists who in the 1930s “produced serious novels told in art without text.” These are the so-called woodcut novels, inspired by expressionism and printmaking and conceived as a response to silent film. It’s hard to call them comics, exactly, although you can see the work of certain comics artists (Eric Drooker; Peter Kuper; even, to an extent, Art Spiegelman) in them. Yet what their existence suggests is that, as Spiegelman puts it, long before A Contract with God, “the idea of a long comic book was in the air . . . There was conversation about it, and there was even an attempt to figure out what it might be.”

What, then, is Eisner’s real legacy, 30 years after A Contract with God? More than anything, it’s that he recognized the potential of the medium, seeing in comics not just disposable juvenile entertainment but a storytelling palette as rich as that of any narrative art. This is what The Spirit, at its best, has to offer, although it came to fruition only once Eisner shifted his focus—in A Contract with God, as well as the dozens of other graphic novels he produced, at the rate of nearly one a year—to the material he knew best: the urban immigrant world from which he had come.

Here, we have the landscape of A Contract with God: a tenement in a neighborhood of tenements, populated equally by the dissatisfied and the dreamers, by the betrayers and those who feel themselves betrayed. The title story revolves around Frimme Hersh, a Hasid who walks away from religion after the death of his daughter, which he deems a violation of the covenant between God and man. That’s an audacious way to start a book, especially a comic; it announces Eisner’s ambition in no uncertain terms. Comics, he wants us to understand, can take on the most elusive subjects: spirituality and religion, death, obligation, and all those messy questions about existence—about who and what we are.

At the same time, his characters have no choice but to play out their own small dramas, the minor-key struggles of the everyday.


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Posted by Orrin Judd at December 31, 2008 7:17 PM
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