Will Eisner may never receive his just due as the man who made comic books grow up. After more than six decades of groundbreaking draftsmanship and storytelling, he's still unlikely to ever earn the Pulitzer Prize that Art Spiegelman garnered for his Holocaust parable "Maus," nor to win the mainstream accolades that greeted Frank Miller when his "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns" brought the maturation of the format to national attention.
Oh, Eisner is a revered figure within his own industry, all right: Its most prestigious award is named after him, and he's endlessly cited as a defining influence by every new generation of ink-stained dreamers. To aficionados, his appearance at this weekend's MegaCon '99 (his first Orlando convention in "seven or eight years," he estimates) amounts to an eagerly awaited audience with a pedigreed man of letters (and word balloons). But ask anyone outside the field to identify him or his significance, and you'll likely be met by a blank-eyed stare even Little Orphan Annie ;couldn't match.
That may not seem such a tragedy as you pass the "Humor/Science Fiction" section of your neighborhood B. Dalton, ruefully shaking your head at the softbound compilations of monthly superhero titles now being resold as "graphic novels" (a term Eisner himself coined, long before it became a publishing buzzword). It's no great loss, that is, until you realize that Eisner did it all first, did it all better and -- most miraculously of all -- is still doing it, turning out work at 81 that artists half his age would be proud to find resting on their drawing tables.
"I'm getting older, and time is getting very pressing to me," Eisner says of his recent offering "Family Matter," a paneled narrative that sees him wrestling with issues of mortality that lay far from the slam-bang output of the typical cartoonist. "I'm constantly in pursuit of new things. I get a little dismayed when I see trash produced by men who are very competent."
With "Family Matter," Eisner cements the transition from a scrivener of action epics to a relayer of loftier stories that has defined his tenure in the business. The new book is an unvarnished yet sympathetic portrait of a dysfunctional family that gathers to celebrate the birthday of its elderly, stroke-afflicted scion. Though unable to talk, the paralyzed father is still the character with whom we identify, as his inheritance-obsessed relatives bicker and scheme to shunt him off to an "affordable" nursing home. Along the way, the writer (for that is how Eisner refers to himself) touches on the subjects of assisted suicide, child abuse and the mysterious blood bond that is the familial tie. In other words, it ain't "The Katzenjammer Kids."
"Where I live in Florida, I became very aware of a social change," the resolute nonretiree states in an interview from his Broward County home. "We're going through a period now where the old family structure is beginning to disappear. It's changing the dynamic between children and parents. I'm aiming at people adult enough to know that, ultimately, they're going to face this issue."
Balancing the story's ripe insight is an unapologetically cartoonish visual style that, in vintage Eisner fashion, plays against the seriousness of the subject by finding added irony in exaggeration. Body movements are burlesqued, facial expressions attain silent-movie proportions of extremity, and lawyerly son Leo's pupils are all but invisible behind his thick glasses.
"I believe people remember things impressionistically," Eisner theorizes. "It's part of the language and the vocabulary of this medium. We think in caricature."
Not that he's spent too much time hewing to funny-book convention. Born in 1917 in New York City, Eisner abandoned his early dreams of becoming a stage designer to work in the embryonic medium of the comic magazine. But within a few years, he was already searching for an escape from its readily apparent limitations. He found it in 1940, when his adventure strip, "The Spirit," began to be circulated in the form of a seven-page color insert (a "drop-in ready-print," he calls it) nestled within the Sunday newspapers.
"At long last, I had an audience of adults," he remembers of the seminal crime serial, whose cop hero used the false news of his own demise as his only substantial weapon in the fight against evil. "I pretty much had my own way."
One of the genre's first distinctly noir protagonists, The Spirit was "not a superhero character," his creator assesses. "As far as I was concerned, he had the amorphous characteristics of a human character. The problem with writers dealing with superheroes is that they're characters that are one-dimensional."
So committed was Eisner to realism that he refused to even give the Spirit a proper costume, clothing him instead in an ordinary blue suit and hat, a domino face mask his lone concession to secret identity. It was in the layout of the feature, however, that the artist made his greatest waves, experimenting with the size and shape of panels for cinematic effect and re-imagining its splash-page logo on a weekly basis. One Sunday, the words "The Spirit" would be written in faux Arabic; the next, they'd be scrawled in the sand of a beach scene.
"I discovered I was on to something," he recalls. "I could use the logo to set the scene for the rest of the story. [But] I used to get a lot of flack from the syndicate. ‘Can't you have the same logo every week?' I'd say, ‘I'm not interested. That's not the agenda I'm pushing here.'"
The agenda was art, although no one used that term in the same sentence with the word "comic" back in those disposable times. Instead, it took a good 30 or so years for the vitality and vision of Eisner's work to come into its own, as a generation that had grown up on and soaked in his ideas began to incorporate them into its own creative endeavors.
"It would be hard for me to encapsulate his influence, because it's so completely sweeping," says Fiona Russell, curator and director of the Words and Pictures Museum of Fine Sequential Art in Northampton, Mass. "He's influenced numerous filmmakers and innumerable artists. The people who put together "The French Connection" referenced him when devising their chase scenes."
Not content to merely kindle others' artistic flames, Eisner single-handedly took his trade on its greatest conceptual flight in 1978, with the release of his jaw-dropping "A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories." An illustrated memoir in four parts, "A Contract with God" drew on his childhood in the Jewish slums of Manhattan to present a wise and shockingly adult view of a historical period that's to this day underrepresented -- not only in comics, but in an American mass media that's still coming to terms with the richness and diversity of the Judaic experience.
At the same time, Eisner created a new vehicle for his muse, one that others would ultimately exploit for far greater financial reward. Finding himself marketing a finished product to potential publishers for the first time in his career, he assiduously avoided the use of the term "comic book" in his pitches.
"I said, ‘It's a graphic novel,'" he chuckles. "I invented that pretty much out of desperation." And the response once the pages were delivered?
"‘This is a comic book!'" he roars in recollection. "‘I can't publish this!'"
Now, of course, the term is de rigeur for the straining-to-be-hip pseudo-mavericks who litter the profession. But how did it feel to watch "The Dark Knight Returns" and Alan Moore's "Watchmen" rake in all the credit for jump-starting the format nearly a decade later?
"I wanted to say, ‘Hey, fellas!'" Eisner laughs again, although he quickly tempers any impression of envy by offering the plaudit, "I'm delighted men of this quality are in the field. I think the standards have been raised."
The compliment is returned by David Mack, the 26-year-old writer and artist of "Kabuki" (published by Image Comics), who credits Eisner with broadening his awareness of what was possible on the printed page -- a lesson no less powerful for having been learned secondhand and decades after the fact.
"When I was 11 or 12, I read an interview with Frank Miller where Miller was talking about Will Eisner," Mack relates. "I went back and found as much Eisner stuff as I could. He definitely opened my eyes. What he did was chart a course through what was possible in sequential art. The picture was composed in such a way that it had an inherent border to it. If someone was looking through binoculars, the panel would become what was going on as seen through those binoculars. The first time I saw a sequence happening through the view of crosshairs was in Eisner."
Last year, the kudos were put into illustrated form, as "Watchmen's" Moore and a host of other modern scenarists essayed their own versions of The Spirit for a monthly tribute series issued (like "Family Matter") by Kitchen Sink Press.
"Some of them really astounded me," Eisner says of the new renditions. "But it showed me that they're writing to a different audience than I'd be writing to." That is, if he were to re-enter the hero field, which he says just isn't on the cards. Instead, he's intent on providing "something better to read than just two mutants trashing each other. I never wanted to go back. I've got these books to write."
In his spare time, he's become something of an ambassador for what he considers "kind of a despised art form." Eisner serves as chairman of the education committee at Boca Raton's International Museum of Cartoon Art, where he's working to form a learning center that will provide an interactive history of the medium while teaching younger children to read.
"He's a totally vibrant man whose work and work ethic are unparalleled," praises Abby Brennan Roeloffs, the museum's executive director. "He's been talking about education and cartoon art for a long time. He's a pioneer."
If this story were one of those one-dimensional, four-color tales Eisner claims to have outgrown, the happy ending would rest right here. But like his work, Eisner's life isn't so simple. Kitchen Sink went belly-up a few months ago, a victim of the latest of the periodic downturns Eisner has seen affect his industry a handful of times throughout its genesis. Taking his time in looking for a new publishing home, he says he's interested in hooking up with another independent firm but wary of making any rash, ill-considered moves.
Though we're a long way from the World War II paper drives that relegated so many documents of the "golden age of comics" to the scrap heap, the collapse of a smaller publisher still makes its titles instantly inaccessible to noncollectors -- the wide, unconverted audience that stands the most to gain by reading them. Locating copies of "Family Matter," "A Contract with God" and the other volumes in Kitchen Sink's Eisner library may soon amount to good Will hunting. Ironically, it's the same danger that threatened the folkloric stories of Jewish life in the New York of the 1930s before Eisner immortalized them on paper.
After years of toil and perseverance, it hardly seems the outcome of a legal agreement with the Lord.
"I think I've had a good deal up to now," Eisner optimistically reflects. "But God doesn't always live up to his contracts. So I'm trying to find a good lawyer."