Will Eisner, inventor of the modern graphic novel, died on January 3rd, aged 87
1970s, Will Eisner was invited to speak at a comics convention in New York. Mr Eisner was then a man in a suit: the chief executive of the American Visual Corporation, based in Connecticut, which published pictorial instruction books for companies and government agencies. In a smoky corner of a crowded room at the convention, he was introduced to some long-haired young men from San Francisco.
The young men, talking ardently about politics, ideas and literature, turned out to be comic-strip artists with a strong counter-cultural bent. They knew Mr Eisner as the writer and illustrator of “The Spirit”, a comic strip that, during its heyday in the 1940s, reached 5m readers daily. “The Spirit”, a natty detective in a blue mask who saved Central City from criminals, had not been quite like other comic heroes. He was a superhero, but had no superpowers; he lacked gadgetry and ingenuity; he was an amateur; and the stories seemed focused, sometimes bleakly, on the dark lives of the villains he was chasing.
After that New York conversation, Mr Eisner had an epiphany; he sold the equity in his publishing company and returned to drawing comic strips. This time, however, he would not be working for a syndicate or for a newspaper audience. He intended to earn for comics the serious reputation he felt they had never been granted by the wider world of art.
The final product, “A Contract with God”, published in 1978, was closer to the writings of Bernard Malamud or Isaac Bashevis Singer than to any comic art that had preceded it. It consisted of four stories about the residents of a tenement house at 55 Dropsie Avenue in the Bronx (Mr Eisner, the son of Jewish immigrants, grew up in the 1930s in just such a tenement, with dark bare stairways and interlacing washing lines). Instead of heroes, it featured downtrodden, struggling New York Jews, “passengers in transit on a voyage of upward mobility”.Mr Eisner objected fiercely to the predictability of most comic strips—created by publishers for, as he put it, “15-year-old cretins from Kansas”. He wanted to modulate the action, let the plots wander, abjure the standard panel-format, and “talk about heartbreak”: in other words, to write and draw for adults. He called his new work a “graphic novel”, and insisted on publishing it with a trade house rather than a comic-strip specialist.
The characters and cityscape were often seen through a moody screen of falling rain—an effect the author used so much that it became known as “Eisner spritz”. The title story, of a man who tried to hold God to a contract, had echoes of both the Book of Job and, more distinctly, of the parables of the Talmud and Midrash. Few characters in the stories were admirable, none was clean-cut, but most evoked a twinge of sympathy. When an interviewer referred to his characters as “losers”, Mr Eisner objected: “They are not all ‘losers'. They are like all of us: unable to prevail against our arch-enemy—Life!”
This wry and melancholy attitude persisted through 21 more graphic novels (Mr Eisner's phrase caught on) and coloured those of many of his successors, too. Indeed, if francophone bandes dessinées usually tell vaguely colonialist stories of derring-do, and Japanese manga tend to focus somewhat creepily on sexualised children and surreal adventures, Americans, who are not generally known for their melancholy, use their graphic novels to tell sad stories. In 1992 Art Spiegelman (one of the long-hairs who talked Mr Eisner back to drawing) won a Pulitzer prize for his two-volume graphic novel, “Maus”, the story of his father's survival in Auschwitz.
The mark of Cain
Mr Eisner's first teenage comic strips were what most teenagers might produce: a buccaneer saga called “Hawks of the Seas”, and the six-inch-high “Doll Man”. This sort of pulp was churned out in various studio partnerships, including collaborations with Jack Kirby, who later devised “X-Men”, and Bob Kane, who would create “Batman”. Mr Eisner's career did not take off until “The Spirit”, and even that was interrupted for three years during the second world war, while warrant officer Eisner drew a character called “Joe Dope” to instruct soldiers in the use of their equipment. After that came his corporate career, until the conversation in New York.
Towards the end of his life Mr Eisner tackled anti-Semitism, a subject which had dogged him from his boyhood. He wrote a sympathetic biography of Fagin, and his last graphic novel, “The Plot” (to be published in May), was about the forging of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”. Mr Eisner saw that anti-Semitism was returning in the 21st century, and believed that comics were strong enough to be ammunition against it.
It constantly bothered him that art critics would not put him in the same category as “real” artists, such as Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning. Cartoonists, he complained, “have lived with the stigma, or the mark of Cain”, because their medium was regarded as inferior. “You are now seeing the beginning of a great maturity in this material,” he told a journalist in 2002. “And it will achieve acceptance.” His words implied, however, that there was still some way to go.