Eisner books demonstrate enduring comic art genius

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

Will Eisner (1917-2005), creator of The Spirit, and properly described as “one of the greatest legends of 20th-century comic art,” can be said to be the sturdy bridge between the Golden and Silver Ages of comic books and comic strips, and the pioneering work of what are now called “graphic novels.”

Three new books just published by W.W. Norton & Company will provide fans of any generation with examples of a real “Genius at Work.” A splendid storyteller and a highly gifted illustrative artist, the Brooklyn-born Eisner is also among the most assertively Jewish great comic artists, and the three newly-published books — A Family Matter, Life on Another Planet and Minor Miracles, make that fact abundantly clear.

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With the publication of the latest three books, containing some of Eisner’s very best work, the Will Eisner Library from Norton is now complete at 21 titles. Sadly, Eisner died four years ago, stopping his brilliant pen from which so much quality work poured forth during his decades-long career.

And while Eisner may not be as much of a household name outside the comics industry as fellow Jewish artists Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (creators of Superman), Bob Kane (Batman) and Stan Mack (Spiderman), there can be no doubt as to his towering standing among his peers. Indeed, the top award for comic artists, equivalent to the Oscar, is called the “Eisner” in tribute to his staggering contributions to the field.

He began his long career as a packager of comic books for various publishers. He then created The Spirit as a groundbreaking weekly comic insert, which became a popular TV series and later a movie. Eisner’s bold style influenced numerous other cartoonists, including Frank Miller, who wrote and directed Dark Knight and the film based on The Spirit.

Crossing over into every form in comic work, Eisner in 1952 became a pioneer of educational comics, including P*S, a monthly technical manual using comics, which was published by the U.S. Army for over 20 years. He also created comic-based teaching material for schools. If all of these accomplishments were not enough, Eisner in 1978 wrote and drew the pioneering graphic novel, A Contract With God. He went on to create another 20 highly regarded graphic novels, all of which have been published by W.W. Norton.

Much of Eisner’s best work is based directly on his experiences of growing up Jewish in Brooklyn and other parts of New York City, and these sensibilities are in full display in each of the just-released books. A Family Matter ($15.95) brings together the family of a widowed father, whose family gathers to mark his 90th birthday. The dinner table, so prominent in the Hebrew Bible and throughout Jewish history as a place for the resolution of conflict and sometimes settling old scores serves as a complex battleground.

As is the case with most family reunions or major holiday gatherings, the birthday celebration becomes a forum for issues involving a pampered, rich wife, a clueless young mistress, an in-your-face older relative, an aggressive attorney and a father who has not “been there” for his family through the years. The nonagenarian is cast as a kind of Jewish King Lear, receiving competing arguments over his material worth instead of the fatherly love that he failed to earn.

Minor Miracles ($15.95) is perhaps the most moving and meaningful among Eisner’s recent works. Every neighborhood, from the University City Loop, Saul Bellow’s South Chicago, or Henry Roth’s Lower East Side has its share of bubbe meises, urban legends and tales of recent or long past events that have been altered by the imagination and embellishment of those who recall them. The “apocryphal” stories told to Eisner by his parents as he was growing up remained etched forever in his mind, and endowed him with “an abiding sense of wonder” over the chance miracles of ordinary daily life.

One can see how these stories directly influenced Eisner’s creative energies, to tell and illustrate stories with clarity and vividness, giving them the kind of “magic realism” of a Chagall painting from the days of the European shtetl.

In Minor Miracles a wedding ring unites a blind woman and a crippled man into a picture-perfect, idealized marriage. A homeless boy who suddenly appears on the streets sets off a flood of speculation as to where he came from, or who he might be: a long-ago kidnap victim who finally escapes after his captor dies? Is he the re-born son of a long-grieving mother? Is he some kind of supernatural being who has come to bring blessings into the bleak neighborhood? All of these possibilities are given equal weight in this poignant and strangely moving tale.

Eisner unleashes himself fully from the “surly bonds of earth” in Life on Another Planet ($17.95).

He imagines the Earth receiving a message from a far-distant planet, confirming intelligent life on other worlds. This action-filled novel was first published in 1995 by DC Comics, the granddaddy of the superhero genre, which gave us Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash and the Justice League. In the spirit of both Star Trek and Star Wars, as well as the original Cold War competition between the Soviet Union and the United States to conquer outer space, Eisner imagines the two superpowers competing to make contact with what comes to be called Planet Banard. The discovery of the planet also gives rise to a new cult which wants to be the first group of people to travel to and settle on the new world. Eisner manages to combine numerous themes in a single work, including military reality, cultic mysticism and strong storytelling.

Whether you grew up with a pile of comics in your room as a kid, only to have them fall victim to an overly neat Mom who gave them all away while you were away at camp, or whether you still secretly buy the latest Superman or Dark Knight edition, these three latest Will Eisner collections deserve an honored and treasure space on your shelf. They will provide countless hours of pleasure as you read and re-read them. That’s the beauty of comics — no matter how many times you read them, they can be enjoyed over and over again — and no one delivers that reality better than Will Eisner.