Sunday 11 October 2009

Scouting around to make sure I'm up to date on the idea of 'the graphic novel,' the subject of a tv program I've been enlisted to appear on this week, I picked up a handful of books on Friday, items that have been on my shopping list for some time. I'll record some thoughts over the next few days. Firstly, Life in Pictures by Will Eisner. I have the larger part of this volume already, but I was mainly interested in getting a sense of how Eisner stood at the end of his career, with his books organized into three large compendiums. I've noted in a couple of places recently that the form has arrived at a stage where there is now enough material in existence for us to see this happening with those authors who have been practicing a long while (the Hernandez brothers also spring to mind, and my own big Alec set).

Eisner took all his 'graphic novels' from DC comics over to Norton Books in Dec 2004. I've always understood this to imply that he saw a significant difference between these and The Spirit 'comic books' that he was more than happy for DC to keep in their catalogue. He more or less thought of the two as separate media, and In fact he has made it clear on more than one occasion, as in this Publisher's Weekly article from Nov 28 2006.
He proposed that Norton purchase the rights to the Will Eisner library from DC Comics in 2004 while working with Norton executive editor Robert Weil on The Plot, while making it clear his groundbreaking comic The Spirit should remain at DC. In an interview with PW Comics Week, Weil stressed that Eisner "loved DC and had great relations with them to the end. What he did was separate The Spirit from his literary works—he wanted a separation of the two, to get his books into bookstores. He wanted his novels with a literary house."
In this excerpt from Mark Asquith's 2004 interview with Eisner, quoted, if memory serves, in the Eisner obituary issue of the Comics Journal in 2005, Eisner emphasizes that he considers it essentially the content that differentiates 'The graphic novel':
"The reason graphic novels have become recognized by the cultural elite, so to speak, is because at long last the content has finally arrived at a level that is attracting serious readers. Up until 1970 the content of comics, which are the forerunners of graphic novels, consisted of stories that were built on adventure, they were designed for entertainment. Comics are really emerging from a history of being a vehicle for jokes. The superheroes came along, and what they were providing were stories of pursuit and vengeance, which is mainly the main theme of most of the comic book stories. In order for comics to emerge from that area they had to change the content and address adults, which is why I started A Contract with God in 1978. I reasoned that the readers who had grown up on comic magazines or comic books were now thirty-five and forty years old, and would no longer be satisfied with the simplistic stories that were being told at that time. And so I thought, let's try to address them on a serious subject such as man's relationship to God."
Once they had secured the rights to the Eisner library in December 2004, Norton moved quickly to release the works. The hardcover A Contract with God Trilogy: Life on Dropsie Avenue, which collected A Contract with God, A Life Force and Dropsie Avenue, appeared in November 2005. In Oct 2006, the company published a hardcover compilation of four classic Eisner works under the title Will Eisner's New York, which includes the classic works Life in the Big City; New York, the Building, City People Notebook; and Invisible People. And in Oct 2007 there was the volume under discussion. Autobiography is made to be the connecting theme of this volume, which is stretching things a bit, and I'm having trouble imagining Will would have been happy with the label. Three of the five pieces certainly fit the bill, The Dreamer, To the Heart of the Storm, and a little four pager titled The Day I Became a Professional, which first appeared in an anthology titled Autobiographix.
In his introduction, editor Dennis Kitchen writes about how Eisner was tempted into a more personal vein after contact with the work of underground cartoonists Justin Green and Robert Crumb. Crumb's personal work can be best experienced in the huge Crumb Coffee Table Art Book that Kitchen Sink Press put out in the mid '90s. The personal and intimate were always rife in Crumb's sketchbooks, and in many short published works from the early '70s on through Weirdo magazine and beyond. Spiegelman too mined the autobigraphical vein, as you can see in his 1977 Breakdowns, recently republished, which reprints stuff from the mid-'70s Arcade magazine. Harvey Pekar made autobiography his single mode beginning in 1976. Malaysian Cartoonist Lat must be counted here too, his great works Kampung Boy ('78) and Town Boy ('81) recently released in American editions by First Second. Since then a great number of artists have given us a backward looking memoir in long-form comic strip, including Raymond Briggs, Alison Bechdel, Craig Thompson, Marjane Satrapi, Seth, Joe Matt, Chester Brown, Jeffrey Brown, or presented their ongoing daily observation of their life as has James Kochalka, and not to forget the exemplary work of Joe Sacco, who puts himself firmly in the panels of his journalistic accounts of dodgy places such as Bosnia. The three Eisner works certainly stand alongside these and others in justifying the personal statement as one of comics' most valuable contributions to the culture of our times.
The other two pieces in the current volume are A Sunset in Sunshine City (1985), a neatly constructed little drama in 28 pages about a man whose daughters persuade him to leave New York for Florida, and The Name of the Game (2001), a full length saga (176 pages) about the members of wealthy old-money Jewish families vying for social position. I find myself reading these two for the first time and they are both worthy contributions to Eisner's oeuvre, but the personal element in both is but a starting point. Eisner did move to Florida, and perhaps the background of his wife's family inspired the latter work, but beyond that, these are both in Eisner's other modes. The family dynasty model reminds us of Dropsie Avenue: the Neighbourhood, and Sunset is not unlike the shorter works in Contract With God or Invisble People.
A couple of points. Sex in these stories always seems to symbolize a descent of sorts, the sin that condemns a character, or the resignation that sets them on a fateful course. In Eisner, only the unresolved sexual frisson created by characters like Connie Rodd ever seem to leave with us with a cheerful feeling. In fact, oddly, Connie seems more like a person you could actually meet. The cynical element does not amount to a personal expression or world view, however. What Eisner is giving us in Name of the Game is another rendition of the kind of era-spanning family dynasty story that used to be the staple of the tv mini-series of the '70s/'80s, with its relentless air of tragedy. For this reason in particular, it sits uncomfortably with the genuine memoir of The Dreamer and To the Heart of the Storm, his reminiscences of his youth and early adulthood. It tends to emphasize a feeling of loss that Eisner never returned to the more personal account of these latter works. Seeing them next to each other in this volume invites us to see them as interlocking parts. The entire 48 pages of Dreamer fits into Heart just before its last 15 page segment, and together at around 250 pages they make up the larger part of the collection. The other thing that sticks with me is that the later drawn Name of the Game has overall a much lighter and more advanced quality to the drawings. The figure work is some of the best observed of Eisner's career, with none of the grotesqueries that lumbered through his early pages, even as late as The Super in A Contract with God, and he would have been 83 when Name was first published. I also notice that the greys have been added in photoshop and a certain dotting in the hatching, due to the resolution of the scanning. It may have been his first work reproduced this way, with the older pieces in the book probably scanned at a very high resolution specially for this collection (I welcome any observations).

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Blogger gmoke said...

I'd include _Barefoot Gen_ as an early example of more personal and realistic comix. And Maekawa Tsukasa's _Poverty Life Manual_ which, to my knowledge, has not been translated into English, although it may have appeared later in the game.

I think _Dropsie Avenue_ is a masterpiece and have given a number of copies away. It is especially good for architecture and urban planning students to read. The depth of characterization Eisner gets in a few panels is amazing. That the city itself is the main protagonist and done so well is astounding. A few have tried something similar in prose or poetry (WC Williams' _Paterson_, Charles Olson's _Maximus Poems_) but Eisner does it beautifully and dramatically.

11 October 2009 at 21:42:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Eddie Campbell said...

I agree re. Dropsie Avenue: I devoted part of a college talk once to the way windows allow visual access and walls cut it off, and doors do both. The whole page is architectural.

11 October 2009 at 21:48:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Eddie Campbell said...

the Japanese stuff too. more on the personal in my next post.

11 October 2009 at 21:49:00 GMT-5  
Blogger gmoke said...

It blows me away that this Internet thingie has allowed me to have a virtual conversation with you, an artist whose work I admire and respect. Never expected to experience this.

Reading you and Gaiman and Warren Ellis' blogs is an education. It's a real education because, ultimately, you are all people serious about your work and the history of the medium.

Thank you very much.

12 October 2009 at 22:46:00 GMT-5  

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