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September 17, 2007

CR Review: Life, In Pictures


Creator: Will Eisner
Publishing Information: WW Norton, hard cover, 496 pages, October 2007, $29.95
Ordering Numbers: 039061078 (ISBN), 978039061079 (ISBN13)

I don't know that I understand Will Eisner, and I'm not sure I ever will. Eisner was an always-potent cartoonist with one acknowledged pulp masterpiece series (The Spirit) to his credit and a variety of ambitious works of varying lengths on his resume that, unlike the oeuvre of most artists regardless of form, all came in the third act of a long and fruitful life. It doesn't help matters that a lot of what I read about Eisner fails to match up to the Eisner I observed and the Eisner whose work I continue to experience first-hand. For example, in his introduction to Life, In Pictures, Scott McCloud talks of Eisner's being inspired by the work of younger cartoonists. This is a pretty standard line about Eisner. I'm sure it's true. I'm not certain it matters.

The problem is I've never been able to see a post-War cartoonist's influence in Eisner's work. Will Eisner's late-period comics settled onto the page with a certainty of style that seemed to care less if Bernie Krigstein ever put to pen to paper, let alone Spain Rodriguez or Mark Beyer. I'm sure Eisner must have appreciated much of what he saw in his extended return to cartooning, but, as little if any in the way of modern comics found its way through his brush and onto the page, I can't be certain any of it found a place near his creative heart. McCloud pretty much confirms Eisner's take on newer work when he talks about Eisner's decision not to let it all hang out like Crumb, or to consider a more detailed, expansive version of the work that became The Dreamer. When it came to others' comics, the explosion of expressiveness that came four and five decades after he literally first set up shop, Eisner seemed a happy witness more than a passionate convert, a man who appraised newer opportunities for artistic expression rather than gave himself over to them.

imageThe thing is, I'm fine with that Eisner, and I suspect most people are, too. Eisner was a world-class craftsman who made his way into the expanded horizons of the recent past carrying with him a well-worn set of tools, tools with which he felt supremely confident. He was in many senses an important artist whose career was interrupted rather than reborn, an older man confident in a way of doing things that stretched back in embrace towards old habits more than it reached a hand out for new ideas. For certain artists, fealty to a way of doing comics can be just as admirable as letting wave after wave of newer work wash across the part of you that makes things. This is perhaps more true in comics than most. At its best, comics has only a rough sense of its own past, and certainly didn't have much of an historical sense at all when Eisner set out on this last, great career change in the 1970s. I think he came to embody values of craft or storytelling that were in danger of being lost, and was a more powerful witness for having nothing in the way of editorial edict to thwart or bypass. Eisner could be Eisner.

And who didn't want more Eisner? If one can still read the works of John Dos Passos or enjoy the music of Cole Porter, Eisner's bruising cityscapes and grandly emotional actors should be afforded every opportunity to capture our present-day imagination. Playwrights like Saroyan and Albee and Miller have long fashioned careers where a small percentage of what they wrote shaped the zeitgeist, while the rest of their works wait on fair appraisal at that moment they become more timeless than they are of a time. So it will be with many of the cartooning greats, Eisner among them.

In Life, In Pictures, readers encounter a suite of autobiographically informed stories placed into context by supporting material from the aforementioned McCloud and Eisner's friend and agent Denis Kitchen. This is one in a series of omnibuses that Norton has been doing alongside its releases of individual Eisner books. The collections are similar to Fantagraphics' not-really-manga-sized repackaging of Love and Rockets in that they're a terrifically budget friendly way to snap up a lot of esteemed comics work in cost-effective fashion, and that they're being produced without much in the way of public reaction from fans and readers. In this book we get three major works, The Dreamer, To The Heart of the Storm, The Name of the Game, and two shorts: "The Day I Became a Professional" and "A Sunset in Sunshine City."

imageTwo of the five crackle on the page with more energy than they had in their earlier incarnations. To The Heart of the Storm puts in front of the reader a masked version of Eisner's childhood and the odyssey each of his parents experienced on their way to landing in their current, fretful life stations. Because it's framed as a young soldier's musing over life and destiny and grown-up accommodation, the nostalgia inherent to many of the scenes and the weighted testimony of certain character studies feels like an appropriate match to the agent of their telling. They're overly dramatic in exactly the way late teens can be, falsely nostalgic and full of maudlin rumination familiar to anyone who's heard a 19-year-old lament the loss of the good old days. Heart of the Storm also features many of the quirky details of life within pre-War Jewish communities of the kind that distinguished Contract With God's "Cookalein." Teens build a boat in a basement, a car acts as a social bond that transcends growing personal differences, simmering ethnic bigotries are played out in a complicated series of asides and declarations, a protagonist both worries about being exposed as a Jew in the course of traveling into some newer social circles and tries very hard not to invest his situation with the kind of drama that would make this inevitable discovery more painful than it will already be. Eisner even manages to balance sympathy and criticism in his portrayal of the previous generation, something that must have been difficult to accomplish given the grandness and sweep of his emotional through-lines.

Achieving the same kind of tonal victory is the tightly focused short "The Day I Became A Professional." Eisner restricts this story to a single experience, and doesn't try to use it as anything other than a very small window on certain outlooks. The cartoonist merely describes the specific experience as it occurred, leaving a lot in the readers' hands. By keeping on message, Eisner achieves a temporary balance between delving into too many specifics of what happened to Eisner on that day and being able to portray what happened as a kind of universal experience that all young artists face. He steps out of his own way and tells a smaller story for a change, less concerned with driving a certain message home by appeals to emotion. Both "Professional" and Heart, like everything in the volume, are powerfully and evocatively drawn, with sequences so richly grand they're laugh out loud funny but also affecting, emotions worn on a sleeve in a way that's almost confrontational, like Eisner hears the swing of an orchestral score that none of the rest of us can.

I don't remember a previous incarnation of "A Sunset in Sunshine City," so I can't compare what I thought about it then to now. Its story of a daughter and father reunited after escaping opportunists' entanglements is told through consistently overwrought drama, that intense sense of people walking into a room and digging right into it with someone that was a significant part of drama of all sorts in the middle 20th century: argument as both social contract and catharsis. "Sunset" has a surprisingly cynical edge and an odd, maybe even revealing twist on what constitutes a happy ending. The Dreamer, a high-profile work when it came out and a much-debated portrayal of the early days of comics, covers too much space with too broad a brush. While the annotations are useful, they don't enhance as much as graft information onto portrayals that are cursory at their heart. It reads rushed and oversimplified when compared to subsequent portrayals of the early comics industry in film and novels and over drinks in convention hotel bars, places where accretion of detail communicates something much more intimate than dramatic body-language and proclamation. The Dreamer feels like someone quickly relating another person's more complex and detailed story rather than a legitimate story in and of itself. It's a terrible choice for all the things Eisner did well.

The Name of the Game, which one learns in the supporting material is an exploration of aspects of Ann Eisner's family, unfolds like a more florid version of a John P. Marquand novel. We meet a set of convincing and broadly-portrayed characters, but everything they do feels like it's moving forward according to a standard checklist of family drama plot points rather than circumstances that grow out of the characters choices. I can imagine this story may be captivating for biographers and fans of comics history for what one might glean about Eisner's relationship to the women in his life before and after his long and happy marriage to Ann, or as a comparison piece to works of similar scope not based on this family. It's rough going for the rest of us. The weight of Eisner's scene work when confronted with the story's demands regarding narrative sweep and family dynamics recasts Eisner's presentational style into an uneasy mix of cursory detail and haphazard pace. It's hard not to want to see the emoting and gesturing as naturalistic representation given the looseness of Eisner's world here, at which point some of the scenes become hard to watch. At about three quarters of the way through, I lifted myself out of the story being told and started looking for factors that might inform my understanding of the cartoonist. It almost made me feel disrespectful.

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