Every Picture Tells A Story
His Pen and Wit Sharper Than Ever, Graphic Novelist Will Eisner Takes On Religious Intolerance
By Paul E. Fitzgerald
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, June 3, 2004; Page C01
Since his Depression-era days in New York's boiler-room comic strip factories, Will Eisner has pushed the limits of art as storytelling device.
He's best known as the trailblazing "grandfather" of the graphic novel, an increasingly popular genre that Eisner says "gives literary creativity the kind of boundless, anarchic freedom enjoyed by musicians in jazz."
Now, late in his ninth decade -- he turned 87 on March 6 -- Eisner has startled his fans and rattled his friends by kicking the sides out of any boxes people try to cram him and his ideas into.
He is surprised anybody should be surprised.
There is nothing geezerish or quixotic about him (although he did publish a sympathetic graphic adaptation of "Don Quixote" four years ago). He gave up tennis only recently because of an uncooperative shoulder, and he is nimble, both on his feet and with his sharp wit.
Denis Kitchen, an icon of the early-'70s San Francisco underground comics movement, says that "at 87 Will still draws twice as fast as artists a quarter his age, and better to boot."
The old-fashioned word "dapper" fits Eisner. When he bustles into his Florida studio in Tamarac, well-barbered, in a fitted shirt, pressed slacks and highly polished shoes, it is apparent that he is as meticulous with his person as he is with his art. He says he is "fired up and ready to do battle" against whatever foes he sets his sights on.
Last year, for example, he applied the lash to Charles Dickens. In "Fagin the Jew," published by Doubleday, Eisner skewered the grand old man of English literature for his character Fagin in the classic novel "Oliver Twist." In Eisner's counterattack, Fagin, who is in prison awaiting the hangman, confronts Dickens and demands a recasting of his character without the stereotyping and prejudice that Fagin feels is present in the original: "Tarry a bit, Mister Dickens, while Ol' Fagin here tells you, sir, what I really was and how it all came to be!!"
Most aspects of Dickens's characterization are challenged, including the portrayal of Fagin's physical appearance. In the end, Fagin tells Dickens: "A Jew is not Fagin, any more than a Gentile is Sikes!" Sikes, another character in "Oliver Twist," appears to be a rather Celtic villain, as sketched by Eisner.
Unraveling a Hoax
Eisner's current work-in-progress is another assault on prejudice.
He says "The Plot," scheduled for publication by Norton next year, unravels "the twisted threads behind the Russian anti-Semitic forgery that has come to be known as 'The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.' " Recently released Russian documents provide additional validation of his basic premise, Eisner says. He feels a sense of urgency because "fanatic Islamic elements are reviving this long-discredited and fraudulent document today and are giving it wide circulation to fan anti-Jewish hatred."
The trail of "The Protocols" is so long and convoluted that Eisner felt obliged to do a good deal more research than usual, enlisting two scholars in his digging.
Eisner says his treatment of "The Plot" is a "dramatization, with some inventiveness based on probability." The characters tell a tale that begins in 1864 with a French political satire published by Maurice Joly and titled "Dialogue in Hell," describing a discussion between Niccolo Machiavelli, the coldblooded Italian political theorist, and the French philosopher Montesquieu about a plan for world domination by Napoleon III. Eisner says research establishes that in 1903 Mathieu Golovinski, a propagandist and operative for the Russian czar's secret police, copied, word for word, extensive segments of Joly's satire, changing it only slightly to reflect a Masonic-Jewish plot. "It was then given wide circulation in Russia in an effort to discredit a growing movement for social reforms in which many of the leaders were Jews," Eisner says.
"A series of articles in the Times of London in 1921 fully established this background," Eisner says, "but the fake 'Protocols' continue to circle the globe. The nature and availability of the Internet has provided new vigor and speed, plus lending a seeming aura of authenticity to this historic fraud."
"The Plot" will be about 100 pages and will include side-by-side display of passages from Joly's manuscript and that of "The Protocols." The book's text and balloons are written, and final lettering remains to be done on about 20 pages. When asked what inspired him to become a one-man anti-defamation task force, Eisner laughs and shrugs it away: "I had to reinvent myself."
He immediately acknowledges that the line belonged to cartoonist Jules Feiffer (who got his start in Eisner's shop in 1946). Not surprisingly, the same verb was used by Scott McCloud, cartoonist and author of "Understanding Comics" and "Reinventing Comics," in discussing Eisner:
"He regularly reinvents himself. Just when we start to think we've seen every thing he has in his bag of tricks, he pulls out something new."
Reflecting his many aspects, Eisner has been called The (fill in the blank) of Comics: "Orson Welles," by McCloud; "Brains," by Alan Moore; "Leonardo," by Civilization magazine; "Eisenstein," by the Forward; and "Elder Statesman" by a legion. There is general agreement that he is the grandfather of the graphic novel.
Michael Chabon, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay," has acknowledged that he endowed his Kavalier character with many facets of Eisner's persona.
Neil Gaiman, author of "American Gods," says that Eisner's "continued vitality as an artist defies logic, sense, time and history -- and the young graphic novelists of today."
Thinking Outside the Balloon
Eisner calls what he does "sequential art" and defines it as "a language built on an arrangement of images and text in an intelligent sequence to tell a story, teach a process, or explain an idea." He considers an art-to-text percentage-ratio of 50-50 or higher to be the basic qualifier for applying the graphic novel appellation. Despite a lifetime of constantly sharpening his weapons and revising his tactics, Eisner has marched a rather straight line toward his goal: seeing just what sequential art can do.
He has preached that it is capable of "a mental transmission greater than words alone, not only to entertain, but to educate and inform."
He has turned his stories and drawings into comics, polemics and literature. In uniform during World War II, he even drew cartoons for "Army Motors," an innovative and popular experiment in using the comic book format to teach soldiers about vehicle maintenance.
Eisner's truly seminal period began with the 1940 introduction of "The Spirit." Denny Colt as the Spirit, returned from the dead, was funny, spooky and totally nonconformist. Eisner refused to consider any superhero nonsense. The only costume oddities he would allow, in a brief bow to editorial intrusion, were a mask and gloves. Add to that a fedora.
The physical product itself was an act of departure from newspaper standards and production requirements of the time. Up to that point, comics consisted of neat, rectangular panels, orderly arranged in rigid grids. Eisner set out to break the rules. He would spread an arbitrary number of panels, often as few as two or three, sometimes only a single masterful piece of art, across an entire page. The shape of the panels might be anything but rectangular: circular, elliptical, rhomboid, even ragged splatters. He used other tricks to convey mood, pace and timing, and to bring to the comics form improvisation, rhythm, syncopation and tempo, all qualities usually associated with poetry and music.
The Will Eisner art style was beyond nonconformity. Descriptions have included dark, film noir, hard-boiled, bleak and stark. Light, single-source and glaring, struggles to push back pools of solid black shadows. Exaggerated perspectives and details piled on top of details bring an additional dimension to the flat page. Form frequently is carried more by shadow than by line, and intricate backgrounds often include hints of whimsy. Varying the styles of lettering and even the weather establish mood. Rain was (and remains) a favorite. Reflected in a dark alley, drenching a couple huddled in a doorway, even bearing a torrential message from God, rain is such an Eisner favorite in conveying mood that it came to be known as "Eisner spritz."
His use in "Fagin" of the same sepia ink he picked for his first graphic novel a quarter-century earlier reflects his attention to mood and effect. He explains his intent was to produce "a warm and antique look, conducive to internalization and intimacy with the reader."
Eisner says his significant early influences were the efforts toward picture stories by early 20th-century woodcut illustrators Otto Nuckel of Germany, Frans Masereel of Belgium and Lynd Ward, an American.
One might be inclined to surmise that Eisner's inclination to solid black masses and heavy shadowing derives from natural tendencies often associated with woodcuts, but that is not the case. It is, he says, because "cityscapes are vertical as opposed to the horizontal views you have in an open, rural setting. In the city, you're either at the bottom of a canyon looking up to the light, or looking down at the dark from above."
Eisner's second clearly discernible period was on the horizon when he returned from Army service in late 1945. He had been away from "The Spirit" for four years, and the interregnum had taken a toll.
Simultaneously, newspaper industry economics and production considerations were in a state of flux. By 1952 he had decided that it was time to return "The Spirit" to Wildwood Cemetery.
Then, almost concurrent with the reburial of Denny Colt and with military conflict continuing in Korea, the Army contracted with Eisner to help create PS Magazine, an expanded, profusely illustrated maintenance publication that continues today.
Eisner also provided similar services for a growing list of commercial and industrial clients, but something was missing. Most of the building blocks for his educational products consisted of technical facts and promotional information provided by his clients. His creativity was only marginally challenged.
After 20 years of that, it was time for another Eisnerian makeover.
"I plunged into the development of the graphic novel in the early '70s as a result of two significant events," Eisner says. "I was a 'suit,' the CEO of a publishing company in Connecticut, and Phil Seuling invited me to speak at a comics convention in New York. While I was down there, in a smoky corner of a very crowded room, I was introduced to a group of guys with long hair and bemused expressions from the San Francisco underground comics movement.
"Art Spiegelman, Spain Rodriguez and Denis Kitchen were among them. They were very, very literary -- all issues and politics and ideas. And while we were talking, I was thinking, 'My God, they're doing exactly what I knew comics could do!' " The second event was a coincidental and unsolicited opportunity to sell his publishing company equity "in a New York heartbeat" and subsequently relinquish his PS Magazine contract, after 20 years and 227 issues.
"It opened a whole new world for me," he says. "The teens who had been my early readers for 'The Spirit' were knocking on the door of middle age and I knew that it would require mature subjects to continue to hold their attention. It was an opportunity close to my thinking and a new area of challenge."
One of the more frightening aspects of that challenge, however, was that while he was celebrating the disappearance of all the old constraints, he was faced with establishing some systemic approach to creating on his blank slate. Many of the worrisome strictures of space, size and subject were gone.
"There was a tremendous amount of freedom, and with freedom comes confusion," Eisner says. He undertook a meticulous study of the technical details of constructing novels and began a reexamination of the classics. He realized the opportunity for deeper character development and more extensive story plotting. Standardized paneling was dropped while he was in the process of discovering that he had to consider each page as a complete entity, something the equivalent of a mini-chapter in an all-text novel.
"It took me a while to realize how cautiously I had to experiment in ending a page, not losing the meter for a nanosecond while the reader is turning the page, and yet take care that pages are not too closely connected. There was a complex wedding of physical necessities, and I really had a problem sorting all of this out," he says.
He smiles broadly when he adds, "I also learned to always start with the ending." That way, he can then produce a complete pencil-rough dummy leading to that end, rather than find himself arriving at an unplanned, irreconcilable ending and half a book to redo to tie up dangling plot lines. When he says "it's not like cut-and-paste editing of text in a computer," he is neither seeking nor expecting any disagreement.
When it came to an endless choice of subject matter, Eisner found that there still were limitations, but they were self-imposed.
"Just call me a Jewish Frank McCourt," he says. "I'm a city boy. I love New York. That's what I know and that's what I write, Also, I've always admired Faulkner, and he was at his best when he stuck with what he really knew."
The Story Arc
Eisner, his brother and sister grew up in tenements in the Bronx and Brooklyn. His father was an immigrant from Vienna and his mother was born on a ship bound for this country.
Eisner's first graphic novel was "A Contract With God," a collection of four related tenement stories published in 1978. He picked the title story because "man's relationship with God is an eternal and universal mature concern." The fictional tenement at 55 Dropsie Ave. and its neighborhood may have served as Eisner's Yoknapatawpha County, but he and the Bronx both have changed repeatedly since the 1930s-era that he reflects in "Contract."
Eisner's second graphic novel, originally titled "Life on Another Planet" (Kitchen Sink Press, 1978) and later reissued as "Signal From Space" (DC Comics), was science fiction. He says he's never been enthusiastic about sci-fi, "but I just wanted to prove that it could work as a graphic novel."
Today Eisner is increasingly focused on opposing prejudice and hate. He hasn't been without some criticism from the Jewish community. Most of it, he says, is of the "why stir things up" and "you're just calling attention to the problem" sort. "One man, a leading editor in Jewish publishing circles, wanted to know why I had to use the word 'Jew' in the 'Fagin' title. I could only point out that was the precise point I wanted to address," Eisner says with something of a weary sigh.
On the other hand, Gaiman says that publication of "Fagin" and "The Plot" is "a wonderful thing to happen at this point in time, in view of the kind of world we live in."
In discussing the future of the graphic novel, Eisner points out that "five or six" movies, "Road to Perdition" among them, have been made from graphic novels. He estimates that there will be more than 100 graphic novel titles published this year in the United States, but he refuses to speculate on the percentage of this country's more than 5,000 practicing comic book artists who might be harboring graphic novel ambitions. He mentions that more than 75,000 fans attended last year's San Diego Comics Convention. Those numbers and the count of fans willing to buy the products are steadily increasing, he says.
Where does he go from here? Eisner grins and says, "I'm glad you asked.
"Sequential art, after almost 100 years of safe-haven in the comic pages, has successfully marched into the communication provinces of information, motivation and education, and now is expanding a significant beachhead in the limitless world of the novel.
"Publication next year of 'The Plot' will add 'polemic' to the list of literary roles it can fulfill, and I can see graphic novel possibilities in several new directions."
Just a little long-term planning for an octogenarian.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company