His Spirit Lives On

The two major professional awards in the comic book industry are named for the two most worshipped creative artists in early comic book history: the Harveys, named in honor of Mad Magazine creator Harvey Kurtzman, and the Eisners, named for Will Eisner, whose work is catalogued and analyzed in The Will Eisner Companion: The Pioneering Spirit of the Father of the Graphic Novel, by N.C. Christopher Crouch and Stephen Weiner (DC Comics, $19.95). Eisner, famous for his creation of "The Spirit," a masked crime fighter who appeared weekly in a newspaper supplement during the 1940s and early '50s, is also hailed as the godfather of the modern graphic novel. To the pioneering misfits who founded comic fandom in the '60s, Kurtzman and Eisner were real-life supermen. To the modern fan, though, they tend to be as exciting as multi-vitamins.

It's easy to see why they've left such lukewarm legacies: Whereas today's comic fans make heroes of artists and sometimes writers, Kurtzman and Eisner were something more elusive, closer to Hollywood directors than any role we typically associate with comic creation. Kurtzman directed his team of Mad artists chiefly as a writer and layout artist, jobs that largely hid his contributions beneath the panels. During the run of "The Spirit," Eisner employed similar working methods, but with an even larger team of assistants and a more prodigious output. Somewhere amid the many thousands of "Spirit" pages produced between 1940 and 1952 is the work upon which Eisner's towering reputation was built. Although several publishers have reprinted selections from its run, notably Kitchen Sink in the '80s, the bulk of "The Spirit" has not been in print since its original publication. Only in 2000 did DC Comics commence the massive task of reprinting the original sections in color hardcover volumes,

Ironically, the full reprinting may make classic Eisner harder to find than ever. There's just too much of it to sort through, and the quality isn't even remotely consistent. What's more, with so many assistants contributing to the project, the stylistic variability is bewildering. In the entry for "Eisner's Studio" in The Will Eisner Companion, Crouch and Weiner list 31 assistant artists. Bafflingly, few of them appear anywhere else in the book. The authors offer up a primarily textual presentation of Eisner, alphabetically listing characters and, occasionally, literary and artistic themes from his major projects. The entry for "Splash Pages," his trademark opening pages that famously combined the Spirit name and story title while spectacularly setting the scene, shows a single specimen, standing up lonesomely for some 600 other potential examples. Likewise, the entry for "Signs" presents one of Eisner's unmistakably baroque pieces of illustrative signage, reproduced at silver-dollar size.

To be fair, Crouch and Weiner's character-driven breakdown of Eisner's career does give each of the artist's lovely vixens, such as P'Gell and Sand Saref, a moment to shine. His incidental characters, fascinating and numerous as they were, likewise benefit from their thumbnail profiles. And perhaps, as publisher Denis Kitchen suggests in The Eisner Companion's afterword, expecting a true "Eisner Encyclopedia" is unrealistic. But once you've seen what Eisner was really capable of, it's hard to settle for anything less.

Now that DC Comics has published volumes 14-16 of Will Eisner's The Spirit Archives ($49.95 each), we finally get to see what the fuss is about. Volume 16 includes work done during the first half of 1948, the year the Eisner gang began to get it right.

From their layouts and linework to their lush color schemes, these stories are true miniature marvels ("El Spirito" and "Life Below" are especially gorgeous.) More surprising, though, is Eisner's consistent gift for satire, which came into focus by 1947 and only tightened thereafter. In the caricatures of Truman Capote, Orson Welles and Joseph McCarthy, the parodies of "Dick Tracy" and "Li'l Abner," the take-offs on radio and comic advertising, and features such as the recurring "Fairy Tales For Juvenile Delinquents," Eisner pioneered comic satire with a sophistication often mistakenly said to have started several years later in Kurtzman's Mad. If you've ever suspected the Eisner legend was perhaps a touch overblown, Volume 16 is an indispensable reality check.

If Eisner deserves more credit for bringing adult humor to the comic form, Kurtzman rarely receives proper acknowledgment for an equally momentous undertaking: the marriage of journalism and comic storytelling. First with his meticulously researched war comics and then with his first-person cartoon journalism for Esquire in the late '50s, Kurtzman was the first to realize that this new technique of comic book storytelling was as well-suited to the art of fact as it was to fiction.

After a few decades' worth of semi-autobiographical musings on the Jewish immigrant experience in America, Eisner embraced the same conclusion. In The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (Norton, $19.95), his last project before his death earlier this year, Eisner tells the true story of how one of the most notorious forgeries of all time, the inventively anti-Semitic "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," purportedly the minutes of a Jewish planning meeting for world domination, came to be fabricated and promulgated by late-19th-century Russian Czar Nicholas II's invidious spooks.

The theme of The Plot is frustration, both Eisner's and that of his characters, as the 1905 hoax, though conclusively discredited by the London Times in 1921, was deathlessly translated and reprinted (by American, Nazi, Egyptian and even Japanese publishers) throughout the 20th century. Unfortunately, readers of The Plot may find themselves equally frustrated. Most of the characters are writers or reporters expounding over drinks or typewriters, making, as you might expect, for less than action-packed storytelling. Though it's tempting to believe, as Eisner always did, that comics might enlighten where words alone failed, the truth is that, like much of his later graphic novel work, his intentions may have again outpaced his execution.

"Strip" Show

A friend, who happens to be the most serious comic-book scholar I know, recently declared Eightball #22, from which Daniel Clowes's new "comic-strip novel," Ice Haven (Pantheon, $18.95), is expanded, to be "the best single-issue comic book ever." Not in a "Simpsons"-voice sense, either -- he really meant it. What instantly won him over was the narrative conceit Clowes devised for the story: What if all the characters in a Sunday comic section lived together in the same town? Keep in mind: My friend, like Clowes, indeed, like many post-graduate comic book nerds, long ago traded his 12-cent obsession up to "Golden Age" Sunday strips (i.e., newspapers strips before 1950 or so). Especially early "Peanuts," whose style and creator, Charles Schulz, haunt Ice Haven's "less cold than it sounds" landscape. Given all that, Clowes had my friend at hello.

By slicing each original page in half and rearranging the pieces side by side, the new hardcover edition succeeds in heightening the focus on Ice Haven's formal poise. But not at the expense of its deceptively multi-layered narrative, which loosely unites the town of Ice Haven's 22 starring residents (divorcees, lonely teens, a pair of married detectives, a paroled bunny and lots of troubled kids, mainly) in a child-abduction scare. Maybe because so much is actually going on in Ice Haven's 30-plus interconnected strips, Clowes seems to take perverse pleasure in convincing the readers that there's less to the plot than meets the eye. Don't be fooled. When I later marveled to my friend that, on first pass, I'd failed to crack the case of young David Goldberg's disappearance, I could tell that Clowes's misdirection had fooled him, too. Which is to say, don't be surprised if Ice Haven becomes your favorite comic long before you've solved its many mysteries.

Behind the Veils

During Marjane Satrapi's art school days in Tehran, figure-drawing students were forbidden to gaze upon unveiled female models. Even looking at a clothed male model could constitute a violation of the school's moral code. These conditions have been offered as an explanation for Satrapi's rudimentary technique, but the look of her drawings, redolent as it is of a more universal mini-comic style, argues otherwise. Her linework may lack the virtuoso nuance of Clowes or the factory-assembled perfection of Eisner, but as she proved with Persepolis, her Harvey-winning comic autobiography, Satrapi has all the skills necessary to be a world-class comic book artist. Bottom line: that's just the way she draws.

In Embroideries (Pantheon, $16.95), a memoir of one intensely ribald all-female tea party -- pray it was a composite! -- Satrapi's gift for masterful, outrageous storytelling is indisputable. It's tempting to ascribe her tale's power to her ear for sensational gossip: Virtually every page of Embroideries leads up to or pays off with a disclosure that could make a roomful of "Sex & The City" writers blush. Who'd have thought that behind Iran's closed doors the conversation would be as wholesome as "American Pie"? But it's an entirely different shock value that makes reading Satrapi such a joy -- the shock of discovering a new voice bringing new stories to the table, playing by new rules, and pulling it off like an old master. *

Joey Anuff develops TV programs for VH1, where his recent productions include "Ego Trip's Race-O-Rama" and "Remaking."

Panel from Marjane Satrapi's "Embroideries"Comic "Ice Haven"