With a nor’easter blowing in at increasing velocity on November 7th, a full house still turned out for the first of the newly partnered MoCCA/Society of Illustrators dinner and a movie events, this one complete with an informative panel discussion featuring the life and work of comics giant Will Eisner. The evening’s film, Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist, directed by Andrew B. Cooke, is stand out in the field of comics documentaries for scope and the quality of contributors to Eisner’s life-narrative. The panelists, though reduced in number by the snow pummeling the north-east, included former DC president and educator Paul Levitz and event organizer, former Marvel editor, writer, and educator Danny Fingeroth.
It’s fairly common knowledge that the Society of Illustrators knows how to lay a good spread of food, and they catered dinner for the event in stellar fashion, bringing an autumn-accented meal down to the main gallery for guests. The meal included pureed pumpkin, steamed sweet potatoes and beets, a wide range of salads, as well as fish and chicken in buffet style. That’s not to mention the fresh fruit, chocolate covered strawberries, cookies and popcorn: they went all out and it was a very toasty welcome for those coming in from the snow.
For those of you who have seen Cooke’s documentary, you know what a quality work it is, complete with contributions from the likes of Art Spiegelman, Jules Feiffer, Jerry Robinson, and Michael Chabon, but seeing it on a big screen was even more impressive. Even for the most die-hard Eisner fan, there are vignettes and side-stories that don’t form part of a general conversation about Eisner, and Cooke does a particularly excellent job of placing Eisner in context of his generation and other creators working before, alongside, and after him in his lengthy career. One of the strongest features of the documentary is the way in which it returns to interviews and audio recordings to take viewers back into earlier eras of Eisner’s life. Eisner’s own 1980’s Shoptalk interviews formed part of the commentary. Eisner’s family history ads a compelling psychological angle to the man who was both a preeminent artist and canny businessman: his father’s work as a highly skilled theatrical painter and his mother’s insistence on a money-making career may have fired Eisner’s drive to set up his own studio at a young age.
Cooke’s documentary helps establish the various spheres of influence that impacted Eisner, too, from Yiddish theatre to his early pulp reading. Understanding Eisner’s enthusiasm for short story writers like O. Henry also helps explain Eisner’s own literary depth and his knack for story-structure. In many ways, following the trajectory of Eisner’s career, from the birth of THE SPIRIT, through his time creating a multitude of educational, technical manuals, and back into the creation of original graphic novels in his later years is, in fact, a tour of the history of the comics medium. The influence of THE SPIRIT forms a blast-zone at the heart of ambitious comics narratives, and the shock-waves formed by his graphic novels like CONTRACT WITH GOD are still being felt today in the way that comics are conceived, written, and drawn. A host of creators in many genres attest to Eisner’s phenomenal influence in Cooke’s documentary, and also express a heartfelt connection to Eisner and his work that’s just as impressive. This suggests that Eisner, as a person, was just as compelling as the work he created, or perhaps that making the division between the man and his work is artificial. Whether it’s the outstanding lettering and title pages of THE SPIRIT that blow Stan Lee away every time he sees them, or the “philosophical” content that Eisner was keen to introduce (including “moments of glory that other people never knew anything about” for his characters), Eisner’s work was, as his wife Ann says, “anything but boring”. The strong pulse of innovation that consistently drove his work forward may be his greatest legacy.
Following the film screening, panelists Levitz and Fingeroth started off with a discussion of Eisner’s archive, and the chain of events that led to THE SPIRIT archival editions’ publication by DC. While working at DC, Levitz found himself at the heart of the debate over how to handle the republication of Eisner’s biggest project: THE SPIRIT. Should it be published in large format, like EC editions in special archival form? One of the biggest priorities for DC, and for Levitz, was to make sure that the work appeared in a format that highlighted its own “solid structure” and brought it to readers “in one beautiful form”. It needed to be a complete project for DC, not something rendered piecemeal. Levitz said it was “one of the proudest accomplishments of my long career as a publisher” to see the complete set of THE SPIRIT in print and to know that it’s available in libraries and bookstores all over the world for readers. Levitz revealed some of his own motivation in driving the project forward: never being able to assemble a complete set of THE SPIRIT in his youth. Intense “frustration” eventually led him to get rid of the few he had managed to acquire “because it drove him crazy”. Fans of Eisner’s work may well benefit now from Levitz’s struggle then.
Fingeroth noted the ways in which Eisner forms a unique combination of artist and businessman, one of the few artists of his generation to take up such an entrepreneurial role, sitting down in a suit and tie even for Cooke’s documentary interviews. Levitz suggested this was part of Eisner’s ongoing process of “self-definition” that would never really “stop”, firmly combining his two roles right up into his final years. Fingeroth pointed out that Cooke’s documentary rightly relies on Eisner himself to tell his own life story through his autobiographical comics, using panel illustrations from key texts alongside commentary from Eisner himself and colleagues. Eisner, too, was best able to answer questions of influence. In an interview with Fingeroth, Eisner explained that the “eye-level” and “straight on” art perspective of his later graphic novels is a homage to Yiddish theatrical productions that shaped his youth. Both panelists agreed that one of the most remarkable things about Eisner’s long career is the way in which he was “breaking and setting precedent in 1940” and also “again in 1978, 1980” in perennial fashion. But as for THE SPIRIT, Fingeroth and Levitz reminded guests, Eisner created it under unusual conditions that rarely exist today, allowing for its experimental nature. It was a “unique project” with no editor or oversight beyond Eisner’s own decision-making. Since “nobody was paying any damn attention”, there was “no one to argue with”, an artistic freedom as rare in 1940’s as it is today.
Talking about Eisner always seems to raise as many questions as it answers about just how one person could so greatly expand upon and illustrate the potential of comics for later generations. But watching Cooke’s documentary and sitting down with some passionate and knowledgeable comics professionals is an excellent place to start trying to understand how a legendary comics creator, and his work, came into existence. The evening may have been a welcome diversion from the wind and snow, but it also emphasized the educational aspect of MoCCA/Society of Illustrators in keeping artistic tradition alive and providing an environment for like-minded people to learn from one another.
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress.