Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist

By Lundy, Tiel | Shofar, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist


Lundy, Tiel, Shofar


Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist, DVD, directed by Andrew D. Cooke: Montilla Pictures, original release 2007, DVD/Blu-ray 2010.

Comic book superheroes have a penchant for sartorial show. Both Spiderman and Superman sport the garish combination of bright red and blue long underwear. Batman's costume, though more muted in hue, is no less flashy for its many accessories - fire-retardant cape, utility belt, and Bat-a-rang. Far more understated is the Spirit (a.k.a. Denny Colt), the 1940s creation of artist Will Eisner (1917-2005). Attired in the standard businessman's suit and tie, the Spirit's only superhero garb consists of a mask, gloves, and modish fedora. (Indeed, to call the Spirit a "superhero" is a misnomer itself, the term not yet a part of the comic book lexicon.) That the Spirit wears even the minimal requirements of a costume reflects Eisner's reluctant concession to the industry's demand for "costume characters." The Spirit, then, seems a fitting extension of its creator who, though achieving heroic status in the comic book community, remained an unassuming if self-assured, innovator for his sixty-year career.

It is hard to overstate Eisner's importance to graphic narrative - or, what he dubbed "sequential art" - and practitioners of the form speak of him in nothing less than worshipful terms. A highly self-conscious and theoretical artist, Eisner had, at all times, a clear sense of purpose. Comics, he said, were "an art and literary form," possessing their own "grammar" of complex elements and patterns (Will Eisner, foreword to Comics and Sequential Art [Tamarac, FL: Poorhouse Press, 1985], pp. 5, 8). Film director Andrew D. Cooke and his brother, writer and producer Jon B. Cooke, plainly admire Eisner, and their 2007 documentary Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist pays homage to Eisner's life and aesthetics. Celebrating the dynamic, even vertiginous quality of Eisner's images, the filmmakers wisely get out of the way and let Eisner's noir-fantasy art be the focus. Set in the shadowy "Central City," The Spirit's diegesis expresses an essentially pessimistic vision: populated by hapless thugs and criminal masterminds (both male and female), Central City is a libidinous world steeped in violence and tragedy.

While The Spirit is undoubtedly informed by a 1940s noir aesthetic, Eisner was the first to acknowledge his debt to an earlier generation of comic book artists like George Herriman (Krazy Kat) and Milton Caniff (Terry and The Pirates), the latter of whom impressed Eisner, as he reveals in Cooke's documentary, with his "ability to stage the stories" and express a "high degree of drama" through the use of shadows. Fellow artist and Eisner contemporary Joe Kubert calls Caniff, Hal Foster (Prince Valiant), and Alex Raymond (Flash Gordon) the "three saints" of comic art in the 1930s and 40s. Open appreciation for one's artistic predecessors has long been a part of the culture of comics, and the film portrays the industry as one large extended family.

Of the many artists working in comics in the early days, the vast majority were Jewish. Jules Feiffer, Bob Kane (born Kahn), Joe Kubert, Gil Kane (né Eli Katz), Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg), Al Feldstein, and Harvey Kurtzman: almost all of them were the children of Jewish immigrants. But if young Jewish boys reading the comics were looking for clearly identifiable Jewish role models, they were disappointed. Friend and artist Jules Feiffer points out in Cooke's film that Jewish artists were creating characters with the names of Bruce Wayne, Denny Colt, and Clark Kent. There were no "Izzimos or Yosis in the world of comics," Feiffer says.'They were just drawn by Izzimo and Yosi, but they all assimilated themselves on the comics page." Although The Spirit did not engage directly the themes of Jewish identity and faith that Eisner's 1978 graphic novel A Contract With God would, it did, nonetheless, demonstrate its author's early concerns about the most pressing issue for Jews in the mid-twentieth century - Nazi Germany - openly mocking Hitler well before the U. …

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