Comics Ate My Brain

June 17, 2008

Spirits of the Times: Will Eisner’s Life, In Pictures

Filed under: spirit — Tom Bondurant @ 4:49 pm
The Will Eisner anthology Life, In Pictures (W.W. Norton, 2007) contains two substantial graphic novels, two shorter stories, and a vignette, each based at least in part on the personal experiences of the extended Eisner family. Those factual underpinnings help the stories avoid veering into melodrama. Combined with Eisner’s considerable storytelling talents, the book as a whole is a sweeping, powerful survey of the society which shaped him and those he loved.

Of course, I come to Will Eisner’s work largely through his most famous creation, the masked detective known as The Spirit. Eisner used the weekly Spirit stories as vehicles for his own experiments with the craft of writing and drawing comic books. Today, DC Comics publishes a Spirit comic book which at a minimum attempts to capture both Eisner’s designs and the light-hearted attitude which infused most of those stories.

Nothing so portable is on display in Life, In Pictures. The story of interest to most superhero fans will probably be “The Dreamer” (1986), Eisner’s autobiographical account of his early days as a cartoonist. Since “The Dreamer” also covers the birth of superhero comic books, it features thinly-disguised analogues of Harry Donenfeld, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, Bob Kane, Jerry Iger, Jack Kirby, and other early luminaries. (Detailed annotations follow the story.) This is also perhaps the book’s happiest story in the book. The four-page vignette “The Day I Became A Professional,” which closes out Life, works well as a go-get-’em supplement to this story.

According to editor Denis Kitchen’s introduction, “A Sunset In Sunshine City” (1985), which opens the book, came out of Eisner’s 1984 move to Florida from his native New York City. There, apparently, the biographical portion ends, although apparently Eisner incorporated his changing attitudes about moving. The story begins as a bittersweet remembrance of the protagonist’s long career running a local cafeteria, set against a snowy New York. As the memories wind down, though, Eisner leaves enough hanging that the reader wonders whether the story might shift gears; and sure enough it does, following our hero to his sunny retirement home and a different set of concerns. At twenty-eight pages, it’s shorter than any of the other “big” stories, but it also does the most with its small cast. Characters win and lose the reader’s sympathy, until everything finds an appropriate equilibrium at the end.

Perhaps the book’s centerpiece is “To The Heart Of The Storm” (1990), Eisner’s 204-page tale of family history. As Eisner rides the train which will take him to boot camp, and from there to the horrors of World War II, his memories reveal his family’s struggles with anti-Semitism. Some give up their faith, some try to coexist, and some simply try to see the good in people. Through it all, Eisner manages his large cast well, connecting generations efficiently and using the view through the train’s windows to set the flashbacks’ scenes. Even the flashbacks-within-flashbacks avoid being confusing. While the reader might learn to expect the worst, somehow the family perseveres, and of course the reader is assured by Eisner’s own success.

Following that tale is the slightly shorter (167 pages) “The Name Of The Game” (2001), Eisner’s fictionalized account of his wife’s family history. This is the book’s most soap-operatic story, dealing with the constant struggle of German Jews to improve their status in life through marriage. Eisner jumps forward in time, and fills in background, with blocks of text, which only distracts from the story in the introduction of one character. The main character is the family’s patriarch, seen first as a spoiled brat who grows into a stereotypical rich dilettante and must have responsibility practically shoved down his throat. Indeed, he looks better as the story progesses primarily because the people around him regularly act just as bad. This is also a tale of struggle, although it’s a struggle to keep up appearances. It too achieves a kind of equilibrium, but the story’s statement that the characters lived “happily ever after” is clearly meant ironically.

Speaking personally for a moment, I can’t finish many “real-life” Will Eisner stories without having to sit and think about them for several minutes afterward. I don’t want to dismiss any of this book as simple melodrama, because that implies that Eisner is manipulating the reader unfairly. Nothing about these stories strikes me as frivolous or gratuitous. With each story, Eisner knows the points he wants to make and makes sure each page reinforces those points. Characters cheat, drink, lie, and steal. Some receive an appropriate comeuppance, and some don’t. Through it all, though, the reader becomes involved with their lives, even as he can see Eisner’s hands guiding them through those lives. I’m glad I got to know these folks, and glad they could bring me closer to a creator I’ve long admired.

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