Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Will Eisner Reader: Seven Graphic Stories by a Comics Master by Will Eisner

A sampler platter of comics greatness
If you asked a roomful of comics enthusiasts who’s the greatest comics artist of all time, after some argument chances are the consensus would be Will Eisner. Back in the 1940s, his newspaper adventure series The Spirit shattered just about every preexisting convention of the young art form and blazed new trails in artistic innovation. Even into his senior years he was a trendsetter. His books of the 1970s were instrumental in the development of the graphic novel as we know it today. These days most of Eisner’s non-Spirit work is available from W. W. Norton and Company, including the Will Eisner Reader, first published in 1991. This 80-page paperback collects seven stories gathered from issues 6-8 of the periodical Will Eisner’s Quarterly, originally published in 1985 and 1986. Though not every story is excellent, overall this volume is a good showcase of Eisner’s later work, offering a surprising variety of styles and subject matter.

Eisner was one of the first comic artists to break out of the confining rigor of rectangular panels. By this point in his career the grid is almost nonexistent. Each page is a beautifully composed whole, subdivided by scenes which seamlessly flow into one another. Eisner masterfully employs whatever visual devices are necessary to tell the story. He never rested on his laurels but always strove to come up with the best graphic solution to express the narrative, even if that meant continually reinventing the wheel. Though The Spirit had a profound influence on all the masked crusaders that followed, once that famous series ran its course Eisner made a deliberate effort to move away from the superhero genre and tell stories of real people, thus influencing a whole new movement of comics verité. His characters even look like real people—often ugly, frumpy, and clumsy. Many of his stories deliver a moral message in the mystic manner of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone tales, and his work is often laced with humor that’s straight out of a Catskills resort. Given that Eisner was a senior citizen when he produced these stories, there is at times an antiquated feeling to the writing, but even when the story fails to amaze you can always marvel at the magnificent art.

The opening entry, “A Sunset in Sunshine City,” is the kind of ensemble-cast soap opera the Hernandez Bros. might have done for Love and Rockets. “The Telephone” is eight pages of creatively rendered slapstick suitable for an old Mad Magazine. “Detective Story” is exactly what the title implies, but with a supernatural twist. “The Long Hit” is a gangster tale with a sense of humor. “Winning” is a lighthearted piece about an underdog running a marathon. The weakest entry in the book is “The Appeal,” a sort of sequel to Franz Kafka’s The Trial. The final story, entitled “Humans,” is an incredibly moving statement on humanity captured in seven pithy pages, with some of the most beautiful art ever to spring from Eisner’s pen. It’s another fine example of how this artist was continually challenging and reinventing himself.

Honestly, if you like comics—any comics—it’s hard to go wrong with Eisner. The stories in this book are bite-sized, so if one doesn’t thrill you it’s only a few pages until you move onto the next offering. Fans of Eisner will enjoy the variety and the always exceptional art. For those new to Eisner’s non-Spirit work, this collection will provide a good introduction to his later work, allowing you to test the waters before tackling one of his heavier graphic novels like A Contract with God.

A panel from “Humans” by Will Eisner

Stories in this collection
A Sunset in Sunshine City 
The Telephone 
Detective Story 
The Long Hit 
The Appeal 

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