Will Eisner on Old Age (Part 2)

In the final issue of Will Eisner’s Quarterly, published in 1986, Eisner wrote and drew three comics stories that each deal with a protagonist in the last decades of his life. In the previous installment, we looked at the first of these stories, “The Long Hit.”

Another story, “Winning,” is a more straightforward and positive comedy. On the day of the fifteenth annual “Big City” Marathon, in an unnamed metropolis that is probably New York, a balding, bespectacled man named Benny joins the racers, despite the protests of a woman named Clara. She tells him, ““You’re crazy! You can’t do this!” and points out, “Benny, you never, ever ran, or jogged—even for a bus. . .It’s 28 miles. . .29 miles!” Benny replies, “I know that. . .” and calmly continues his preparations. Eisner does not specify how old Benny and Clara are, but they are clearly far from young.

Although she does not understand why the out-of-shape Benny would want to participate, and tries to discourage him, once the marathon begins, Clara is wholly supportive, bringing him water and verbally encouraging him.

But as Clara points out, the other runners quickly leave Benny behind. As Benny runs, he seemingly has visions, seeing and hearing memories of being reminded that he quit high school, that he did not try for a promotion (“you’ll be stuck in that shipping department forever”), and that he dated Clara for over five years without proposing. (He’s clearly known her even longer than that.). A voice in one of his visions scolds him, “It’s typical of you, Benny. . .Frankly, you are a nobody. . .you’ll always be a nobody. . .You’ll accomplish nothing with your life. . .”

At 2 AM, long after the race is over, Benny, seemingly in agony, finally crosses the finish line and collapses into Clara’s arms. Benny’s collapse is a symbolic death, but since this story is a comedy, it is followed by a symbolic resurrection. Clara effusively congratulates Benny on finishing the race: “You did it, Benny, you did it!!” Then Benny asks her, apparently shouting, “Will you marry me?” and Clara smiles, embracing him.

Like Hockie, Benny pushed himself to his physical limits in pursuit of his goal, but Hockie killed himself, whereas Benny not only lives but is spiritually reborn. One difference between them is that Hockie is alone in life, merely pretending to be Bungey’s friend while trying to kill him. In contrast, Benny has long been in love with Clara, and finally acts on that love at the story’s end. Hockie and Benny both seem to have led lives of failure and emptiness and tried in their later years to do something about it. But Hockie set himself a destructive goal—succeeding through bringing about another man’s death—that served no purpose. Hockie was fixated on a goal that was wrong in 1934 and is both wrong and absurd fifty years later. In contrast, Benny demonstrates that it is never too late to turn one’s life around. Running in the marathon achieves no practical goal for Benny, who had no hope of winning. But it demonstrates that Benny is no longer a quitter, and no longer will shirk from taking the necessary steps to change and to improve his life. Hockie and Benny are both trying to prove to themselves and to others that they are not failures. But Hockie’s goal, being a successful killer, is not worth pursuing and, despite his self-delusion, can no longer lead to any advantage in his life. Benny, on the other hand, is in pursuit of love and self-fulfilment, and triumphantly achieves both. The world does not know or care that Benny finished the race, but Clara knows, and they will now be married. Benny will not end his life without the love and happiness that this marriage will presumably bring.

Hockie brought about his own destruction; Benny took most of his life to achieve victory, but finally succeeded.

The third story, “The Appeal,” is Eisner’s sequel to Franz Kafka’s classic novel The Trial, written in 1914 and 1915 and published posthumously in 1925. In the course of “The Appeal,” Eisner recaps the basic plot of Kafka’s story. A bank employee called “K.” (“Joseph K.” in Kafka’s original) is arrested by two mysterious men on unspecified charges. K is summoned to court, but he never learns what he has been charged with; the legal system presumes him to be guilty, and winning his case against the immense legal bureaucracy appears to be impossible. Finally, two men come for K., who goes with them to a quarry. There K. sees a man in a distant window watching him. K is then killed by one of the two men who accompanied him to the quarry.

In Eisner’s “The Appeal,” an old man returns to his apartment, only to find four people waiting for him. One of them declares that they are holding a trial; he is the attorney for the plaintiff, who is “Mr. K.,” and the other two are the jury. The old man sees that K has “been stabbed” and wonders, “Is he dead?” Apparently, he is, although it is unclear whether he is a ghost or has somehow returned from the grave as a sort of living dead man.

It turns out that the old man was the judge in K’s case, and that allegedly he was a member of the court that brought the charge (still unspecified) against K. Moreover, the old man was also “the man in the window” who witnessed K’s death without doing anything to intervene.

The old man claims he was “only an observer.” Nevertheless, the jury finds him guilty, and the attorney, who now acts as a judge, declares that “For the crime of premeditated silence in the trial of K, and his execution, this court finds you guilty in the first degree!” Moreover, the lawyer continues, “. . .And we sentence you to assume responsibility for the plaintiff. . .sheltering him until your natural death!” Then the lawyer and the jurors turn transparent and exit through the wall; apparently they are ghosts or spirits of some other sort, perhaps avenging angels.

K. then lies down on the man’s bed, thereby taking over his place there.

The old man protests, “You can’t do this to me. . .I’m not guilty.” But K. tells him to accept the verdict, because “There is little you can do about it!!”

The old man then declares, “This is America, 1986.” Earlier in the story Eisner established that the trial of K took place in 1916, and presumably that happened in Europe, since Kafka was from Prague. So “The Appeal” takes place seventy years later. The judge in K’s trial has moved from Europe to America and must be well over ninety years old by 1986.

The old man says he will turn to the police, but K. points out, “How would you be able to explain a dead man in your room?. . .Clearly, sir, you are my prisoner!”

The old man reacts with surprise and distress, but then he grimly writes a note that he apparently throws out the window. In the story’s final panel the note, reading “ Help! I am a prisoner,” lies in a pool of water on the street, unnoticed.

Appropriately for a sequel, “The Appeal” parallels The Trial in significant ways. If Joseph K. was not given a full name, the old man is given no name at all. (Indeed, the reference to K. as “Mr. K” suggests that he now has higher status than the old man.) Like K., the old man is suddenly informed that he is being put on trial. The court that the old man faces, like K.’s, is mysterious, implacable, and seemingly impossible to fight. And like K., the old man is found guilty.

But apart from these plot elements, Eisner’s “The Appeal” is radically different from Kafka’s novel.             Kafka’s The Trial portrays bureaucracies, government, the law, and even society as a whole as the enemy of the individual. Further, Kafka depicts fate and the universe as bleak and absurd. There is no moral order, and seemingly no God. The Trial‘s protagonist, Joseph K., finds himself in what is now known as a “Kafkaesque” situation: both inexplicable and hopeless.

In contrast there is a moral order to the cosmos in Eisner’s “The Appeal.” Whether God exists in the world of “The Appeal” is unclear, but the supernatural exists, as does the afterlife: K. did not cease to exist when he died, but survives in some occult form to haunt his former judge. That old man had left the scene of his crime decades and a continent and ocean away, but retribution finally catches up with him. K. was never informed what the charge or charges against him were; the old man is told specifically what his crime was. The court that K. faced never handed down an official judgement in his trial, whereas the old man receives both a judgement from a jury and a sentence. In Kafka’s The Trial fate, the law, and bureaucracy combine to destroy an individual who does not deserve it. In Eisner’s “The Appeal” there is a supernatural legal system that avenges the innocent and punishes the guilty, who, despite his efforts, has not been able to escape fate and retribution.

Significantly, the old man is not charged with being one of the people who wrecked K.’s life and finally killed him. Rather, the old man is found guilty of “premeditated silence”: his refusal to intervene to help K. in his trial or to prevent his death. In Eisner’s retelling of the events of The Trial, he has K. say that he made a gesture to “the man in the window” asking him for mercy but got no response.

Kafka, like Eisner, was Jewish; Kafka wrote and spoke in German, and the events of The Trial apparently take place in a German-speaking part of Europe. Could it be that, even though “The Trial” was set decades before the Nazis’ rise to power, that Eisner intended “The Appeal” as a veiled reference to the Holocaust? Hence Eisner’s version of K. would represent the victims of the Nazi death camps, and the old man might represent those Germans, in or out of government, who did nothing to prevent the Holocaust from taking place. The way that these specters finally catch up with the elderly judge years later in a different country parallels the work of Nazi hunters tracking down war criminals.

But through the metaphor of “The Appeal” Eisner is going beyond dealing with such specific historical events. The old judge in “The Appeal” represents anyone who has caused suffering to others, not through direct action but through a refusal to act on their behalf. (Similarly, in 1986 Watchmen used the real life murder of Kitty Genovese, whose neighbors refused to help her, as part of Rorschach’s origin story.)

In the end the former judge suffers a darkly ironic form of poetic justice: having failed to take responsibility voluntarily for saving K.’s life, he is forced to take responsibility for housing K now that K is dead.

Note that the old judge never admits his guilt. Were he a good man, he would be moved with compassion by the sight of the mortally wounded K.; he might feel sorrow at having been partly responsible for K’s demise. He would want to help K.. But instead the old judge regards taking care of K. as a form of punishment (as does the attorney, who seems to know how the judge thinks). As far as the old judge is concerned, to help one’s fellow man is to become his prisoner. And thus the old judge, not far away from the day of his own death, finds himself in what seems to him a hell on Earth: having to care for another person.

All three of these 1986 stories by Eisner deal with age and change. In “The Long Hit” Bungey had adapted to changing times and circumstances, whereas Hockie remained fixated into old age on a destructive path in life that finally resulted in his own destruction. In “Winning” Benny was stuck in a nearly lifelong rut of failure, of retreating from opportunity, and of unfulfilled goals and longings until finally, in what seems to be late middle age, or perhaps even early old age, he breaks free of the rut and changes his life for the better. The unnamed old judge in “The Appeal” has been in denial about his guilt for seventy years. The supernatural court forces a change in his life by sentencing him to take care of K., but the judge himself does not change, continuing to claim his innocence and to regard his victim, K., without a trace of empathy.

But whereas in these three stories in Will Eisner’s Quarterly, Eisner looked at how characters behave near or in old age, he took a different approach in the graphic novel he did in 1986. The Dreamer is Eisner’s semi-fictionalized autobiographical account of his early years in the comics industry. It is the work of an old man looking back at his own youth, and it will be a subject of a later chapter in this book.

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Peter Sanderson is a comics historian and critic who has written and co-written numerous books, as well as contributing essays to several Sequart anthologies. Sanderson has three degrees in English literature from Columbia University, and has taught "Comics as Literature" at New York University. He was Marvel Comics' first archivist and an assistant editor there. Sanderson has curated or co-curated three exhibitions on comics at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in New York, worked on two documentaries about comics, and written reviews and journalistic pieces on comics for Publishers Weekly and other magazines. For further examples of his work, see his online column "Comics in Context."

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