To me, he’s always “Mr Eisner”. I’m sure he would have told me to call him “Will”, but something in my upbringing would have prevented me from being so informal. He could just as easily have been called “Mr Comics”, with very little hyperbole. Although lots of creators are better-known, because they worked in more popular genres, Will Eisner showed us, long before Robert Crumb or Harvey Pekar or Art Spiegelman (his most direct artistic successors), what comics could be used to do and what stories they could be used to tell. He’s known for The Spirit, but Mr Eisner also sired a rich vein of off-genre comics and stories that resonates to this day. Any small-run comic creator diligently drawing their stories and photocopying them in the black and white in the hopes that someone in their local comic shop will pick them up and read them are part of his legacy.
The wonderful thing is that Mr Eisner’s own short story and off-genre work is as potent, racy and human as any of those young creators of 2014. The “Will Eisner Reader”, a TPB that collects 7 of his stories between 1985 and 1991, is enough evidence for anyone who cares to read it that he remained a formidable storyteller and comics artist into what we would consider the modern era of comics. Very few, if any, artists and writers from the 1930s and 1940s were still writing then, and fewer still were writing so well, with such a strong, agile voice. One of these stories, a charming one-pager with no dialogue titled “Casting Call,” simply shows a man in a suit dancing a soft shoe and then heading into an audition. The mischief and energy of the piece is all Eisner, still dancing away in his 70s. (Amazingly, he would remain active for another fifteen years after that!)
The central story in this collection is “A Sunset in Sunshine City”. A quasi- autobiographical piece about a New York widower retiring to Florida, it packs about as much story into 30 pages as Watchmen packed into 200, and yet all told in a sensitive classic comics style. Drawn in Mr Eisner’s usual elegant pen and ink style, Henry, the central character of the piece, has sold his New York cafeteria to a big pizza chain. At first, in some beautiful winter scenes, the locals ask what he has left in this cold neighborhood, as his wife is gone and his daughters are married. “Memories, lots of Memories,” he answers. Over two full splash pages, in a montage worthy of Neil Gaiman, we are told all the backstory we need to appreciate this man’s relatively ordinary life. We see him recall his personal tragedies (an affair early in married life, his daughter’s beloved dog being killed, his cafeteria burning down), all while staring at the lamppost that was the witness to all those years. He then contemplates the apartment building door that saw him pay off his business loan, interrogate his sketchy, swinger son-in-law, Jerry (who figures later in the story) and finally his wife’s death. All on that one snow-covered front step. This leads to the iconic image of Harry staring out on his neighborhood, listening to the news from the apartment across the street, bearing one last witness to the place where he had lived most of his life.
These pages contain some of the most striking and moving images I’ve ever encountered in comics. As a reader, you expect the story to end on the very next page, when his daughter interrupts his private meditation to call him into his going away party. Any number of Pekar stories, for example, might have ended very satisfactorily right there. But Mr Eisner keeps going, drawing us into two pages as littered with as much random, overheard dialogue as an Altman film. It establishes that Jerry, the problematic son-in-law, has grown into a chubby schemer, unworthy of his daughter’s loyalty. Finally, Harry packs his bags and heads down to Florida, to a concrete slab with patios that face the beach in Florida, as bright and peaceful as New York is dark and gloomy. His neighbor, a sexy widow named Olga, becomes his closest friend in retirement, playing bingo, shopping, dancing and generally enjoying each other’s company. As the weeks slip by, we see that back in New York, Jerry has gambled his wife’s inheritance on a problematic business scheme, just as Harry and Olga are becoming a little more than friends. While his daughter would be inclined to celebrate his father’s late-life romance, Jerry persuades her that this woman represents a threat to their inheritance and ultimately his financial success. She goes to Florida and tries to convince her father that Olga is bad for him, without success. Back in New York, Jerry (drawn by now shirtless with a pronounced paunch and chain smoking) issues an ultimatum to his wife that he will leave her if an inheritance isn’t in the offing.
At this point the story takes an almost “noir” turn as Jerry goes to Florida and is discovered by Harry in bed with his 65-year-old girlfriend. (Mr Eisner draws nudity as well as anyone else here: these are stories for grownups after all.) Over the course of a remarkable page, Harry sits, thinks, cries, gets a glass of milk and finally shrugs off the incident, relaxing into his easy chair. Jerry leaves his daughter and Harry winds up in her care, finally taking in the view from his deck, gracefully accepting the hand his life has dealt him.
There’s experience, wit and wisdom in that story to burn. A younger artist may have been tempted to sentimentalize, or airbrush the hard realities of the situation. But Mr Eisner simply tells the story, warts and all, and still manages to make it all seem elegant. It’s a star turn, in a career full of them, and there isn’t a superhero, secret agent, gangster, monster or weapon in sight. Bill Fingerman (Minimum Wage), Dean Haspiel (Billy Dogma) and any number of modern comics creators continue this tradition, but the master is only equaled, not surpassed, thus far.
Many of the rest of the stories in the collection are one-page vignettes, often told without any dialogue. A series of jokes on the theme of a telephone call back to the early days of comic strips and jokes. One is as simple as a man running up his apartment’s staircase to pick up the phone only to answer it too late. A long detective story subtitled “Necromancy in the Bronx” is the most experimental piece presented here, supplying a little history lesson in the end covering all of the major crime figures who met their end in 1934, such as the killing of Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson. Before this starts seeming like ancient history, you realize that Mr Eisner was there in 1934, as a 17-year-old, and witnessed these events first hand. But he immediately reminds us of what becomes of these characters in the very next story, “The Long Hit”, featuring the exploits of an elderly ex-hit man now retired to Florida, who encounters a fellow old-timer on a park bench. It turns out that the old criminal was once charged with killing this man, many years before, and obviously didn’t finish the job. His professional pride tarnished, the rest of the story consists of elaborate and comic scenarios as he attempts to finish the job he started all those years ago, and finally drops dead of his own heart attack as his target walks casually off into the sunset.
Another story re-tells Kafka’s “The Trial”, with all of the wit and intellectual sophistication of Kafka brought to the comics idiom. We’re reminded that Mr Eisner always argued that comics were capable of telling any kind of story, something his artistic progeny Harvey Pekar would often repeat. To include a soft shoe dance, a crime story, a series of phone jokes and a long, plot-filled meditation on one man’s path to retirement would be plenty for any comics collection. But the last story, “Humans”, displays a breathtaking scope, bringing us back to the beginning of our species with a story of two proto-humans bringing down a mammoth. When one is injured, the other takes pity on him and helps him to safety, thus, in Mr Eisner’s words, discover “… a kind of power perhaps greater than the sharpened stick!” That of empathy, and love. This is immediately contrasted with the ironic epilogue in which two modern-day men fail to display the same sort of empathy in the same situation.
We should remember that this “Will Eisner Reader” is only one of many collections available. But I think if you wanted to convince anyone this week of why Will Eisner is “Mr Comics”, you could do a lot worse than to recommend these stories. There’s a reason why we in the comics world still admire and respect this man. Part of it is his legacy, his advocacy or his genial, friendly personality, but a much bigger part is that his comics are still so damn good.