To the Heart of Will Eisner

Some of you may remember that back in January, when I first started writing this weekly column, we conducted a poll of Sequart contributors who ranked the greatest works and most important creators in comics history.  The legendary Will Eisner finished a strong third on the creators list, and he actually finished second when the list was adjusted with a weighted score.  At the time, I decided not to make public my own votes in the poll, but today, as Sequart joins the world in celebrating “Will Eisner Week,” I’m going to make an exception.

I ranked Will Eisner number one.

Why?  It wasn’t because he’s my personal favorite, nor was it that I view his work as somehow, objectively, better than everyone else’s.  Instead, what’s most impressive about Eisner is both the depth and the breadth of his impact on the medium.  He’s the Willie Mays of comics.  Mays was the kind of baseball player who could bat .300, hit 40 home runs, drive in 100 RBIs, steal 30 bases, and win a Gold Glove.  The same thing is true of Orson Welles, a director and performer who conquered radio, theater, and film all before he was thirty years old.  Willie Mays and Orson Welles.  They did it all.

And so did Will Eisner.

Eisner was one of the most influential and innovative of the Golden Age comic book artists.  Today, most mainstream comics art traces its roots back to either Eisner, Jack Kirby, or a combination of both, and you can certainly see Eisner’s stamp on artists as varied as Frank Miller, Eric Powell, and Jeff Smith.  His greatest creation during the Golden Age—the Spirit—attempted to bridge the gap between comic books and newspaper strips, taking advantage of the open space of the comic book page but distributing the stories as newspaper inserts.  Eisner eventually left mainstream comics in the 1950s and devoted himself to commercial and educational work.

And had that been the end of his career, he would still be one of the giants in the industry.  But Eisner was far from done.  At a time when some might have considered retirement, Will Eisner reinvented both himself and, to some extent, the industry he had helped create.  In 1978, he returned to narrative comics with the release of A Contract with God, often labeled the first “graphic novel.”[1] With this groundbreaking book, Eisner helped establish the viability of publishing non-serialized, square-bound, long-form comics for adults.

He followed up this return to comics by establishing himself as an educator and comics theorist.  In fact, he coined the term “sequential art,” from which Sequart derives its name, and his book, Comics and Sequential Art was, for a time, the definitive work on comics theory.

But for my money, Eisner’s most impressive accomplishment came when he was in his 70s and 80s.  It would’ve been easy for Eisner to have published A Contract with God, accepted a teaching gig, written his analysis of the art form, and then coasted through convention appearances like the Grand Marshal of the Rose Bowl Parade.  But A Contract with God was only the beginning.  For the remainder of his life, Eisner created one graphic novel after another—at least seventeen by my count—amassing a body of work the likes of which few creators can lay claim.

Since this is Will Eisner week, I wanted to devote today’s column to something Eisner-related, and since much of the world’s attention is likely to focus on the Spirit and A Contract with God, I thought we might spend a little time considering one of Eisner’s later works.  To the Heart of the Storm was published in 1991 and was his seventh original graphic novel.  The concept for the story is fairly simple.  In what Eisner describes in the Introduction as a “thinly-disguised autobiography,” the main character, a young soldier named Willie, rides on a troop train to a camp in the South where he and his fellow soldiers will be trained and then sent to war.  Willie spends the entire book staring out the train window, thinking about the past.  The way I describe it, it sounds like watching Masterpiece Theatre on Ambien.

But it’s far more than that.  The window becomes his movie screen, or perhaps more appropriately, his comics panel, and the memories Eisner evokes in that train window cover over fifty years worth of the Jewish-American immigrant experience. He takes us from his adolescence at the beginning of the Great Depression through his early professional career as a cartoonist, with long, sustained detours through the life stories of both his mother and father.  The inclusion of each parent’s story creates enough of a temporal disruption to keep Eisner’s readers off-balance and prevent things from becoming stagnant.

But this isn’t simply a collection of his life’s “greatest hits,” full of the kinds of biographical highlights one would expect from a made-for-TV movie.  Instead, Eisner carefully selects and organizes all of the incidents around the central, recurring theme of racism.  The world Eisner depicts is dominated by an endless stream of ethnic labels and stereotypes.  There are references to Germans, Italians, Irish, Turks, Russians, Poles, African Americans, Southerners, Catholics, Jews, German Jews, Eastern Jews, and so on.  It’s like listening to the on-stage banter at a Rat Pack concert.

In Willie’s first flashback, he remembers the time his family first moved to the Bronx and he was forced to fight a group of anti-Semitic boys.  When one boy’s father, Tony, later demands satisfaction from Willie’s father, Eisner gives us a character-defining moment.  Facing off against the larger man, Willie’s father simply announces, “You win!”  He takes a pragmatic approach, arguing that there is no point in fighting since Tony will easily win the fight and get little satisfaction from punching him out.  Later, he explains to Willie that you never really need to fight and he points to his head, suggesting that brains are far more powerful than brawn.

This creative passivity is largely how Willie’s father has lived his life, using his wits to carefully navigate each new difficulty.  Taken on its own, it makes a beautiful parable—but Eisner’s story is more ambiguous and complex than that.  As the memories continue to unfold, we watch his father, through a long series of events, gradually move further and further away from his original dream of being an artist.  He goes from working with a painter in Vienna to painting theater scenery in America.  From there he winds up painting wood grain onto iron bedsteads—then running a furniture store.  Soon the furniture business is exchanged for a clothing factory, but the Depression ultimately costs him that as well.  While the depiction of his father remains genial and positive, each step in his journey marks another retreat from the life he once might have led.

For the most part, Willie takes his father’s survivalist strategies to heart, yet we are reminded throughout that the passive, evasive Willie is now dressed in a uniform and heading off for war.  He was drafted, so he clearly wasn’t keen to go fight the Nazis, but at the same time he didn’t take all of the opportunities that were presented to him to avoid the war.  And now, as he sits on the troop train with other men who will soon be fighting, he ruminates on a lifetime of navigating the difficulties of bigotry and racism.

Is Eisner suggesting that sometimes wit isn’t enough and you have to fight—especially against a genocidal force like Hitler?  If so, he doesn’t explicitly say so.  Perhaps it’s more fatalistic than that.  Sometimes, no matter what you do, you wind up being drafted to fight someone else’s war.  When one of the men scoffs at the irony of trying to win a war with people like them—a cartoonist and a Turkish newspaper editor—the editor responds, “So . . . who else fights wars . . . eh??”

And in the final image—as the troops have finally disembarked—we see Willie and the others marching into the horizon with massive clouds overhead and a dramatic lightning streak plunging towards the ground like an electric pitchfork—the literal heart of the storm.  But we realize that the unseen, metaphorical storm into which they will soon march, is the macroscopic accumulation of the same types of racism, intolerance, and bigotry that Willie and his family have witnessed in miniature.

To the Heart of the Storm lingers in one’s memory because so much remains unresolved.  Was his father’s survivalist strategy ultimately good advice or bad?  Does Willie’s uniform imply a rejection of his father’s advice, or does it demonstrate his failure to follow it closely enough?  Or is everyone in the story merely a pawn for the larger, overwhelming forces like economic depression, bigotry, and war?  Those are big questions, and clearly ones that the 73-year-old Eisner was still wrestling with.  And now, thanks to his book, so are we.

[1] There is some debate about whether A Contract with God, with its four short stories, actually constitutes a “graphic novel,” just as there is a some debate as to whether Jim Steranko’s illustrated novella Red Tide, which was published in 1976, should be considered the first graphic novel.  Such debates, while perhaps intellectually stimulating, ultimately seem to me like a dog chasing its tail.  All strict definitions of such terms ultimately break down, and being first really only counts in sporting events.  At the end of the day, everyone ought to read Red Tide and everyone ought to read A Contract with God.  ‘Nuff said.

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Greg Carpenter is a writer, teacher, and recovering coffee addict. He is the author of The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer. In addition to producing a weekly column for Sequart for almost two years, he has also written for and PopMatters. He has published essays on a variety of writers and artists including Moore, Gaiman, Morrison, Jerry Robinson, August Wilson, and Tennessee Williams, and he has taught a wide variety of classes, including Comics, Shakespeare, Modern American Literature, and Screenwriting/Playwriting. He currently teaches at a university in Nashville.

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Also by Greg Carpenter:

The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer


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