Writing About Comics the Will Eisner Way

In 1985, decades after his first comic book, Will Eisner wrote Comics and Sequential Art, his treatise about how comic books work.  The first of three books (Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative and Expressive Anatomy for Comics and Narrative round out this instructional trilogy), Comics and Sequential Art is an academic survey of the power of placing one drawing next to another to create time, space, sound, and story.  Almost a century into the rise of comics and over forty years into his own career, Eisner had proven time and time again that he was a master of the medium.  His The Spirit comics, created mostly during the 1940s, still remain comics that show everyone what you can do with a panel and a page.  A piece of paper was his canvas to manipulate in strange and wonderful ways, always in service of the story.  And in 1978, A Contract with God helped to prove that a comic story could be more than a 20-page serial adventure as he explored the new alchemy of comics and novels.  Often mistakenly thought to be the first graphic novel, A Contract with God was one of the earliest high profile books and opened the way for the radical experiments in storytelling and packaging that would thrive well into the 1980s.

Comics and Sequential Art is Eisner’s exploration of the various elements of a comic, stacking one building block on top of another to divine how comic books work.  Mostly using his own comic work to walk the reader through various structures of comics – though later editions would incorporate a small handful of other cartoonists to illustrate his points – Eisner acts as a guide to show cartoonists how to create comics.  From the micro view of the basic components of a panel to a macro view of the layout of a full page, Eisner writes about the many ways that a cartoonist can construct a page and thereby manipulate the reader to follow where the cartoonist wants him or her to go.  The book is not a how-to book like Stan Lee and John Buscema’s How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way (a book that shows you how to draw like Buscema) or any of the technical DC guides to comic creation.  Comics and Sequential Art is not instructional.  Eisner builds this book on theories drawn from his years of creating stories and comics.

That begs the question, “Just who is Eisner’s intended audience with this book?”  Obviously he is aiming it at people who want to create comics.  A common criticism of comic creators used to be that the only way that they learned how to create comics was by reading and recreating the comics of their youth.  That just leads to an insular medium whose scope and imagination ends up shrinking more and more with every new generation of creators.  Eisner is trying to look beyond the surface of comics, where so many people tend to stop, and dig deeper into the unnoticed grammar of comics.  He is also trying to encourage his readers to do the same, digging into the mechanics of comic story creation so that they may understand how this strange art form works and weave the lessons into their own work.  This book is also for the readers of comics, though Eisner is never speaking directly to them.  It is more like they’re sitting in the corner of a party, listening to a master storyteller pass down knowledge to his students.  For those of us who only read the comics, Comics and Sequential Art functions as a guide to understand how the way a comic is put together affects the way that we read them.

It is fascinating that Eisner begins the book focusing on the text of an image rather than the text of the words or the narrative.  In his view of comics, the art is the alpha and the omega when it comes to creating a comic.  It guides; it leads; it carries the reader where the artist wants them to go.  Yet it takes an incredible amount of skill to differentiate between an illustrator and a visualizer.  When, in the end, he finally gets around to talking about the relationship of a writer and an artist, he describes an illustrator as someone who merely draws what the words say while a visualizer creates lively drawings so that the words become unnecessary.  He wants his cartoonists to be visualizers because the image that the reader encounters is the central point of contact that the creator has with his audience.  The cartoonist brings the story to life and moves the reader through space and time with methods that are completely unique to comic books.

As he spends so much time talking about the elements of the image, the one obvious omission in Eisner’s book is color.  At no point in Comics and Sequential Art does Eisner talk about the effects of color on the reader’s perception of the comic book.  In the years since Eisner’s book first came out, the coloring of comics has become more of its own art form, first thanks to the painters like Bill Sienkiewicz and Alex Ross and then thanks to all of those who’ve adapted to using computers to gain effects and control that earlier generations of colorists never had.  Eisner’s own The Spirit work in the 1940s was in color, but his comic novels of the 1970s and 1980s were mostly black and write or monochromatic.  Even some of the Kitchen Sink reprints of his own works were printed in black and white, highlighting just how skilled Eisner was at using light and shadow to tell his stories.  Today, choices made involving how (or even, if) a comic is colored are as integral to the storytelling as the lettering or layout choices.

For Eisner, the art is everything in a comic.  It is what sets it apart from other mediums like novels and movies.  The way that comics create time and narrative with one image after another makes it such a unique and wonderful way to tell stories.  Even though he wrote three books about comics, the best way to learn about Eisner’s thoughts on comics is to read his comics.  At best, Comics and Sequential Art provides commentary on his thoughts and processes.  The art is everything, and his The Spirit stories or novels like Dropsie Avenue and New York Stories show that art in action.  They are fantastically entertaining stories, but they also contain everything that Eisner is trying to write about in Comics and Sequential Art.  His comic books still hardly look like anything else that has ever been produced, as Eisner lived his theories on every page he ever drew.

In all of those pages he ever set pen to, you can witness the ways Eisner was able to control the reader to go right where he wanted him or her to.  You can see the ways his composition changed from story to story, trying to find the perfect visual metaphors to use to tell stories of heroes, outcasts, lovers, and villains.  In 1993 with Understanding Comics, one of the best but least celebrated things that author Scott McCloud ever did was make a comic book about comic books.  Eisner’s spiritual successor, McCloud wrote and drew a book that perfectly illuminated everything (and more) that Eisner was trying to describe in his book.  What McCloud excels over Eisner in showing us is his wide breadth of storytelling examples from all over the world, using the very same medium that he is writing about.  Just imagine what it would have been like if Eisner had actually made a comic book showing us everything rather than just writing about it and using illustrations from his past work as examples.

It feels like so many of the comics of the past 20 years have forgotten Eisner’s lessons or, worse yet, just ignored them.  In the 1990s, we saw the rise of the artist, thanks to Image Comics, along with Marvel and DC’s reactionary imitation of Image.  Yet a lot of those comics were glorified pin ups where the creators were unable to understand the ways to tell a story through drawings.  Then at the beginning of the 21st century, thanks to the likes of Warren Ellis, Mark Millar, Grant Morrison, and Brian Michael Bendis, the writers became the stars of comics while the art merely served the functional requirements of providing images so these pamphlets could be called comics.  The fans and readers have gone along with these creative shifts in the industry, stuck in their allegiances to art or writing and forgetting about the alchemical magic that makes a comic book a work of art.  For both pin-up artists and those who merely churn out pages, blindly following a writer’s script like some kind of instruction manual, Eisner had a word for them: illustrator.  They weren’t storytellers.

To Eisner, the ability to create a comic is its own form of writing.  Just like the act of reading a comic is similar but different than the act of reading text, a cartoonist is an author who is using a different set of tools than merely words and sentences.  He or she is using images and time in ways that no other medium could or is even capable of.  Comics and Sequential Art is a beginning guide into the world of comics, but it contains thoughts and ideas that need to be expressed aloud.  Eisner put words to concepts that have existed for over 80 years, but his book solidifies those ideas, making them real.  If you have been submerged in comic storytelling, either as a cartoonist or a reader, there’s a good chance that you have already encountered and subliminally processed almost everything Eisner writes about.  This may be everyday stuff, but it takes a visionary like Will Eisner to define the abstract nature of comic art.

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A recovering Art/English major (Calvin College, 1992), Scott Cederlund's comic obsession started with Avengers #144 when Patsy Walker first became Hellcat. Since then, it has grown into far too many longboxes and book shelves. He has spent the last 10 years writing about comics online, most recently for Newsarama, Sound on Sight, and Panel Patter. You can follow him on Tumblr at ilostitatthecomicshop.tumblr.com and on Twitter @scottcederlund.

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Also by Scott Cederlund:

How to Analyze & Review Comics: A Handbook on Comics Criticism


The Mignolaverse: Hellboy and the Comics Art of Mike Mignola


1 Comment

  1. I was intrigued by your question ‘who is Eisner’s intended audience?’ Pop culture uses the phrase ‘a comic’s comic’ to refer to comedians, but I believe it a relevant appropriation here. Thank you for your scholarship! I look forward to more.

    In prepping for my own article, I found an interesting admission by Eisner himself regarding ‘A Contract with God.’ This isn’t much of a revelation but I figured I’d share it. In 2005′s “Eisner/Miller,” Will Eisner supposed that his reader was a “sixty-year-old guy who just had his wallet stolen on the subway. That’s my reader. My reader has a lot of real-life experience. He thinks maybe that God’s full of shit. He feels like an ant” (9).

    Sometimes I think Will Eisner’s reader was himself — maybe a younger version he wished to instruct, or a ‘modern’ version he needed to commiserate with. In any case, it’s a great question.

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