Life, in Pictures — Review
OK, so you all know Will Eisner is a genius of comics – inventor of The Spirit, possibe coiner of the “graphic novel” term, namesake of awards, grandfather of every autobio cartoonist of the last three decades – right? But how many of you have actually read his stuff recently?
(Or is it just me – am I the only one who had spent more time reading about Eisner than actually reading his works?)
Eisner, at the end of his life (he died in early 2005), made a deal for much of his extensive backlist to be republished by the very classy – and previous not open to comics – publisher W.W. Norton. They published his last graphic novel, the not entirely successful The Plot, are in the process of reprinting many of his works, and, in particular, assembled three big omnibuses of Eisner’s best stories. The Contract With God Trilogy came out in early 2006, Will Eisner’s New York in late 2006, and now Life, in Pictures collects three of his most autobiographical graphic novels (and a couple of shorter stories).
Eisner was born in 1917, and turned back to comics after his retirement in the mid-‘70s, so it shouldn’t be surprising that there’s something old-fashioned about his stories. But yet these stories are so relentlessly old-fashioned, and so steeped in a New York that was obsolete before I was born, that it needs to be noted. (The story set the closest to modern times in Life, in Pictures is the earliest story, “A Sunset in Sunshine City,” set roughly contemporaneous to its 1985 publication. Other than that, the stories here reach up to WW II at best – and, then, only at the very end of a long story.
The subtitle of Life, in Pictures is “Autobiographical Stories,” and each word is equally important – all five pieces here are autobiographical, but they’re also stories. (And none of them are autobiographies, full stop.) “A Sunset in Sunshine City” tells the story of a retired Jewish man who moves to Florida, isn’t ready to stop living, and gets mixed up with his own family and a gold-digging (or just sensation-seeking, perhaps) widow.
The Dreamer is the most clearly based on Eisner’s own life – all of the names are different, but it’s essentially the story of the Eisner & Iger Studio. Especially with its new, extensive annotations, it will be of great interest to students of early comics (though Eisner concentrates on his own “dreams” and dealings with business types, and less with the lives and foibles of other cartoonists). Eisner does hammer on his theme a bit too hard, with people calling young “Billy” a “dreamer” – or, rather, “D*R*E*A*M*E*R!”, far too often. Eisner can be subtle, when he cares to be, but there’s a strong vaudeville streak in him as well, and the latter is visible more often than the former.
The longest work in Life, in Pictures is the two hundred page-plus To the Heart of the Storm, a story made up of the remembered flashbacks of a soldier on his way to the war in 1942. Young “Willie” remembers his own youth, and a bit of that of his parents, to tell Eisner’s familiar story of ethnic prejudice and family strife. (And a whole lot of lumpy-looking people; unlike most modern comics artists, Eisner wasn’t afraid to draw unattractive people – the vast majority of his characters are deeply unattractive, just like most of the people you’d see on the street.) It’s a well-told story, with lots of telling details…but it’s also yet another Eisner story about Jews in New York in the early 20th century, struggling to make ends meet, fighting with other people in the family, and trying to live with the prejudice of those around them.
The Name of the Game is nearly as long, and starts further back in time to retell the story of a family much like that of Eisner’s wife, Ann. There’s even more family strife, and this time Eisner even gets into the prejudices of one kind of Jews for another. (It may be all very real and true, but Eisner’s stories, read in a clump, leave one with the feeling that all humanity is made up of lumpy, obnoxious people who mostly hate each other – or are incompetent, or sometimes both – and the only possible saving grace is that this race of beings apparently died out about fifty years ago.)
Last is a very short piece called “The Day I Became a Professional,” about Eisner’s first rejection, and a meeting with a fellow cartoonist.
Eisner’s stories are always technically well-done, but they do feel older than they actually are. He was active as a graphic novelist from 1978 through 2005, but the stories he created over those three decades look much further back – they feel like works from right before the war, or during it. (There’s something essentially less modern about Eisner than Philip Roth, for example – his Jews are all pre-war, touched by pogroms but not by the Holocaust, subject to prejudice from their neighbors but not yet having discovered through the rebirth of Israel the joy in strength.) To read Eisner, one has to jump back to that earlier time, to make the imaginative leap to that world – a world that has been gone now for two generations. And the reader has to be ready for Eisner’s melodrama, his occasionally overwrought dialogue and tormented body language. Eisner aspired to naturalism, but only reached it intermittently; he told stories about real people in a real world, but filtered through the language of comics as he knew it – the language of action and adventure.
There’s much worth reading in Eisner, but the reader has to know what he’s in for: he’s not much like anyone else, not the undergrounds or the art and autobio cartoonists who followed him. Eisner is Eisner; no one else in the field told stories the way he did, or told the kind of stories he did.
Life, in Pictures: Autobiographical Stories
W.W. Norton, 2007, $29.95
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
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