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January 04, 2005

On Will Eisner …

Every art form has its masters – people generally perceived as the very best in the field. Ray Charles, Pete Townshend, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Nelson Algren, Harlan Ellison … I’m sure you have your own list of the greats.

The comic art form has its masters as well; people who have brought much-desired legitimacy to a field that, in the United States, had been perceived as disposable fodder for children and the dull-witted. The newspaper comic strip had the first recognized masters: Al Capp, Milton Caniff, Alex Raymond. Such recognition came to comic books more slowly. When Master of the Sense of Wonder Jack Kirby died, at least one of the teevee nets covered it in their evening newscast – I think it was ABC, designating Jack their person of the week. More recently, graphic novels have been getting reviewed in places like Time Magazine, the New York Times, and other “prestigious” publications.

With one foot in the strips and the other in books, one man towered above all others. Will Eisner, the master of the genuine graphic novel, the man who used the graphic storytelling form to show us the passion in the tenements and the humanity in humans. Will brought depth and soul into his work and had been doing so for 65 years (his final graphic novel "The Plot: The Secret Story of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” will be published by W.W. Norton & Company this May). He imbued his characters with passions so sweet that you could identify with their shortcomings, you could despair for the man who cheated on his wife while at the same time understanding why that wife had to throw her husband out – to her own detriment.

Nobody wins in life – that’s the Noir Coda – but to Will’s eyes humanity suffered no shortage of love and noble intention.

I was privileged to know Will for more than 25 years. I interviewed him many times on stage at various conventions, I conspired with him during the founding days of the modern independent comics movement (“Did you know DC was going to start taking direct sales returns?” Will said, sadly, back in the days he didn’t trust DC because of their “mob” ownership), I later worked with him when I was editing at DC (turns out they didn’t start taking direct sales returns after all). But my favorite story about Will Eisner doesn’t involve Will at all. It involves my father.

Back in the late 1970s, Will was supposed to show up at the Chicago Comicon as our guest of honor. He didn’t make it that year, having fallen off a ladder earlier that week (Will rescheduled for the following year). But when the show started, many attendees didn’t know it yet. My father came over to the convention to drop something off for me, and as we were chatting a couple fans came up and asked Dad for his autograph. We both were taken aback, until the fans said “… Mister Eisner.”

And I looked at my father with eyes anew. I love my father, but being a comics fan of the first order, the mere fact that he was confused with Will Eisner made him all the more impressive to me. I told Dad he was just confused with the greatest master of the comic art form. He thought that was pretty cool; all the moreso when I laid a copy of Contract With God on him. And, yes, my father does look like Will Eisner. He’s a year older.

Will died last night of complications following heart surgery, at the age of 87. We’ll see other comics masters, and someday maybe even better ones (I ain’t betting on that, though). But Will was the guy who gave comics its heart and soul.

Will Eisner didn’t turn the comic book into an art form. He turned it into literature.

Folks unfamiliar with Will’s work are urged to check out the obit written by the Chicago Tribune’s Robert K. Elder at http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/chi-050104willeisner.story Robert tells me he’ll be doing a feature story about Will in this coming Friday’s edition.

Posted by Mike Gold at January 4, 2005 05:13 PM

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Awesome tribute to one of the greats; I had noted his passing, and that of Freas earlier in the week, and was saddened. Incidentally, if you're interested in a great Jewish comics novel, have you read Michael Chabon's "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay"?

Posted by: Isaac at January 7, 2005 12:53 AM

That book turned my sister onto Will's work. She's become quite a fan.

Posted by: Mike Gold at January 7, 2005 04:44 PM

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