“Dreamers journey through life to a cadence all their own. They make decisions or enter undertakings that often seem naive and confounding to the pragmatists, who, in the end, thrive on opportunities set in motion by fantasy and imaginings. This is a story about a dreamer.” That’s how Will Eisner introduced his graphic novel The Dreamer. It also works as an introduction to the man himself.
I enjoy reading graphic novels and comic books. They showcase some of the most inventive storytelling on the market, but I discovered Will Eisner only recently. I don’t know what took me so long.
It’s not like he’s an obscure guy in the comics world. The Eisner Awards that recognize excellence in American comics are named after him, and his Contract with God and other Tenement Stories is widely considered to be one of the first graphic novels. Even if it wasn’t the very first, it helped to transform the juvenile world of comics into sophisticated adult reading, paving the way for Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel, Maus.
Eisner was working on his seminal comic series The Spirit in the 1940s when comics were starting to go out of fashion. As Neil Gaiman writes in his introduction to The Best of the Spirit, “his contemporaries dreamed of getting out of the comics ghetto and into more lucrative and respectable places.” Not Will Eisner.
He was more interested in producing something great out of his passion than in pursuing what others considered reputable. I admire that.
Make no mistake, Eisner is a master at what he does. Most comic books are written by one person and illustrated by another. Eisner does both in top-notch form.
Flip to a random page of his work and you’ll probably find panels with heightened, dynamic action next to carefully delineated portraits that reveal character. The equivalent of that would be a Jean Claude Van Damme type winning an Oscar for his layered performance as Mr. Darcy in Jane Austin’s beloved classic Pride and Prejudice.
Speaking of which, when Eisner isn’t illustrating his own stories, he is adapting material from classic texts. I was particularly impressed by his adaption of Moby Dick. Herman Melville’s novel took me weeks and weeks to finish. It’s worth the time, but it’s no easy read. In contrast, Eisner’s children’s book version is 32 pages, so I read it in less than an hour.
Moby Dick – Will Eisner, 2003
Despite the dramatic difference in length, Eisner’s edition nails the essence of the story, with themes intact and everything. Impressive.
In previous posts, I’ve defended optimistic art because I don’t think it gets the respect it deserves. I like Eisner’s work, but he is no warrior for optimism like Cameron Crowe or Harry Potter. It is a darker world Eisner conveys full of shady underworld types, vicious wife beaters, and treacherous females. Justice shows up less and less in his later work, and when she does, it isn’t always pretty.
It has taken me some time to appreciate that kind of storytelling. My inclination is to offer some kind of hope. After all, don’t most people already have enough real-life experiences to sense that life is sometimes cruel and unfair? Why focus on that side of things? It is sort of like inviting company over to your house and then forcing them to stare at your unwashed toilet.
Choosing to clean the toilet does not take away from the reality that the toilet was once unclean. It just points to another reality, that you care enough about your guests to give them a more sanitary experience. Besides, the reality of the toilet does not negate all the other, more appealing parts of the house.
Still, there is a place for stories that delve into the soiled corners. Storytellers can, for example, depict violence in an exploitative way that fuels our basest instincts or they can search for the truth behind the violence. The first is reprehensible. The second is instructive and possibly a step closer to peace. Eisner does the latter by bestowing a sense of humanity even to his lowlifes.
There are some monsters in this world and many of them work in the entertainment business, ladies and gentlemen. Fortunately I have seen films like Robert Altman’s The Player, so I am not entirely caught off guard. That’s the value of Eisner’s occasionally grimy stories: They warn of the dark things that humans are capable of doing. The prudent reader will observe and take caution, perhaps saving himself future grief.
That’s not a new outlook. When I read The Federalist Papers I was surprised by how often the writers would suggest that a wise government is one designed to anticipate inevitable deficiencies of character. In contemporary political treatises, the notion of human fallibility has been whitewashed into politically correct platitudes, where citizens are mostly enlightened types (excluding, of course, those employed by corporations) who always act in the best interest of everyone involved.
Having lots of self-actualized types working to make things better for everyone sounds appealing, but history’s tragedies warn us that those in power aren’t always so noble.
Read enough Eisner and you might be less inclined to forget that humans have been, and still remain, creatures of light and shadow. Eisner offers enough examples of heroism so as not to dissuade us entirely from hoping for the best in others, but his work also reminds us to tread carefully just in case people don’t heed their better angels. After all, to err is human, or so they say. So they say.
In more conventional comic books, the bad guy meets his demise when the good guy gets him: Justice is serviced with a Pow! That kind of set up finds its way into Will Eisner’s stories as well, but sometimes the villain’s own vices do the deed.
New York Life in the Big City – Will Eisner, 2006
In stories like “The Last Trolley,” “Martha & The Renaissance Primitive,” and “The Last Hand,” the Spirit’s role is reduced to an observer. Basically all he has to do is show up and watch as the guilty ones self-destruct.
As a force for good, the Spirit’s mere presence tends to serve as catalyst for that destruction; His decency makes them so uncomfortable that they will do anything to escape it, including confession. Coming from a comic-book writer, that’s not too shabby an insight, don’t you think?
Eisner doesn’t flinch from depicting the dark side of human nature, but he still manages to suggest that the villains too have inherent value, that they too might be worth saving, if possible. Sometimes he allows the bad guys little endearing or comedic moments. Other times, like in “Christmas Spirit of 1948” or “Satin,” Eisner makes us despise someone at first but then turns the tables and asks us to sympathize.
In Contract with God and other Tenement Stories, Eisner doesn’t clearly portray his characters as being good or evil. That way we’re more sympathetic when something unfortunate happens to someone who may have done bad things.
I suggested earlier that Eisner brought respectability to the once lowly art form of comics. That’s actually not a bad way to frame his artistic sensibilities as well. He likes to take lowly, unappealing subjects and give them dignity.
In the hands of lesser artists, The Spirit could have easily become another pulpy detective-hero story. Eisner turned it into a compelling, psychologically astute series, one that allows f0r the occasional intrusion of supernatural mystery.
In his New York Life in the Big City graphic novel, he gives the city’s underbelly a poetic quality, and my guess is that his inclination to bring dignity to the ugly things influenced his decision to tackle The Princess and the Frog.
Then there is Eisner’s Fagin the Jew. In it, he retells Oliver Twist from the perspective of Fagin. Fagin is still a villain who tries to lead little Oliver astray, but we discover that his childhood was very similar to Oliver’s. Fagin too was abandoned at a young age. Fagin too is given a fortuitous opportunity to get established within respectable society, but there was just one small problem.
You see Fagin was a Jew, and back then respectable society didn’t take too kindly to Jews. And so, all of Fagin’s legitimate efforts to advance himself are thwarted. To survive he is forced into a life of crime.
Fagin the Jew – Will Eisner, 2003
Oh, those respectable societies back then. They were quite adept at saying the right things, but how different things would have been if they had actually lived up to their stirring rhetoric. But anyway, things were very different back then. Now days, well now days, respectable society is a whole new breed, very modern, very reformed, or so they say. So they say.
At first glance, some of Eisner’s stories seem a little bleaker than I’d prefer. In the stories themselves, justice isn’t always served. The stories with a hero end happily, but sometimes there is no hero who steps up to do the right thing. That leads to tragedies great and small, but that’s not the end of it.
Someone did observe the wrongs, the injustices that crippled the characters in Eisner’s stories. There was a hero lurking in the shadows after all. His name was Will Eisner.
Will Eisner, 1982
He used his consummate skills to entertain, yes, but also to tell the truth. He saw wrongs that needed to be righted, and he did something about them, bringing the sordid spots into the light where they are easier to clean. Read his work and maybe, just maybe, you’ll be a little bit more inclined to help in the cleaning.
If cleaning doesn’t sound all that appealing, well maybe you should still go ahead and take that shower anyway. I’ll appreciate it, and so will Procter & Gamble or whoever else supplies your personal hygiene products. Thank you very much.
After you’ve done that, please consider the words of Einstein, “The world is a dangerous place. Not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.” So smart, that Einstein.
There aren’t many real heroes in the world, and I don’t want to dilute the word’s meaning by using it to describe someone who is merely talented at what he does, but Will Eisner is the real deal.
The last book Eisner produced before he died was Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Published in 2005, it is the culmination of more than 20 years of Eisner’s research, and it tells the true story of one of history’s most infamous forgeries.
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion has been used throughout the world to spread hatred of the Jews. The KKK distributed it. Hitler cited it as a key influence, and Muslim radicals still reference it as a factual source, even though it has been categorically refuted by countless historians.
Ask the local occupier scene kids, the supposed 99 percent, if they have heard of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. I bet many have. I bet some will claim that it reveals the truth about the Jews in power. That’s been my experience talking with some of them, anyway. How appalling that the old lies are still very much alive and well, but how encouraging that Eisner spent so much time and effort trying to refute them.
Protocols of the Elders of Zion – French edition, 1934
Eisner admits that Plot required more research than any other story that he produced, and the research is evident in the historical sources he references to prove the forgery.
Interestingly enough, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, that evil document which has done an inconceivable amount of damage to the world for over a hundred years, was the work of just one man. That’s how evil tends to operate. It has taken a community of decent, diligent folks like Will Eisner to slowly repair the damage. That’s how goodness tends to operate.
I’m not trying to take anything away from Eisner’s remarkable body of work, but I consider Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to be his most important work. Eisner was a practicing Jew throughout his life, so it is not inappropriate, I think, to say that Plot is his strongest contribution to tikkun olam. That’s a Hebrew phrase for “repairing of the world.”
As fate would have it, the true story that inspired Eisner’s first graphic novel made the last one possible. In later interviews, Eisner admitted that the premature death of his own daughter led him to write Contract with God. In that story, a good man undergoes a crisis of faith and becomes jaded when his adopted daughter dies at an early age. He sees her death as a senseless injustice, and it becomes the defining tragedy of his life.
Contract with God – Will Eisner, 1978
Had Will Eisner’s own daughter not died in a seemingly unfair manner, then he would have been far less aware of the ongoing injustices around him. Without that tragic experience, I doubt that Eisner would have found the resilience to take on the ongoing injustices perpetuated by the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Contract with God is a story written out of anger, but still Eisner allows for the possibility that there is a bigger purpose behind the seeming unfairness of the tragedy. At the end of the story, a young man comes across the original contract with God, and he vows to honor it. The story ends before we learn what becomes of that young man. Eisner himself didn’t yet know where his own tragedy would lead him, so his ending parallels his own outlook at the time.
I don’t know what it is like to lose a child, but I have my own reasons to be angry at God. It is one thing to sense that you are asked to help a cute, vulnerable baby. It is quite another thing to sense that you are being asked to help someone you consider, at times, to be a hypocritical monstrosity, a glorified product, a creature who lives a life of privilege but has done everything possible to hurt you.
I’ve tried to avoid that fate, but it is not as easy as you might think. Go ask Jonah if you want a second opinion on that.
To be fair, when I am tempted to focus for too long on the monstrous deeds of others, I am reminded of the horrible things I too have done. I too can be just as monstrous if I’m left to my own devices, but I don’t wish to be left.
That desire to become something better than what I’ve been allows a greater good to guide my steps. It is the source behind my optimism, behind my perseverance. I call that God.
Be that as it may, it is not my fault that the person in question is screwed up. I had nothing to do with it. Besides, I’ve done the best I could and it was not enough, and I have my own issues. It feels like I’m fighting windmills, and I’m getting tired of that feeling.
Speaking of which, Eisner also illustrated Don Quixote. His version is called the Last Knight. Eisner sees Don Quixote as another dreamer who endured mockery and bravely fought for something more noble than the reality at hand.
Still, Don Quixote appears foolish when he is the only one who sees the world a certain way. It’s when others buy into the merit of seeing the world as it should be and not as it is, when they too dare to dream the impossible dream, that Don Quixote stops looking so foolish.
Come to think of it, he starts to look more like King Arthur. Really, the main differences between Don Quixote and King Arthur can be explained away by their companions. Don Quixote had only Sancho Panza. Arthur had all the Knights of the Roundtable plus Merlin the Magician. Truly, optimism is a team sport, ladies and gentlemen.
I want to believe in the best in people. I want to believe in tikkun olam. It was the optimistic films that got me interested in filmmaking, not films like Chinatown, in spite of what all the screenwriting books might suggest.
(Has there ever been a screenwriting book worth its weight that did not include page upon compelling page of in-depth analysis on Chinatown? I get it. Chinatown is a great film, but so is It’s a Wonderful Life, and that doesn’t get anywhere near the amount of ink. Why is that?)
New York: A Life in the Big City – Will Eisner, 2006
Here’s the thing though: pursuing a film career has threatened my capacity to sustain a sense of optimism, the very thing that got me interested in filmmaking in the first place. I don’t know that I can sustain my efforts much longer. There is only so much heartache I can take without seeing progress, and the last few weeks have been some of the most discouraging moments of my life.
This time, I can’t turn it into a happy ending without your help, ladies and gentlemen.
I’ve already done a write-up on director Frank Capra, the director responsible for It’s a Wonderful Life, but allow me to close by mentioning him again. He’s one of my favorite artists, so I hope Will Eisner won’t hold it against me too much.
According to some biographers, young Frank Capra was a bit of huckster, a conman even, the sort of struggling rogue Will Eisner might have featured in his stories. Capra grew up poor in the mean Italian ghettos of Los Angeles, so that doesn’t seem implausible. Consider too that his films like Meet John Doe and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington showcase men who first discover themselves to be phonies before they decide to stand for something.
The biographers suggest that at the start of his film career Capra came close to leaving town with other people’s money, money that was meant to fund Capra’s early films. Had he done that, Capra would have killed his chances at becoming an established filmmaker, and he would have never made the films that inspired so many people. For some reason though, he stayed.
There is speculation that he stayed because of a mysterious stranger to whom Capra repeatedly alluded. In his autobiography, Capra does not name the man but credits him with reawakening his conscience at key moments of his life. For whatever reason that stranger took interest in Capra and helped him do the right thing, and for that reason he may have been the determining variable that allowed Frank Capra’s life to start as an Eisner illustration and end as a Capra film.
Tikkun olam only happens if enough people want it to happen, help it to happen. Do you want it to happen? The ending of it all will depend on your answer. Choose wisely, my friends.
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