March 10th, 2009

The Zombie

Comics and Consequential Art


March 9 -  Whoops!  I guess I let the remainder of Will Eisner Week slip by without an update here in the ol' WOMP-Blog.  That was mostly an oversight since much of the entry below was completed back on last Wednesday night/Thursday morning.  I just never had the time to post it.  Oh, well.  Let's get back to it...

Man, I love a good police drama.  I grew up during what has to be considered the Golden Age of TV cops.  The proliferation of detective programs during that period, from about 1970 to around 1980, really hasn't been matched since.  It may not be what most kids were into, but my Dad and I were devoted followers of everything from Kojak and Baretta to The Streets of San Francisco and Hawaii Five-O.  Oh, and The Mod Squad, Ironside, Quincy M.E., Columbo, Banacek, McCloud, Cannon, and - of course - our favorite, The Rockford Files (just to name a few).  As we'd watch each show, we would compete with each other to see which of us could solve the case first.  Dad always won, but only because I always wanted there to be some sort of "aliens," "ghost," or other sci-fi angle, whereas he was both smart enough to decipher the actual clues and he understood TV-writing formulas (for example, the Murder She Wrote murderer is always the most famous guest star who is not the accused, or, expressed as an actual formula, M=MFGS-A).  Sigh.  Those days are gone now, but, thanks to the new cop/science fiction series Life on Mars, which is set in 1973 (or a coma-induced version of 1973 at least), I can not only revisit the era of my youth, but finally can enjoy the weirdo elements that I'd always wished for back then!  Even so, I'm sure my Dad solves the cases before I do.  That all reminds me of Will Eisner's The Spirit, which, when it comes right down to it, was a police drama.  Often overlooked in scholarly examinations of Mr. Eisner's work is his ability to craft a compelling mystery.  This may be related to the first countdown feature of the night...

Seven Ways That
WILL EISNER
Changed My Life!


Number Four - Will Eisner made me think ahead about what I draw!  It seems like a no-brainer.  If you are going to draw something, you should think about it first, right?  Even so, for years I drew as I had since childhood; without any planning other than remembering to assemble pencils and paper, I'd start drawing "something," then slowly fill the remaining page(s) with whatever else I'd think of.  I drew my earliest comic books that way.  I'd draw a cover, then the first panel, then the second, and so on.  That may explain why so many of those comics have no ending.  Later, when I saw how carefully designed Mr. Eisner's extremely tight little Spirit stories were, I knew I had to change my established "process."  In just a tiny number of pages, he could show - ugh - just so much; satire, mood, the passage of time, character development, humor, drama, philosophy, innuendo, adventure, and an actual story (with not only a beginning, middle, and end, but also a point).  It was pretty obvious that he didn't "just draw" such a comic.  He crafted it.  Wherever I would always just wing it, hoping to find something good when I was done, Mr. Eisner clearly polished his stories, reworking each several times before they went to print.  Since discovering this, I have spent a lot of time thinking about my comics work (which has been few and far between...but at least I thought about it) before drawing it.  I now have file after file of production designs, story notes, layout ideas, and stories (each with not only a beginning, middle, and end, but also a point).  While the quality of these stories is questionable, no-one can deny the amount of thinking ahead that I do to create them.  Far from burdening the process, this adds so much more enjoyment and satisfaction to my work (just like his challenge to never do the same thing twice).  Thanks, Mr. Eisner!

That brings me to...

Number Three - Will Eisner revealed to me that comic books are all about storytelling!  OK, I'll admit it.  I used to think of comics as not much more than booklets filled with nifty drawings.  Oh, I understood that they were written by someone, but most stories of my youth seemed to be pretty formulaic.  Those that weren't?  I couldn't figure out what made a comic book better than another.  Even more curiously, some of my favorite comics featured artwork that wasn't as "cool" as what was in some of my least favorite comics.  In fact, when I really first saw Will Eisner's The Spirit artwork in advertisements, I was less than impressed.  I guess that his style was too old-fashioned for a kid more accustomed to Neal Adams and Gil Kane.  It was only later, when I actually read three The Spirit stories in A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics, that it all finally clicked.  A comic book is a storytelling medium.  Everything, from script to layout to character designs to lettering size to inking style to whatever, should contribute to telling a story.  If some element doesn't do that, it shouldn't be there.  And those comics with "so-so" art that I enjoyed nonetheless?  Upon review, they were streamlined to tell the story at hand.  No muss, no fuss, just enough for us. This hit me like a revelation...a revolution...a resolution; from then on, for me, comic books are all about storytelling.  This has enriched my comics reading, understanding, and creating.  Thanks. Mr. Eisner!

Speaking of understanding...

Number Two - Will Eisner legitimized comic books in the eyes of my family!  I've been dancing around the subject of the most powerful of Mr. Eisner's works, at least in regards to its impact on my life.  I'm talking, of course, of Comics and Sequential Art (subtitled The Understanding and Practice of The World's Most Popular Art Form).  Published about the same time I left The Kubert School, this book became my textbook for furthering my comics education on my own (sidenote; at least during my time at the JKS, there were no textbooks, nor even a library).  It is the first book to dissect the art of comics in a serious, studious way.  It has been indispensable to me over the years, but, honestly, by the time I got my hands on a copy (1987?), it served mostly to clearly and carefully voice concepts which I had already come to understand in some form (at least a little) by schooling, private study, reading, and/or doing.  No, the greatest impact the book had on my life was as an introduction to "my world" for my parents.  After reading my copy, I loaned it to my Mom and Dad.  It's all well and good to have a passion for something, but how do you explain that passion to people who have absolutely no frame of reference?  Comics and Sequential Art showed my folks exactly what I'd been trying to tell them for years.  While they had always been supportive, they were each very impressed with the book, which not only legitimized comic books in their eyes, but my pursuit of a comics career as well.  Strangely, the story doesn't end there.  Nearly twenty years later, in 2005, I felt like I was in a creative quandary, and I was looking for some direction.  Some of you long-time WOMP-Blog readers may remember this episode.  After years of fantasizing about communicating with Mr. Eisner, I finally decided to place my future in his hands.  I gathered my crappy comics, began a letter begging for advice, and prepared to accept his judgement.  Before I went any further, because of the potential that this act would change the course of our lives, I felt that I had to explain to my lovely wife (The WOMP Staff) just who this Eisner guy was, and why his "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" meant so much.  What better way than to show her my dog-eared copy of Comics and Sequential Art?  Like my parents before her, she gained a real appreciation for what Will Eisner did, and an understanding of why his opinion would mean so much to me.  Unfortunately, Mr. Eisner died three days later.  I'd missed my chance for a direct conversation about comic books with one of my heroes, but, upon reflection, I realized that he'd already spoken to my family on the subject, and that was worth all the advice in the world.  Thanks, Mr. Eisner!

That brings us to...

Number One - Will Eisner has inspired my entire "career"  It's probably pretty obvious by now that I think very highly of Mr. Eisner and his work.  He has been a serious influence on me since I was in the seventh grade, and I consider his comics and graphic novels to be among the best ever produced.  But, as for inspiring my attempts to have a career in comics?  That's more difficult to explain.  I suppose that it has a lot to do with Mr. Eisner's impressive talents for "sequential art" as his chosen medium.  Most cartoonists are, were, or at least seemed to be frustrated artists who'd rather have been creating "real" art, but were forced to belittle themselves with comics work.  And, even though Mr. Eisner himself seems to have felt that way quite often, it's pretty obvious now that he was meant to create comics.  Whether innate or learned, his ability as a master comic book artist has become legend, and was/is, no doubt, one of the main reasons why Mr. Eisner's work has inspired me for decades.  But...but there is something else there....something that keeps me going, even when everything around me is desperately trying to tell me to stop.  What is it?  Well, when I read an Eisner work, especially his later graphic novels, I'm always, always swept up in his genius.  I have often blathered about his fellow master-storyteller Frank Miller (who had an equally important influence on me), but where Mr. Miller sees the darkness, Mr. Eisner illuminates it.  He doesn't dismiss it.  Both artistically and thematically, Will Eisner never shied away from the dark areas.  In those graphic novels, there was seldom (if ever?) a "happy ending," but the focus was less on the character's specific vignette than it was on his or her humanity.  I think that his artistic world-view, which imbued his drawings with a sense of real life - warts and all - may be the biggest reason why Will Eisner has influenced my entire "career," and, of course, my life.  I like to think that I'm a better artist because of The Spirit and Comics and Sequential Art, but I know that I'm a better person because of A Contract With God and A Life Force.  For that, and for every other way that he changed my life, I am eternally grateful.  Thanks, Mr. Eisner!

So, I have no fun little game for you tonight, but I can leave you with a few more (backlogged) More Fun Comics Characters of The Day - Johnny Quick, Captain Desmo, Henri Duval, Superman, Johnny "Genius" Jones, and Aquaman!