While 2007 was a busy year for new graphic novelists and cartoon artists of all kinds, particularly now that they’re getting some long overdue respect, one of the real treats for the genre came late in the year when W.W. Norton (in their infinite wisdom) re-released a pleasingly hefty pile of books by the late, great Will Eisner. As in father of the graphic novel, as in the churning vortex of industrious creativity during the bastard art form’s early formative years, as in mentor and inspiration to a generation of artists from Michael Chabon to Frank Miller, as in the reason that the greatest creative award in graphic novels and comics is named the Eisner Award. Yes, that Will Eisner.
Norton secured the rights to the Eisner back in 2004 (he passed away in 2005) and have been steadily releasing nicely presented trade paperback and hardcover editions since then. The trilogy that made up A Contract with God came out in 2005, while a quarter of Gotham-centric titles were bundled into the hefty Will Eisner’s New York a year later. Those four titles—City People Notebook, New York the Big City, Invisible People, and The Building; all originally published between the early-1980s and early-1990s—were then released last December as individual paperbacks.
As groundbreaking as Eisner was in pushing the idea that comics could be not just serious but also art, in a sense, there remains an overwhelming sense of the past around his work, even the material drawn only a couple decades ago. The rubbery-faced goons who galumph through these books, all exaggerated features and shabby clothes, seem at first like caricatures out of some Depression-era vaudeville. Eisner’s faces are rarely just there, instead registering Dickensian pathos or Broadway musical-style joy, without a lot of shading in between. The style is right out there and populist in the great early-to-mid 20th century style, located visually somewhere between Mad and Playboy. These stories of love and loss in the great big city of New York range from the two-page character vignettes of New York the Big City (all true then as they are now and fifty years hence) to the fairy-tale tragedy of The Building, many of them moral fables anchored around a particularly concrete piece of real estate, whether it’s a subway grate or office building.
Being the fantasist at heart, these books seem almost a truer expression of Eisner’s heart than the three weighty “autobiographical stories” bundled together in Life in Pictures (also released late in 2007 and reviewed in full by PopMatters’ Erik Hinton here). Although the trilogy—To the Heart of the Storm, The Name of the Game, and The Dreamer—contain a number of sharply drawn portraits that limn the corners of the Jewish-American experience, whether in high society or a comics sweatshop, they seem more forced and less organic than the self-contained fables of the New York novels. Some things just beg to be made up.