A Family Matter

by Ian Chant

20 August 2009

cover art

A Family Matter

(WW Norton)
US: 2009

A birthday. A reunion. A death in the family. These are the small stories captured so eloquently in A Family Matter, one of the last works of graphic fiction icon Will Eisner.

I learned to read on superhero comic books, and when I was still a kid they turned on me with a vengeance. The much maligned Spiderman ‘Clone Saga’ pushed me out of a lifetime of comics reading. But holed up in a public library one rainy northwest afternoon, Will Eisner brought me back to the fold. I picked up a copy of A Contract With God and got hooked all over again. Will Eisner’s stories of life in the tenements of New York proved that the funny pages of my youth could just as easily be a place for serious storytelling, for exploring, small, personal, everyday narratives with phenomenal grace and depth. A Family Matteris one of those stories, and while it doesn’t stand alongside the finest works in his catalog, Eisner’s evocative illustrations breathe real life into an otherwise banal story.

Like many of the tenement stories, A Family Matter is a melodrama, and it carries every burden that implies, occasionally bending under the weight of a storyline that can feel overwrought and dialogue that is frequently simplistic. The story moves along at a breakneck pace, and it is to its detriment that Eisner seems intent on covering too large a story in too brief a span. But it’s rendered gorgeously, the art work loosed from its traditionally paneled moorings, the images flowing naturalistically into one another. Scenes from the past and present collide, and the action of the tale occurs as much in the minds eye of its cast as it does in the here and now, a storytelling style that lends itself to Eisner’s flowing visuals. This loose, simultaneous storytelling brilliantly illuminates the unforgiven wrongs that lie just beneath the surface of too many family reunions. The wounds of the past constantly make themselves felt anew, forcing their way into the present against the wishes and better judgment of Eisner’s cast.

The other inimitable, unmistakable marks of Eisner’s work are on full display in A Family Matter. Eisner renders facial expressions that tell us more about a character than pages of exposition could in the hands of a lesser craftsman. A sneer, a wink, a shrug invites us into the world of these characters and makes them real. Disappointingly, in only a slim 70 page volume, even Eisner is incapable of fleshing out his cast as fully realized characters. But rather than clichés, Eisner paints the members of his dysfunctional family as archetypes – each member of the family is instantly recognizable but bears their own unique flourishes.

Also in fine form are Eisner’s portraits of the world his characters inhabit. Crumbling bars, stately manor houses and seedy month to month hotels are each given their due, elegantly illustrated and brought to life on the page. Rooms and people disappear and emerge from the pen and ink shadow of Eisner’s world at his whim. As the end of the tale creeps closer, the shadows encroach further and further, gathering around each corner offering no escape save for the image of a kitchen table crowded with silent siblings that tells an entire story of it’s own in just one glimpse.

Ultimately, A Family Matter is a rather bleak tale, playing out like a Eugene O’Neill drama as it builds to a crescendo that is at heartbreaking both despite and because of its inevitability. It is a tale about the ties that bind us, and what remains when there’s nothing left worth holding together. Admittedly, it is probably not his finest work, but A Family Matter a worthy representation of a genre that Eisner pioneered.

Its abysmal filmic adaptation aside, the goofy, action packed world of The Spirit occupies an unassailable place in Will Eisner’s legacy. But one hopes it does not overshadow the smaller tales like A Family Matter or Life On Dropsie Avenue, the simpler, more personal works of a genre that he pioneered. Tales of loyalty and betrayal, of quiet dignity and damage done – these are the stories Eisner weaves into the narrative of A Family Matter. And the tale is not so deftly told as comparable pieces, but anyone curious about the canon of a lion in the field would do well to give it a look.

A Family Matter


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