Last night I attended a screening of Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist, a documentary written and directed by the brothers Jon and Andrew Cooke. I'm a longtime reader of Eisner's work and I approached the film with a certain nervousness. I was afraid that the film would be too fannish, only working for those who are immersed in Eisner's work and the comics subculture. Happily, I can report that the film is excellent and works well for a general audience. The film screened as part of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. The majority of the audience was not comics people and they were appreciative of the film as it laid out the importance of Eisner's life and work.
(You can see a longer version of this trailer here.)
Eisner died during the five year production of the film, but it does include interview footage of him that was shot for the documentary. In addition, the film includes on-screen appearances by comics creators Art Spiegelman, Joe Kubert, Gil Kane, Frank Miller, Jules Feiffer, Jerry Robinson, Denis Kitchen, Max Allan Collins, Scott McCloud and Neil Gaiman as well as novelists Kurt Vonnegut, and Michael Chabon. The voices of Jack Kirby, Harvey Kurtzman, Neal Adams and Milton Caniff can be heard in interviews that Eisner conducted himself acting as a comics historian. A great deal of Eisner's artwork is featured, much of it shot from the original drawings.
The film covers the course of Eisner's life from his poor beginnings in New York, his struggle to find work as an artist during the Great Depression and his innovations in the early comic book field. It recounts his time in the military during World War II when he became heavily involved in using comics for training and maintenance purposes. It discusses The Spirit, a comic book insert distributed with newspapers that allowed Eisner to create stories that appealed to the entire range of newspaper readers, from children to adults. In the '50s, he formed a company to create sponsored comics for educational purposes and in the early '70s, he sold the company and created a series of highly personal graphic novels.
The film also covers Eisner's personal life, showing home movies with his parents, his wife and his children and includes Eisner's perspective on comics as a business and an art form. The film is attractively put together and well paced. It does an excellent job of portraying Eisner and his work and the audience seemed interested in both based on questions they asked Andrew Cooke after the screening.
Eisner is inspirational to me on several fronts. From the standpoint of creators rights, Eisner was a pioneer in owning the rights to his work on The Spirit. In the early 21st century, Eisner was still earning money from work he had done 60 years before. It would take decades after Eisner for the idea of royalties to take hold in the comic book business and mainstream comics still resist allowing creators to truly own their work. Eisner's entrepreneurial bent propelled him into using comics as a teaching tool, broadening the market and the audience for comics. As he approached 60, an age when many business people think about retirement, Eisner began a third career creating a series of graphic novels that were a complete break with what was being done in the comics field. He was still doing new work until his death at 87 from complications resulting from heart surgery
Artistically, Eisner underwent a major change of focus between his early work on The Spirit and later graphic novels; it's as if he metamorphosed from Alfred Hitchcock into Jean Renoir or Chaplin. His early work is Hitchcockian in that it depends heavily on genre and uses the camera and editing to achieve its effects. His graphic novels are more like Renoir and Chaplin; the characters' emotions are more important than displaying technical virtuosity. Eisner had an animator's ability to say a lot about a character's inner state through how a character was posed. Like Renoir and Chaplin, his late work often looked backwards to an earlier part of his life. In Eisner's case, he was the child of immigrants in New York City's multicultural melting pot.
The film makes the point that Eisner's exposure to underground comics in the early 1970's was what inspired him to return to creating stories. While Jules Feiffer, who worked for Eisner in the late 1940s, is interviewed in the film, I think there's a case to be made for Feiffer's influence on Eisner as well. Feiffer's weekly comic in The Village Voice was completely stripped down. There were rarely backgrounds of any kind and Feiffer's panels were often occupied by a single character grappling with the politics, relationships and social mores of the 1950s. Eisner never stripped down his work to the extent Feiffer did, but Eisner's subject matter certainly moved more in Feiffer's direction than in the direction of underground cartoonists like Crumb or S. Clay Wilson.
If you have the opportunity to see Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist, I highly recommend it. I look forward to owning this on DVD and will mention when it becomes available.
(For those of you in New York, Jules Feiffer will be at the Strand Bookstore, 828 Broadway, on May 15 at 7 p.m. signing The Explainers, a collection of the first 10 years of his strip for The Village Voice. As I'll be in New York that week, I hope to be there.)