Wednesday, January 5, 2005

Two stories about the late, great Will Eisner, master of the comics medium:

• In the mid-1980s, I had a girlfriend who gave me a huge stack of great graphic novels for Christmas one year (every fanboy's dream). One of those was Will Eisner's "A Contract With God", and it was like nothing I'd ever seen before. I was mostly a straight superhero comics man then, and this 1978 book was one of the first "graphic novels," with a series of four interlocking, very serious, spandex-free stories on man and faith, all set in the same New York tenement building.
It wouldn't be too much of an exaggeration to say "A Contract With God" changed my impression of comics forever. Real people! Doing real things! The woeful tale of a rabbi who loses his faith; a miserable landlord whose only friend is his dog; a young man's coming of age, each rendered in Eisner's loose-limbed, expressive style. Adult topics such as sex, religion and racism are all dealt with here. It was a thunderstroke of a book for me, one that led me on to Clowes, Bagge, Crumb, more Eisner and other "adult" comix. It's amazing to me that it's just part of a huge, 70-year tapestry of work that dates back to his legendary "The Spirit" work of the 1940s (now being collected by DC Comics in a series of 15 or so gorgeous hardcover volumes, and something I hope to afford the complete set of before I die).

• The second story is of Will Eisner the man, who was incredibly gracious and friendly to all people, and a source of encouragement to countless artists -- including me. Back in the 1990s when I created, wrote and helped draw a little small press comic, "Amoeba Adventures," my partner and I would send copies out on occasion to the "pros," hoping for a kind word or two about our humble efforts. It worked sometimes -- I remember Dave Sim's wonderful thoughtfulness in doing a big pin-up of our main character, Prometheus, entirely unasked -- but of all those little notes and drawings, none affected me more than the day I got a letter from Will Eisner. A handwritten note, with fond words to say about my little scribblings -- from a man who was to comics as the Beatles are to modern rock music.

I framed that note, and still have it to this day. (Spookily, I just now noticed it was written exactly 10 years to the day before he died.) What gets me is, Eisner didn't have to write us back; heck, I would've been happy with a form letter with his signature on the bottom. But knowing this man, who meant so much to the maturation of comics as an art form, took the time to read my comic book and then write a few words about it — well, that's the measure of the man, isn't it?

He kept working right into his 80s, and had a final graphic novel on his desk before he died at age 87 Monday. He was the teacher, role model and the inspiration to so many. If there's a heaven, Eisner's in it right now, and I'm sure he's already working on the best graphic novel of all.

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