Will Eisner’s Vision and the Future of Comics
The Graphic Novel: Mature Themes and Marketing Problems
IN 1978, WILL EISNER PUBLISHED a hardback book of short stories told in the comics medium. The stories were set in the 1930s tenements of the Bronx where Eisner grew up, and Eisner had been mulling over this material for at least twenty years. Entitled A Contract with God, the book was Eisner’s first work in fiction since leaving the world of newsstand comic books in 1952 in order to concentrate on producing instructional comics. Since 1978, he created thirteen similar works, the last, The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an expose of the most insidious anti-Semitic scheme of the ages, an outrageous fabrication purporting to show that Jews were secretly planning to take over the world.
The Plot was a polemic, he told me. “It’s time that the graphic novel serve a cause,” he said. In twenty years, graphic novels had evolved beyond mere literature. Eisner would die a few weeks after finishing The Plot.
Contract was also an argument—an argument for comics’ literary status. The stories in Contract are about ordinary people confronting certain events in their lives— sometimes everyday events, sometimes unusual (even shattering) events. “In telling these stories,” Eisner wrote, “I set aside two basic working constrictions that so often inhibit this medium— space and format.” In other words, he imposed no length limitation upon his storytelling; and he permitted the needs of the story to dictate the page layout (number and size and arrangement of the panels). The title story was more than literary: it was a cri de coeur. The protagonist is Frimme Hersh, an observant Jew who, in his passionate religious naivete, draws up a contract with God—a physical document, inscribed upon a small stone. The terms of the contract are never specified, but they are implicit: in return for living a God-fearing principled life, Hersh expects God’s favor. His fervent expectations, however, are shattered when his beloved adopted daughter Rachele falls ill and dies “in the springtime of her life.”
Hersh rages against God for breaking the contract.
He spits on the stone, the contract, and throws it out the window. He shaves and gives up his religious practices and principles and becomes a rich landlord. After many years, he has second thoughts and goes to the elders at his former synagogue and asks them to make for him a contract with God. The elders hesitate but finally decide that since “all religion is a contract between man and God,” they can provide Hersh with “a guiding document so that he might live in harmony with God.”
Hersh is delighted to have this new contract, which, since it has been drawn up by the elders, must be bonafide. He vows to make a new life and do charitable work again. And then, suddenly, he has a heart attack and dies.
Once again, God has violated their contract.
In an epilogue, Hersh’s first contract, the one etched on a stone, is found by a Hassidic youth named Shloime Khrecks, who sees that the stone is a contract with God. He decides to keep the contract and signs his name below Hersh’s, “thereby entering into a contract with God.”
Eisner’s story, however, has shown repeatedly that a contract with God is one-sided, benefitting God but no one else. For humans, a contract with God is a meaningless gesture, a futile delusion.
The story is more intimately personal than anything Eisner would ever do. Its emotional power comes from his own experience: in 1969, his beloved daughter Alice died of leukemia at the age of sixteen. Like any loving father, Eisner could see no sense in the death of such an innocent. Nor could he see any sense in living a religious life if God can break the contract with impunity. Ironically, as his disillusioned story demonstrates, we continue to make contracts with God as if they mattered.
In a subsequent re-issue of Contract, Eisner confessed in the Preface: “The creation of this story was an exercise in personal agony. My only daughter had died of leukemia eight years before the publication of this book. My grief was still raw. My heart still bled. In fact, I could not even then bring myself to discuss the loss. I made Frimme Hersh’s daughter an ‘adopted child.’ But his anguish was mine. His arguement with God was also mine. I exorcized my rage at a deity that I believed violated my faith and deprived my lovely sixteen-year-old child of her life at the very flowering of it.”
These remarks, he concluded, marked the first time “in thirty-four years that I have openly discussed it.”
Eisner would call Contract a “graphic novel,” a term that subsequently caught on. Comics in this format— long narratives in a single publication— ushered in a new era for cartoonists, and with that, a host of prospects and problems. For a while, Eisner believed he had invented both the form and the term “graphic novel” with the publication of Contract. But he eventually realized that he hadn’t invented either.
The very first printing of this book (hardcover, no dust jacket; limited edition of 1,500 copies) doesn’t use the term; “graphic novel” doesn’t appear in the book until its next printing in paperback, and then it was on the cover: A Contract with God, A Graphic Novel.
As Paul Levitz says in his Will Eisner: Champion of the Graphic Novel: “Prior to Contract, Eisner had used ‘sequential art’ as his preferred euphemism for comics. Whether Eisner subsequently chose ‘graphic novel’ in an act of independent discovery or subconsciously adopted it is unknowable, but the term clearly predated his usage.” And in Opus 346 of Rants & Raves, Levitz runs through a list of graphic novels, both the form and the term, that preceded Contract.
I’ve discussed all this—and introduced critical criteria by which graphic novels can be separated from comic books and identified as unique literary enterprises—at Harv’s Hindsight, January 2004, “Defining the Graphic Novel.”
But whether Eisner invented the term or the form is, at this point in the history of the medium, immaterial: he, more than any other cartoonist, explored the potential of this new and mostly unexplored comics format, effectively promoting both term and form into common usage and cultural status. The emergence of the form particularly was gratifying: it validated Eisner’s long-held belief about comics.
Eisner had believed in the literary merit of the comics medium since entering the field in 1936, but comic books have traditionally been aimed at a juvenile audience, and that history constitutes one of the chief obstacles to the development of the medium. We talked about this and other matters one day in February 1998 in Eisner’s office in Tamarac, Florida. A lot has changed since then, particularly in the marketing of graphic novels, but much remains the same. And even if it didn’t, Eisner’s 1998 insights are worth recording here.
What follows was initially published in Cartoonist PROfiles, No.132 (December 2001) and again, somewhat modified, in Jon Cooke’s Comic Book Artist, No.6 (2005), a double-size special issue tribute to Eisner. Our conversation went like this:
Eisner: It’s a hard to get into an accepted status. I’m struggling with that right now with this new book, Family Matter, which is really aimed at an adult audience. All my books are always aimed at an adult audience. Big joke in the industry is that Will Eisner draws comics for people who don’t read comics. [Chuckles] I’m coming to the reluctant conclusion that there is a stout wall of prejudice out there among adult readers against anything with dialogue that’s encapsulated within a speech balloon. It makes the book suspect and translates it into a totally different category. If there’s a balloon, it’s comics; and if it’s comics, it’s for kids or idiots— or it’s supposed to make you laugh. And therefore I can’t take this book seriously. I don’t know what we can do about it. Jules Feiffer solved the problem by having no balloons— just words alongside heads; and that seems to make it more acceptable to an adult audience. I have a feeling that if he put balloons around that dialogue, he might have some resistance. It wouldn’t diminish the quality of what he’s saying, but he would lose some of the acceptance by the audience.
Harvey: You mentioned that once before. And I remembered the first time I saw Feiffer’s cartoon— I was in college at the time— in the Village Voice. And I remember thinking, This is different. There’s something— it looks like a cartoon, but it’s not quite a cartoon. So I think you might very well be right.
Eisner: I’ve got another thing on the boards that I’m working on. A collection of memories of real incidents that happened to me on one of my field trips to Vietnam when I was doing P*S magazine. And I did this with no balloons. Just words floating next to speaker’s heads. It’s a story in which a the principal character is talking to the reader, the reader being a participant—a sort of eye witness— in the action. I don’t know whether that’ll help or not. And it’s a limited solution. It only works on material where all the dialogue comes from one person; I don’t know how you could eliminate the use of the balloons in other situations.
I’m a purist about the medium itself, and I just can’t see breaking away from the balloon. The balloon itself— the shape of the balloon, and the outlines of the balloon, have a storytelling capacity to it. So I’m afraid what’s going to happen is that the audience is going to have to turn itself around and accommodate itself to me! [Chuckles.]
Harvey: You alluded a couple of times to the need for better content in comics. Could you elaborate on what you mean by content?
Eisner: The comic book medium is no longer a novel medium. Comic books have been around as comic books for 60 years, and it’s no longer enough for the medium to simply demonstrate high action, terrific artwork and characters flashing all over the place. There has to be content, or story. Comic books have to tell something. I equate it with typeset. If you get a book, and you set it in Old English type— or some very unusual type style— it’s not enough to sell the book. You have to say something with it.
To me, comics is somewhat like typeset: it’s a language, and it’s always been a language. The art within that language is an art form. It’s sequential art, which consists of pictures arranged in a sequence to tell a story. That’s the core of the medium. But it is nevertheless a storytelling or message or communication device, and consequently the survival of this medium will be based upon the content— the message.
Harvey: And the content has to be something more than superheroes. You’ve said that superheroes will probably always be with us in comic books, and I agree with that— in some form or another.
Eisner: It’s a form of our mythology.
Harvey: Not only that, but superheroes can’t achieve the illusion of reality except in the comics medium. You can see them in movies, but you know there’s a trick. Special effects. But when you see them in comics, it’s not a trick. This is the way they are on the page— they fly, and they do all these feats of strength. It’s endemic to the form almost.
Eisner: The reason for it is that comics is a participatory medium. The reader is participating. In film, he’s a spectator. You’re just watching it. In comics, you invest the action with your
imagination. If you have five people sitting in a room reading the same comic book, I’ll guarantee you that each of these five readers are hearing a different voice of the character, they’re investing the character with a different soul, if you will— and we believe what the character is doing because they are imagining it as they are doing it.
If you’re showing Superman leaping off a tall building and jumping across a huge chasm or his eyes blazing a hole thorugh a brick wall, you see that in your mind--you close your eyes and you see it, and you feel it. And film has to devise special effects. One of the reasons films have turned to comics as a source of material is because the technology of film has become sophisticated enough now that they’re able to do in real form the kinds of things that comics have always done. So that’s a big difference.
Another reason for the success of movies about Superman and Batman is that the characters are pure circus. All the movie had to do was do a circus character— the thing that Barnum and Bailey used to do. As a matter of fact, here’s some trivia for you: Superman’s costume comes from the circus. The strong man in the early circuses had that costume. They came on with a skin-tight suit and shorts and a cape.
Harvey: Ahhh— and the strong man had the cape, too!
Harvey: [Laughs.] And of course they wore the skin tight thing because--
Eisner: Showed their muscles.
Harvey: Getting back to content, one of the ways that content might be different is to have different subject matter. When I was a kid, you could get comic books that were detective stories, westerns, romance— there was a range of genre. Is that part of what you mean by content?
Eisner: Only part of it. Because we’re talking about genre, which is kind of easy to do. You take a superhero and put a cowboy costume on him, you’ve changed the genre, and all the bad guys are in different costumes, too. Star Wars is nothing more than a western with aliens as the bad guys and good guys. What I mean is something deeper than that. I mean that the story has to have intellectual content; it has to touch on something that the reader wants to hear and understand. I guess the best example I can give you is the short story of the thirties— stories by Ring Lardner and O. Henry. I grew up on them, and they influenced me. They were telling stories with human interaction. That’s the difference of story.
Harvey: I’ve seen a number of comic books in the last ten-fifteen years where obviously the person producing this book felt that if he told a story in which sex figured importantly, that this was a mature theme. And I’ve always objected to that— really, a trivialization of the idea of what maturity is. There’s a whole lot more to maturity than that.
Harvey: And the stories that you do are stories that have content and have a mature theme because they’re dealing with the human condition in some way.
Eisner: That’s exactly what I’m talking about.
Harvey: So many of the people who are producing this stuff haven’t lived outside comics very much.
Eisner: You bring up a very important point. What we’re dealing with is life experience. Now, the reason I don’t attract the 14-, 15-, 16-, 17-year old reader is because in my stories, I’m talking about heartbreak. And heartbreak to a 17-year-old is a lot different than heartbreak is to a 40- or 50-year-old. Teenagers haven’t had the life experience; they haven’t been able to feel the things that I expect a reader to feel.
Harvey: And when the mature person has a heartbreaking experience, it’s his life that’s affected, not just his romance with the prom queen.
Eisner: That’s right: he hasn’t just lost his dog or his girlfriend. Or he couldn’t go to the prom on Saturday night. Or his father took the car keys from him and said you can’t drive the car all next week.
Harvey: Those are dilemmas for the adolescent mind, and they’re real enough, but they don’t dig very deep.
Eisner: Oh, they feel pain. But you don’t learn much from an adolescent predicament. I talk about the Hernandez brothers [who produce comics about life in the barrios of Los Angeles]: they’re giving you a slice of life inside another culture, which I can learn something from. That’s very important. But the superhero stories— the cowboy stories— these are not real things. I don’t learn anything from them. As a reader, I want to see something that can give me some life experience.
Now, my A Contract With God has held on over the years. My readers are mostly adults. Since 1974, I’ve reasoned that all the people who started reading comics twenty years earlier are now 35 or 40 years old, and I asked myself, Would they continue reading Superman and Batman? Would there be enough for them? Would the stories be satisfactory? I’ve been gambling that these readers, raised on comics, would probably still enjoy reading comics, still enjoy the medium, if they told a different kind of story, a story about the kinds of things a 40- or 50-year-old person would be interested in. I was partly right because A Contract With God is still selling. The thing that keeps me going is the fact that people say, I got your book and I love it, and I read it two or three times over the last few years. And that’s great. That book’s doing what I want.
Harvey: There’s been a lot of handwringing recently (1998) about the terrible condition of the industry. But it’s the market situation everyone’s concerned about— not the quality of the product so much. And I don’t think that comic book publishers— particularly the smaller houses— devote enough imagination and energy to how their books are marketed. They produce material that’s going to be sold in bookstores in “graphic novel” sections that are really like little ghettos of comic art. Instead, they ought to aim at sections of the bookstore with books of similar content. If you had a science fiction graphic novel, it would go into the science fiction section— not the graphic novel section, not the “humor” section either, where so much comic art winds up.
Eisner: You’ve got a good idea, but let me tell you a story about that, a true story. A Contract with God was first published back in 1978 by small publishing company, and the publisher called me up, and said, “I’ve got great news for you— Brentano’s in New York, big establishment bookstore on Fifth Avenue, is taking copies of your book, and they’re carrying it in the bookstore.” It’s like someone calling and saying the Vatican is publishing your book! So I contained myself for a week, and a week later, I ran up to Brentano’s on Fifth Avenue, and I found the store manager, and I said to him, “I am the author of A Contract with God,” and he said, “Oh, yeah— I had that two weeks ago; did very well.” I said, “Where is it?”
And he said, “I had it on the table in front of the store, and it sold very well, and then James Mitchner wrote a book, and so I had to take yours off the table and put James Mitchner’s book there.” And I said, “What did you do with mine?” He said, “Well, I brought it inside, and I put it in with religious books since it’s about God, and,” he says, “this little lady came up to me and said, ‘What’s that book doing there? That’s a cartoon book; it shouldn’t be in with religious books.’ So I took it out and I put it into a humor section where they have people like Stan Lee and so forth. And someone came to me and said, ‘Hey, this isn’t a funny book: there’s nothing funny in this book— why do you have it here?’ I took it out of there, and I didn’t know where to put it.” And I said, “Where do you have it now?” And he said, “In a cardboard box in the cellar; I don’t know where to put the damn thing.”
Harvey: Oh, no.
Eisner: And that’s the story. As a matter of fact, I understand that even Maus had similar kinds of problems. They displayed it on the counter in the front of the bookstore when it first came out, but I don’t know where they keep it now. They have it in the bookstore; it was a bestseller so they have it well-displayed. The problem is that the major bookstores have no categories for comics. They picked up this word I used, graphic novel, which everybody uses, and they have a section— they put a spinner in, Walden did, and they load it with graphic novels.
Part of the problem is that a lot of the so-called graphic novels that are turned out now are counter-productive. Physically, they don’t look like serious stuff. When we get one of the major houses doing a collection of old Superman stories and calling it a graphic novel, it doesn’t look like the other graphic novels. It looks like a big, fat comic book. And then you get some of this violent superhero stuff that some of the young people are turning out today— these metallic ladies and so on [laughs]—
Harvey: You think if you touch them, they’d click.
Eisner: Oh, sure, sure! And they’re always drawn in pseudo-seductive poses. I call them “pseudo seductive” because I can’t imagine being aroused by a girl like that just because she’s got a skimpy costume and iron breasts. [The both laugh.] Anyhow, the bookstores just don’t know what to do with them. Not right now. But they will figure something out. What’s going to happen is that they’regoing to begin to discriminate among the media, among this media, in terms of the various comic books that are worth keeping in a section called “graphic novels,” and then it’ll come about. It’ll takesome time, but it’ll come about. It has to come about. There’s no other way for it to go. Comic books do sell. They produce income. And Walden and Dalton and Barnes and Noble and Borders and the rest of them can’t ignore this for long. They’ve got to capture that market. [Now book stores have instituted sections just for graphic novels—thanks, perhaps, to the popularity of manga.—RCH]
The problem is not comics. Comics are doing fine. It’s the market that’s doing badly. Lots of good stuff around. Good artists working in the field. Alan Moore and Neil Gaimen and Frank Miller— people of that caliber in the field. There’s nothing wrong with the medium.
Harvey: No. And I’ve said as much myself. This could be the beginning of a new golden age for the medium. But the market is the problem. And marketing, which ought to be the solution, isn’t homing in on the special audiences that might be interested in the books if they knew about them. My contention is that every book deserves specific market research in order to find its audience. I realize that small publishers don’t have the resources for this kind of thing.
Eisner: I’m a publisher and I can respond to that and tell you that it’s very hard for publishers to market a book that way. They have to put out anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 to $50,000 to get a promotional program going. Is a publisher going to do that when he doubts in his mind that he’ll sell 50,000 copies of the book? Now if Random House might do a better job. They have a lot of machinery that’s calculated to do this sort of thing.
Harvey: But as you say, capitalism creates a powerful will.
Eisner: Right. If there’s profit in it, somebody’s going to figure out how to do it. And I think there will be a profit in it. As I said, I’m betting on the fact that everbody under the age of fifty grew up on comics as a sort of literary nutrition and still would enjoy reading comics if they could find something of real interest for mature readers in comics.
Harvey: Most of them still do read comics— the funny pages of the daily newspaper! So we know the interest is there. I’ve thought too about the nurturing of a future audience, and I think that as a rule, the comic book industry is not doing that with sufficient enthusiasm. In the early seventies, there was a great demand on the part of a fairly vital fan readership for more mature comics, comics that were not just pablum for eight-year-olds, and I think the current “grim and gritty” superhero trend emerged in response to that demand. But what about young kids? The tie between Saturday morning television and the comic book stand is not as strong as I think it ought to be. Some company ought to invest in their future by investing in that audience so that those kids get in the habit of looking for comic books.
Eisner: They’re trying to do that now. They’re becoming aware of it, turning out Looney Tunes and comic books of that kind. The problem is that the market place for comics has changed over the years. The newsstand, which we knew to be a kiosk on the street corner or in the subway station, is no longer there. We get our daily newspaper delivered. And so we don’t go to a newsstand where we might find other things of interest— comics, for example. That’s one thing.
The second thing is that even in super markets, where a lot of comic books are on racks today— kids don’t go there. And there isn’t the selection there even if they did. A third factor is that the price is too high. You’re dealing with three dollars for a 32-page newsprint color magazine that has a lot of advertising in it. DC runs four or five pages of advertising. So every story is interrupted with a commercial every few pages. The little kid that used to get a copy of Mickey Mouse Comics, a kids’ book, no longer gets that. First of all, he hasn’t got the money; secondly, he’d rather watch games on his computer at night. So he doesn’t go after a comic book on his own.
Another thing that’s happening is that parents are buying these books and give them to the kids. Consequently, you have to get the approval of the parent for a comic book. The parent reads it and says, “Yes, I like this book, and my kid’s going to like this.” It’s a decision made by a parent. So these things are changing, and I don’t know whether we’ll ever get back to the ten-cent comic book, but that was the engine that drove the early comics— the Golden Age and the Silver Age. You could buy a comic book for ten, twelve, twenty-five cents. But today, it’s a costly venture to buy a comic.
And here’s another factor. The method of distribution. Comic book stores take in their stock on a non-return basis. Whatever they order from a publisher, they have to keep. They keep it as back issues, and there’s a market for back issues now, so it works.
Newsstands have a hundred percent return privilege. Makes a totally different market situation. Even Barnes and Noble gets its books on fully returnable basis. This means that the publisher publishing in a returnable market is faced with a much greater gamble, greater risk, than the guy publishing in the comic book store market. What does that do? The publisher publishing to a high risk market tends to select properties that have have as little risk to them as possible. So if you come along with your book with a collection of great cartoons from the 1920s, the publisher that’s publishing for the Borders market, says, “Well, this is going to be of interest to a very limited audience; maybe I’ll take this book on, and I’ll print 5,000 or 10,000 copies.” And he’s very nervous about it.
The publisher in the comic book market does a preliminary promotion on the book, sends out a leaflet to all the comic book stores, and Diamond, the distributor, takes orders. And before the publisher goes to press, he knows how many orders he has, and consequently he can do a relatively low print run because he needs to have only enough copies to fill the orders. And he can take on new and different properties because they aren’t as risky for him. The only risk he has is to list you on his order form and see whether or not he gets orders for your book. Big difference.
Harvey: The direct sale (non-returnable) comic book store was a big plus for the whole industry.
Eisner: Exactly. It still is. It’s my contention that if the return privilege gets back and dominates this market, you’ll have a drop in creativity the likes of which you’ve never seen. Right now, it’s fairly easy— a better than fifty-fifty chance that some publisher, whether Fantagraphics or Acclaim or whoever, will take a book because the risk is relatively low, so you can afford it. And thus, new material gets into the field— new artists, new writers. Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer here.
Harvey: I don’t think there will ever be a simple answer.
Eisner: But it’s the comic book market that’s in trouble. The comic book product is not in trouble. Some of the best talent in American is producing comic books. Alex Ross—guys of that caliber. Guys like that— you didn’t have guys like that working in comic book business in the fifties and sixties, the so-called Golden Age. These guys were uptown doing illustrations for Collier’s and Saturday Evening Post. So these are good times now. We’ve got good authors and artists, good production, we just haven’t solved the marketing problems.
P.S.—Many of the problems that Eisner discussed have been solved or are close to being solved, or have mutated until they are no longer problems. But his prediction about how ordinary retail book stores would eventually make room for graphic novels was uncannily prescient.
EISNER GALLERY. Next, a disorganized assortment of pictures—some photos of Eisner at his studio in Florida (that I took while interviewing him there in February 1998), sketches, notes and other minutiae that has no better place to be than here.