the Graphic Novel
Probably I came in late. It was around 1972 that I first became aware of "fandom," so I wouldn't have been around when the earliest manifestations of the so-called graphic novel loomed up on the horizon. But when I first heard the term in the mid-1970s, I thought it was pretentious. "Graphic novel" simply looked like a way of appropriating for comic books the literary respectability that verbal novels enjoyed. It looked like a public relations maneuver, a transparent appeal to cultural snobbery. It looked as if we were trying to make comic books into something they weren't—as if we were somehow ashamed of what they were. Or maybe we were just embarrassed about our enduring interest in the medium. As a sometime cartoonist myself, I was scarcely ashamed of what I did or embarrassed about my interest, so I thought the maneuver was little more than a fraudulent grab at status.
It was fraudulent because the new name implied that the work in question was something new, something different from the traditional newsstand comic book, that hallowed four-color collation of multipage comic strips. And when I looked (back then in about 1975-76) at the products dubbed "graphic novel," they were not anything new or different. It was the same medium: multipage stories being told by sequences of pictures festooned with speech balloons.
So I sort of sniffed and wandered off to ponder the matter. And as I pondered, I decided that if the graphic novel were to be a new comics tradition—if it were to be the future of comics as everyone was proclaiming for it—then graphic novels doubtless ought to be something somewhat different. They shouldn't be simply longer comic books bound between stiff cardboards. The "new tradition," I theorized, should build on and develop the essence of the medium but it also ought to go beyond that essence.
That essence, the technical hallmarks of comic strip art—the things about it that make it unique—consists chiefly of speech balloons and narrative breakdown. Speech balloons breathe into comics their peculiar life. In all other graphic representations—in all other pictorial narratives—characters are doomed to wordless posturing and pantomime. In comics, they speak. And they speak in the same mode as they appear—the visual not the audio mode of representation. This is unique.
If speech balloons give comics their life, then breaking the narrative into successive panels gives that life duration, an existence beyond a moment. Narrative breakdown is to comics what time is to life. In fact, "timing"—pace as well as duration—is the second of the unique ingredients of comics. The sequential arrangement of panels cannot help but create time in some general way, but skillful manipulation of the sequencing can control time and use it to dramatic advantage.
Whatever the graphic novel is to be (or is), it seemed to me (then, back in 1975 or thereabouts) that it must incorporate these two essential aspects of comics art if it is to be of the same species. The graphic novel may have other characteristics as well, but speech balloons and narrative breakdown seem to be vital ingredients. Concurrence of speech and action, and timing. Without these traits, the graphic novel will be simply something else—another kind of illustrated story, surely, but not of the same order as the comics.
Moreover, latching on to the "novel" part of the nomenclature, I speculated that this new form, this graphic novel, should somehow incorporate a verbal content that was akin to the verbal content of traditional verbal fiction. The graphic novel, I reasoned, should embrace both the essence of the comics medium and some aspect of the verbal literary medium the name of which it was absconding with. Words can do some things better than pictures, I thought. Words can represent a character's thoughts better than pictures can. "Better" in the sense of succinctness. Thoughts can be represented in pictures, but the more complex the thoughts (the more abstract), the more pictures are necessary. One would have to establish, for instance, visual symbols for various abstractions, and it would take many pictures to do this (unless the thoughts were conventional ones having to do with, say, patriotism for which a flag might serve as a symbol). So in my new theoretical graphic novel, the verbal content would consist of two elements: what characters say (in speech balloons) and what they think or feel (in ordinary prose text that would appear, probably, beneath the pictures). A page of this new form of comics, then, would have the usual sequences of pictures in panels (sometimes with speech balloons), and underneath those panels would be, occasionally, sentences of typeset text. The pictures would show us the actions of the characters—and sometimes what they were saying; the text would tell us what the characters were thinking or feeling. Or it would foreshadow future developments in the plot. Or it would convey other kinds of abstract notions.
And when I looked around, I found all these elements arranged in precisely the way I imagined in a Fantagraphics reprint of His Name Is ... Savage, a 1968 endeavor by Gil Kane and Archie Goodwin. Bingo. The chief elements of the form are artfully deployed here, the import of each element supporting that of the others to create an impression that no element by itself creates. The text details such non-visual matters as emotions, confirming with verbal precision the hints supplied by the visuals. The pictures focus our attention and stress certain aspects of the story raised in the text. The visuals also pace the action, manipulating time and our perception of events for dramatic emphasis. And speech balloons give us the illusion that we are seeing living, breathing—speaking—people. And when I chanced upon another effort by Kane and Goodwin, 1971's Blackmark in paperback form, I saw the same deployment of this "new" combination of verbal and visual elements. Bingo again. (Segments of these two works are reprinted in a book of mine, The Art of the Comic Book, accompanied by a much more elaborate diatribe on the subject of graphic novel format; for a description of the book, click here.)
From the evidence before me in the Kane-Goodwin books, I began to evolve a definition of graphic novel: it would be a long narrative blend of words and pictures in which the concurrence of speech and action is indicated via speech balloons (with thoughts and feelings and other abstractions presented in accompanying typeset text) and in which pace, timing, is controlled via narrative breakdown (pictures rather than the prose text), published in "book form" (i.e., with covers either hard or soft but not like a magazine). An aspect of the definition by which we could determine whether the work at hand was a graphic novel or just a long comic book was the presence of prose text, but the key to unlocking the identity of the work was whether the pace of the story was controlled by the prose or by the narrative breakdown; in a graphic novel, I opined, the latter must prevail as a way of preserving an essential characteristic of the comics medium.
This impressive edifice of logical description was applauded by no one. It wasn't even recognized as a landmark on the horizon of comics history. No one liked it. No one agreed with it. No one accepted it. Not then, not now. It has vanished into the ether wherein all such vainglorious but failed attempts lurk in perpetual neglect. Deservedly so, no doubt.
Unbeknownst to me in my novitiate as a commentator on comics, the usage of the term "graphic novel" had already proceeded too far to be modified by such a harmless drudge as I. And it was employed precisely to appeal to literary snobs by transcending with a label the actual nature of the medium. These were not just long comic books between hardcovers; they are "graphic novels." In other words, "graphic novels" were long comic books between cardboard covers. That's all. Or is it?
Richard Kyle minted the term "graphic novel" in November 1964 in his Wonderworld contribution to K-A No. 2. He did it to correct what he felt was a deficiency in cartooning argot. Said Kyle: "I cannot help but feel that 'comic book' and 'comic strip book' are not only inappropriate and antiquated terms with which to describe ... genuinely creative efforts" at more serious endeavors in the field ... "but are also terms which may easily prevent the early acceptance of the medium by the literary world. Charles Biro coined the word illustories to describe his attempts at adult 'comic book strips,'" Kyle continued. "EC coined picto-fiction for a somewhat similar effort. But I believe there is a good word, already in the dictionary, which does a far better job than either of these. My Merriam-Webster defines 'graphic' as 'of or pertaining to the arts (graphic arts) of painting, engraving, and any other arts which pertain to the expression of ideas by means of lines, marks, or characters impressed on a surface.' And so, in future issues of Wonderworld, when you find me using the terms graphic story and graphic novel to describe the artistically serious 'comic book strip,' you'll know what I mean. I may even use it on some that aren't so serious."
Kyle intended by the promulgation of his coinage to give the medium greater artistic status. It was, indeed, a public relations maneuver, pure and simple. "Graphic novel" is just a high-fallutin' way of saying "comic book." But considering the reputation that "comic book" has earned over the years as jejune trash, the artform can certainly benefit from this blatant application of linguistic cosmetics as it grows away from juvenile preoccupations in content and crude amateurism in execution of the visuals—in much the same way as motion pictures benefitted from such usages as "film" and "cinema" instead of "flicks" and "movies."
In a letter to me in the late 1990s, Kyle elaborated on the need he felt then, in 1964, for a new terminology instead of the terms already in circulation (albeit not very visibly by then): "Biro and the others apparently did not think about the fundamental nature of comics or understand some of the characteristics of our language. Comics are not 'illustories'—'illustrated stories.' In comics, ideation, pictures, sound (including speech and sound effects), and indicators (such as motion lines and impact bursts), are all portrayed graphically in a single unified whole. Graphics do not 'illustrate' the story; they are the story. . . . In the graphic story, all the universe and all the senses are portrayed graphically. And 'graphic story' and 'graphic novel' say it as clearly and directly as you can—which is what American English desires with all its heart and soul."
He was making the same point as I had been clutching at earlier—namely, that in comics everything is portrayed and conveyed in the same manner, visually.
Back in the 1960s, Kyle graduated from Capa-Alpha to Bill Spicer's magazine, Fantasy Illustrated, where he did a column called "Graphic Story Review." The first of these appeared in No. 4 of the magazine dated Summer 1965. Then in the fall of 1967, Spicer changed the name of his magazine (with Kyle's express approval) to Graphic Story Magazine. Although Spicer did not invent the term "graphic novel," his widely circulated magazine surely promoted the use of the term.
Thirty years later—about the time Marvel plunged into bankruptcy (ca. 1997)—Kyle revisited his thinking about coining the term "graphic novel" while also contemplating "the wreckage of the comic book business" in his magazine, Argosy Special Edition. He was trying to do three things, he said:
"First, to describe the medium accurately. 'Comic book story' doesn't describe the product except in a roundabout way. It's on a par with 'undertaker' but less ironic. [Second] to divorce the medium itself from the comic book format. At the time, virtually nobody could grasp the idea that a comic book story could appear in anything but a junky little newsprint magazine 32 pages long with ads for sea monkeys. Today's graphic novels, inadequate as they may be, were literally unimaginable then. And [third], to suggest that the content of comic book stories could literally be anything—just as it is with novels, films, and the theater."
He wasn't hoping to make comic books "respectable," he said. "I would have chosen 'reputable,' I think, if I had to choose a word. Film is a reputable art form—even though individual movies are not always 'respectable.' The trouble with 'comic book' was that it had become self-defining. In the public mind, comic books and their stories were trash. If Picasso had drawn a comic book, people would say, 'Why is Picasso drawing trash?' Not, 'Look how Picasso has used this medium to create a work of art.' 'Graphic story' and 'graphic novel' weren't 'respectable' terms—they were neutral ones, devoid of negative connotations. They gave mainstream critics a way out. They could say, 'I like this graphic novel.' They didn't have to say, 'I like this (trashy) comic book.'"
He hoped that since "comic book" had a bad reputation, for "more ambitious stories"—stories with mature themes, say—publishers would adopt a name with no negative connotations. "Give the serious stuff a little class by not making it declasse right off the blocks."
Alas, as Kyle observed, "Almost nobody in comics got it."
Most of us (yes, me too) reacted by saying, in effect, "Hey—they're only comic books."
"It was that 'only' that bothered me," Kyle went on. "If comics were potentially no more than they were, and what they were was almost universally perceived as ephemeral trash, then why were men of talent and genius drawn to it—Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, Jack Cole, Harvey Kurtzman, Bernard Krigstein, Alex Toth, Jim Steranko, Barry Windsor-Smith, and, later, Frank Miller and Alan Moore?"
Upon serious reflection (now, a quarter of a century after I first encountered the term), "graphic novel" doesn't seem such a bad concoction. For one thing, the use of the pseudo status term "novel" is no more a simple grab at cultural standing for comic books today than the use of the term by itself was in the beginning for long prose fictions (which have, but only subsequently, achieved a literary status that they didn't enjoy at the outset). In the time-honored usages of literary history, the term "novel" describes any extended fictional prose narrative. The word itself is an English transliteration of the Italian novella, a short, compact, broadly realistic tale. In most other European countries, the same sorts of narrative enterprises were called "romans" rather than "novels." This usage links the works in question to an older storytelling tradition, the "romance." The apparent conflict in adoption of one or the other term was resolved for a time by reserving "novel" for realistic fictions and "romance" for the more imaginative fantasy. With time, the latter term as applied to long fictional narratives fell out of use, leaving us with "novel."
From this brief history, it is clear that the term "novel" as applied to long narrative prose fictions is no more inherently definitive than "graphic novel" might be for a long comic strip narrative in book form. That is to say, the current usage of "novel" evolved into a kind of definition of itself without particularly exact descriptive historical antecedents. In contrast, the term "sonnet" is described, and thereby defined, by specific limiting characteristics such as "consisting of fourteen lines" of lyric poetry. "Novels" haven't the same advantage of precision in definition. They never had. Nor do they much now.
My initial objection to "graphic novel," then, evaporates. "Novel" is not necessarily a term indicating status. Although the "novel" in literature has cultural status today, it didn't when it was first used. "Novels" were not a very distinguished form of literature at first. And the definition of the term is certainly pretty haphazard, both in the beginning and as it evolved. As always in English, we make words do what we want them to do, regardless of their probable actual meanings. Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty was right after all.
In the mid-1970s, as I said, the comics industry as a whole began bandying about the term "graphic novel" more and more frequently, using it to describe "long comic strip narratives"—and, unfortunately, even for reprint volumes if they were in hardcover. The latter are often not "long comic strip narratives"; they are, rather, simple compilations of comic book stories. But if they qualify as "graphic novels," then so, too, does the much earlier effort, The Adventures of Phoebe Zeit-Geist, which appeared, between hardcovers, in 1968. Phoebe was the product of a collaboration between writer Michael O'Donoghue and artist Frank Springer that began in 1964, when chapters of the long tale began appearing in the Evergreen Review, an avant garde magazine of the times. The designation of each installment as a "chapter" clearly signaled that the work was intended as a long narrative, and, indeed, it was. In 1968, having reached Chapter 13, the whole enchilada was published as a book by Grove Press. But nobody called it a "graphic novel."
The first graphic novel may or may not have been Phoebe or the Kane-Goodwin Savage, both published in 1968. But one of the first to proclaim itself a graphic novel was Beyond Time and Again. It, like the comic book reprint compilations I've just disparaged, recycled a previously published serial story for underground weekly newspapers by George Metzger. Published in 1976 by Kyle and his partner Denis Wheary, the book identified itself as a "graphic novel" on the title page—and on the dustjacket flaps, fore and aft. A tale of wizardry and anguished hope in the far future where the Earth is dying in the half-light of an expiring sun, Beyond Time was, Kyle told me, "the 'defining' story of the '70s generation," appearing in Mobius Strip, San Jose Red Eye and the Los Angeles Staff between 1967 and 1972. Metzger had worked in comix as well as underground newspapers, contributing science fantasy tales to such publications as Slow Death Funnies, Fog City Comics, and the all-Metzger books, Truckin' (Nos. 1 and 2) and Moondog (Nos. 1-4). When Beyond Time was published, he was living and working in Canada, where, presumably, he still resides, having left the future of the graphic novel to others. Further exploration of the potential of the newly-christened comics form would be achieved without Metzger.
Jim Steranko's Red Tide, a hard-boiled detective tale with a Raymond Chandler protagonist named, in blatant homage, Chandler, came out the same year as Beyond Time, and Steranko believes it to be the first graphic novel. It was undeniably an ambitious undertaking, aiming unabashedly at the bookstore market with a product that was an ingenious attempt to reconfigure the comic book format by combining its visual element with the verbal ingredient of the traditional literary novel. Set up on a two-column grid, each page featured two column-wide pictures next to each other at the top of the page with typeset text beneath. No speech balloons, and no verbal content at all in the pictures. Said Steranko: "I used Golden Sectioning, a mathematical formula, to arrange elements in a unified structure, to create an image-to-text relationship that readers would be very comfortable with. The text on any given page related only to that page. It was like film, where dialogue, sound effects, and music relate specifically to the scene on the screen. I doubt there's been another book published like it since."
True: nothing quite like it has ever been done. Red Tide is unquestionably a spectacular attempt to reinvent the comics form. And it is successful on its own terms. But I wouldn't call it a graphic novel except in the most general sense that it is a novel and it deploys visuals extensively. Although the prefatory materials by publisher Byron Preiss and Joe Gores employ the term "graphic novel," the book seems to me more of an illustrated story than a blending of word and picture, a characteristic I look for in anything claiming to be in the same medium as comics. Moreover, I cling, however wrong-headedly, to the notion that a distinguishing aspect of a graphic novel must be that the narrative is advanced by the pictorial not the verbal content, by the succession of panels not by the syntax of the prose. And in Red Tide, the story advances by means of the prose beneath the pictures, not the pictures; the breakdown of the story into pictorial elements does not control the pace.
If Steranko's Red Tide is a graphic novel, then so are the scores of Big Little Books produced by Whitman in the 1930s. With a page of typeset prose facing a full-page illustration throughout, a Big Little Book's format is almost precisely that of Red Tide. Not even Steranko, however, is willing to say Big Little Books are the first graphic novels.
The year 1976 also saw publication of yet another candidate for the first graphic novel– Bloodstar, by Richard Corben and Robert E. Howard. I haven't seen this effort, but it's pretty clearly cartoonist Corben's interpretation of one of Howard's stories. One of my legion of spies reports that the term "graphic novel" appears on the front inside flap of the dust jacket, which proclaims "Bloodstar is a new, revolutionary concept, a graphic novel, which combines all the imagination and visual power of comic strip art with the richness of the traditional novel." The introduction continues in the same vein: "Bloodstar makes a great leap forward for the art of the comic strip through its revolutionary synthesis of ideas and of artforms. In this book, the imagination and visual power of comic art are wedded to the complexity and depth of the traditional novel, producing an enthralling hybrid which might best be labeled 'the graphic novel.'"
Since I haven't seen this opus, I can't say whether it qualifies as a graphic novel according to my wavering criteria. But it certainly uses the new term with determination and with more flashing lights and gussied up lingo than any of the other contenders. In any event, between the reprint tomes from comic book publishers and such adventurous enterprises as those by Metzger, Steranko, and Corben, the term "graphic novel" was in pretty general circulation on the fringes of public consciousness by 1978 when, in August, Will Eisner signed off on A Contract with God.
In his introduction to the first, hardcover, edition, Eisner acknowledges the unusual character of the work but does not use the term "graphic novel." When Kitchen Sink Press produced the paperback edition a short time later, "graphic novel" appears on the book's cover. But Eisner had not employed the term in the initial publication of the work.
Eisner had begun the project, he says, two years earlier—in 1976 (although he had been thinking about it for years). A Contract with God was the first in what has become a veritable "library" (as DC is calling it) of Eisner graphic novels. If graphic novels are distinct from other visual-verbal comics storytelling because they are long and serious in approach and deal with themes that appeal to adult concerns, then Eisner more than any other single cartoonist has shaped the graphic novel. Contract, however, is not a novel at all. It is not a long narrative but a collection of four short ones. These are what Kyle would call "graphic short stories." But their seriousness of purpose and tone–their obvious literary quality–set the pace for the emerging artform.
The stories provide intimate glimpses into the private and sometimes seamy lives of New York tenement dwellers of the 1920s and 1930s, capturing with bitter-sweet nostalgia the spirit of threadbare existence and the pitifully exalted albeit doomed aspirations that often flower briefly if vainly in such barren soil. In the lead tale that gives the book its title, Eisner tells a story with several layers of meaning. On one level, it may be a parable of the Jewish experience—the history of a "chosen people" whose "contract with God" has not, through much of that history, produced very often the kind of benefits that one would expect for a "select" group. But there are deeper religious ramifications to this simple narrative. "Is not all religion a contract between man—and God?" asks one character. The implication of Eisner's story is that however sincerely men are compelled to draw up such contracts, the documents are wholly one-sided—signed by only the human parties to the agreement. As such, the contracts are scarcely binding to a seemingly indifferent and arbitrary God. But they remain, as Eisner shows, a powerful and therefore genuine force in human affairs.
With Contract, Eisner staked out a new piece of comics turf for future exploration, and with each subsequent foray onto that ground, he established himself anew as the medium's foremost pioneer. Will Eisner may fairly be described as a colossus in the history of twentieth century cartooning. It's not much of a stretch to see him standing athwart the century, one foot firmly planted in the conceptual genesis of the comic book medium, the other resolutely striding into the future of the art form.
Eisner's role in the creation of the medium is pretty widely acknowledged. He contributed in early 1936 to one of the first comic books, Wow!, edited by Jerry Iger. By the fall of that year, he and Iger had formed a syndicate partnership to produce Sunday features for weekly newspapers and for foreign distribution. At the time, the infant American comic book industry was beginning to realize that it could not exist solely by reprinting newspaper comic strips. Comic books needed more material—material manufactured expressly for the medium. At the Eisner-Iger shop, Eisner re-formatted their overseas features for comic book pages, cutting up the artwork and laying out the panels in new configurations—and in the process, hitting on novel ways of storytelling, of breaking down the narrative, ways expressly suited to the infant medium. And when the shop started creating fresh material for comic book publishers, Eisner put his newly acquired knowledge to use.
Harvey Kurtzman believed Eisner was "the greatest" of the early comic book cartoonists. "It was Eisner," Kurtzman wrote, "more than anyone else, who developed the multipage booklet story form that became the grammar of the medium." Gil Kane agreed: "Eisner actually created the first original context for the comics field and gave it a dramatic structure and a way of handling pictures that was different from simply redoing Sunday page strips." Then in 1940, Eisner created the Spirit, perhaps his most celebrated achievement. Here, too, he was pioneering: the character was invented at the behest of newspaper syndicate officials who wanted to capitalize on the burgeoning comic book business by distributing to client newspapers a Sunday supplement in comic book form. Half-a-century later, Eisner launched himself again into another new and experimental phase of cartooning when he began producing graphic novels. In between refining the comic book medium and exploring the graphic novel, Eisner pioneered in yet another field—educational, or instructional, comics.
"I consider this a very important part of my career," Eisner told me when we talked in the spring of 1998, "because as you know I've always believed that this medium—sequential art—is capable of dealing with subject matter far more broad, far deeper, than the simple stories we have today. But I've also felt that this was a truly great instructional tool. I learned of its value in the military, actually, when I was in the Army in World War II. Then I had a chance to spread my wings on something that I firmly believed in—religiously. And the idea of using comics for instructional purposes was so successful that when the war was over, I formed a company called American Visuals to market the idea in the civilian sector."
Eisner's foray into instructional comics began shortly after he was drafted in May 1942.
At just about this time, the military hierarchy in ordnance launched a program of preventive maintenance—"The principle was that by putting oil in your vehicle you prevented wear-and-tear," Eisner elaborated. Realizing that preventive procedures cannot be ordained but must be sold, Eisner proposed that the comics medium would work best to win over the reader, the foot soldier. And the next thing he knew, he was in Washington, D.C., where he was installed as the editor of Firepower, an ordnance journal. He was also involved in the creation of Army Motors, for which he developed a comic strip character, Joe Dope, to demonstrate correct (and incorrect) procedures, and he produced instructional comic strip material for other maintenance publications.
He successfully demonstrated that comics did a better job of getting the message out than straight text. Eisner's pages of instruction in military manuals consisted of a certain amount of typeset text, a technical drawing, and then some cartoon characters and speech balloons elaborating on the information in the text or urging compliance with the procedures outlined therein. To enliven the presentations and to create appeal for readers, Eisner created characters who would appear regularly. Joe Dope was one, an average GI Joe type. Sergeant Half Mast was a crusty older soldier—"Sounds like half-assed," Eisner said, "Half mast mechanic." For sex appeal (and to remind soldiers what they were fighting for, as Bob Hope might say), he introduced a shapely blonde, Connie Rod, named after a part of an engine—the connecting rod. The cartoon characters pulled the reader in.
After the War, Eisner returned to civilian life and resumed the production of The Spirit and related projects, but his military history with instructional comics soon led him into other similar ventures. Before long, he was producing instructional comics for U.S. Steel, General Motors, and others. For a time, Eisner ran two operations: the shop that produced The Spirit and the American Visuals shop. But after a while, he realized he didn't have time to do both.
"I had to make a decision," he said. "I realized that the future of The Spirit was not that great. First, newsprint was going up in price. And the price we had to charge for The Spirit newspaper supplement was getting too high. The thing was only fifteen pages, and we couldn't sell enough advertising in that number to make it pay. So I realized that sooner or later, it would have to stop. I could have done it as a daily strip as I had before the War, but candidly, it didn't engage my interest. Doing a daily strip to me is like trying to conduct a symphony orchestra in a phone booth. I didn't get any real satisfaction from it. On the other hand, I believed in the future of instructional comics."
He stopped The Spirit with the October 5, 1952 issue. By then, the Korean War was in progress, and Eisner had secured an Army contract to produce P*S, "the Preventive Maintenance Magazine," the post-war incarnation of Army Motors. It was a 5x7-inch 64-page booklet, every page chock-full of procedural information—text, diagrams, cartoons—with a six-page color comic strip in the center. The comic strip usually presented in story form a lesson in safety or maintenance or pride of accomplishment.
"I was very proud of this work," Eisner said. "But for awhile, I was the Number One Villain in Europe. I was being vilified by a bunch of cartoonists who said I was teaching people to kill. I was a merchant of death. Actually, I was proud of the fact that I was teaching people how to save their lives. Once during the Korean War when I was on a field trip to Korea, I remember walking into a shop, and a big mechanic came over to me and shoved his big paw into mine and said, Thank you very much: you saved my ass. And he explained how I had done something that nobody had ever explained quite that simply. He said, I got no time to read them manuals; I'm fightin' a war here.
"I remember this," Eisner continued, "because every once in a while something happens that reinforces what you're doing and tells you that you're on the right track. Like going down a dark road and finding someone who says, finally, Yes this is the right direction."
At the time Eisner started American Visuals, there were very few companies producing instructional comics. Before World War II, there weren't any.
Eisner kept his Army contract for P*S magazine from 1950 until 1972, when he sold his business and contemplated retirement. But then he met Denis Kitchen.
"I ran into Denis Kitchen in 1971 or 1972 at Phil Seulling's comics convention in New York," he told me. "That's a funny story, too. At that time, I was CEO of this company up in Connecticut, and I was sitting in my office—I was a suit!—and my secretary walked in, and she says, There's a phone call out here for you—a Mister Seulling, and he says he has a comics convention. And she said, Were you ever involved in comics? And I said, I used to be a cartoonist. It was like admitting that I once had been a drug addict!" he laughed.
Suelling wanted Eisner to attend his comics convention. Eisner agreed, and when he showed up, it was a revelation. He met Kitchen and other underground cartoonists and realized that they were doing comics the way he'd always thought they should be done. They were doing comics as literature—protest literature, satirical literature. "It was one of those things that happens that reaffirms an underlying nagging belief that you have," he said. "I realized that this was still a worth-while medium. And I started doing A Contract with God."
Contract was Eisner's first comics effort in a fictional mode since abandoning the Spirit twenty years before. The work of a recognized professional and an icon in the industry, the book heralded a new era in comic book publishing. And Eisner has kept on doing graphic short stories and graphic novels, altogether nearly two dozen volumes since 1978, each one another experiment in graphic storytelling. From the very first, A Contract with God, Eisner avoided the rigid grid of panels that define the traditional comic book page. Instead, he artfully constructs each "panel" as a vignette or scene isolated from other similar vignettes on the same page by tricks of composition and lighting that focus attention on only the narrative essentials of the scene. Each page then becomes a compositional unit made up of its cluster of vignettes. Fascinating as it is to watch him perform these sleights of composition, it is, after all, only an artist's preoccupation to eliminate the ruled borders that outline panels, perhaps in the conviction that art should assiduously imitate life--in which, as we all know, there are no ruled borders. The device is most effective when the scenes are wholly bordered in black, the "ground" against which they stand out. An incidental benefit of focusing on just the narrative essentials is that Eisner achieves an economy of expression that has great impact.
As Eisner continued to produce graphic novels year after year, A Contract with God remained in print and has sold well, going through at least a second edition (200 6x9" pages, $12.95 from DC). Eisner's readers, he believes, are mostly adults, many of whom tell him they've read the book several times. "And that's great," Eisner said. "That book's doing what I want."
But getting accepted by adult readers isn't easy, he acknowledged. "All my books are always aimed at an adult audience," he said. "Big joke in the industry is that Will Eisner draws comics for people who don't read comics," he continued with a chuckle.
"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," he said when we talked in 1998. "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."
This may sound like a simple-minded analysis of the difficulty with comics for adults. But I remembered later the first time I saw Feiffer's cartoon—I was in college at the time—in the Village Voice. And I remembered thinking, This is different. There's something—it looks like a cartoon, but it's not quite a cartoon. Eisner may very well be right about speech balloons, but the cosmetic effect of eliminating the balloon outline made insinuating the vital verbiage into the pictures difficult, and sometimes impossible, especially when background artwork makes its claim upon the picture. Feiffer had an advantage: his cartoons usually contained no backgrounds at all. In any case, after one experiment without balloon outlines, Eisner returned to the traditional usage. In later works, he also deployed typeset text. The speech balloons are hand-lettered, but throughout the book, small blocks of type provide a narrative chorus, bridging gaps of time between depicted incidents, supplying information that knits the pictures together when the visual sequence is broken. Oddly—I realized—Eisner combined typeset text and speech balloon verbiage here in precisely the way I imagined, years ago, that a "graphic novel" should. Ah, but we can't go back. Except in memory—as Eisner has done—to times past. And to the great literature of the past. And Eisner has been doing that, too.
Some half-dozen years ago, Eisner ventured even further into the literary realm when he started adapting classics of literature to the comics form—including, even, children's stories. Saying he's felt for years that "the great stories that provide a foundation to our culture are particularly suitable for narration in sequential art form," he began with Herman Melville's Moby Dick, which was first published in Europe. He's produced The Last Knight, an adaptation of Miguel De Cervantes seminal novel, which Eisner dubbed "An Introduction to Don Quixote." And he did The Princess and the Frog, too, aiming at a somewhat younger audience. He also did a series of war stories entitled Last Day in Vietnam, the title story focusing on a soldier who, coming under fire on his last day in combat, betrays an abject fear that he won't make it home after all.
I am reminded, as I read these stories, of the excellent war stories of Harvey Kurtzman in EC's Two-fisted Tales and Frontline Combat. But his forte seemed to reside in the irony of events; Eisner's, in the irony of personality. But both Kurtzman and Eisner treat of life-and-death situations in their war stories. And the content of the stories is more adult as a result: the threat of death means more to someone who has lived enough life to savor it, and if he is an adult, then he has lived enough.
Content represents the future of comics to Eisner.
"The comic book medium is no longer a novel medium," he said. "Comic books have been around as comic books for sixty 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. A 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."
We talked about maturity in subject matter and theme. Too often, I said, the comic books of the last ten-fifteen years suggest with their focus on sex that depicting sexual relations alone makes for a mature theme. But that trivializes the idea of what maturity is. There's more to maturity than that. Stories with mature themes are those that deal with the fundamental human condition in some way. And too often those producing comics haven't lived outside comics enough to know much about the fundamental human condition.
Eisner agreed: "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."
To which I said: "And when the mature person has a heartbreaking experience, it's his life that's affected, not just his romance with the prom queen. Those are dilemmas for the adolescent mind, and they're real enough, but they don't run deep."
"Oh, they feel pain," Eisner said. "But you don't learn much from an adolescent predicament. I talk about the Hernandez brothers: 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 an adult reader, I want to see something that can give me some life experience."
All of Eisner's endeavors in the form demonstrate the great capacity for a variety of content inherent in the form. But the graphic novel must meet marketing problems as well as content challenges.
"Part of the marketing problem," Eisner told me, "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 superhero 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—" he laughed.
And I chimed in: "You think if you touch them, they'll click under your fingernails!"
"Right!" he said. "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," he finished, laughing.
"Anyhow," he continued, "the bookstores just don't know what to do with graphic novels. Not right now. But they will figure out something. What's going to happen is that they're going to begin to discriminate among this media and put the comic books that are worth keeping in a section called 'graphic novels,' and then it'll come about. It'll take some time, but it'll come about. It has to come about. 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. If there's profit in it, somebody's going to figure out how to do it."
As of the second or third year of the new millennium, it's begun. And nurtured economically by a healthy market for the product, the graphic novel will flourish as an artistic entity. It has started to emerge from the cultural back alleys in which it has languished heretofore and has begun to achieve the aesthetic as well as the cultural standing that was envisioned for it by such pioneering souls as Bill Spicer and others whose names tripped quickly off Richard Kyle's keyboard when he was writing about them:
Spicer, who broke new ground for the medium in his magazine; Fred Patten, who introduced serious European comics albums by Giraud/Gir/Mobius, Phillipe Druillet, Guido Crepax, Hugo Pratt to the U.S.; and other champions like John Benson and Landon Chesney and artists like Art Spiegelman and Bill Griffith and Richard Corben and Jim Steranko (and Jack Katz), who tinkered so extravagantly with the form. And Kyle himself, who so aspired for the form that he coined a new term for it.
all the others of those early years whose enthusiastic experimentation
and dedicated advocacy built the platform that today's graphic novelists
stand on. If they built the platform, Eisner filled the stage. And joining
him up front are Frank Miller and Joe Sacco and Dan Clowes and Chris
Ware and Jeff Smith and all their illustrious ilk, expanding the form,
extending its reach, exploring its potential—in the spirit of Will Eisner.