Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist (2007)

I am not a fan of Will Eisner's. I think that while he is very good, I don't think he is as great or as earth shaking as some claim.

However, the documentary Will Eisner Portrait Of A Sequential Artist is very good. It’s a wonderful portrait of a man who influenced generations of artists in both the comic world and other fields.

It is very much an oral history that marries the stories of Eisner and some of his friends and colleagues (Gil Kane, Joe Kubert, Frank Miller, Jules Feiffer and Art Spiegelman, among others) with the art that he and others were producing. The film also uses excerpts from the interviews that Eisner did for his Shop Talk column. Portrait starts Eisner’s story from before he was born, when his father was working as an artist in Europe painting in churches, through to the time this film was made. It’s a wonderful picture of a young man as an artist that nicely shows us the time and the circles that he was moving through.

One of the things that I like is that it celebrates the man and his achievements without over stating and over selling them. As I said at the outset I’m not a particularly big fan of Eisner’s. I like his stuff, but I don’t love it. I find that the love many people have for him is wildly over blown. Here I find that despite the gush of people like Spielgelman and Feiffer, the work of the man is kept in perspective. As Eisner himself says at one point he didn’t do anything new, he just adapted what people were doing before.

If you want to get a general idea of the progression of the comic form over the course of the 20th century this is a really good place to start. In telling Eisner's story you get a starting place from which to see how things progressed.

At the same time the fact that we are so close to Eisner brings up a couple of the film's flaws.

First off the film, while told in chronological order, kind of stays away from specific dates. When does Eisner start his company? When does Eisner do an anti-Hitler story prior to the US entry into the Second World War? It’s not explained, and as a result we’re left adrift without historical context. If Eisner did an anti-Hitler story it's only shocking if he did it early in the 1930’s as opposed to later on. The film also kind of operates in a vacuum as far as things outside of Eisner’s life are concerned.

We know that comic strips like Terry And The Pirates and Flash Gordon influenced him, but the film remains weirdly silent about what was going on in the comic book medium outside of Eisner. We hear talk of “costumed characters” and how that influenced The Spirit (the creation that he is most known for), but there is no real attempt to place The Spirit in any context outside of Eisner. (An aside: this weird vacuum around Eisner’s work is something that always has confused the hell out of me. Anyone I've ever talked about Eisner with always seems to drift into this timeless place. It’s as if he was outside of time even though it’s clear from listening to the man speak he was aware of what was going on around him.) Yes, you can see how he influenced some people, but at the same time without the context Eisner’s “greatness” is lost.

What I'm getting at here is that when you talk about the game changing comics of the late 1980’s like Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, and Dark Knight Returns by the aforementioned Miller, you always talk about what was going on in comics at the time. You speak of how comics were not quite adult and still somewhat aimed at kids. You do get talk of the way that Batman got darker under Denny O’Neil in the early 1970’s as they moved away from the silliness of the 1960’s, and you get talk of how Chris Claremont was shaking things up with X-Men, but things were never the same once Watchman and Dark Knight ushered in the growing up of comics and the new British invasion. Suddenly the dying medium was relevant again.

Little of that is evident when anyone is speaking about Eisner. Where is his context? Where is his place? Yes, you can see how good he is, but the film never fully gives us the surroundings to compare to and understand why he's considered great, or to some god-like.

On the other hand, that's not really necessary since Eisner’s tale is interesting enough. What he did and how he did it is a one great tale. It's also a blast to have his friends tell his story. Say what you will about the man and his place in history, if you watch this film you'll have a great time and learn a few things.

Seriously, reservations aside, this film is very much a great way to spend 100 minutes.

(I should point out that there are about 2 hours of additional audio clips on the DVD from Eisner's Shop Talk interviews which makes this a must for anyone who has any interest in comics)

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